NaNoWriMo starts in exactly two days and every writer on twitter is either jumping with excitement or trying not to cry with despair. It's the most exhilarating and terrifying month of the year. If you're not in the know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and is hosted by the Non-Profit Group NaNoWriMo. It's a challenge to write 50,000 words in one month, which is roughly 1667 words per day. So let's get down to it, what exactly are you going to write?
Maybe you have no idea because you just committed to NaNo this week. Maybe you plotted an entire idea, but now you're losing steam and confidence. Maybe you've always been a pantser (AKA someone who doesn't plan ahead and just writes) but now you want to try being a planner. Maybe this blog post is the first you've ever heard about NaNo and you want to give it a try. No matter who you are, I have put together a few writing prompts that should help you get some of those creative juices flowing.
Now these are not one sentence plot starts, that I intend you start a full story from, like "A man with an elephant walks into coffee shop." These are open ended prompts, meant to make you think about what you're writing and nail down a focus. If one doesn't make sense to you, or if you start trying to write it and you don't feel any heat, it won't hurt my feelings! These are meant to help you, not me. I already have a half-baked, terrifyingly unstructured idea for my novel this year.
Also, don't try to do this before November 1st if you don't have time. ALL words written in November can count towards your 50,000 word count. Paste these in a word document, fill in the answers and see if they turn into a scene. Maybe it will be your opening scene, maybe it will be in the middle of your story, maybe you'll never use it, but it helps inform your character or theme later down the road. Okay, you ready? Let's get started.
1. What is a moment in your life you regret? If you could go back in time, what would you have done differently?
This is one of my favorite prompts, because it lets you play pretend for a minute and imagine a different life for yourself. This doesn't have to be anything deep or traumatic. It can be as simple as "I wish I had agreed to go sky diving with that stranger I met at that bar in Spain," or "I wish I had agreed to trash my ex-boyfriends car, like my friend wanted me to." Write the scene that would have taken place. Who is that person, who made the decision you didn't? What would they do next? Play around with this and see where it takes you.
2. This is a story about a boy/girl/woman/man/etc. who wants _____, but underneath that they want _____, and underneath that they want _____.
This was stolen from a mentor form my MFA program, Jo Knowles, suggests to get to know your characters beyond a surface level. The idea is to start with a very basic want, and dig deeper to find out, at their core, what does your character want? For example, for my Work In Progress Fantasy novel, I'd say "This is about a girl, who wants to find her missing captain, but underneath that, it's about a girl who wants to find a home, but underneath that, it's about a girl who wants to feel like she has a place in the world." This can be a great way to get to know who your character is without spending hours on a character interview.
3. This is a story about a boy/girl/woman/man/etc. who is afraid of _____, but underneath that they fear _____, and underneath that they fear _____.
Again, stolen from the lovely Jo, and very similar to the last prompt, but tackles things from a different angle. Maybe it's hard for you to get your character to say what they want, but they're more than willing to tell you what they don't want. Here's another example from my WIP. "This is story about a girl who is afraid of being left behind, but underneath that, she's afraid of being alone, and underneath that, she's afraid of being unwanted." Try writing prompt #2 and then writing this one, without repeating yourself. It's more challenging than you think!
4. Remember the last dream you had, was there a certain line of dialogue or image that stood out to you? Build a character or scene around that.
I get most of my story ideas from weird dreams that I have. You don't have to copy the dream scene for scene or word for word. Dreams don't always progress like a traditional story and rarely make narrative sense from start to end, but you can find some great plot points hidden in the nonsense. A science fiction novel I wrote once was based on a strange dream about a man with blood that glowed in the dark, so you could see it under his skin. The actual story-line of the dream made no sense, at one point he turned into a ball of light and got flicked around like a marble. But I was able to take that image of his glowing blood and create an alien species that soon grew into a world, then a plot, and finally came back to his character.
5. Go out in public, sit down somewhere crowded and describe the people you see or write out the dialogue that you hear.
This is a tried-and-true writing technique to help you learn to work on descriptions and writing realistic dialogue, but it's also a great way to find a new character or an idea for a plot. Maybe you'll meet an adorable dog too! The best inspiration comes from people who are nothing like us. Sometimes we can only imagine a character like us, or the exact opposite of us, but this can help you break out of that habit a bit.
6. Pick out a drink on the Starbucks menu that you would never order and write the scene of someone else ordering that drink. What do they wear? Do they get a cookie with it? Do they get it to stay or to go?
This is pretty mundane activity, ordering your favorite drink from a coffee chain, but it can tell you a lot about a person. For example, when my husband orders he always gets a vanilla bean frappuccino and a rice crispy treat. This tells me he's coming to a coffee chain but he doesn't want coffee. Then why come here? He has a sweet tooth, obviously. What else could you assume about him just from that one order?
7. Pick a cliched phrase, and pull a plot that revolves around that.
This idea came from another MFA mentor, Craig Childs. He asked us to describe our story with one cliched phrase. For my fantasy novel, which I used in examples above, I said "Home is where the heart is." Then he asked us to distill that down to one word, "Home." That was the theme of our novel. It's great way to narrow down a story that already exists, but would work well in reverse. What story could you come up with that revolves around "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it?" or "Never look a gift horse in the mouth"? There's hundreds of idioms you could use.
8. Imagine what the world would be like if one important piece of history hadn't happened.
What would the world be like if America lost the Revolutionary War? Where would we be if electricity had never been invented? This is my husbands favorite prompt since he's a history buff. In fact, our NaNoWriMo is based around the idea that the Space Race didn't end, we kept trying to one up other countries and ended up terraforming Mars. Keep in mind, how much culturally would change as well. We would probably have different celebrities, a different political past. One event changing creates a ripple effect. This can be a fun prompt to play around with. Don't settle for the first event you think of. Write multiple scenarios and see where it takes you.
9. Listen to a song on repeat. Write about the singer of the song. What motivated them to write it? Who are they as a person?
This works best if you pick a song you don't know very well. The idea isn't the write the biography of your favorite musician. You want to listen to the song and try to figure out what brought the artist to that point in their life. Are they heart broken? Imagine the person who broke their heart. Are they a heavy drinker? Are they are womanizer? Keep listening to the song and write as you do so. For an extra challenge, try to weave lyrics from the song into your writing.
10. Go to the bookstore, pick up a random book and read the first page. Now, without knowing anything else about that book, write what you think happens next.
When I tell people about this idea, they always get nervous. Isn't that plagiarism? It would be if you copied the characters, plot, setting and said it was yours, but if you only have one page to go on, there's no way you could write the exact same thing as the original author. That's what makes writing great. You are the only person who could write your exact novel. Even if someone wrote something from one of these prompts and you used the exact same prompt, you would never write the same story. And if that isn't exciting and motivating, I don't know what is!
That's it for me today! I need to get back to pretending I'm going to plan my own story this year. If you want to learn more about what I'll be writing, visit my NaNoWriMo page and add me as a buddy! I'll also be posting updates about progress every Wednesday in November. Now I want to hear from you.