How I Wrote a NaNo Novel That Got Published At Age 16 – Part 1: Planning

As a college-age writer, I meet lots of people on a daily basis, and somehow, my novels invariably come up in the conversation. Here’s how it normally goes:

New person: “So what’s your major?”

Me: “English with a creative writing concentration!”

New person: “Oh, that’s interesting. What will you do with that after you graduate?”

Me (slightly annoyed that everyone asks this): “Um, well I actually have already had two of my novels published. So I’m going to continue on that path as a novelist.”

New person: “Oh!”

Me (happy to share some writing excitement): “Yeah. I wrote each one during a challenge to write a novel in 30 days.”

New person: … How?!

Yep, so the takeaway here is that if you write a novel in 30 days as a teen, you will impress people. Also, people who haven’t heard of NaNo ask how we do it all the time. How is the most common question I get about writing and publishing NaNo novels.

Storyime! So I started out by hearing about a contest my local library was hosting to go along with NaNoWriMo. This contest was just for teens, and they said that at the end of the month, everyone who completed NaNo could submit their novels to the library’s panel of judges, and they would choose one to be sponsored for publication. They had a professional freelance editor, independent publishers, and a graphic designer for the cover all lined up.

I was 15 and knew I one day wanted to write novels, but at the time I had only written a handful of short stories I wasn’t particularly happy with. But with the prospect of the contest prize dangling in front of me, I set off on a crazy 30-day adventure that every year I say I won’t do again and then end up getting excited about and always doing year after year anyway.

The how for the publishing of my novels will have to wait for another day, but what I think is most relevant right now, especially for new NaNo novelists, is the month before the action.

If you’ve ever talked with fellow NaNo novelists, you likely have already been asked whether you are a planner (plot out your entire novel in advance) or a pantser (you just fly by the seat of your pants and see where you end up). I am a reluctant pantser (I always mean to plan beforehand, but it doesn’t really happen). However, there are things that I did in October for my first novel that I think would be helpful for anyone, whether they be planner or pantser.

  1. The most unusual thing I did was create a virtual image of my main character. Kind of weird, I know. But there are free sites where you can create a character (usually used for avatars), and there’s just something about seeing your main character that makes this all so much more real. If you happen to be handy at drawing, then even better (I’m not that lucky)!
  2. Be that odd person who talks to their characters. Yep, that’s what I did in October and I think it helped me more than anything. I wrote down a character “interview,” as if I were asking them questions. Not only do I learn weird facts about my characters, but I also get to hear there voice (how they talk, what kind of personality they have, how they interact with me as the interviewer, etc). Even if I have no idea what’s going to happen in my story, I know a bit more about how my character will react when I suddenly decide to throw that random crumbling boulder onto the roof of Granny’s house in chapter 11.
  3. I also created a “plot roller coaster,” like YWP NaNoWriMo’s Novelist Workbooks talk about. Pantsers, don’t freak out and flee the scene – yes, this is a bit of planning, but it is painless. The plot roller coaster is a way of looking at the structure of a novel (exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution). But don’t be overwhelmed – all I decided beforehand for my novels was the inciting incident. The moment or event in your character’s life that kicks you off into the reason you have for telling the story in the first place. In other words, it’s the thing that happens that makes your protagonist’s life change forever. So, figure out what incites your character’s roller coaster life to start going uphill, and you will be ready for NaNo!

Even though I didn’t plan my first novel a ton, I was still in a good place because of these three things I did. Readers, is there a planning technique (or lack thereof) that has served you well? I’d love to hear about it.

Published by laurenhallstrom

Lauren is the author of two CIPA EVVY award-winning novels, both written when she was a teen. She writes contemporary fantasy for tweens and young adults. She holds an undergraduate degree in English at Colorado State University and currently works in a public library. More often than not you can find her there - promoting lifelong learning, staring off into space, and dreaming up new stories.

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