How to Choose an Idea for NaNoWriMo

It’s almost here – National Novel Writing Month is only a couple of short weeks away!

I did my first NaNoWriMo twelve years ago, and I’ve certainly learned a few lessons along the way. So now I’m going to share those lessons with you, Internet! You’re welcome.

Staring down the barrel of dwindling October days, you may have no idea what on earth you’re going to write about this November. I was in the same position myself just last week. Let me take you through my process for tackling this problem.

There’s two camps you might be in:


You might, lucky you, find yourself bouncing between both. No worries. Here’s what to do:

What To Do if You Have No Novel Ideas Whatsoever

  1. Make a list of stuff you like. Stuff that you enjoy talking about, stuff that your friends wish you would shut up about, stuff that makes you super happy when you remember it exists in the world. Your list might look like this:
    • dragons
    • Christmas
    • bars with outdoor decks
    • espresso
    • Shark Week
  2. Make a list of stuff that you know a lot about. For example:
    • what it’s like to work in a restaurant
    • dog training
    • living in a city
    • sewing
    • how to make fancy cocktails
  3. Making these lists might immediately spark some ideas – a character who works at a restaurant-bar with an outdoor deck organizing their annual Christmas party and trying to figure out how to arrange things so she can kiss her crush under the mistletoe, perhaps? Or a dog trainer with a heart of gold who decides to see if her dog-training skills translate to shark-training for Some Mysterious Reason? Roll with it and skip ahead to #5. If not, full steam ahead…
  4. Dream up some interesting characters. People-watching is a great way to do this, and so is scrolling through Pinterest looking at pictures of people and wondering what their stories are. Once you have the beginnings of a character, think about how you could get that person involved in some of the stuff you listed above.
  5. Once you have the tiniest kernel of an idea, you are in business! Simply take it and run with it. Jump in to your favorite brainstorming method and start expanding it until it’s novel-sized. I like The Snowflake Method the best, but there’s plenty out there, including the old-fashioned method of simply asking yourself “why?” questions over and over again like a pesky three-year-old. Good luck!

What To Do if You Have Too Many Novel Ideas

  1. Ask yourself: which idea am I most excited about? If you have an immediate answer to this question, go with it. You’re going to be spending a lot of time this November trying to sustain momentum. What idea has you motivated to tackle the challenge? Which makes your heartbeat quicken with anticipation? Why are you even hesitating – go with that one! You’ll thank me when your motivation starts flagging in Week Two; it’s much easier to forge ahead when you love your story than to try to force yourself to add another 1,667 words to the manuscript you think you “should” be writing but couldn’t care less about.
  2. Ask yourself: which characters do I like the best? You are going to be spending a lot of time with these imaginary people. Choose the cast you want to hang out with the most, the ones that seem fun and cool and interesting. If you go with a project that has an interesting idea but lackluster characters, you’re going to get bored. And a good character can keep a NaNoWriMo project going even when you get stuck. I made the mistake of writing an ill-planned plot-driven novel for NaNoWriMo once – disaster! NaNo goes so, so fast, and it’s easy to completely lose track of what’s going on and what needs to happen next in a complicated plot. If you have a good grasp of character, it’s much easier to get yourself out of the weeds while driving full speed ahead.
  3. Ask yourself: which idea requires the least research? Again, NaNoWriMo is a fast-paced challenge. If you find yourself choosing between writing a novel about a subject you’re already familiar with and know a lot about, and writing a novel about characters employed in an industry you’ve barely heard of set in a historical period you know little about, go with the first one! Research-heavy novels are better suited to other months of the year, when you can take your time. (And, if you’re asking, yes, it is too late to do all the research next week right before NaNo starts. Don’t do it. I’m telling you.)
  4. Ask yourself: which has enough story? Yes, it’s true, 50,000 words is a very, very short novel. But it’s a pretty long high-speed rough draft. There’s nothing worse than writing a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end – and for that “end” to be at 30,000 words with a whole 20k left to go back and fill in. Given the choice, go with the novel that has more meat. More conflict, more characters, more scenes, a larger scale. Better to hit 50k with two thirds of a novel than to not hit it at all, I say!
  5. And finally, once you pick one, STICK WITH IT. If you’re outlining, and you get distracted by one of your shiny other ideas, tell it “no” firmly and save it for December. This is especially crucial once November actually starts. You will want to switch ideas in Week Two. Don’t. It is the kiss of death and you will crash and burn – trust me, I speak from experience.

Good luck and happy #NaNoPrep everybody!

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