Supercharge your NaNoWriMo Novel With One, Simple Exercise

NaNoWriMo is in the air! The crisp bite of the breeze, the

vibrations of leaves in trees, the upward tick in sales of books about how to write a novel in a monthโ€”can the sound of keyboards clacking like Flamenco dancers on Red Bull be far behind?

Yes, it’s time once again for National Novel Writing Month. Each November, writers around the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in one month (an average of 1,666.6667 words a day). It’s a blast, a communal expression of the love of writing fiction. And a kick in the pants to produce the words and not sit around Starbucks all day talking about writing a novel someday.
I’ve written before on how to get ready for NaNoWriMo. Today, I want to offer a simple exercise that will keep you from merely producing scenes without any coherence, which is the big challenge in this hard-charging contest. (I also commend to you an excellent post by Lisa Cron over at Writer Unboxed).
I call this exercise “Because…”
It has two parts. First, you hone your basic plot into a single sentence. Then, you add a “because” clause which explains what’s at stake.
Your plot sentence consists of an adjective, a noun and a verb clause (the action). Thus:
Gone With the Wind is about a Southern belle who has to fight to save her home during the Civil War.
Die Hardis about a New York cop who has to save a building full of people from a gang of ruthless terrorists.
Casablancais about an American cafe owner in French occupied territory during WWII, who has to battle Nazis and lost love and a corrupt police captain.
Every plot can be rendered in this fashion, and it’s important that you know this much about yours.
Now, once you have that, add a “because” sentence that explains what the stakes are. Don’t worry about the form of the sentence, just pack into it the reasons the Lead character in your novel has to succeed. Turn it into a paragraph if you want to. It’s all for you.
Gone With the Wind is about a southern belle who has to fight to save her home during the Civil War….because if she loses it, she’ll be dependent on others for her existence and will never be a woman of strength or substance.
Die Hard is about a New York cop who has to save a building full of people from a gang of ruthless terrorists….because if he loses, his ex-wife will die along with the other hostages, and he will have failed in his most essential cop duty, saving people from bad guys.
Casablancais about an American cafe owner in French occupied territory during WWII, who has to battle Nazis and lost love and a corrupt police captain….because if he loses, the war effort will be harmed (the Nazis will win) and he’ll have destroyed the lives of several people around him. And also if he loses, he’ll have become a wretched individual with no concern about others, sadly drinking himself to death, having lost whatever ideals he once held.
Believe me, this little exercise is going to pay big dividends for you. During NaNo, if you start to feel lost, simply go back to this controlling premise and think up fresh scenes for the Lead character, which scenes involve him taking steps to solve the main problem.
Let’s say we’ve started writing Casablanca and we come to the point where Rick sees Ilsa in his cafe for the first time. What a great scene we’ve written! They look at each other, and Rick’s heart pounds with a mix of love and hate, desire and the pain of betrayal. Now what?
We brainstorm some scenes. What could happen next?
– Rick punches Ilsa’s husband, Victor Laszlo, in the face, and a big fight ensues
– Rick throws a drink in Ilsa’s face, and Laszlo socks Rick
– Ilsa runs out into the night and Rick chases after her
– Rick gets drunk and waits for her to show up
After some reflection, we decide on the last one. Gives us an opportunity for Rick to remember what happened in Paris. Then Ilsa comes in. We envision Ilsa falling into Rick’s arms….no, not enough conflict….how about she tries to explain what happened in Paris and Rick basically calls her a whore….ooh, that sounds right, because our premise tells us the novel is partly about whether Rick will end up as a wretched human being….
And so on throughout the month of November.
So who’s up for NaNoWriMo 2013?

In honor of NaNoWriMo, my Knockout Novel program is being offered at a special price ($10 off). I highly recommend Knockout for both planning and editing, so it’s perfect pre- and post-NaNo…and on any project at any stage. I use it in tandem with Scrivener for my own books. 

37 thoughts on “Supercharge your NaNoWriMo Novel With One, Simple Exercise

  1. I’m up for it but…

    I just sold my book. I don’t really know what to expect next but I think I’m going to be busy and I’d hate to start NaNoWriMo and not meet my daily goals. But…

    This concept of constructing a couple of sentences and being able to refer back to them while writing feverishly sounds very tempting. I could do that. I have a certificate from NaNo 2009 and it was fun. But…

    Surely I should concentrate on promoting my book…


  2. I plan on using NaNo to finish my current WIP. It is farther along than the goal, but not quite such a breakneck pace. And the Knockout program has been tempting me. I do believe I will now succumb.


    PS: Way to go Amanda on the book deal.

  3. Of course, James! That’s exactly what I will do.

    I have the first chapter of my second novel in the Mabel series underway, so I’ll use November to finish it. I will need to prepare, though. Which kinds of takes away the spontaneity of NaNo but is necessary in order to have a good first draft.

    I’ll write a chapter a day. For every day in November I’ll need a basic plot sentence and a ‘because’. What is the purpose of this chapter in moving the book along, and why is it needed.

    I’ll be ready for Nov. 1.

    And thanks, Terri! Won’t really believe it until I have the book in my hand.

  4. Congratulations Amanda! That’s great news.

    I use the 5-word pitch. If I can’t distill the book into a 5-word pitch, I don’t know it well enough. It cuts through the crap, and reminds you where to keep your focus. Titanic is “Romeo and Juliet at sea.” My last WIP was “Girl fights pirates, saves dad.”

  5. I like the exercise. Thank you. It also contributes to writing the query letter on the other end. Getting it down to five words seems really tough. Congratulations, Amanda.

  6. I love the “because” element, Jim. I’ve been working my through what I call NaNoPlotMo. I don’t know if I’ll participate in NaNoWriMo, but I’ll certainly be sure to have the premise in place and a structured outline. I hope no one starts typing on November 1st without at least a premise in mind! Keep up the good work. You’re a great inspiration.

  7. Your article on plotting comes at the right time. I’ve scheduled a Plot workshop for my region (USA :: AZ :: Prescott) this Thursday night. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to provide a link to your post and share your tips with our Prescott Wrimos about the one-sentence premise and the ‘because’ brainstorming tricks.
    Took a look at your Knockout Novel course, too. I’m tempted, very tempted. And the price is most reasonable. Thank you for providing the link and offer.

  8. I’ve completed Nanowrimo three times, but last year my husband asked me not to because it’s hard on our family when I do. (I’m mom.) When I do it, my goal is to construct my word count so that I do about 2000 words a day and finish by Thanksgiving. I also create scene cards (thank you JSB) so that I have a general idea where I’m going. This year I’m working about seven days a week, but I’m still thinking about it. My hero is the gal who wrote an entire Nano novel while in active duty in Iraq and (with the help of the military) got her word count back to a viable computer in time to upload. That makes my Nano journeys look pretty easy.

  9. Haven’t committed to NaNoWriMo yet, but it’s still possible. And I definitely want to do more prep work this year before Nov 1, so thanks for the timely article. The link to Lisa Cron’s article was SUPER, too. Thanks for being a wealth of great resources, Jim!

  10. I am. I’ve completed Nano twice–both without a *plot* to follow. However, I am undertaking a new path. Been reading all your craft books (I have them all except Art of War) and want to pre-plot for Nano this year. I have an idea for a YA fantasy that’s been brewing in the basement.
    My linked name goes to the first chapter of my first Nano novel–my current revision project. I sent it off to an editor without changing or tweaking after just pounding it out. I got a great rejection letter that told me it wasn’t right yet and that I needed to tighten the beginning and then make the climax more powerful. Which I’ve hopefully been doing, thanks to you and the great books on craft. Perhaps this year I’ll write my best Nano yet.

  11. Love the image of keyboards clacking like flamenco dancers on Red Bull — and that because is priceless advice because it’s too easy to lose sight of why I’m writing.

  12. I was tied up all day and missed most of the party here.

    I’m going to try for NaNoWriMo this year. I have my concept and have made it most of the way through my Knockout Novel exercises. That gives me a couple more weeks to work my way through the rest and get ready to write.

    I do love this simple formula, and need to remember to come back to it when my muse goes off on one of her tangents and gets me all distracted.

    Will you be writing some NaNoWriMo posts in November, to keep us dancing (figuratively)?

  13. I like this ‘because statement’ idea so much, that I hope you don’t mind I intend to borrow it (with credits to the source) for my own blog later this week. It’s like an extended elevator pitch with wings.

    You mentioned Lisa Cron and would ya believe I just met her a couple weeks ago at the Alaska Writer’s Guild conference. Great wisdom impartation from that lady. I think we had a pretty deep soul-level meeting of the storytelling minds there when we chatted between sessions.

    As for my own NaNo goals, like a few others said, finish my WIP Draft, and maybe even draft the #2 of the trio in the same ARC.

  14. Yay for NaNoWriMo! Will tape my new ‘because’ manifesto to my computer. My first book wouldn’t be hunting an agent right now without it, and with the help of your Plot & Structure book, also. Thank you!

  15. Up for the challenge!!! I have been reading your Blogs, and books about writing, as I attempted writing my own, but got lost with it going to school etc. So decided when I heard about this to take the plunge!!!

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