I’ve participated in several rounds of NaNoWriMo (nanowrimo.org) and won the last three years running.  I’m planning on writing something new this year*, so I’ll need to brush up my “Zero Draft Writing” skills.  I figure, it’s helped me win NaNoWrimo 2011, 2012 and 2013… so maybe these notes will help someone else with their fiction writing, too.

*Note: Steps 1-8 need to be completed BEFORE November 1 if the process is to be used for NaNoWriMo 2014.  This means the process should be started a month to six weeks beforehand, to allow for adequate planning/brainstorming/outlining time before November First.

First, Tools:

– Pens in different colors, that are fun to write with:  It’s very important that these pens are fun to write with.  Even if you do all of your actual novel-writing on your computer, Brainstorming takes time and generous amounts of hand-writing.  Hence, pens.  Different colors make thoughts easier to organize, and they have to be fun to write with, or you won’t want to write with them.

– Notebooks you’re not afraid to write in: I always have a notebook (or two or three) on hand.  At all times.  In my car, by the computer, on the kitchen sink… I get a lot of notebooks and journals as presents, and I have to say that the cheap, clearance or dollar-bin ones are my favorite.  Why?  Because I don’t mind writing in them, tearing out the pages, and using them to bits.  When a journal or a notebook is leather-bound or too cute to use, I’m hesitant to use them.  I want to keep them looking perfect, rather than use them up.

– Legal Pads: These come in different colors, too, for color coordinating.  I use these for long lists, for organizing scenes, and for drawing plot charts.  They have more space than your average notebook.

– Index Cards: Essential to me when it comes to brainstorming scenes, and then working out the order they’ll go in in the work.  (More on ordering scenes later)

– Painter’s Tape: I normally organize my Index Cards by laying them all out on the floor, and moving them around.  But I can see the merits of putting them up on the wall or on a bulletin board (less bending down and/or possible back strain).

– Post-it notes: Just good to have.  Write “you should be writing!” on several of these, and put them up all over your house.

Second, the Process:  (Here’s where the 10 Easy(?) Steps part comes in)

1.) Figure out what inspires you, and surround yourself with it.

For some people this involves music, literature, art, or film.  For me, it’s all about tea and Judge Judy.  Though, I have been known to find a song and play it on loop for literally hours on end.  (Tori Amos’ version of Strange Little Girl.)  If you work best with classical music in the background, that’s what you should have playing.  If you need to sit at the park in the bright sunshine, do this.  Whatever it takes to get those creative juices flowing.  Me, I’m a thief.  I steal ideas from other works.  Rapunzel’s hair, or Super Mario’s accent, or a line from a Hymn at church, whatever it is, I write it down and tape it up on the wall by my computer.

2.) Write down the first thing that comes to mind.

No judgements here, no filters, no excuses.  Whatever jumps into your head, write it down.  Maybe it’ll work with your current project, or maybe it won’t.  But you can’t use it if you don’t write it down.  Start filling up notebooks, index cards, legal pads, google docs and scratch paper with your ideas.  Brainstorm character profiles–or simply characteristics, settings, conflicts, jokes, romantic notions, action sequences, professions, whatever.  

3.) Color Code.

I love using different colored gel pens to write different things.  Once I’ve gotten a ton of notes, I start sorting through it by re-writing the ideas onto index cards.  For instance, anything to do with characters will be written in blue.  Character traits, profiles, appearances, professions, etc., will be written in blue ink on index cards.  Then I put humor in orange.  Any jokes or funny situations that I’ve come up with all go in orange on index cards.  Settings are green.  Romance is purple.  Action is red.  You get the idea.

4.) Come up with Challenges for your characters to overcome.

This is the part where the story starts to take shape.  Looking at the cast of characters you’ve created, the settings and funny moments, start putting together ideas of where, when, what and why.  Conflict is the most important part of step number four.  You can’t have a story without conflict.  What obstacles will come between your blue character and her purple love interest?  What sticky situation will the blue character get into that will cause him to say the orange joke?  How will the green setting cause problems for your blue characters and their red actions?

5.) Give it a vague order.

The greatest thing about being a writer is that you can write anything.  The most frustrating thing about being a writer is that you can write anything.  You have to make the tough decisions, and start limiting yourself.  Though, hopefully for every door you close, two windows will open.  They always do for me.  This part of the process is where you start making those difficult decisions, and deciding which pieces of the story go where.  Remember, nothing here is law, and you can always add more scenes or characters later.  Likewise, if something isn’t working out, you can always cut things out later, too.

6.) Put everything away for at least 24 hours.

Remember when I said you needed time?  You do.  Every writer needs to let those ideas bubble inside her or his head for a while, to solidify.  Put everything you have into a folder, close it, set it on your desk, and go play for a while.  Go to work, go to sleep, go have dinner, go see a movie.  Do a bunch of things to get your mind off of it.  I let things sit and stew for a week or more sometimes.  

7.) Return and refresh.

Hopefully you’ve had a chance to eat, sleep, shower and get a little “real life” time in.  (This is where I take my children to the park, go on a date with my husband, or sew costumes with my mother.)  Once time has passed, come back to the folder, blow the dust off of it, and review all of your notes.  Familiarize yourself with your characters, settings and plot once more.  Take some time to get to know your action, comedy and romance.  Make changes where you feel it’s necessary.

8.) Write out the 5 W’s of each scene.

You should know as a writer what is happening in each scene.  If you plan it all out ahead of time, all you’ll have to do is fill in the blanks when you sit down to write your Zero Draft.  Turn each of your Index Cards over, and write out the Who, What, Where, When and Why of each scene.  This should take a big chunk of time, but will be worth it in the long run.  You’ll know exactly what’s happening, what comes next, and where you’ve been.

9.) Transcribe all of your notes and scenes to the computer.

This step is optional, but I find that it helps me to run through everything again, to put it all in the proper order, and to have one document file with my whole story outline.  Then when I go add the meat and guts to the bare bones, I don’t lose track of anything.

10.) Sit down and start writing.

The most important step is to actually do the butt-in-chair time.  Start at the beginning, and put flesh on your outline.  Fill in the character descriptions, add action, dialogue, character development and relationships.  This is the most important, but possibly also the most fun.  Often times it feels like you’re getting to know good friends, or getting to hate good enemies.

Do not–I repeat, do not–go back and re-read anything that you’ve written.  You’ve got the outline there to help you remember where you are and where you’re going.  If you go back and re-read what you’ve written, you’re likely to find mistakes and start fixing them.  That’s not what this step is for.  This step is for writing and writing only.

Do not–I repeat, do not–delete anything.  If you don’t like it, simply hit enter a couple of times and start again.  You can always cut it out later, but if you delete it you can never go back and fix what you didn’t like.

DO–I repeat, DO–save your work.  Often.  Use DropBox, Google Docs, physically print pages, External Hard Drive, Email to yourself, whatever.  Keep copies of your work, save everything.  Save Save Save!

This is how I completed NaNoWriMo 2011, 2012 and 2013.  With a few minor alterations here and there, but for the most part this is my process.  I’m starting on Step 1 right now for my NaNoWriMo 2014 project.  I’m thinking more Fantasy this year.  Something fun.

Please leave me a comment below and let me know what parts of my list you like or dislike. Do you use a similar process in your own writing?  How are you planning for NaNoWriMo? I would love to be NaNoWriMo Writing Buddies this November, too!