NaNoWriMo Week 1: How To Get Your First Draft Started

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Hello authors, and welcome to the first article of our month-long National Novel Writing Month coverage. For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo takes place over November and challenges authors to pen 50,000 words in thirty days. It’s caught on around the world, with a variety of resources now available for those taking part.

There’s no doubting it’s a challenge, but it’s one authors are entirely capable of meeting, especially with a little help. That’s why, throughout November, we’ll be publishing three articles a week. On Wednesdays and Fridays, you’ll have our usual great content, and on Mondays, we’ll be offering advice and resources specific to how far through the challenge you need to be.

November isn’t quite here yet, but since NaNoWriMo approaches, we’ve decided to get things started with what you’ll need in Week 1. We’ll also be keeping a keen eye on the comments for your questions. So, where shall we start?

Making the most of NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo offers a serious challenge to authors, and it’s easy to get off track if you take on too much. The goal is to write 50,000 words, generally of a first draft, so that’s where you should set your sights. It’s admirable to want to do more, but resist trying to fit your 80,000-word debut novel into a month.

Likewise, remember that you’re trying to write your first draft. NaNoWriMo isn’t the time to be continually editing and rewriting your work. NaNoWriMo is about turning nothing into something – creating the raw clay that you’ll then mold and shape into art. The challenge isn’t to write something great in thirty days, but to use the time constraint to eschew perfectionism and make sure you write something.

Many authors find NaNoWriMo impossible for these reasons – how are they meant to write a compelling, full-length novel in thirty days? Well, they’re not. They’re meant to write 50,000 words without looking back. The fact that there’s no time to look back isn’t an accident, and embracing this spirit is what will allow you to succeed.

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That’s the theory, anyway, but what about the approach?

How to NaNoWriMo

As a concept, National Novel Writing Month is simple enough to fit in a sentence: write 50,000 words over November. That might be enough for you – you may be capable of taking that idea and translating it into a realistic set of goals spread over the month.

NaNoWriMo doesn’t leave time for revision – keep writing if you want to succeed.Click To Tweet

If so, congratulations, but there are tools out there to help. Googling ‘National Novel Writing Month’ will bring up a host of resources, but the official site is probably the best one, recommending goals, tracking and rewarding your progress, and giving you access to a community of authors who are going through the same trials and tribulations. If you’re serious about meeting your NaNoWriMo goals, we recommend signing up.

One of the best things you can do as NaNoWriMo approaches is to set realistic goals for the entire month. You’re not flustered yet, so this is the time to decide on a way of doing things that will support you through November. You’ll also want to source a dedicated writing space and set it up for a month’s worth of work. This is the kind of thing that feels productive, but it won’t actually increase your word count, so doing it in advance is advisable. NaNoWriMo is about writing, so put yourself in the best position to do so.

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Getting started

So, wow, a whole novel? Maybe you have an idea already. If so, great – the following advice will still be useful as a way to firm up your process, but it seems like you’re good to go. It may be that you already have an idea you want to develop or trust inspiration to strike when you sit down to write.

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If not, you’re probably wondering where to start.

Stories come in all shapes and sizes, but they also have a basic structure. You may be thinking I’m going to say ‘beginning, middle, end’, and while that’s not bad advice, it’s also a little too simple. Instead, I’ll offer this:

Someone wants to achieve a goal but finds their success blocked by obstacles. They struggle against those obstacles and are eventually triumphant/defeated.

Great stories run on struggle and conflict, so know where yours is coming from. Click To Tweet

With very few exceptions, that’s the basic structure of a story, and these are the keys concepts to pin down before you start writing – the core details around which everything else accumulates. So, if you’re getting ready to write, ask yourself:

  • What does my protagonist want?
  • Do I want them to be successful?

Avoid other questions for now and really explore these. You don’t need definitive answers; in fact, it’s good to have options. From here, ask a few more questions:

  • What kind of character would want that goal?
  • What kind of obstacle would they find particularly difficult?

You’ll notice I’m not suggesting you start with character. That’s against many authors’ instincts, but we’re at the microscopic level here, and we’ve already started constructing the protagonist. Some purveyors of literary advice will suggest you drop a character into a situation, but stories generally aren’t character-structured. Yes, they may focus on character, they may be about the characters, but they follow a series of events. The Harry Potter books don’t follow a structure where book 1 follows Harry through his entire life, book 2 follows Hermione, book 3 follows Ron, etc. Instead, you follow all the characters through a single year, in which they address a running mystery or threat. The mystery or threat might not be the most exhilarating thematic element, but it’s the surest guarantor of a reliable structure. Rest easy – once your characters take on a life of their own, the story will begin to warp around them anyway.

So now we have a basic protagonist who wants something and is going to have to struggle hard to try and get it. Try to make things as hard as possible for them – conflict is story fuel, after all. Let these three ingredients get acquainted in your head: protagonist, goal, obstacles. What your protagonist wants tells you a lot about them, and trying to tailor the obstacles to give them a hard time will tell you even more. At this point, it might be useful to write a paragraph describing what you already know about your story.

Now, start thinking about people who can bring something to the story that the protagonist doesn’t. Is the protagonist funny? If not, maybe a funny character can offer something they can’t. If so, maybe a stoic would open up your options. Add a character who gives you room to work, then another, then another. Don’t spend too long on this; it’s fine to just invent the opposite of your character and then try and find someone who isn’t like either of them. Now, spend a day or so imagining these characters interacting, but stay focused on your protagonist struggling towards their goal. Which characters organically help and hinder? Maybe some characters come to the fore while other drift back into being minor characters.

Once you’ve done this, you’ve got yourself a basic plot and a basic cast of characters, simple as they may be. Another great exercise you can do instead of this, or concurrently to flesh things out, is the quadrant theory, which is explained in full in one of our recommended resources, below.

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Plotting and timelines

The final thing to consider before beginning your writing is creating a timeline for your characters. This is a simple case of breaking down the events of your story into a basic morning/afternoon/night structure and figuring out what each important character is doing at each time.

A simple timeline helps structure a story and prevent silly mistakes.Click To Tweet

Begin with the main characters, writing in what they’re up to, and then try to form a vague idea of where the other characters are. We’re not looking for detail at this point – your timeline is a living document, one you’ll adjust and even re-invent as your story takes shape – just a vague idea that will act as a reference as you write. This is your surest guard against seeding plot holes in your first draft.

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Don’t worry about plot holes too much, though. In fact, it’s a good idea to live by the rule that the newest chapter has primacy. Remember, you’re not going back to change what you’ve already written – not until you’ve met your target – but you also can’t be tied to mistakes.

Feel free to acknowledge facts in chapter two that you don’t account for in chapter one. Want to change a character’s name, where they are, or even their core goal? Go ahead and act as if you made the change. There’s no point sticking with an idea you no longer love, and there’s no time to go back and correct what’s already been written. Just make a note of what you’ve changed and forge ahead. The next draft is for tidying; for refining the facts, ironing out the details, and even adding clever touches.

Core concepts

So there you have it – your primer for the first week of NaNoWriMo. Just to be sure, here’s a simplified list of the core advice:

  • Don’t try to do too much – write 50,000 words of story. You’ll be able to edit it to perfection later, so don’t cheat yourself out of creation now.
  • Set realistic goals for the month to come. Be strict but kind – at the end of the month, you’ll thank yourself for every word written.
  • If you’re trying to create something new, begin with your protagonist’s goal and then add conflict and characters that mold it into its best form.
  • A basic timeline will keep you on the right side of organized, but let your newest writing take primacy. You can edit and expand 50,000 words into almost anything, but you need that raw material to make real progress.

If you want to prepare even further, check out the recommended reading throughout this article. You should probably start with How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published though, as one of the biggest hurdles to getting started is resisting the urge to plan, plan, plan rather than write, write, write.

In fact, if you want to start off right, consider ‘rewarding’ yourself with an article for having written a set number of pages. That’s the sort of thinking that will help you meet your goals. Finally, consider declaring your intent to a friend, loved one, or writing peer. It may be what allows you to keep going when your chances look slim. In fact, consider letting us know that you’ll be trying NaNoWriMo in the comments below, along with any questions about starting off your first week of National Novel Writing Month. We’re here to offer support over what just might be your most productive month of the year, so don’t be shy, and we’ll see you next week with our Week 2 primer.

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4 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Week 1: How To Get Your First Draft Started”

  1. Thanks for your support. Interesting enough, a new storyline and character for the first chapter started swimming through my mind. I’m excited!

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