Lessons From NaNo ~ Planning Ahead

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. Some of you know I participated in NaNoWriMo back in November. (Thanks, Mae!) In case you aren’t familiar with this annual event, the goal is to write 50,000 new words in a month or 1,667 words per day.

Could I accomplish the 50K goal? Last January, I began keeping a daily word count. I counted everything—novels, short stories, blog posts, book reviews. Even dribble that I’ll never publish. Doing this helped me to see what I could do. But even so, the most I wrote in a month was around 26K words.

I figured any number of words written would be better than nothing, so I signed up to begin a new project. On November 29, I crossed the 50K word mark on my upcoming novel, Cold Dark Night.

It’s likely some of you write in excess of 50K words every month. But those of us who also work outside the home must make time to write. My full-time job requires a lot of concentration. There are days when I come home mentally exhausted. Writing even a paragraph can be challenging.

In a series of posts, I want to share how I managed to make the goal. It’s my hope these posts will help you with your everyday writing goals. They can be applied at any time. It’s not just for National Novel Writing Month.

Today’s topic is planning ahead.


I doubt I will ever be a true planner or plotter. I call myself a planster. When I begin a new project, I create a basic outline. For instance, an outline for my novel Unseen Motives might look something like this:

  • A young woman learns of a great-aunt’s death and returns to her home town twenty years after her father was accused of murder and embezzlement.
  • While there, she discovers something that leads her to believe her father was falsely accused. She decides to stay in town to prove his innocence.
  • She discovers the identity of the real killer.

Notice I said how it might look. When I began writing the story, I didn’t have that much. I knew the premise and the outcome. I had a few character names, but several of them changed before I completed the first draft. During the course of writing, I renamed my fictional town. Some character’s roles (and personalities) changed.

When I finally finished the first draft over a year later, the manuscript was a convoluted mess. It was so bad that I put off editing it for another year. Even then, I had to psych myself into doing it one chapter at a time.

With my second and third novels, I had a little more structure, but they still took me a year to write.

Doing a detailed outline and meticulously planning every chapter makes me feel like I’m being smothered. I like to allow the story room to breathe. Too many times I’ve had characters dictate something different or have the story move in a different direction.

While the idea for Cold Dark Night had been in the back of my head for some time, I knew I wouldn’t succeed with NaNo unless I had a plan. I purchased a journal and began brainstorming in late summer before I even committed to the challenge.

I spent most of October planning. Yes, it pains me to say the word, but I managed to do a basic outline for the first five chapters. I created a list of character names and did character sheets for the major players. I did scene sketches, came up with the name of my fictional setting, and a title for the book. I even wrote the blurb! By November 1, I had a plan and was ready to go.

If you’re a planner, you already do some or all of these things. I once heard one writer say she spends almost a year outlining! (I would break out in hives at the thought, but that’s just me.) If you’re a panster, these few tips should help, but will still allow your story breathing room.

Next time, I’ll talk (write) about eliminating distractions.

42 thoughts on “Lessons From NaNo ~ Planning Ahead

  1. I am in awe of those of you who make such a commitment and keep it. My schedule barely allows me to meditate each day much less sit and write. 😔 Still, I love hearing about your journey because ONE DAY I am going to find more free time in my days, and I will know exactly what to do with that time. Lol! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not easy, especially since I have a full-time job. It took a conscious effort and determination on my part. Had it been in December, I wouldn’t have made it, no matter how hard I tried. Life events and unexpected things happen. And I’ve been sorely lagging in my writing time since November.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. I like to do an outline but I leave a lot of wiggle room too. I think you can plan so much that it really kills the flow and creative juices. On the other hand, there’s no way I’d write a book with no direction in mind. I’ve wasted enough time doing that and it never works out. Great post and good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I do not got a lot of books like you, Joan. While the Bombs Fell (a novelette) and Through the Nethergate are my only longer books to date. I did have outlines for both of these, but they were not terrible detailed. I used a time line of world events overlayed with my mom’s life details for WTBF. For TTNG, I had an outline plot with I wrote down in bullet form and that was all. I have done the same for A Ghost and His Gold which has taken on a life of its own. The characters have just moved in their own direction and I have run after them with my pen.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m looking forward to your next post in this series, Joan, because I’m in the same boat you are: full-time job, and a lack of motivation to sit down and write when I get home. I also like to think about a book for a while before I start writing it, but I didn’t do much of that with my current WIP (and my struggle with the story, I think, is a result of that, but that’s just me 😀 ) This year, my mantra will be FOCUS.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a good thing – focus. I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing. Coupled with everything else, I was sick the last week of December with the flu. Not fun. I went back to work last week but I’m just now getting my energy back.

      Best of luck with your new book. Mine needs TONS of work!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for sharing your NaNo journey, Joan. I “thought” I had cleared my month to have no distractions. Notice I only thought I had cleared it. 🙂 Life happens. As it turned out, I only managed 30,000 words in November, but hey, it got me back to the story I’d basically put aside for over a year. I too am a “planster.” I always have a basic idea for the story and then I let it take shape. One thing that stopped me from making the 50,000-word goal was the fact that I had to stop two different times and do some research. In hindsight, I should have thought about that beforehand. But, it was my first time and a learn-as-you-go experience for me. I look forward to what else you have to share about your experience.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I look at any number of words written as an accomplishment. 30K is great. And like you said, life happens. I intended to write another 25K on my book in December but lots of things happened to prevent that. Now that it’s mid-January, I finally feel like writing again.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post, Joan. I really admire you guys who can plan like this. I’m afraid my planning usually consists of something along these lines: I think I’ll write a story set in Florida so I can fill it with animals and rivers I love. Maybe it will have a man and woman who fall in love after some rocky patches, and I could even throw in a serial killer, just to give them something to worry about. Yeah. That’ll work.

    And then I start typing. 😯

    Of course, I’ve only been writing six years and have LOTS to learn. One of these days, I might master the art of true outlining, but so far, it has eluded me. 😦

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I love these personal experience stories. I’ve done a little bit of everything at this point. I had one that I outlined for months. Writing it went super fast. It was more like typing up a finished product. I’ve used bookend endings, where I made some starting plans, then needed to outline my ending after a long section of pantsing the middle. These days I like a lighter outline with the major plot points to aim toward. I am somewhat pantsing one right now, but I know the ultimate outcome.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Most of my past planning has looked like your first book, Joan—minus the ending, LOL. I rarely even had that.

    Although I am a planster, I am learning the benefit of plotting. NaNo taught me that. Although it was a tough lesson to learn and I did a lot of kicking and screaming along the way, I definitely see the benefit of having detailed information before starting a new project. For me, that’s never a complete outline, but it does include detailed character sketches with backstories. When I have a good grasp on my characters, they can really run with the story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I did detailed character sketches for my WIP. Less details on minor characters but it was a huge help. I don’t see myself as ever having a complete outline before I start writing but who knows. Maybe someday!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I consider myself a panster, light on the plotting, letting the story change direction as I go along. I also did NaNo and it was a huge stretch for me as I did more plotting than I ever do. October was my plotting month as well, creating character sketches, different scene description, and coming up with names. I managed to complete NaNo but realize that the story will need major edits.

    Working full time, I also dedicated time to do the writing for NaNo, but after I finished NaNo, the holiday season that followed gave me excuses not to keep the dedicated writing time.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I’ve done outlines which ended up wasted time for me since the stories took off in dfferent directions:) I do like to have a beginning, an idea and lots of notes. I gave my NaNo story a days thought and wished I had more time, but it worked mostly.

    Liked by 4 people

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