Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

NaNo Prep: Do You Know What to Plan in Advance?

by Jami Gold on October 10, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Leftover scraps of many posters with text: Don't End Up with a

Do you smell it? The crisp air, the fallen leaves? (Unless you’re Down Under.) It’s almost time for NaNoWriMo, when thousands of writers will try to cram 50,000 words into a 30-day deadline.

Unfortunately, I won’t be doing NaNo this year, as I’m not in the right spot with any of my writing projects to do it, but I had a great time last year. (I’m “Jami Gold” if you want to buddy me so I can cheer you on from the sidelines.)

Every writer should probably sign up to do NaNo at least once. We never know what process might work for us until we try. *smile* With that attitude in mind, I want to share some tips on how to make sure our story doesn’t end up a “hot mess.”

Hot Mess:

A story with no overall arc; feels like random bits and pieces thrown together; plot events happen for no rhyme or reason; characters don’t grow; story themes undermine the story’s goals, etc.

I.e. a revision nightmare.

Plan for NaNo, but Plan Smart

Posts abound this time of year about planning for NaNo so your story will end up as a decent first draft. But do you know what kind of planning will help you the most?

At their essence, all stories are about change. Most stories consist of (at least) two arcs tracking that change: a story/plot arc and a character/emotion arc. They start at Point A and things happen in a cause-and-effect, action-reaction chain to end up at Point B.

Story/plot arcs are about the “what” or the “why.” What happens to make things change? Why is the story happening now and not a year ago?

Character/emotional arcs are about the “who” and the “how.” Who is facing the obstacles and has to change to succeed? How are they changing?

Most stories are a mix of those plot-driven and character-driven questions. But we might not need to plan ahead with both. Some of us can write by the seat of our pants (pantser) with one type of arc more than the other type.

We don’t want to spend hours working through a character background sheet if we’re good at winging the character aspect of our story. Alternately, we don’t want to waste time completing a story outline if we’re good at making up the plot turning points as we go.

That’s why everyone’s blog post about “getting ready for NaNo” looks different. Some people are focusing on the plot elements—filling out beat sheets or story outlines—because that’s what they need. Others are focusing on the character elements—filling out character sheets or writing character backgrounds—because that’s what they need.

There’s no right or wrong answer, so ignore those posts telling you that you have to plan X or Y or Z. Instead, figure out what style of planning will work best for you, and you’ll know what steps you can skip before drafting.

The Basics of Planning for Plot

If we’re better at making up characters as we go along, we might want to plan some of the main story turning points.

  • What drags the character into the story and forces them to make a choice to get involved?
  • What raises the stakes and tension during the middle of the story?
  • What’s going to make the character lose hope before the end?
  • What’s going to push the character to change and face the obstacles at the end?

We can plan a lot more, obviously, but that gives us a starting point and an ending point. That Point A and Point B will give us a direction as we write. And even if we’re the pants-iest pantser, that much planning is less likely to freak out our muse than doing a full story outline.

The Basics of Planning for Character

On the other hand, if we’re better at making up scenes and plot points as we go along, we might want to plan the character arc. That means we have to know the character’s Point A and Point B.

Some people find character arcs harder to “see” because they’re more mental than physical. But in character terms, Point A and Point B means we have to know their destination (what they want) and their beginning (what’s holding them back).

  • What does the character long for and desire? (story ending)
  • What choices are they making that keep them from their dream? (story beginning)
  • What do they learn? (how they change)
  • What are they willing to do at the end that they weren’t willing to do before? (story climax)

Need More than the Basics? Worried about Getting Stuck?

If you need more structure than those tips, or if you’re worried about getting stuck midway through your story, my “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story” workshop shares additional planning layers we can use at any point in our drafting process.

Many of us who write by the seat of our pants can get through the first part of the story by winging it. But if you’re anything like me, sometime in the middle of the story, we might slow down and get stuck for what should happen next.

The tools I share in my workshop help with planning both the plot and character arc, as well as seeing the conflicts and obstacles we can use in the middle of our story to kick start our writing again. And when we have to get in 50K words in 30 days, we need to quickly overcome those times we’re stuck. *smile*

I’m offering my plotter and pantser-friendly workshop next week (October 15th and 17th), just in time for NaNo. But if the days/times aren’t convenient for you, note that everyone who signs up receives a full recording of the class and a thorough handout. I teach this class about once a year, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to sign up.

This is the last week to register for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Are you doing NaNo this year? Do you plan your NaNo project in advance? Had you thought about the two styles of planning before? What type of planning do you do (plot, character, or both)? Do you have any questions about my workshop?

Note: Portions of this post are also appearing on Kristen Lamb’s blog today in a guest post I wrote for her.

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35 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Davonne Burns October 10, 2013 at 7:03 am

I did NaNo last year and while I should have been working on my sequel I wrote a fanfic instead. It was rather liberating. I wrote and posted a raw chapter a night. The feedback was amazing and I feel truly helped me grow as a writer. Not to mention the instant gratification of reviews every morning when I got up.

I don’t recommend that route for everyone though. However, I do recommend participating in NaNo. It’s great to have both the online and local community support and can be just the impetus needed to get something finished.

I for my part will be participating again this year. Though I won’t be writing fan fiction this time. I’m brohne in case you wish to find me. 🙂


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 9:43 am

Hi Davonne,

LOL! I understand. I’m this >><< close to signing up for NaNo this year even though it doesn't fit my "plans." I need another 25-35K on my current WIP and I really want to finish that before starting something else. Yet my October (and September) are looking too crazy to be able to finish that before November so I could start fresh for NaNo. Then even if I decide to count finishing that WIP in NaNo Rebel style, what would I do for the remaining words? *sigh* I loved NaNo last year, so my brain keeps trying to figure out how to make this work. I'll let you know if it comes up with a solution. 😀 I've added you as a buddy! 🙂 Good luck in NaNo and thanks for the comment!


KR Brorman October 10, 2013 at 7:52 am

I’m doing NaNo. Finishing WIP. Excited about the challenge and group effort to accomplish our novels. Thanks for the tips Jami.


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 9:52 am

Hi KR,

That’s what I did last year. I was a “NaNo Rebel” and wrote 60K on an already-started WIP. I’d like to do that this year too, but this WIP is already almost done (60K). So I’m at a loss of how to fit it in this year. 🙁

My favorite part–other than the group effort aspect–was the My Month calendar showing our successes or failures day-by-day (it’s under Writer Goods — Word Count Helpers — Word Count Widgets). I found that VERY motivating. LOL!

Good luck in NaNo and thanks for the comment! 🙂


Stacey Zink October 10, 2013 at 9:18 am

This will be my first year. I am nervous and excited. On one hand I feel totally unprepared… yet on the other I wonder how much more I can prepare. I keep doing character analysis and outline after outline. I plotted way more for this book than my first, so praying it pays off. 🙂 I am stacey zink.


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 10:24 am

Hi Stacey,

I couldn’t find you on NaNo, so please buddy me and I’ll buddy you back. 🙂

My biggest motivator last year was watching the My Month writing widget. I wanted every day to be green for hitting that 1667 words mark. I didn’t quite get there, but the goal itself was motivating.

Find what works for you and know that you’ll learn about yourself (ability to focus, meet deadlines, crank out words, performance any stress, and what writing processes might (or might not) work for you in the future) in the attempt–no matter how much of a mess you end up with. 🙂 All that alone makes the time and effort spent doing Nano worth it.

Good luck in NaNo and thanks for the comment!


NicoleW October 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Yep, I’m doing NaNo for the third time, and hoping to write the last book in the trilogy that I started in 2011.

I’ve done more planning for this one because I’ve been revising the two earlier books all year and coming up with lots of ideas for how I want the story to end, so my Scrivener project for the new book is already full of notes.

Generally, though, I do very little advance planning. When I decided to do NaNo for the first time in 2011, I knew who most of the main characters were in my story and had a vague idea of the plot. And I didn’t decide to do it until Oct. 29. I’ll be very curious to see how the writing goes when I’ve got something of a roadmap worked out; it’s very unlike me.


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Hi Nicole,

Great point about how sequels or series might need different amounts of planning. On some level, they might need less because we might already know the characters, but on other levels they might need more to ensure they fit into the overall story line (or if we’re struggling to give a recurring character a fresh arc).

Let me know how your NaNo project goes with all the preplanning. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!


Amanda October 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Sigh. When I did NaNo, I went against every instinct I had and wrote a chapter by chapter outline and short character bios for all my main characters. It still took two years for me to revise that monstrosity into something worth submitting (which I FINALLY did last month). Of course, the year I did NaNo was the first year I started writing seriously, and it showed – the writing was terrible. So that probably had something (or maybe everything) to do with it.

I won’t be NaNo’ing this year. My day job heats up right about then, making it extra difficult. I’m glad I did it – I learned that if I really push myself, I can write 80,000+ in less than a month. I just won’t be doing it again 🙂


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, I tried that “plotting everything in advance” method and it didn’t work for me either. It’s important to figure out what does work for us so we know for the future, and to me, that knowledge about our strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and abilities are half the reason why NaNo rocks. 🙂

I’m sorry you’re not able to do it again–I’m right there with you. 🙁 Thanks for the comment!


Jessica October 10, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I tend to be one of those silent readers who reads but doesn’t comment, so I just thought I’d pop in and say how much I enjoy and appreciate your posts and I think they’re very helpful, so thank you. 🙂


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Hi Jessica,

Aww, thank you! I appreciate that–and I understand that. 🙂 I read way more blogs than I can comment on. LOL! Thanks for the comment!


Serena Yung October 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Planning! Well I as I’ve said, I’m planning on not planning, but after reading about the plot vs character arc planning in this post, I think I do have some plans in my head that I haven’t written down. There are some major plot points I want the characters to eventually get to. And when they go through those major plot points, they will INEVITABLY change internally, so there’s the planned character arc. It could be something like: a teenager experiencing the death of a loved one for the first time. That would DEFINITELY change them for good!

I don’t have minor plot points in my head because I think it’s much more fun to discover them along the way to the major climaxes. There would also be more major plot points or turning points that I would discover as I write. I’m really just trusting my muse to make sense of it all as I go through, haha. I want to have more faith in my intuition. We’ll see how this planning to not plan goes, haha. It would be a real achievement if I manage to finish the novel through pure pantsing and no plotting at all! It sounds quite exciting to fully trust your muse and feelings to lead you the right way and even tie up all those loose ends!


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Hi Serena,

The VAST majority of my plans are never written down. 🙂 I just use the questions as thought triggers, if I use them at all.

I love that I’ve reached the point that I trust my muse, so I hope it works for you too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Serena Yung October 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Ah! Thanks for your reply! That gives me confidence that my muse can really help me all the way through. And hurray about writing almost nothing down! 😀


Jami Gold October 11, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Hi Serena,

Yep, I do most of my planning just in my head. My muse likes knowing that nothing’s nailed down in case he comes up with another plan. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


vanessa October 10, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Hi Jami,

Sorry I haven’t commented on your blog in a while, been busy with school I recently changed my major. Here’s how I plan for NaNo. First I think of the story I want to write, then I write a long summary outline of the events in the story and how I want them to happen. Then I’ll go and develop the characters. Then I find pictures of actors who match what I think they would look like if it was made into a film. I have the visual and then I am set to write.

Thanks for letting me comment!


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Hi Vanessa,

Oh! You’ll have to tell me how the major change goes for you. 🙂

I’m glad you’ve found a method that works for you. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!


vanessa October 10, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Hi Jami,

I’m doing nursing along with education that way if I can’t find a job in one field I have something else I can live off of. But let me tell you this Statistics is a big pain in the butt, it takes forever to get the answer to one measly problem, hence why I don’t like math.

I’m going to use this NaNoWriMo to finish up my 2 book series I want to self publish before the trend dies, it’s dystopian which is why I’m going to self pub because non agent or publisher will take it no matter how unique or different the story is.


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Hi Vanessa,

You’ll get no argument from me on the math. I have a hard time figuring out which number should be divided by what in basic math. LOL!

Good luck with your NaNo story! You killed the word count last year, so I’m sure you’ll do great. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Vanessa October 11, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Hi Jami,

Oh gosh, math is just a torture chamber, how people like it is beyond me.

I want to use this years nano to try and finish up my trilogy


Jami Gold October 14, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Hi Vanessa,

LOL! Yep, I understand. 🙂


Aldrea Alien October 10, 2013 at 6:46 pm

I’ll be attempting Nano for the first time and adding the 50k to the rough 23k I’ve got on a sequel. So I’ve worldbuilding, characters and even most of the plot sorted.

I’m still not sure if I’ll reach the target. But that’s half the fun!


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Hi Aldrea,

Ooo, exciting! I was a NaNo Rebel last year, adding 60K to my already started story. Of course that meant my NaNo writing was all the hard middle section of the story, so I don’t consider my head start the easy way out at all. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!


MA Hudson October 10, 2013 at 7:04 pm

I kind of do a bit of both – character and plot planning, but not nearly as clearly as what this post suggests. This looks like a great prep talk to give yourself before starting a new book. I’ve pasted it into my planning notebook for my next story. Thanks for the clarity.
Mary Ann


Jami Gold October 10, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Hi Mary Ann,

It’s funny that I have this much clarity–considering that I’m a pantser–but maybe that’s why I can pants: I’ve internalized this stuff. 🙂

I hope it help you! Thanks for the comment!


Mikayla October 27, 2013 at 3:12 am

Great post, thank you! This will be my first NaNo. Eeek :/ I’ll be adding you, thank you again, I need all the support I cam get. Def bookmarking this and will enjoy reading your site when I need a moment away from writing 🙂


Jami Gold October 27, 2013 at 8:51 am

Hi Mikayla,

I added you back! 🙂 Good luck with NaNo and let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for the comment!


Susi Lovell November 1, 2013 at 11:42 am

Too much going on for me right now to manage NaNo but this is a great post! Thanks.


Jami Gold November 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Hi Susi,

I understand. 🙂 And yes, whether we’re doing NaNo or not, it’s always good to get our stories off on the right foot. Thanks for the comment!


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