6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List

6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List

When participating in National Novel Writing Month, what is the only thing more important than getting those 50,000 words written in November? How about making sure you’ve checked all the necessary to-dos off your NaNo pre-writing list in October? Today, I’m going to show you how to conquer six pre-writing tasks that can help you have an fun, easy, and successful novel-writing adventure–whether you’re writing that novel during NaNoWriMo or any other time of the year.

Why Should You Create a Pre-Writing List for NaNo?

What are the two primary goals of NaNo?

1. Writing 50k words in 30 days.

2. Having those 50k words be decent enough that they don’t require twice that much time to edit after NaNo has ended.

That’s where pre-writing–aka outlining your novel–becomes a crucial player in your game plan. Creating a pre-writing list for your book will help you plan your story, identify and fix its potential problems, and create a smooth drafting process in which you can focus on the flow of your delicious words rather than the knots in your plot.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. WeilandOutlining is my secret weapon. It allows me to harness the full power of both my wild creative side and my logical structured side. For the last several years, I’ve been thrilled to hear from probably hundreds of writers who have used my books Outlining Your Novel and the Outlining Your Novel Workbook to prepare for–and win!–NaNoWriMo.

You can also use my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software for even more guided inspiration.

Even though I’m not a NaNo-er myself, this year I decided to put together a special outlining post for all of you who are participating in this great event next month. (And, of course, everything I’m sharing here is just as applicable if you’re writing a story outside the confines of NaNoWriMo.) By the time you’ve finished this post, you’ll be able to check off the six most important preparation steps for not just writing a book but writing an amazing book–and having a great time doing it too!

Pre-Writing Task #1: Write Your Premise Sentence

Start your outline by making sure you have a complete premise. (Not sure of the difference between a premise and concept? See this post.) Start by asking the following questions:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What is the situation in which he finds himself in the beginning of the book?
  • What is his objective?
  • Who is the opponent?
  • What will be the disaster that ends his Normal World and forces him into the “adventure world” of the Second Act?
  • What’s the conflict?

Then use all of those answers to create a premise sentence, following a pattern something like this one from Star Wars: A New Hope:

Restless farm boy (situation) Luke Skywalker (protagonist) wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father (objective). But when his aunt and uncle are murdered (disaster) after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop (conflict) the evil Empire (opponent) and its apocalyptic Death Star.

Pre-Writing Task #2: Identify Potential Plot Holes

Writers sometimes get hung up on the idea that outlines are nothing but a dry list of things that have to happen in the story. If you’re starting with that list, then you’re missing out on the most powerful and important part of the pre-writing process: brainstorming.

In Outlining Your Novel, I refer to this part of the process as “General Sketches.” This is where you’re actively figuring out your story and identifying the potential holes.

  • Start by writing down everything you already know about your story.
  • Take a highlighter and mark everything that raises a question or requires more fleshing out.
  • Turn those highlights into questions (instead of “the princess is stuck in the high tower,” ask “how can I get the princess out of the high tower?”).
  • Answer them.
  • Then go back and highlight any new questions that arise.

Storming Outline - 8-12

Then it’s time to ask a few more explicit questions:

  • The “What If” Question

Write at least a full page of “what if” questionsWhat if this happened or that happened? What if the protagonist was kidnapped by aliens? What if she kidnapped an alien? What if her boss died mysteriously and she was blamed for the murder? What if the boss pretended to die and blamed her on purpose–and told her about it?

  • The “What Is Expected” Question

Write a list of everything readers will expect from a story of this type. They’ll except the romantic leads to fall in love. They’ll expect the bad guy to die. They’ll expect the alien to escape. They’ll expect the boss to be punished.

  • The “What’s Unexpected” Question

Then turn those previous questions on their heads. Start looking for unique possibilities and plot twists.

By the time you’ve finished exploring your story’s potential and answering all the questions you’ve raised, you’ll have an excellent idea of your story’s shape and direction. You’re no longer headed into November blind!

Pre-Writing Task #3: Do Your Homework on Your Characters (in 3 Parts)

Part 1: Character Backstory

Plot and character work hand in hand. You can’t fully understand where your plot needs to go until you understand the characters who will be driving it. Start your exploration of character by investigating your protagonist’s backstory.

Remember, however, that a character’s backstory only matters insofar as it affects the main conflict.

Ask the following questions:

  • What events in the character’s past caused the Inciting Event?
  • What shaped the character to make him respond to the Inciting Event as he does?
  • What unresolved issues from his past can further complicate the spiral of events that result from the Inciting Event?

Part 2: Character Interview

Crafting Unforgettable CharactersNow that you know a little bit about how your character’s past will intersect meaningfully with the present of your story, you’re ready to explore this person in depth. For this, I recommend a “character interview,” which is a list of specific questions, designed to help you understand your character inside out.

You can grab list of the 100+ questions I use in my free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters.

Part 3: Character Arc

Now you’re finally ready to unite your plot and your characters. Your protagonist’s character arc is where plot, character, and theme all intersect to create a seamless whole. You’ll want to start by figuring out which type of arc your character will be following.

  • A positive change arc (in which the character evolves into a better or more whole person over the course of the story).
  • A flat arc (in which the character already possesses the story’s fundamental truth; he begins and ends in basically the same place, but uses that truth to change the characters and world around him).
  • A negative change arc (in which the character devolves into a worse or less healthy person over the course of the story). The negative change arc comes in three varieties:
    • A disillusionment arc (in which the character’s eyes are opened to a tragic truth).
    • A fall arc (in which the character begins in a bad place, only to devolve into an even worse place by the end of the story).
    • A corruption arc (in which the character begins in a healthy place, only to be corrupted by a lie and end in a much worse place).

The important questions to ask in discovering your character’s arc (and your story’s theme) always begin with:

You can learn how to structure your character’s arc, beat by beat, in my complete character arc series.

NaNoWriMo Pre-Writing Checklist

Pre-Writing Task #4: Create a Settings Folder

Don’t overlook your story’s setting. Setting should never be an arbitrary choice, since it has the power to affect your story’s tone, action, theme, continuity, and cohesion. Identifying and researching as many of your settings as possible before you start writing your book will streamline your drafting process and eliminate the distractions of Internet browsing.

Before November arrives, take the opportunity to create a settings dossier for your book.

  • List your settings.
  • Collect photos.
  • Bookmark websites for research, so you don’t have to waste time surfing.

Dreamlander Novel Settings

If you will be writing fantasy or science fiction, which require you to create worlds instead of researching them, do as much of your world-building now as possible. I offer world-building questions here. Also, be sure to check out Patricia C. Wrede’s amazingly comprehensive Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions.

Pre-Writing Task #5: Find Your Story’s Plot Points

Structuring Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel Workbook by K.M. WeilandBy this point, you will have a solid understanding of your story’s plot, your protagonist’s arc, and your story’s theme. Now, it’s time to plan your story’s structure by identifying and creating its major plot points. Click through on the links below to read more about each of these important structural moments.

The First Act

Star Wars: A New Hope opens with Darth Vader’s capturing Rebellion leader Princess Leia’s starship, in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. Before being captured, Leia installs the plans in the droid R2-D2, and Artoo and his counterpart C-3P0 escape to the desert planet Tatooine.

The protagonist Luke Skywalker encounters the conflict for the first time when his moisture farmer uncle purchases Artoo and Threepio, and Luke accidentally sees Leia’s message pleading, “Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” He initially rejects the Call to Adventure by insisting he “can’t get involved.”

The First Act ends with a definitive event that forces the character to react: Luke’s aunt and uncle are murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers, which leads him to his decision to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan.

The Second Act

Luke feels the “pinch” of the antagonistic force’s power when the Stormtroopers chase the Millennium Falcon out of Mos Eisley.

Another definitive event occurs when the Death Star captures the Millennium Falcon, forcing Luke out of his first-half period of reactions and into action in the second half.

The plot turns again when Luke, Han, and Chewie learn of Princess Leia’s presence on board the Death Star and decide to rescue her–only to end up with their lives threatened and the stakes raised when they’re trapped in a trash compactor.

The Third Act

As he approaches the final quarter of the story, Luke’s actions seem to lead him to a place of defeat when Obi-Wan dies and the Empire places a tracking beacon aboard the escaping Falcon.

The conflict between protagonist and antagonistic force reaches a deciding moment as Luke joins the Rebel Alliance’s X-Wing pilots and blows up the Death Star.

The loose ends are tied up, the characters react to the events of the Climax, and Princess Leia passes out the medals.

Don’t forget you can find structural examples of all the major structural moments in dozens of popular books and movies in the Story Structure Database (which is also linked in the top menu–or pull-out menu on the left, if you’re on a mobile device).

Structuring Your Novel Visual Chart

Pre-Writing Task #6: Outline Your Scenes

Now you’re ready to figure out your story scene by scene. Focus on proper scene structure to make certain you’re creating a watertight progression from scene to scene. Scenes can be broken down into two halves, which can be broken down into three more pieces each:

  • Scene (Action):
    • Goal: Luke goes looking for Artoo, who is on a mission to give Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan.
    • Conflict: Luke is attacked by the savage Sand People.
    • Outcome (Disaster): Luke is knocked out and kidnapped by the Sand People–but is rescued by Obi-Wan, who arrives and scares off the Sand People.
  • Sequel (Reaction):
    • Reaction: Luke wakes up and is stunned to recognize “Ben” Kenobi as his rescuer.
    • Dilemma: They are still in danger, since the Sand People are sure to return “in larger numbers.”
    • DecisionThey’ll grab the droids and head over to Obi-Wan’s house.

This cycle of Scene/Sequel then keeps repeating all the way through the book.

The Overall Scene Structure by Better Novel Project

Once you’ve answered these vital questions about your book and checked all these tasks off your NaNo pre-writing list, you’ll be ready to crank out 50,000 words of solid, achievable story. Don’t head into November without a battle plan. Arm yourself with knowledge about your story and where it needs to go. Do that, and you’re already more than halfway to NaNoWriMo victory!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What else is on your NaNo pre-writing list this year? If you’re not participating in NaNo, what will you do (or not do) to prepare for your next book? Tell me in the comments!

6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is fantastic! I already have both your Outlining and Structuring books, but seeing it in steps like this definitely helps. I also really appreciate that you are trying to help people write 50,000 words of SOLID STORY. The only reason I’m doing NaNo is to push myself from the over a year long period of planning into actually writing – to get started. But at a NaNoWriMo plot workshop I went to yesterday everyone seemed to be under the impression that the only goal was to get 50,000 words down. Many kept saying things like “a lot of what you write will be crap, but you’ve just got to keep writing” or “expect that you are going to have to change a LOT” or that it is recommended you don’t try and write something you are too invested in. Now I understand that some of what I write will be crap and I probably will have to change things, possibly even a lot. But I don’t want to put all this time and effort into something that I’m expecting is going to suck just for the sake of saying I wrote 50,000 words. So I totally agree, for me at least, planning is going to be absolutely essential!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s really important to know your goals going into NaNo. I know people who have used it with the primary incentive of breaking through their writer’s block–and, if that’s the case, getting words–any words–on paper really is the most important thing. But if you’re hoping to use it as a time to write a dedicated amount in a story you intend to publish one day, then, yes, this kind of prep is key!

  2. My initial goal is to beat my writer’s block and get words on paper, but I honestly don’t think I can pants it al the way through November, so this post is a tremendous help in preparing! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even if you’re not wanting to outline entirely, a partial outline will take a lot of the stress of those beginning weeks of NaNo. Good luck with your writer’s block!

  3. This is absolutely amazing. So comprehensive! Bookmarking not only for NaNoWriMo, but to use for ever and ever and ever 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Perfect. The idea is definitely to use NaNo to equip you for writing every other month of the year as well!

  4. Do the same steps apply when you are doing novellas rather than novels. I would estimate that none of the novelllas I’m hoping to write during NaNo will be more than 30,000 words.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Although obviously, the pacing will be shortened between the structural elements.

  5. HorseFeathers says:

    This is perfect!!!! Thank you so much for doing this segment in preperation for NANO 🙂 Last year I decided to be a “pantster” (no outline) and ended up regretting it. It started out fine the first week, but then the second week blues hit and by the third week I was like “I have no idea where I’m going”. I did end up winning, and I ended up with some really good stuff I could use in my final draft of the story, but I also ended up with a lot of junk and a story that lacked structure and direction. This time around, I’m using October to plan my NANO novel and I’m using your Outline Your Novel book and workbook to get a solid outline figured out. And now am totally going to use the information in this post as well. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is why I *love* outlining: it means that 90% of what you write in the first draft will be keepers, rather than just hit and miss. Ninety percent on the keepers list makes me a happy writer. 🙂

  6. Kelly Goshorn says:

    Great post! I’ve been working on my characters and backstory. This is a great concise list to help me get focused for NaNoWriMo or any writing project! Thanks so much!

  7. Kinza Sheikh says:

    Definitely going to stay in my bookmark this whole month. I was getting bored of waiting for November and was thinking to start writing anyway, (will get 50k words out next month without actually making that the starting point) but this post made me realize there is still a lot to do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s easy to get impatient with the *not*-writing part of writing. But staying the course on these early tasks makes the actual writing so much less stressful and more fun.

  8. I love you! God has given you such a wonderful gift of being able to present clear, detailed information in such a fun way! Out of all the writer’s helps I have read, I have to say that the stuff you put out is the most helpful to me. Thank you for doing what you do, and thank you for the quality of work you uphold! This post is my favorite one so far!

  9. I love your cut-to-the-chase posts. This one gets printed out and read at least once a day.

    My short cut to discovering the benefits of structure came not from that one time blast of 50k words I did but from Novel-in-a-Day produced by the Scrivner people. When I was handed my section to write I was given enough structure to produce what I now realize were several sceen cycles.

    At first I thought. This is a cross between fill-in-the-blank and paint-by-the-numbers. Wrong. As soon as I engaged the process I disovered my imagination found freedom in that structure.

    (((( Light Bulb Moment )))) Soooo, How much more freedom would there be if I created my on structure? Tons.

    My bottom line. Once you piddle with craft and it sinks into the gray matter I’ve found I call on it for direction regardless of my desire to use it. Once learned, it refuses to be ignored. That’s why this post will be read daily.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Truth! Structure *can* seem a little bit limiting when you’re first learning it and figuring it out. But once you’ve “got” it, it runs silently in the background and lets your foreground creativity run even more rampant.

  10. Very helpful post. One question: How many scenes/sequels make up a novel, or more specifically, each of the 8 sequences?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s going to depend entirely on the novel, its length, and, to some extent, the length of the scenes themselves. As a totally random example, my WIP features about forty complete scenes (scene and sequel).

  11. I can’t believe I didn’t have to pay to read this.

    THANK YOU.

  12. This post has me so pumped up for my first NaNo. Thank you! I’m stuck on task #1 and how it relates to character goals. Dominant themes of my novel will be race and alienation. My MC’s WANT is to not be alienated. She will respond to the alienation from society (the antagonist) in a variety of ways throughout the novel, including avoiding situations that could make her feel alienated. By the end she’ll discover that her NEED is to use her voice to speak up against the forces that make her feel alienated, as opposed to simply avoiding it. I don’t know if this objective/goal/need is strong enough or tangible enough. Should it be hashed out into a stronger, more obvious goal/need before I get started? Thank you for this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds strong to me. I like how the Want is initially manifesting in physical goals, while the Need is ultimately something interior.

  13. Douglas Newton says:

    Hi K.M.,

    Thank you for this very enlightening post. I enjoy reading your post and always make an effort to read them but if I don’t do so immediately, I save them in a folder to get back to later. I was planning to shoot you an email with a question about NanoWriMo but decided to do so in the comments.

    I’ve never taken part in NaNo and this year I was thinking about it. I’m currently working on the first draft of my debut novel, a thriller, and was on my way to finishing it by the end of 2014. By mid-year, I was over 65,000 words, with a target of 95,000 in sight. But then life happened; my beloved brother, having taken ill in February 2014, died in September. And if that wasn’t enough, my 92 year old mother fell and broke her hip on December 5, and died a week later on December 12, 2014.

    This double whammy had me down for a while and then with work and other responsibilities I had put my writing on hold. Now I’ve decided to get back on track and finish this novel once and for all. I’m currently reading your book “Outlining Your Novel” and about to purchase the workbook. (By the way, when I first started writing my novel I used index cards to outline it, but I find reading your book to be very illuminating).

    I am super excited about finishing my novel and plan to stick to a rigorous routine in order to achieve this cherished objective. I’ve heard about the great benefits of the NaNoWriMo Challenge – writing a fast first draft and what it can do for you etc. I want to continue writing beyond this current novel because I have several other ideas that would make great stories. Even though I’m considering taking the challenge this year I don’t feel like starting a new project right now, so I was thinking that I should focus my energy on one thing and just finish this novel first.

    I recently took part in the March to a Bestseller 3: A One-Day Sale on Books for Authors and I bought a dozen books, including the following;

    (1) 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of what you love.
    Rachel Aaron

    (2) Writing Habit Mastery – How to Write 2,000 Words a Day and Forever Cure Writer’s Block.
    S.J. Scott

    (3) 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter: Write Faster, Write Smarter.
    by Chris Fox

    What’s your advice? Should I still take the NanoWriMo Challenge?

    Thank you for your comments and suggestions.

    Kind Regards

    Douglas Newton
    Writer

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First of all, I’m so very sorry to hear about your brother and your mother.

      As for NaNo, it’s ultimately a very personal challenge. You don’t have to fit yourself into *its* mold. Rather, you can use it to fit your own needs. If your primary goal is to finish your current novel, then I would definitely go ahead and use the month of November and the NaNo challenge to help you achieve *that* goal. Nothing wrong with adding 50,000 words to a new manuscript, rather than creating something entirely new.

      Lots of writers also use NaNo purely for editing purposes.

  14. Wow, I need to study hard on this post before NaNo… I am so not ready without these things.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Got half of October left yet! 😉 And there’s always Camp NaNoWriMo in June if you feel you’re not yet ready for November.

  15. I’m not doing NaNo this year, but this is SO helpful!!!

  16. Thank you for all the time you put into helping writers! I am amazed at how much time you put into these 6 steps for Nano. I appreciate how you have broken it down and will be trying to work these steps out. Wishing you a great November!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ll be eating popcorn and watching football on the couch in November. Okay, and maybe doing some writing too. 😉 And definitely cheering on all of you who are engaging in NaNo!

  17. You have about 8 months to produce a short book or even a ‘workbook’ for this, just in time for next year’s Nano.

    Seriously.

    “How to Win NaNoWriMo (and actually have a real book come December)”

    This is really good info for anyone writing a novel ANY time of the year, too.

  18. Douglas Newton says:

    Thank you very much for your words of condolence, K.M.

    I always felt that NaNo was for new projects and not a work in progress. Hmmm! I will take your advice and give it a shot, it will sure help me finish the first draft of my novel my novel. Then I could use December to February to edit and polish and have it out for summer 2016. Hmmm! I like the sound of that.
    Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m not positive what the official “rules” are for NaNo. I don’t know if you can earn the NaNo “badge” for a WIP, but you can definitely get just as much good out of the challenge!

      • Douglas Newton says:

        OK Cool! No problem. Then that’s what I’ll use it for, to push myself a bit more to finish my novel.

  19. This is wonderful advice! Thank you! I also have your book, Outlining Your Novel.

  20. Hi K.M. I’ve been looking at and studying this wonderful post everyday since you wrote it. Now that NaNo has started, I ran into a question regarding the antagonist. My protagonist’s goal is to pass a previously failed history class in order to graduate high school. She is doing just fine in the class until she meets a woman who becomes like a mentor to her and challenges the protagonist to dispute the material being taught in the history class because it is very biased. The protagonist agrees with the woman, but debates challenging the teacher because it will jeopardize her chances of graduating. I initially thought the teacher (who teaches a very one-sided history) was the antagonist. But now I’m wondering if it’s the woman, since if she didn’t exist, the protagonist wouldn’t have this moral dilemma. Ahhh! Any thoughts? Can you have more than one antagonist? Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The single greatest defining factor regarding the antagonist is that this is a person (or thing) that is a direct obstacle to the protagonist’s main story goal.

      The mentor character is there to help the protagonist find the correct moral path (the Truth of the story’s theme), but that doesn’t mean the mentor’s actions will always be what the protagonist wants or that the protagonist will always enjoy them.

      You might find this post on character archetypes helpful: 8 ½ Character Archetypes You Should Be Writing.

  21. Kinza Sheikh says:

    I didn’t.
    And into the thick of NaNos, I am really hating myself.
    So instead of making NaNo a boring task and waiting to just check “finish a novel” off my to-do list. I have begun using this month for the real reason behind it, getting into the habit of real writing.
    Now I also realize the wisdom behind your saying to outline. :/
    I had thought next to nothing after my first plot point, and reaching there, I am feeling lost with this huge land of possibilities and wilderness standing right in front of me. 🙁

Trackbacks

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  5. […] Things to check off your pre-writing list before diving into a new […]

  6. […] love checklists for making sure I don’t miss anything. 6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List is sort of a checklist for checking things off of your checklist. Since I’m using […]

  7. […] K.M. Weiland continues her NaNoWriMo prep posts with six tasks you’ll love yourself for checking off your NaNo pre-writing list. […]

  8. […] still working on my NaNo pre-planning tasks (http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/6-tasks-youll-love-yourself-for-checking-off-your-nano-pr…).  Task #2 was described as “Identifying Potential Plot Holes”.  To do this, I was […]

  9. […] up for National Novel Writing Month. You’re excited, you’re prepared (you did read last week’s post on preparation, right?). Your story is so ready to be written that it’s practically exploding out of you. […]

  10. […] Source: 6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List […]

  11. […] has arrived and I’m still in the midst of my pre-planning tasks (http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/6-tasks-youll-love-yourself-for-checking-off-your-nano-pr…).  It’s a good thing I’m not planning on producing 50,000 words of new text this […]

  12. […] love checklists for making sure I don’t miss anything. 6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List is sort of a checklist for checking things off of your checklist. Since I’m using […]

  13. […] Resources: The Nano Pre-Writing Checklist […]

  14. […] I came across this checklist, it was billed as NaNoWriMo prep.  “Do these things and you’ll be ready to […]

  15. […] year, she had a helpful article called 6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List, and there are are several NaNoWriMo episodes in her Helping Writers Become Authors podcast […]

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