Ask LH: How Can I Learn To Plot Before NaNoWriMo?

Ask LH: How Can I Learn To Plot Before NaNoWriMo?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m a budding (not yet blossoming) fiction writer. By that, I mean I have really cool ideas whizzing around my noggin but am yet to put pen to paper or text to screen. To motivate myself I have registered for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble formulating a plot structure and having it accessible and presented clearly.

I’ve considered plastering butcher’s paper on my walls and scribbling on that. I tried Googling a combination of words and was aghast at the large number of results offering to charge me large sums of money for “writing software”. I’m wondering if you can help identify some of the better software, or even point me towards a guide for plotting?

Thanks Wordsmith

Ask Lifehacker is presented by Optus.
Find out how Optus can help you Live More Yes!

Dear Wordsmith,

For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is a global challenge with a simple goal: to start and finish a novel of at least 50,000 words during the month of November. A big part of its appeal is that by setting a deadline and a minimum daily word count, it forces you to get on with writing, rather than endlessly making excuses.

Writers — both actual and aspiring — are frequently world-champion procrastinators. Faced with the prospect of actually writing, or even just planning to write by working on the plot, many suddenly find themselves completely household tasks they’ve ignored for months or making “just one more” cup of coffee. I suspect your search for the right plotting approach falls a little into this category. If you don’t have the right tools, then it’s not your fault you haven’t started, is it?

One key point: it’s not necessarily essential to have a plot as such when you start writing a novel anyway. I’ve completed NaNoWriMo twice, and on both occasions I didn’t have anything remotely resembling a plot when I started. The first time, I just had a central idea: what would it be like to be Australia’s biggest porn movie producer? On the second go, I had even less of a concept: I knew I wanted to write about three houses in a London street, and that at least one of the residents would die. That was it.

From those small concepts, I made myself write 2000-odd words a day for a month, and I ended up with a completed novel with an actual plot both times. There’s something indescribably satisfying about that sudden moment when you realise that two ideas you wrote about entirely separately will actually link together logically.

Flying by the seat of your pants won’t work so well if you’re planning a novel with a particularly complex plot, such as a thriller. But even then, it’s easy to write an outline and keep notes on any salient points in any word processor. Specialised software isn’t essential.

In the pre-computer era, writers found it useful to keep lists of important developments, character eye colours, and so forth. That can still be a sound approach, but don’t overdo it: the Find function in your word processor makes that kind of detail a lot easier to check.

If other readers have specific advice about plotting to share, we’d love to hear it. My advice? Don’t worry about the tools — just pull up the nearest notepad or word processor and start scribbling some ideas. Getting on with it matters a lot more than how you do it.

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our [contact text=”contact form”].


  • My process usually involves writing a couple of key scenes cold, without any planning. If they turn out well, this is usually sufficient fodder and inspiration to sit down and work out the story that they fit into.

    I plotted my last novel on the back of two golden C5 envelopes, and it was my best work to date (and the smoothest writing process by far), so forget the specialised software.

    I’ve done some free trials of the major writing software, and found it all so incredibly complicated and unnecessary. I guess it works for some people, though for most, I suspect that these companies are trading on the insecurity and desperation of amateur scribes rather than offering any legitimate inroads to productivity.

  • I didn’t even know about NaNoWriMo. Been harassing the wife and friends about how I’ve wanted to write a novel, and forever bouncing ideas off them. To the extent that people now ask why isn’t it a book yet? Perfect excuse to make a start. Thank you.

  • I cheat every year. Not that I start writing beforehand, but I always have some idea of what I want to write prior to November, but run on fumes at about 30,000…

  • There are two books I’d vigorously recommend: Rock Your Plot (2.99 kindle, very short, easily read before Nanowrimo) and Break Into Fiction. RYP is basically a literature review of how to plot a novel from all the best books, in a short and fun to read format. BIF is full of worksheets. I plan to do all the worksheets before NANOWRIMO. If you search, there are even Scrivner templates based on RYP (and Save the Cat, which I’m less into, but you may like. )
    Plotting is a lifesaver!

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!