NaNoWriMo Tips: Choosing Your Topic and Starting Your Novel

Happy November! It’s time for aspiring novelists everywhere to begin writing for NaNoWriMo1Well, maybe. We’ll talk about that more in a minute.. While you might have heard about NaNoWriMo — short for National Novel Writing Month — from others who have completed the project before, you’re new to this game. You might have an idea what you’re looking to write about and might just be looking for some guidance. It’s certainly possible that you have no clue what you want to write about. You just know that you’re writing a novel and you’re going to get it done.

I’m here to help you with that, aspiring NaNoWriMo winner. I’ve officially taken on NaNoWriMo three times (2011, 2012, and 2015) and used it as a month to generate a massive multi-departmental professional development designing spree on a couple of occasions (2013 and 2016). I’ve completed NaNoWriMo twice in my three attempts. My 2011 novel was a mainstream fiction book that focused on domestic violence committed against teens, while my 2015 novel was a dystopian sci-fi novel that explored the dangers of religion and partisan politics2This novel wasn’t foreboding at all……. Even though I’ve only been part of NaNoWriMo three times myself, I’ve helped give advice and guidance to a handful of folks who have taken on this arduous writing task over the years.

Over the course of November, I’ll be posting new blog posts on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays3There will be at least one bonus post on not these days. aimed at helping first time NaNoWriMo participants complete their goal of writing a 50,000 word story in November. These posts will generally be 750-1250 words, though today’s post will run a little longer due to this introduction. For those looking for my normal content, new posts will go up on Mondays as usual. You can find a list of the NaNoWriMo topics — as well as links to specific posts if you want to jump around — below. Links will be posted as they’re written.



There’s a dirty little secret that many NaNoWriMo writers have that first timers don’t know about. It’s that for many, NaNoWriMo is not solely this 50,000 word writing marathon. It’s a culmination of weeks (or months) of pre-writing, storyboarding, and other planning leading up to a massive writing project.

I didn’t know this the first time I took on NaNoWriMo. I was unemployed and looking for something to kill a lot of the free time I had between job interviews and applying for jobs. I had written a handful of short stories and wanted to turn one of them into a novel. I chose arguably the darkest story I had written to that point — one about a girl who had died from domestic violence, with the only memory of her being the fact that her killer left a pair of shoes at her grave each year — as my starting point for my story.

Choosing such a dark piece of subject matter for my first NaNoWriMo attempt was ill-advised for various reasons. It was not a topic I was well versed in, nor was it the story I enjoyed the most. What it was, however, was the story I felt had the most potential to make for a good novel. What led up to the events detailed in the short story? What if she had survived? What went through the mind of this woman before she died? These were all questions that I wanted to explore — and was woefully unprepared to handle tactfully or thoroughly.

With that all said, my first piece of advice would be to pick a story topic that you both want to talk about and would be really excited to tell the story of. That’s not to say you have to pick an idea to talk about. Maybe you have a really awesome character in mind and want to tell her/his/their story. Awesome. Do that. Perhaps you have this awesome setting for a high fantasy novel and would love to see how the people and creatures in that world live. Great. Go for it. If you do have a really dark topic that you want to talk about and are passionate about, take that chance too.

When I look back on my two successful NaNoWriMo attempts, I found that I started them both the same way. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to write about, a short story to go off of, and that’s it. Hell, the one year I did to pre-writing in October is the only year I didn’t finish (though that had nothing to do with the pre-writing…life just came up). The most important thing when starting your NaNoWriMo project is just that. Start writing.

I tend to frequent /r/nanowrimo as a lurker and one of the things that’s struck me the most is how many people think they need a fancy story planning program like Ulysses or Scrivner to write their first NaNoWriMo story. And sure, if you’ve been writing for years — maybe you’ve even written a novel before — but this is your first time doing NaNoWriMo, writing software could absolutely be helpful. That said, you definitely don’t need that to start. My 2011 story was completely written as WordPress posts4This is by far my favorite method. I love when people blog their NaNoWriMo stories so that I can follow long daily.. Both my 2015 story and the 2012 project5When I did end up working on it in early 2013. were both written in Microsoft Word. I’m writing my current work in progress in Google Docs. The first draft of two of the stories I wrote for my book were handwritten. Just get your story down and start working on it. You’ll be glad you did.

So then. What should you be trying to do in your first 4,000 or so words6I’m using this as a cut off as to complete 50,000 words, you’ll need to average 1,666 words a day. Considering the next post will come out on Saturday, I’m going to assume an eager writer may exceed that number slightly.? I’d recommend the following items in some order.

  • Introduce your main character(s) – If you’re going to be focusing on someone (or multiple someones throughout your story), get them involved early. To get your reader caring about your characters by the time the climax of your book hits, you need time to build that relationship.
  • Give some context to the story’s setting – This is particularly critical in high fantasy, sci-fi, and dystopian literature. But even if you’re just telling a love story in a small town, the people and places your main characters will interact with help to define who they are.
  • Start planting the seeds for your story’s main conflict – To do this, I’d recommend setting the stage for what is normal for your main characters. A good story usually comes out of change from the normalcy a main character lives in. If you can define what a normal day in the life of your main characters is like, it will help make the events they have to overcome more impactful down the line.

Finally, if I haven’t reiterated this point enough yet, don’t be afraid to write. You will make mistakes during NaNoWriMo. You’re not going to be happy with something you write. You may have inconsistencies in your story or you might even change how you feel about the story as you’re writing it. These are all okay — and we’ll address those items in time throughout the months. But if you don’t start writing, your story can’t become a reality and you cannot improve as a writer. NaNoWriMo is a long process. Every journey starts with a single step.


Like my NaNoWriMo tips series? Have questions for me about the topics posted daily? Do you just want to talk about your story and have nowhere else to do so? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

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NaNoWriMo Tips: Choosing Your Topic and Starting Your Novel

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6 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Tips: Choosing Your Topic and Starting Your Novel

  1. These are really great tips and got me excited about starting out. However, now I feel stuck on deciding my plot/conflict and I’m just not sure where to go. Do I just keep writing without a plot? Do I just pick a plot I’m not satisfied with and see it through?

    1. I feel like it depends on the ideas you might have at this stage. For example, if you’re debating between a few different plot or conflict ideas, but there’s one of those ideas that’s really sticking out to you for whatever reason, definitely go that route. It’s a sign that you have some level of passion about that idea and are more likely to stick with it. That said, if you don’t have a solid thought as to what you’re looking to do for sure, take a few of your ideas and try to write a couple of paragraphs explaining where you think those plots/conflicts will go. If nothing else, doing that may help you to realize which idea you can develop best (or even which idea you like the best).

      1. My problem is (and I posted this on r/nanowrimo too lol) that I keep circling back to a certain plot. But it’s kind of similar to my own life story and for that reason it feels like a creative cop-out. One of the things I wanted to do with this month is push myself to be more creative and centering a plot around my own experiences/fears/thoughts feels lazy and cheap in a way. I know I could probably write the most for that plot line because of my experiences, but again, it feels like cheating.

        1. I don’t think writing from your own experience is necessarily cheating. Numerous authors put their life, their experiences, and their opinions into works of fiction they write. This happens both intentionally and unintentionally. With that said, it depends how comfortable you are with writing about specific aspects of your life and whether or not you feel you can adapt them creatively to a story. Writing something that’s based on a true story or true experiences is very different than writing something that is intended to be a true story (if that makes sense). I say that both from a writing it standpoint, as well as a legal one.

          If you’re looking to write something that has similarities to your own life story, one thing I’d caution you about is letting yourself get too caught up in how accurate the story you’re writing is to your own experience. If you want authenticity, that’s great. But at the same time, if your life story is intended to serve as inspiration and nothing more, don’t be afraid to deviate from your own life story where it makes sense. I say this particularly if that change helps you to tell the fictional work you’re creating better.

  2. This is such great advice! It’s so easy to get overwhelmed the first time around. I spent god knows how many hours researching which writing software to use, what music to listen to, what time of day to write, and countless other things that proved to be irrelevant. You hit the nail on the head with, “don’t be afraid to write.” I think that ultimately, all the research and planning is simply fear. Show up, write terribly, have fun with it, and revise it later if you feel so inclined. It’s all about the process.

    1. I’ve yet to find writing software that I like to write with aside from WordPress and normal word processing software. I’m sure there’s tons I’m missing out on, however there just isn’t one I’ve gotten comfortable with.

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