Yes? No? Eitherway, you are in the right place. Personally, I wasn’t going to participate. I had this whole plan to work on my big passion book project. But I’m getting bogged down, and I need a reprieve. Enter NaNoWriMo.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month happens every year in November in which aspiring or veteran writers everywhere write 50,000 words in 30 days.
The competition begins on November 1 and concludes at midnight on November 30. I use competition lightly, the only thing you have to beat is your attitude, your fatigue, and the clock! Now technically there are prizes for successfully writing 50,000 words in 30 days but the real prize is the first draft of your manuscript.
The concept of 50,000 words is pretty hard to visualize, but if 300-350 words occupy your standard page then you will clock in at about 140-160 pages.
I’ve participated 4 times in the competition with mixed results. One issue I have always run into is that November is right around finals season at university and I had to battle homework, studying, and fatigue when writing. However! A big, big, HOWEVER. The only time I actually successfully completely NaNoWriMo was indeed whilst in school, in the trenches studying for finals. I had less and less success the less busy I was. But I flourish under deadlines and pressure. But it might not be for everyone.
In any case, it was interesting looking at my historical participation stats for past NaNoWriMos. I clocked in 17,000 words at one point, 28,000, then 8,000 and my crown jewel, of course, 51,000 words for the four seas (which I have been working on ever since).
But as I said, I wasn’t going to participate this year. I am in the thick of my first job in publishing, I am facing the possibility of moving, and I really wanted to power through the four seas. But then a friend approached me about participating and needless to say, I dug through old story ideas, dreamt up a dream team of characters using Damon Suede’s method, wrote a general concept/ back cover blurb, then worked through the outline using Save the Cat! and some minor setting research. So in just a few hours, I went from nah to full speed ahead.
I was pretty impressed with how quickly this idea came together, it’s very unusual for me, and I thought I might share my process.
Step #1: Story Concept
I don’t know about you guys but I have a scary folder on my computer that is filled with half-cracked, mutated ideas that I have collected over the years. I have documents with a few lines of dialogue, or names & their meanings, cool world concept ideas, and the like. If you do not have a story idea capturing system, I highly suggest you set something up. For me, I just open a new google doc and throw it in the folder. I try to label it appropriately so I can find it later but otherwise. I just capture and release.
Some people have a box where they throw ideas on post-its or ripped out pages of notebooks and toss them in the box piggy-bank style so it’s safe but out of sight.
A great digital version of this is Evernote which you can download to your phone and sync across devices. This program is optimized for shorter documents unlike Word, Google Docs, or Scrivener.
It’s important to note that these story ideas often do not come to fruition until YEARS later. But it is important to grab them while they are fresh because they can turn into something awesome. For instance, my story concept for this NaNoWriMo is from November 2016, so it’s been curing for almost exactly 3 years.
The old idea I had was called Bird Song, and it’s sort of a riff off of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The idea is that we are destroying the environment and soon enough we will have a silent spring where no birds will be around to do what they do best because we have made their natural habitat inhabitable.
So I took this idea of extinction, and environmental issues and mixed it with supernatural radiation poisoning and mutation- et voila! Story concept. Save the trees!
So I am imagining six-headed, rabid raccoons, blind birds, killer moss, and other strange creatures that have been poisoned and mutated by man. Why? Because who doesn’t like freaky creatures? Anyway, this is the story seed I conjured up in the Fall of 2016 and It just so happened to strike a chord with me in time for NaNoWriMo this year. And boy, am I glad it was waiting for me.
Step #2: Characters
Characters are the backbone of every story. Their actions and behaviors are what drive the plot forward. So now that I have a concept I want to find my hero. I chose this chick Magenta who I had written about a couple of weeks ago for a Reedsy competition. She lives in this post-apocalyptic world that was also ravaged by environmental issues, unrelated to the Bird Song concept, but I felt the two story threads worked together.
I took a good hard look at Magenta and figured that she would have to be a fighter-type character who could handle the radiation poisoned animals but also any shady characters she might meet along the way. She is tough and sassy but sensitive to the changing environment around her.
Last year I went to an RWA conference hosted by Damon Suede and he totally blew my mind when it came to writing characters. While there, he introduced me to his book Verbalize which is all about giving actionable traits to your characters. You can read the book here. But the basics are that instead of assigning a bunch of traits to your character (i.e.- tough and sassy), give them verbs. If your character’s action propels the story forward then you have to give them an action. By assigning them a verb-trait, you are giving them an M.O. that describes them but also gives them an operative throughout the novel.
The next step is to find all of the synonyms for that main verb and use those as plot points throughout the story. So tough and sassy Magenta’s verb is to challenge. I liked this verb for her because she is a fighter, but also her mandate in the story is to challenge the bad guys, challenge the cause of the destruction of the environment, and challenge the ideas that people have about their contribution to a dying world.
So she is thematically challenging the stasis state of her world, but she is also very physical and will engage in actual battles with people (that she will probably initiate, why? because she is always the challenger).
With all of the synonyms I have for Magenta, my view of her is getting clearer and clearer. I also took note of the antonyms for “challenge”, why? Because this is Damon Suede’s little trick for conjuring up your villain (or love interest). Because the person who acts in discord with your Main Character will cause conflict. So if their operative verb is an antonym to your hero then you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Perfect.
So the antonym for challenge is to ignore, to accept, to deny, to dodge. Now, this is bringing up some interesting ideas. Maybe there’s a conspiracy to poison the forest, maybe some agency is destroying the environment on purpose. Perhaps they are political, perhaps they gain power from this somehow and in the face of a challenger, they will ignore the problem, accept the status quo, deny any objections, and dodge any questions. Perfect! Now I have a shadow of a villain, I need only put a face to them.
I repeated this same process for my secondary characters. I gave them verbs, found their actions and directions that guide them through this poisoned forest and I found the obstacles they will encounter personally and on a bigger level with Magenta while finding their antonyms. Side Character A is to wonder, which is to question, to inquire, to dispute, etc. Not quite the same as Challenge but the verb is in harmony with it and shares a common thread. This character, however, is more of an academic type than a fighter like the MC. And then I thought, I need a tree hugger that feels the dying heart of the forest. Side-character B’s verb is to empathize. This verb is not in total harmony with the MC’s verb. That’s okay because it is in total disharmony with the enemy’s verbs. If Side character B empathizes, then ignoring, complacent, denying, villainous mass is totally apathetic, which places Side-Character B on the same side as my MC.
So now I have a rough framework of my cast.
Next time, I’ll go through how I plotted my NaNoWriMo project using Save the Cat!