October 10, 2013

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

Leftover scraps of many posters with text: Don't End Up with a "Hot Mess" after NaNo

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.

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click to grab Pure Sacrifice now!
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Davonne Burns

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. 🙂

KR Brorman

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

Stacey Zink

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.


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.


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 🙂


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. 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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!


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!

Aldrea Alien

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!

MA Hudson
MA Hudson

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


[…] to discuss how to plan your NaNoWriMo adventure so your first draft doesn’t become a hot mess. As a Pantser I don’t do much planning; although if I do find time to take part this year, I […]


[…] Gold: NaNo Prep: Do You Know What to Plan in Advance? “Posts abound this time of year about planning for NaNo so your story will end up as a decent […]


[…] week, we discussed how we can plan our story and avoid writing a “hot mess.” With NaNoWriMo almost upon us, now is the time to think about basic planning for plot and […]


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 🙂

Susi Lovell

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


[…] sanity checks. Like one of the methods I teach in my Lost Your Pants? workshop and my post about how to avoid a “hot mess” with NaNoWriMo, Roni Loren plans her characters but doesn’t plot the […]


[…] 20-30K words and then reach a point where I have no idea what to do next. This is where having a vague plan can help us—even when we’re […]

Click to grab Ironclad Devotion now!