NaNoWriMo Preparations: 3 techniques to finding a novel story

It’s official – NaNoWriMo season is upon us. How do I know this? Because emails are popping up in my inbox, blogs I follow have started to make plans to prepare and the NaNoWriMo hashtag is becoming more active. 


I find NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for those not familiar) a great tool by which to start novels and see if they really have any ‘va-va-voom’. This year will be my third year. I did begin the process believing that at the end of November I would have a semi-readable first draft that I would then be able to polish up and send out for publication. 

I now know – since I began editing that first ever NaNo novel (NaNo#1) – that what I really got at the end of November was a huge chunk of a book I really wanted to write. NaNoWriMo gave me the chance to explore the idea I had, create characters that intrigued and formed the habit of sitting down and actually writing something everyday

There is some controversy about the benefits of NaNoWriMo, about whether authors hold it in contempt or if publishers can value the work produced in such time constraints. But, what I’ve discovered is a really great, intensive way to test an idea for a novel in only 30 days. Not only that, but for the entire month of November I am not a solitary writer. I’m cocooned by the thousands of other writers who are taking part, cheering each other on, empathising with my struggles and celebrating the art of writing together. 

In short, I think NaNoWriMo rocks. 

With only 48 days to go until writing begins, how might one prepare for this challenge? Planners will be in full swing for November already, pansters might just be shrugging and shaking their heads.

But, regardless of if you’re a planner or pantster, here’s a few techniques that I’ve found useful to start the process:

Build a Character

Physically or emotionally, start with a character. Imagine someone in your mind – what do they look like, how do they feel, how might they react to a certain situation? Where do they live, what do they do, why might they feel alone in life?
This is a great way to begin visualising someone that you have to spend an entire month (and possibly longer) with and decide on the basics of characters that will appear in your writing in November. It also means that when November comes and you’re furiously typing away you won’t have to stop and think if your protagonist has blue eyes or a limp or even a habit of chewing her lip.
[Aside: this is how I began NaNo#1 – with a character called Madeline appearing in my mind as a petite, red head who believes she should die an early death because of the pain she has caused others in life]

Explore Goal, Motivation and Conflict

Begin by considering what someone might want and why they might want it. Then come up with the biggest potential hurdle you can put in their way.
For example, someone might want to be a novelist because they want to prove to all those bullies in school that they have taken their experiences and used them to become successful. But what happens if this individual is then involved in a car accident and becomes a quadriplegic? They can’t move, they have to write their novel using only their eye movement, letter by letter. (too reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly ? Probably)
By examining Goal, Motivation and Conflict you can identify the key aspects of the story you are trying to write and what is most important to your characters too. 

Start with a Concept

Jot down a simple, plain ol’ idea. Play the ‘What if…’ game. Give yourself the time to let your mind wander and, in that time, wonder…This is where my story for NaNo#2 came from. I was walking the dog in the rain one day in a particularly sombre mood and I wondered ‘what if I was the one making it rain’? Controlling the weather has been done before so it’s not a new concept, but I considered what would happen if you could only control one element (rain, wind or sun). This then led me to the idea of having twins with different powers – controlling differing elements. Expanding my concept I then added a fourth ability – to encourage growth from the earth – and created a world where these powers were being used productively, but the individuals who had them were being mistreated. 

This method is fun because you can take one concept and play around with it until you find something you’re really excited by. Mind-mapping concepts can demonstrate how differing concepts can also overlap, giving you a layered approach to your storytelling. 


None of these methods will necessary provide an outline for a novel, nor will they determine if your idea is one that will hold the test of time. The one downside of beginning the preparation for NaNoWriMo so early is that, by the time you get to November, the idea you had may have dulled and you’re no longer excited enough by it to want to spend an entire month intensively working on it. 

On the plus side, putting in some early prep does mean that you can get to the meat and bones of your story before you start writing, so that you are more prepared when the going gets tough (around week 2). It also means that you might have enough basic material to develop your ideas as you write, meaning that week 3 doesn’t feel so daunting!


What are your feelings about NaNoWriMo? Going to give it a try? How do you prepare and what tips might you give to those with less experience than you?
Let us know in comments…


I’ll be blogging more about preparing for NaNoWriMo as we approach November, so if you want to stay informed consider signing up to the blog in the sidebar. Or if you prefer snappy, short tips follow me on Twitter



16 responses to “NaNoWriMo Preparations: 3 techniques to finding a novel story

  1. Pingback: 2013: In Review | Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer

  2. Pingback: 3 More Top Tips for NaNoWriMo Preparation | Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer

  3. Pingback: 3 Top Tips for NaNoWriMo Preparation | Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer

  4. I really wanted to have a go this year, but I’m taking a course online that will be finishing up around mid-November. Balancing a course and NaNo would be biting off more than I can chew. There’s always next year, or even one of the NaNo Camps in April or July. It’s definitely something on a future ToDo list. I’ll be excited to read about your experience here on the blog.

    • Thanks Gwen. Sounds like you are being very realistic about your goals. I’ve never done the NaNo Camps, as they fall in very busy months for me, but can imagine they’re of a similar supportive ilk!

      I’ll let you know how the month goes, and look forward to hearing how you get on next year in one of the Camps!

      Take Care, Cat x

  5. I will be trying NaNoWriMo again this year as my last attempt tanked because I was ridiculously busy. I start my LLM in Sept though but I am determined to not allow school to fell my NaNoWriMo plans…. again.

  6. BTW all – my NaNoWriMo username is ankhofbastet – if you join up and want to friend me I’d love to help support anyone taking part! 🙂

  7. Hey Cat! I tried NaNo in April, but fell short of my word count. I’m definitely trying again come November. Given all my therapies and MD appointments, I cut myself some slack. I’ve decided I’m not giving up until I get that NaNo Winner Badge! I guess I’ll see you in November! Lily

    • Lily – you are a true NaNoWriMo-er – the spirit of never giving up!

      Cutting yourself some slack is most certainly the way to go – it can feel so disheartening to fall behind the word target, and it took me a while to realise that just because I wasn’t on track didn’t mean I was failing. The way I see it, NaNo encourages me to write more than I ever would in any other month – even if I don’t make the target of 50k words! Whatever I end up with after 30 days would be more than I would have gotten without NaNoWriMo!

      Looking forward to supporting your efforts in November Lily! We’ll cheer each other on and cross the finish line together!
      Take Care, Cat x

  8. Two years ago, I had no clue as to what NaNoWriMo was or what it stood for. However, as time passed I gained courage to sorta ask questions and observe posts (discussions via Facebook). I have learned only a small amount, yet this concept still intrigues me. I am really glad that I have started following you. You’re an inspiration, Cat. I’m seriously considering doing this for the first time this year. I was clueless as to a starting point.Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks Diane, your comment really made my day. 🙂 I’m so pleased that I can help inspire others and I really hope that you consider taking part in NaNoWriMo, as I find it has a great community of writers to help support and rally participants!

      If you do have any further questions – ask away! Good luck with your ideas for it, let me know how it goes!

      Take Care,
      Cat x

    • I would encourage anyone to have a go at NaNoWriMo – the important thing is not to beat yourself up if you fall behind. The objective is to get your writing, not necessarily to get to 50,000 words (though, of course, that’s the target!).

      Good luck with it if you decide to participate. If you want any support, just call on me! 🙂

      Take Care, Cat x

  9. I will be participating in NaNoWriMo again this year and agree with everything you say here – NaNo rocks! NaNo gives me the chance to try out a story idea without devoting too much time on it if it doesn’t work out.
    I’ll be blogging about it too. Look forward to reading more updates on your NaNo experience!

    • Yay! My first Nano-pal for November! 🙂

      Looking forward to reading your own posts about the challenge!

      Thanks for stopping by.
      Take Care, Cat x

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