The Road to NaNoWriMo: What the Hell Am I Going to Write About?

So you signed up for NaNoWriMo (or you’re thinking about it). Now you have to figure out what you’re actually going to write about.

If you already have your story ready to go, great! But if you’re not quite there yet, I’m going to offer you a few tips for coming up with ideas and testing them for use in a novel.

The Three Questions

By the time November 1st rolls around there are only three questions you need to be able to answer, and they’re all pretty simple.

  1. Who is your main character?
  2. What do they want?
  3. Who or what is going to get in their way?

That’s it. Easy. And you don’t have to answer those questions right now. You’ve got plenty of time. Let these questions linger in the back of your head as you’re brainstorming ideas.

Write It Down

If you’re trying to generate ideas for use in a book, here’s the best piece of advice I can give you: start carrying around something you can take notes on.

For a lot of us, that’ll be a smartphone or a tablet. There are plenty of note-taking apps out there. I use Evernote, but it doesn’t really matter. Even an old-fashioned pen and notebook will do just fine.

The most important thing is to have something that you take with you everywhere. You want it with you in the bathroom, when you’re walking around, when you’re at work, everywhere.

And the second most important thing is to use it.

Write down every idea you have. Even if it’s stupid and you’ll never put it into your book. Even if it’s just a fragment of an idea. “Guy with pink hair.” “Demons with machine guns for teeth.” “What if Hitler had a pet dinosaur?” Everything.

Don’t just sit at your desk wracking your brains trying to come up with ideas. Think about it for a while, go for a walk, come back to it tomorrow and think a little bit more. Let your subconscious chew it over.

When you’re out and about, look around and see what’s interesting around you. That sinister looking man in the corner? That approaching storm cloud? See what scenarios your mind can invent for your surroundings. Think about interesting characters, fun scenes, bits of dialogue. Write them all down.

Never assume you’ll remember an idea. You won’t. Write it down.

Sure, most of those ideas will be crap. But that’s okay. The only way to start coming up with ideas is to train your brain to think about these things. By writing down your ideas, you’re not just recording them for later. You’re telling your brain that these ideas are important, and that it should keep coming up with new ones.

Steal Liberally

If you’re reading a book or watching a movie and something comes up that seems like it’d make a cool story or a great scene, steal it and write it down. Don’t take things word for word, of course, but don’t be afraid to let yourself be inspired or influenced by the stories you already enjoy.

Think about what you like and don’t like in books and movies. What’s the stuff that you really love? Great relationships? Tragic falls from grace? Blood and gore? Sexy times?

That’s where you want to go to mine ideas. Don’t worry about being original, and don’t think that you have to write some great important piece of literature that will change the course of history. Write what you love. The rest will follow.

Mix It Up

Read over your list of ideas from time to time. Think about ways in which your ideas could be combined to make even cooler ideas. Twist things around. Turn a cliche on its head. Ask “What if?”

Hopefully, some of the ideas you’re coming up with will start to jump out from the page and knock you on the head. Trust your gut here.

As your ideas begin to solidify, you’ll start thinking about how you’re going to turn them into a story. Remember to focus on those three important questions.

  1. Who is your main character?
  2. What do they want?
  3. Who or what is going to get in their way?

Those three things—character, goal, and conflict—are the core of pretty much every story known to man. When you’re looking at your list of ideas and trying to figure out what you’re going to write about, keep these three question in the back of your head and you won’t go far wrong.

Next time, we’re going to look at ways to flesh out your idea into something with a little more substance. But for now, get those wheels spinning and start thinking.

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