I'm very appreciative of NaNoWriMo's "your first step is writing a crappy first draft" credo, and I like the motivation that NaNoWriMo encourages. I'm precisely at the point where what I feel I need most is some serious butt-in-chair routine, with less emphasis on writing well, so this credo suits me well right now.

But I don't feel like I can just start pounding out words at a given cue. I need some sense of plot, setting, character; I don't like pantsing the entire thing, since my first ideas rarely interest me. I need either a ton of prep work, or else a concept that's very easy to leap straight into and work out as I go along. Right now, I don't have either of these. (I do have a few exciting ideas that require a ton of prep work.)

I want to be able to start typing real words on Nov. 1st; I don't want to risk tripping up by demanding of myself that I produce complex, meticulous prep-work beforehand (that kind of seems to contradict the "just write stuff" ethos). So: is NaNoWriMo a good fit for me? Is there some kind of preparation and planning that would be useful to me? Do I need to go as far as doing all the prep and planning I would for a "regular" novel-writing effort?

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    I have never heard of "pantsing" used in terms of writing until today. My first thought when I read your title "WTF does pulling someone's pants down have to do with writing for NaNoWriMo?" Sep 4, 2011 at 15:38
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    @Ralph Well, "Erotic Fiction" is one of the possible categories for NaNoWriMo Novels. Oct 16, 2011 at 2:21

8 Answers 8


I think NaNoWriMo is a great idea for beginning writers, those who just need to get their butt-in-chair time taken care of. But I don't see a point to it for established writers who already have a system in place that works for them.

What's your ultimate goal for the project? Do you want something publishable, or are you just trying to get words on a page?

If you want something publishable — have you tried to write a novel before? What worked, and what didn't work? You refer to your '"regular" novel writing effort,' but your profile says you only dabble in writing, so maybe your "regular" approach doesn't really work for you. If that's the case, I don't see the point in doing it again!

I've never done a formal NaNo project, but I've certainly written the first draft of a novel within a month. For me, I need to have a clear, almost passionate interest in the character and the setting, and an idea of the main conflict and how it will be resolved. Once that's in place, for me, the details fit in as I type. But I have no idea if this is what will work for you.

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    "Beginning writers who just need to get their butt-in-char time taken care of" - that's me, to a T. Not aiming for anything publishable, just writing. And, yes, my "regular" approach leaves me idly making vague plans for too long, which is why NaNoWriMo's "just write stuff" sounds helpful.
    – Standback
    Sep 3, 2011 at 20:24
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    NaNo sounds good for you. I think the advantage of a having a fairly tight outline going in is that you'd be able to hop around, and write whatever scene interests you at the time- might help with the inspiration issues. But it might also make you less interested in writing to 'see what happens', so it could backfire. If I were you, I think I'd have an incredible character in mind, someone who totally fascinates you, and put him or her in a challenging setting. I'd have that figured out ahead of time. I'd think about it, and dream about it. And on November 1, I'd allow myself to write it.
    – Kate S.
    Sep 3, 2011 at 21:05

One planning task I find useful is listing out all the chapters and a 1-2 sentence overview for each of what happens. If I have a better idea of what it'll be about, I'll also say what I want to reveal in that chapter, eg. Shows Character A's weakness for peanuts.

What you end up with is a pretty good idea of the plot and how it progresses, but it's still empty and flexible enough that you can just let things happen. For example, in one of my chapters, the summary was, 'Character confronts father, they fight and don't come to a resolution.'

When I finally wrote it, the character ended up walking out on her entire family (and life) at the end of the fight - completely unplanned and it changed all the subsequent chapters, but that's how it played out. At that point you just go with the flow and take it from there; pantsing, as you call it. :)
That's also part of the fun and excitement of NaNo - and writing in general, really - that planning just doesn't provide.


So you like NaNo's credo, you embrace the idea, that you are allowed to write a crappy first draft. But it looks like you haven't understood it.

I do not know you, but interpreting your question you sound like someone avoiding the real stuff (writing) by finding an excuse that sounds reasonable (prep work). In reality it's only the little sucker in your head fooling you the whole day long. He has only one aim: distracting you from writing. And he is pretty good at it.

Not liking pantsing is totally irrelevant, no-one cares if you're not interested in your first ideas (really, with 99% likelihood it's the little sucker who is not interested). Go, take the challenge and write.

You can prepare as much as you want till November, but I promise you that your first thought will be "I haven't prepared enough" when the bell rings. If it is your first novel, skip the prep-work, skip thinking about it, just write. Because you are allowed to write crap!

Prove yourself that you can write that novel. Then trash it and write the next one. Do your prep-work for the third.


NaNoWriMo would never ever work for me, because without the prep work, it's just logorrhea. But if you're trying to use the butt-in-chair time as a motivator, then instead of "when timer dings, start typing your book," maybe it should be "when timer dings, start working through your prep work."

If all you want to do is get into the habit of writing, then how about "when timer dings, start writing blog post"? or "start writing short story"? Or one exercise we used to do in creative writing classes, which is "when timer dings, write, and do not stop writing under any circumstances until timer dings again in five minutes. Even if what you write is 'I can't think of anything to write about and this is really stupid,' keep writing. Write the alphabet if you have to."

These exercises are not "novels," to be certain, but they will get you going.


I was under the impression that I was a great pantser and had little to say on this matter. Then I realised. All my "pantsed" efforts used to run into the muck about 20k in and many never came back from that terrible limbo.

So when I first sat down to do Nano I was determined to find a method for making sure I made the magic 50k. Here is what I did:

I decided to write a story I thought I would be able to tell without any difficulty at all. In that case a book for young adults about a boy who goes on a magical quest travelling from point A to point B through a fantasy kingdom.

I have never had a problem pantsing since I did that because of what it taught me. It taught me that there is no such thing as a story it's easy to tell. It also taught me that when you're stuck and need to get moving again in a hurry baths were always the answer. Nice hot baths, and quiet, and thinking.

Lie in the hot water and examine the current snarl and get out of that snarl and nothing else. Do not attempt any further planning just sit down again and keep plugging away until the next time you need to hit the on switch on the water heater.

So in summary:

  1. It helps to be telling a classic, archetypal story
  2. Baths give a chance to think
  3. Solve one problem at a time don't be tempted to try to put everything to rights at once.

EDIT: Oh, and it always helps to keep in mind that there is a solution to every story problem. You just have to broaden your thinking about what could happen next. I tended to lie in the bath and think of the most outrageous thing that could happen next, something really credulity stretching and how I might seriously try to sell that to an audience. And then I worked back to a solution which was less outrageous (although, hey, a couple of them actually ended up in the story!) and provided what I hoped were some fresh narrative twists. It's just a question of giving yourself a quick mental sock in the chops.


Perhaps an appropriate amount of prep work would be to establish your main character (or characters). Then you can put them into a series of situations and explore what happens to them, while keeping true to the characterizations you initially set out. Each chapter can be a different situation, follow the characters as far as you can. Situations:

  • Winning the lottery
  • Falsely accused of a crime
  • Gain a super power
  • Contacted by a dead relative
  • Diagnosed with a rare disease
  • Transported to a different time/place
  • Inherit an odd collection of antique widgets


The rules state that, to be an official NaNoWriMo winner, you must…

  • Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
  • Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people's works).
  • Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!
  • Be the sole author of your novel. Apart from those citations mentioned two bullet-points up.
  • Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.
  • Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.

Edit Take a look at No Plot? No Problem! and follow every suggestion to the letter. :-D

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    50 points for Gryffindor if you can work all those into the same novel. :) Sep 6, 2011 at 11:30
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    Methinks the gauntlet has been thrown down. I have never done a NaNoWriMo, but (nanowrimo.org/eng/user/839293) this is as good an excuse as any, and better than most. Sep 7, 2011 at 13:58
  • If you need more there are plenty of "writing dares" in the Nanowrimo forums.
    – One Monkey
    Sep 7, 2011 at 15:52
  • @LarrySmithmier - now this is a novel I want to see in December.
    – justkt
    Sep 30, 2011 at 12:26

Do I need to go as far as doing all the prep and planning I would for a "regular" novel-writing effort?

It depends. If you really just want to develop the daily habit of sitting down and spitting out words, then you don't need any planning at all.

If you want a usable draft at the end--one that you can revise into something that meets your usual standard--and you usually do some planning, then you probably need to do that same planning for NaNoWriMo. Nano would at least give you a deadline for getting that prep work done.


There is no reason for you to not do any advance preparation for this. If you are more comfortable working out a full outline and developing out your characters, then you can do all of that in advance. The primary objective is to write your novel during the month of November. Any advance preparation you do for that will only help you to succeed at that goal. Whether your personal objective is to just motivate yourself to write or to actually complete the first draft of a workable novel is up to you, but either way, the advance preparation will help you feel more comfortable in reaching that goal.

If your primary objective is just to motivate yourself to write, then you may want to consider another option. A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80) is a writer's challenge initiative that encourages writers to set their own personal goals, whether it is to complete a certain number of words, edit a certain number of pages, or finish a final draft. You establish your own personal goals and then report your progress back to the rest of the group twice a week. The accountability factor can be a good motivator for some, and the encouragement you receive from other writers can sometimes help you over a roadblock. I did this a couple of months ago and got a LOT accomplished. They are just about done with the current round, and a new one should be starting up soon.

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