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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


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

  2. 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!

  3. 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. 🙁


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

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  6. […] has arrived and I’m still in the midst of my pre-planning tasks (https://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 […]

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

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

  10. […] 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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  12. […] LOVE this method from KM Weiland. I’m sure she took it from somewhere else. Lol. The Premise Sentence is probably as old as […]

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