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NaNoWriMo #1: How to Find an Idea

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The basic idea is that participants commit to writing 1,667 words a day for the whole month of November, with the end goal of completing a short novel of 50,000 words

I’ve participated a bunch of times. I’ve only won once, but I have won, and I’d like to share some advice. This first post is inspired by Ivy’s comment on Chai’s post (hey y’all!)


How to Find an Idea

A Little Narcissism Goes a Long Way

My friends, it is time to channel your inner mediocre white man. NaNoWriMo was conceived in Silicon Valley in 1999. Imagine for a second that everything you touch turns to gold. It’s fortune and privilege, but you don’t know that. What you know is that you’ve been paid $500 just for showing up to a job interview. You said you’d take the job, but only if they put a pool table in the break room.

When you walk into a room, people sit up straighter. They give you special offers. They listen when you talk. When you make a suggestion, they get excited and they say “yes, and....”

You have to say “yes, and” to yourself. Are you sure you don’t have any ideas? Or do you just not have any ideas that you think are any good?


Your ideas are good. No, they’re great! They’ve got potential! Anybody who doesn’t think so just doesn’t understand your brilliance. Nobody has ever said no to you. You’ve got a friend in Hollywood who’s looking for a pitch. You’re going to write your next novel from a yacht. Go drink some coffee. You got this.

Lower Your Standards

There’s a reason why you’re writing this novel in a month. If you gave yourself a reasonable amount of time, you might be able to write something good, and that’s not acceptable.


Trying to actually write something good makes it a lot harder to say “yes” to your ideas.

You’ve got to be a cocky motherfucker, but you’ve also got to lower your standards. These two things seem like opposites, but they’re actually kind of the same (I didn’t say to channel an exceptional white man.)


You’re rushing through this thing because it means that you don’t have to feel bad if the final product is a piece of shit. The final product is not the point. The fact that you succeeded at something really hard is the point.

The official book for NaNoWriMo actually cautions against using your best ideas. You don’t want to use an idea that you’re going to feel the need to protect. When people use ideas they’re proud of, what happens is they quit in order to “do the novel justice” and then they quit again because writing is hard.


*sad trombone*

Brace yourself. Your writing is going to be basically the worst you can produce. Your idea should be mediocre. It should be just good enough to work with, but no so great that you feel the need to slow down and then stop.


Indulge Yourself

Are you sensing a pattern here? Yeah? Good.

Brainstorm a list of your favorite things. When you just want to read something fun, what are you looking for in a novel? What gives you a little thrill of anticipation when you read the summary on the back of a book?


You are going to pull from this list shamelessly.

Steal and Remix

There is nothing new under the sun. NaNoWriMo is not the time to wring your hands about being original. You don’t have to publish this shit. You’re not submitting it anywhere.


Jane Austin fanfic? Cool. Firefly with the VIN filed off? Neato. If you’re stuck between those two, why not both? Boom! Regency space drama!

The NaNoWriMo website also has forums where people post unused ideas. Go check it out.


Keep an Open Mind

Sometimes cool ideas come from misunderstandings. Lifehacker recently had an article about “Swedish Death Cleaning” which is kind of like mindful decluttering for the end of life. However, lots of people (myself included) got excited about the possibility of death metal with brooms and mops.


Do you ever pick up a book thinking it’s about something cool, in order to feel let down when you realize it’s not what you thought?

You just found an idea.

Do you ever overhear a stranger saying something completely out of context and it gets you wondering about their life?


You just found an idea.

Think about the little things that catch your attention and evoke emotion from you.


Right now, the lyrics I’m hearing are “I fought the war, and the war won.” That’s got story potential.

Somebody sent me a card with a picture of a haunted house. Is the house haunted because the war won?


There’s a bike tied up outside. It looks abandoned. It’s rusty and rotting. Whose bike is it, and why hasn’t it been stolen?

The other day, I was leaving the grocery store and I heard a mom say to her pouting daughter, “do you even want to be an adult?”


There’s two people sitting at a nearby table who I wouldn’t normally place together: a preppy middle aged black guy, and a young punk who might be nonbinary. They just high-fived. They look nice, and I’d write about them.

There’s a new LGBT center in a haunted house. The POV characters are a middle aged black man—the mentor—and an NB teen. They have to keep everybody alive until morning.


The man is struggling with the loss of his son, whose bike is still chained up in front of his house. He can’t bring back his son, but he can save these kids. The teen is struggling with how to become an adult when “be a man” and “be a woman” don’t speak to you.

Let me tell you, I felt silly sharing that idea. It’s not my best, but that’s OK.


What observations can you make?

Conflict, Conflict, Conflict

I’ve got one more tip: when you’re formulating your idea, make sure to infuse the idea with conflict.


Something went very wrong.

Your main character is threatened with something traumatic. It could be literal danger, emotional danger (divorce) or existential danger (loss of career.)


Somebody is working against your protagonist.

Even if your antagonist is something abstract like poverty, your antagonist needs hands and a face. There are people who are enforcing poverty.


If you have a rough idea but you’re not sure about it, try making it more dramatic. Add some conflict. How could things be worse?

It’s not too late. You have a whole week. People aren’t supposed to spend more than two weeks prepping for NaNoWriMo anyways. Some people don’t prepare at all. Good Luck!

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