Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, October 25, 2010

NaNoWriMo Boot Camp: Choosing the Right Idea

Alright you lily livered writing types, listen up! I'm here to whip you into shape like, uh... like... maggots? Does that make sense?

Yeah I don't make a good drill sergeant.

But! In today's first installment of NaNoWriMo week, I wanted to talk about the most important element of starting a novel: starting with the right novel.

Chances are, if you are a writer there is one idea that you hold above all others. It is the one that has stuck with you despite the shiny distractions of other ideas. It is your one true unwritten love. Even when you look at the bestseller list and see how zombie ballerina novels have grown massively popular and you think to yourself, "Ya know, it would probably be smart to cash in on this zombie ballerina trend," your true unwritten love keeps popping back up and demanding your attention, and no amount of zombie ballerinas can distract you, no matter how simultaneously cute and terrifying they are.

This is the novel you should write. Write the book you want to write, not the one in the genre that is currently popular or that you think the publishing industry would like.

Committing to writing a book is kind of like getting married. You're in it for the long haul. And if you want the marriage to last, it's best to choose the one who makes you truly happy, the one who makes you a better person/writer, and the one who doesn't mind how your jaw clicks when you chew.

But this doesn't mean that you don't stop trying to improve the relationship. It can always be made better with effort. SO TOO with your novel.

So yes, you have a great idea for a novel. Awesome. Now start refining it (and you have a week to prepare before November!). Does the character have a well-defined arc? Are you sure you have a plot? Do you know the novel's high points and low points? Is change underway in your novel's setting? Have you thought about whether your novel should be in first person or third? Do you have a killer climax?

Here's a checklist of things to know before you start writing (pulled from my post How to Write a Novel):

- The main arc. Where your characters start, where they'll end up, how they'll change along the way. You don't have to know everything, but the more you think of the long arc the better.
- The main obstacles in the character's path
- The protagonist and his/her/its qualities
- The setting, and how it influences the character
- The style in which you plan to tell the story
- The climax. The most important sequences, where something very exciting happens that changes everything

Have a rough idea of these elements in place? Awesome. You're ready to begin.

For further reading on starting before you begin:

How to Write a Novel
Do You Have a Plot? 
How to Craft a Great Voice
Archetype vs. Cliche
What Makes a Great Setting






61 comments:

Vickie Motter said...

I'm using NaNoWriMo as an excuse to start writing. These are great suggestions. I can say that I can put a check mark next to all your bullet points. I think I'm on the right track. And I'm definitely writing something I want to write, not what's popular. By the end of the month, hopefully I'll know what it's like to be a "full time" writer, and sympathize that much more with my clients. Off to read your other tips.

Mariam Maarouf said...

Awesome post!

I'm not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I can't really miss reading one of your posts.

So, great: as usual.

& Yes, it's important to stick to the idea you love, not the one that's popular: the first popular novel in that genre was the baby of a passionate writer.

T. Anne said...

Fun post. I did NaNo last year and enjoyed it although it was rigorous at times. This year I'm going to have to be a NaNo rebel, which means I'll be breaking a few rules. Instead of starting a whole new WIP, I'm going to push through the one I'm already in. I could really use the boost to inflate my word count.

Alenta said...

Great advice! NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty writes something similar in his NaNo book, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! It's an exercise called the two Magna Cartas.

On one list, write down everything you love in a novel--character types, certain settings, etc. On a second list, write down everything you hate.

He explains that in a first draft we often end up including elements we hate because we think they're more literary or popular. The two "Magna Cartas" are small, visual reminders to, as you said, write the book we want to write.

Dana Bailey said...

I tried NaNoWriMo a few years back and only made it through a week. There was something missing with the novel I had chosen to write. I still have the idea in the back of my mind, but it needs massaging before I'll be ready to write it. Since then I have completed a YA novel. Yeah! So for this year's NaNoWriMo, I'm going to push myself through one last round of editing before querying to agents.

Penelope said...

As usual, you are incredibly helpful. Thank you!

Now, back to plotting.

Josh said...

Solid preparatory reading. I've been enamored with NaNoWriMo since 2003, and I haven't won every year but over time it's taught me how to write every day and how to be okay with the fact that my first draft is probably going to be crap.

Valuable writerly traits!

Caroline said...

Check, check, check, uh...climax. Hmm. I'll work on that one this week.

I'm writing a prequel with characters I love and a character I've been dying to try out in a story of her own since she lived only in flashbacks before. I can't wait! And because it's a prequel, I know what has to happen, I'll just have fun along the way, finding out how it gets there.

I agree that you should choose your big love for NaNo. It worked for me last year. I had that compulsive rush of new love, so I was dying to get back to it every day.

My NaNo 2010 project: The View from Upper High Hog featuring the Fabulous Betty Noir, a.k.a Bebe Rosenthal.

Mikki said...

Great post! I completed my first fantasy novel during NaNo last year, then said I probably wouldn't do it again. HA! This year I've already signed up, and this novel is about the antagonist in the very first novel I wrote. She was such a little...hmm..witch, I knew she had to have her own story. Haven't been able to get to her until now...NaNoWriMo...let's get going!

Liberty Speidel said...

I've sworn off NaNo for the next few years... two out of three times I've gotten pregnant have been during NaNo! (That said, I wouldn't trade the children I've gotten out of the deal for anything.)

However, the points you've made are beneficial for any writer, no matter what time of the year you start writing.

To all the NaNoers this year: you can do it! I wrote a 53K word draft in under 30 days--and there were several days where I couldn't write because I was too ill (partly because of being pregnant--though I didn't find out until December!) I actually finished on Thanksgiving last year. If I can do NaNo with all those obstacles, you can do it, no matter what. :) Good luck!

J. T. Shea said...

I doubt Lee Ermey would make a very good literary agent either, Nathan.

But seriously, my One True Unwritten Love was ALWAYS about zombie ballerinas! Steampunk YA zombie ballerinas. It's called SWAN LAKE WITH ROTTING BITS FALLING OFF. SLWRBFO for short. Catchy, isn't it?

Reesha said...

Sooooo excited for NaNoWriMo! I already have an idea and a full outline and I'm ready to go. I even created images based off things from my soon-to-be book to post on my novel info page.

But....
Your post, Nathan, has reminded me that even though I have lots of ideas that are very shiny and creative, I have not yet endeavored to even DREAM of my one true love (strictly novel-wise speaking).
I will put more time into dreaming.

Mariam Maarouf: Your line "The first popular novel in that genre was the baby of a passionate writer" is going to stick with me.

Dolly said...

I go to NaNo with a complete outline. It's great fun writing a first draft in a manic competition with everyone else - but I also want a novel at the end of it, and outline means I know exactly where I am going, so I spend more time writing and less time worrying about what happens next.

Anna said...

Thanks for the timely post! I've followed Nanowrimo on the sidelines for four years and this is the first time I am officially participating. It will be a nice break from the manuscript that I keep starting and stopping. A reminder of the elements that should be in place before you begin is always useful. I'm hoping that the elements I don't have quite figured out will sort themselves out once the words start flowing!
Looking forward to the rest of the week.

Mira said...

Miriam: "the first popular novel in that genre was the baby of a passionate writer". That is so true!

Love this post, Nathan. Funny and so true! I love that you are encouraging people to write to their passion, and not to the market. I think that is absolutely on target and the only way to write a truly great book - it must come from your heart.

Just as an aside - zombie ballerinas. That's good, that's a good idea for a kid's book.

Other Lisa said...

In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I offer you "How To Write A Novel"

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Gosh. That almost makes me want to start all over again with a new book! ACtually, I'm done. Will you take a look at it Nathan and see if I followed your rules =). jk

I guess it's on to book two.

Nanette said...

I did it. NaNo sounds like my name...so must give it a try. I have one of those start/stop novels that is in my soul and must write but I get scared. Another story. Anyway, upon reading some posts I'm thinking of going with my "need to get it out" book.

It has been sealed away so log but the characters want to get out of the box. It needs bramd new. So maybe that's my way to go.

Juliette said...

Now I kind of want to write a novel about zombie ballerinas, because that sounds strangely awesome!

Derrick said...

No way... my jaw DOES click when I chew. It drives my wife nuts.

CB said...

I like the comparison to being married. I often feel married to my work. I got divorced from my wife long before I became a writer. And I've wondered how people handle both. When I get into something, whether it be drawing or painting or writing, I get engrossed. It can last for weeks at a time. If you're other half is not a writer, can they handle a writer's devotion? I wonder...
I've been hoping to turn a short story of mine into a screenplay, and this nano thing might be the inspiration I need to keep going. I'm finishing up a kid's chapter book, and I'm planning to begin my masters Dec. 1.
"Write like there's no tomorrow!" Lorian Hemnigway!

Josin L. McQuein said...

Great post (and repost for the pulled parts)

I've just had three ideas join forces on me and combine into what could possibly be something awesome, so I guess I'll have to go through your checklist and see if there's enough there to answer the questions.

G said...

Meh.

Much ado about nothing.

If you're gonna write, then having something with an artificial and voluntary minimum word cap is just the thing to make you freeze up and go screaming into the night.

Perhaps instead concentrating on the NaNoWriMo, we should concentate on having a NaSynWriMo (National Synopsis Writing Month) in which people can get tips and ideas on how to write that killer snynopsis that will help make whatever mishmosh you threw together in November sound absolutely fantastic.

Completely serious here. With the hundreds upon thousands of posts that are sure to be generated for this little self-inflicted torture session, wouldn't it make sense to have a few posts about writing a great synopsis to go with this little torture session?

Anonymous said...

Can anyone clarify whether or not a book about college students is still considered young adult?! The book I'm writing is about college seniors, but I feel like all the YA books I read focus on seventeen year-olds. But how is twenty-one not young adult? You still think like a seventeen year old at that age, or at least I did. I don't want to ruin my already slim shot at scoring an agent by getting my genre wrong.

Haley said...

<3 NaNoWriMo. It's the only way I've actually FINISHED a novel.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love the archetype vs. cliche post! Thanks for reminding me of that one. :)

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks so much for your enthusiasm regarding NaNoWriMo in your Blog post last Wednesday. I went back and forth all day Wednesday and all night Wednesday about whether or not I could fit NaNoWriMo into my busy schedule. I swore I couldn’t. Then I was struck by a weird affliction. Apparently, the NaNoWriMo part of my brain that’s been dormant since birth suddenly activated. I could not shut it down. A main character popped into my brain, complete with all the necessary parts of a novel you’ve listed on your Blog today. I told myself: You cannot do this! Stop it! Stop this right now! I struck a compromise with my NaNoWriMo brain cells. I agreed only to sitting down and just dabbling with an outline, since NaNoWriMo rules allow outlines beforehand. I never, ever outline, so I thought I’d be safe, just write down the beginning of an outline and walk away from the entire enterprise. But, oh no, there would be no dabbling – The NaNoWriMo section of my brain took over and I had a complete outline from beginning to end in less than two days. I even had nicknames for characters, plot complications, a bit of symbolism. Soooo ... I thought, oh why not sign up for NaNoWriMo? Further inner turmoil, and I had not only signed up, I had created my entire NaNoWriMo web page and a complete Summary on my NaNoWriMo Novel Info. Page.

Now that we’re in NaNoWriMo Boot Camp: Permission to speak, SIR! Your description of popular novel types as "shiny ballerinas" is hilarious! (Permission to LOL, SIR!) I’m writing a Shiny Ballerina for NaNoWriMo, oh yes I am, at least in terms of genre. I heart Literary and Science Fiction, oh yes I do. But even on NaNoWriMo, the introduction to the Literary Fiction Genre Lounge reads: "Sure, grappling with complex personal and societal issues isn't the most marketable move. And no, we don't always have the tightest plots. But we sure know how to throw a party." That is really funny ... but, in regard to the part about not being the most marketable: Permission to cry, SIR! My new Shiny Ballerina is YA Paranormal.

Lynda Young said...

This will be my first year for NaNo and it's already been invaluable. I've written an outline for the first time in my writing career -- gasp! I started with a standard story and it's evolved into something I really want to write.

Marilyn Peake said...

Ooooops, I meant your term "Zombie Ballerinas", not Shiny Ballerinas, was hilarious! But, whatever ... Shiny Ballerinas, Zombie Ballerinas, Shiny Zombie Ballerinas, any combination thereof – that’s my goal.

The Red Angel said...

Ooh this is an awesome post, Nathan, thanks for the advice and resources! Your post reminds me of this quote: "Better to write for yourself and have no public than write for the public but have no self."

Thank you, your posts always let me see things from a different perspective and always remind me to stay true to myself. :)

So excited for NaNo!

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Ellen Faith said...

I can't wait for NaNo. I've had this incredible idea in my head for about a year now and I've put off writing it until NaNo so I have a better chance of winning as this is my first year. I could have done it last year but I found out about a couple of days into November and didn't think I could do it becuase I was a few days out. This year that isn't happening and I know (!!!) I'm going to win!

Matt Keefe said...

November is also 'Movember' - a month in which to grow a moustache in support of men's health issues. I guess that means there's also NaNoWriMoGroMoNo for the really ambitious (and hairy).

Rachel said...

That checklist is great.

For the past few years, I've had that one idea that jumped out at me in September, and I made it wait until November 1 before I started to write it, no matter how much it wanted to get out onto the page. The result? Lots of advance planning.

This year, no such luck, so I'm going back to last year's runner up idea. But that means less is planned out, and that will make for a slightly different Nanowrimo experience this time around.

I won't tackle an idea without a climax scene in mind. I can't just write *from* a scene. I need to write *toward* one or the story will fizzle - even if that climax scene changes into something completely different along the way.

But the other stuff on your list? Not sure I have all of it in place yet, so thanks for that. Maybe, thanks to your post, I'll have more of the story planned out than I expected.

Layla Fiske said...

Thanks Nathan...

Great breakdown of the novel writing process!

And you're right... I have that one novel that never leaves my head and I'm excited to say that I've recently begun to write it.

And, no, it's not the one that I posted in the forums.

And, as a literary novel, it's not in one of the more popular venues, but I'm hoping that when I'm done, it will be the one that makes people think about it long after they've read it.

I won't say wish me luck, because I know that it takes hard work, creativity and attention to detail.

But...wish me luck anyway. ;-)

Gillian said...

Thanks, Nathan. I have struggled with this decision for a couple of weeks. Now I now which story to write and can look forward to the experience.

Lillian Grant said...

I am so not ready for NaNo. I am a panster at the best of times but I do usually have some idea where I am headed. I only have a starting point and some vague ideas but no idea where my characters or plot will be heading.

I got a rewrite resubmit request for a novel that has swallowed up all my time. I finally subbed it last night but I still have other writing commitments I need to complete before Monday. What was I thinking when I signed up?

Now your boot camp is scaring me :(

Julie Kingsley said...

My NaNoWriMo novel sucked. I'll admit it. I had to throw out half of it, but what remained was something I could have never found without the fire under my NaNo ass. Interestingly, I made up a whole bunch of history and found out that it was completely true. I think I may have just channeled the devil to get all of that right. Okay, I've said too much.

No, one more thing- at the SCBWI New England Conference I was encouraged to NaNoWriMo by a well known author. I cursed her, lovingly, through the entire process. Guess who walked into the coffee shop when I was on my last thousand words? What a thrill!

Not NaNoWrMoing this year. My husband won't let me until I sell my novel. Party Pooper! Enjoy all.

SKM said...

Miriam, your line...

"The first popular novel in that genre was the baby of a passionate writer."

...is now Post-Ited to my laptop for inspiration. Thanks for that. :)

I would love to do NaNoRiMo sometime, but I'm down to the last eight chapters of my (passion baby) WIP, so that takes priority this year. Next year, however, I'll be sure to finish whatever I'm writing before November!

L.C. Gant said...

Whoever said writing a book is like having a baby didn't know what they were talking about. My son grew steadily for 9 months and then one day the contractions started of their own accord. I did nothing to help it along; whether I liked it or not, that kiddo was coming out.

Writing is NOT like that. Sometimes it just flows, but most of the time you have work it and work it and work that thing until you've got nothing left. It is HARD, just like marriage.

There's a reason more than half of all marriages end in divorce, and it's the same reason most of the people who say they'll write a novel never do.

For better or worse, they don't have the willpower to stick with it.

L.C. Gant said...

Oh, and BTW, I am most definitely doing NaNoWriMo this year. Bring on the pain, baby :-)

Debbie Vaughan said...

Yes, Sir! On it, Sir! Thank you, Sir!

Normally I fly by the seat of my pants, but, since I will be starting a new job about the same time as NaNo starts, I prepared an outline. My arc is covered. I even have a title and a bit of blurbage. Let's see if I can manage 1666.66 words per day. 1746 if I plan to take Thanksgiving off.

CB said...

I disagree with the person who said marriages breakup because of a lack of will power. Maybe she/he was semi-kidding, but that strikes a chord with me. I mean no harshness in my response, but I gave my marriage everything I had just like I do with my writing. I asked my wife to try marriage counseling. We did for 2 yrs., she quit, and marriage counselor suggested that we separate. No lack of will power here. As far as why more than half of all marriages end in divorce, one can begin their research with "Emotional Intelligence," by Daniel Goleman. After that, one may want to seek personal counseling to remove all the crap society has piled on us. I recommend more books on the topic, etc. And then maybe one can find the right match. Also, I believe that our schools should add social/emotional intelligence to the curriculum. It's just as important as 2+2, and "Once upon a time..."
Just my 2 sense!!

J. Arlana said...

I just joined NaNo and am very excited. I think this year will be good because I'll be doing it with my seven-year-old daughter. She's writing an adventure book about a kid named Mikey.

Me? I'm writing about zombies. No, really, I am. Just not zombie ballerinas...

Andre said...

Zoe the Zombie Ballerina was born while watching Step Up 2 and Resident Evil back to back. Right from the start the idea bit me, but deep down inside I knew that halfway through the novel Zoe might fall apart and the novel will bury itself into the realm of the very dead. It’s a shame, because there was a great internal conflict going on there. Zombies eat flesh, Ballerina’s don’t eat at all and this conflict takes us back to the days of Shakespeare. To eat or not to eat, that was the question, but Zoe needs a touch of Twilight so she should consider herself a vegan. Still, the idea just doesn’t appear to be fresh...

Let’s start again...

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great post, as always. (How do you DO that?)

I think I'll do NaNo, IFandonlyif I can get a detailed enough outline together ahead of time. Otherwise, I'm toast. And your point about what we need to know ahead of time is spot on.

Tara Maya said...

Liberty Speidel, it cracked me you got pregnant twice during NaNoMo! I will restrain my curiosity to ask if there was a connection....

In my case, I gave birth during NaNoMo. Also pretty distracting.

ginny martyn said...

"It is your one true unwritten love. Even when you look at the bestseller list and see how zombie ballerina novels have grown massively popular and you think to yourself, "Ya know, it would probably be smart to cash in on this zombie ballerina trend," your true unwritten love keeps popping back up and demanding your attention, and no amount of zombie ballerinas can distract you, no matter how simultaneously cute and terrifying they are."
----Nathan, how did you know?

LM Preston said...

Thanks for the refocus :-D I kicked off the week with a Nanowrimo post also. I need all the help I can get, because I'm so determined to meet my goal. I'm even pulling some all-night write sessions.

Maya / מיה said...

I think I might have the opposite problem. I have one idea that keeps forcing itself onto my would-be novels: the idea of a young woman (or group of young women) running a marathon. Somehow, each time I've tried to write it, I get tangled up in plot, and I've slowly come to the conclusion that this is an idea that I can't keep trying to force into the books I start. ("Start" is the keyword here... I haven't managed to bring any of these stories to a conclusion I'm happy with!) So perhaps this is more an example of the pernicious power of first ideas than following my love...

JAZarins said...

Yes Sir! At the ready, Sir!

Carol said...

On a different note, Nathan, could you please comment on your progress through the queries you received while you were gone? Haven't heard from you. Maybe mine was lost in the junk.

Chuck H. said...

Having been through boot camp (Lackland AFB, 1964), I have to say, Nathan, that it's a good thing you have that literary agent thing to fall back on. Like the post, though. I tried NaNo last year but lost my way after 20K words or so. I may try it again, but this time I really am going to turn off my internal editor and just go for it. Straight Space Opera and no redeeming social value.

Tony DiMeo said...

I planned on participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I am just getting underway on revisions on my WIP and really starting to build up steam so I don't want to get distracted. Maybe next year.

Nathan's correct about writing the book that you want to write, instead of writing for the market or what's currently popular. I started the current WIP with an idea for a story that kept on nagging me until I finally gave in and started to write it. Things were going well as I wrote the first draft...

Then I got this crazy idea in my head that I should tailor the story to fit the vampire trend. BIG MISTAKE. I wrote about 60,000 words, took a look at the draft and backed away from the keyboard.

I realized that not only did I not recognize my novel anymore, I had no desire to tell this particular story. It just didn't feel right.

It was like going down a road and then finding out, NO!

I went back and rewrote the story I wanted to tell. Much happier for it.

Lesson learned... Write the book you want to write.

Danette Haworth said...

Your checklist is also great for composing a synopsis.

Anonymous said...

Oh the shiny ideas!
I have three!
And I am almost insane enough to try to tackle two. Almost.

Anonymous said...

Your blog entry makes me want to leave work and go home to write!
It's so difficult to hold this idea in until Nanowrimo officially begins!
Thanks for the wonderful advice!
~Belle Whittington

Matthew Rush said...

Can we use this excellent advice even if we're far too lazy/disorganized to take place in NaNo? See? I can't even be bothered to type the whole thing.

Jeff S Fischer said...

Nathan, you're the best. Are there really Zombie Ballerinas out there? I'm mean, is that something that would sell?

Mariam Maarouf said...

Wow. I didn't even realize what I said actually makes sense to other human beings. :) (just saw follow-up comments via Google)
Reesha, Mira and SKM: glad you liked it.

Okay, that officially feels way more than awesomely great :D

Akila said...

Nathan, I love this advice because that is exactly what happened to me when I started the novel I am writing.

I'm not participating in NaNoWriMo, mainly because I'm a chicken. I've started writing my novel --- actually it is 25% through --- but I haven't engaged in the novel writing community. Why? I'm intimidated . . . to the point that though I have been lurking on your site for the last six months, this is my first ever comment. I have this idea in my mind: if I do NaNoWriMo, then I have fully and completely given up on my legal career. Stupid, huh?

I believe in the novel that I am writing. It is weird, wacky, and insanely interesting, and not like anything else I have ever read or written, but I am too nervous to fully take the leap and consider myself a fledgling novelist. Maybe I will lurk a bit longer and then work up the courage to enmesh myself into the community. Either way, I am looking forward to all of your posts on this topic.

Blanche Baxter said...

Thanks Nathan! I am doing NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, and your right, it helps to have a great connection with your story idea. When I started, your list helped me nail down all the particulars, and still left plenty of room for all those happy accidents of story writing. Now that my story has entered the middle of the month doldrums, I decided to come back and reread for inspiration! Great post, as always!

Related Posts with Thumbnails