This article, by Steve Shepard, Storyist developer and avid NaNoWriMo participant, originally appeared in the How To section of Storyist. NaNoWriMo is a scant month and a half away, so if you’re planning on participating, it’s time to start planning.
"What are you writing this year?"
It’s the question on everyone’s lips at the regional NaNoWriMo kickoff parties. The answer, even among seasoned NaNoWriMo veterans, is often "I don’t know."
So if you don’t know either, relax—you’re in good company. Heck, even Chris Baty, the NaNoWriMo program director and cheerleader in chief, claims he doesn’t know what he’s writing yet.
As this is my fourth year participating in NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d add to the mix by writing a quick how-to on the techniques that have worked for me.
Play "What If?"
So what should you write?
Conventional wisdom says that you should write what you know. If you’re a teacher, write about a teacher facing one of the many struggles teachers face. If you’re an accountant, write about an accountant facing accountant stuff.
I disagree with this "conventional" wisdom. For many writers, part of the joy of writing is in learning about something new, and in living in a world of your making. The trick is finding a story idea that captures your imagination.
One of the more effective ways to do this is to play a game of "What If?" Look around you and ask what would happen if something you cared deeply about changed in a significant way. For example:
- "What if I finally found my true love only to discover that she was in love with someone else?"
- "What if my daughter were kidnapped?"
- "What if my high-school-age self ran for class president and didn’t get a single vote?"
If you are uncomfortable putting yourself at the center of your story, look around you. Family, friends, and co-workers are great sources for "What Ifs."
- "What if my mom discovered my that dad was cheating on her?"
- "What if my kid brother finally decided to retaliate against that bully Jimmy Porter?"
- "What if my boss were a zombie?"
Be forewarned though; friends and family can be very prickly if you put them in your novel. And while you could use this to your advantage, you’re probably better off disguising their situations so they won’t know it’s them.
If that doesn’t work for you, you can always turn to the Web. Current news stories make great starting points.
- "What if Obama was secretly planning to kill my grandmother?"
- "What if Dave Letterman was sleeping with my girlfriend?"
- "What if Glen Beck developed amnesia?"
Take fifteen minutes or so and write down as many "What Ifs" as you can. Try to fill a couple of pages.
Tip: Play with a friend. This exercise can be uproariously funny if you give it half a chance.
Tip 2: Be as specific as possible. Use "my boss" instead of "management," and "Obama" instead of "the government." Even a vast conspiracy needs a point person through whom the reader can experience the evil.
Then, sift through the list and find the "What If" that grabs you. If you can’t pick one, take some time to cull the top three, and flip a three-sided coin to identify the winner.
Identify the Story Line