Picture yourself curled up on your favorite cozy sofa, a cup of tea by your side and a paperback in your hands. You’re feeling accomplished, fulfilled and grateful. When you look at the book in your hands, you see YOUR name on the cover. Yep, YOU wrote a book! You journeyed into the depths of your imagination and a story emerged. What was nonexistent became a novel. Woah, MAGIC!

I know how delightful the experience described above feels because it has happened to me. This November will mark my fifth time participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I haven’t been published, but I did get one of my novels printed as a tangible, physical book! If this is something you dream about, you can make it happen. This three part series will get you to the starting line. If you hang with me, by the end of November you’ll have finished a 50,000 word novel. All you need is an open mind and a tarot deck.

(Let me be clear: I’m not a professional author. I’m just a chick who has, with tarot as a companion, gone through the highs and lows of NaNoWriMo multiple times. I invite you to take my suggestions if they work for you, and leave them in the dust if they don’t.)

The great (and terrifying) thing about NaNoWriMo is the timeline. You’ve got one month to bust out a 50,000 word novel. Let’s get a few things out of the way right off the bat: your novel isn’t going to be perfect. But it can (and will) be rocket fuel for your creativity. Since you only have 30 days, you can’t mess around with overthinking and procrastinating. You’ve got to write, baby, write! The most important thing is to have fun and let your imagination run wild. We’ll talk more about this in Part 3, which will be all about your mindset and preparation.

Don’t you DARE tell me it’s too late for you to participate. You still have three weeks to get ready! If you follow along with me in this guide, you’ll have zero excuses not to write a novel next month. If this is something that calls to you…DO IT!

If you already have a story idea, this guide will help flesh it out. But if (like me) you have no idea what to write about, these posts will do what the title says: take you from nonexistent to novel. I’ll be going through the process with you (because right now, I have no idea what I’m going to write this year). I’ll share some of my insights with you in these posts, and I’d be tickled if you leave comments telling me about YOUR process. Let’s win NaNoWriMo together! By the way, if you’re a NaNo newb, “winning” just means finishing 50k words during November. But hey, finishing is the best kind of winning, right?

Now, let’s move into the heart of Part One!

Part One: Building the Big, Broad Picture

In this post, we’ll talk about building the big, broad picture of your novel. By the time you go through these exercises, you’ll know your genre and five w’s. You’ll get better acquainted with your characters. You’ll form a overarching understanding of your plot. I’ll then give you a few pieces of optional homework to complete before we move into Part Two next week.

Genre: where would your book be shelved?

If you’re not sure what genre you want to write, I think it’s best to start by considering what you like to read. Start a brainstorming word document (or notebook) for your novel and journal on the following: picture yourself walking into your favorite bookstore. Which section do you gravitate towards? What kind of book would pique your interest? What would you be absolutely enthralled by, so much that you couldn’t wait to get home and sink into that sucker?

If you are consistently sucked into science fiction…write science fiction. If you’re ravished by romance…write romance. If you’re, like, YOLO for young adult thrillers, write young adult thrillers. I could go on, but you get the point. Write what you like reading. Things will flow better that way.

When I did this exercise for myself, I decided I’ll be writing middle grades fiction. This is what I read the most of, after all. When I pictured the kind of book I couldn’t resist in a bookstore, I had vague visions of trains, snow, fire and polished wood…and maybe even a circus? Hopefully you got some vague (or specific!) ideas, too. We’ll see how they take shape as we move forward.

Got your genre selected? Sweet! You’ve just made the first broad stroke on the canvas.

The Five W’s and that stray H

Remember learning about these guys in school? Yeah, the five w’s (plus that sneaky bastard h) are kind of cliché, but they are infinitely helpful. When you know the who, what, when, where, why and how of your novel, you’ve got a pretty good foundation to build from.

There are two ways you can go about this exercise. If you already have a concept for your novel, you may wish to jump right back into your brainstorming document and write about your five w’s. Come up with as many details as you can for each.

If you’re still feeling your way forward blindly (or if you just want to go even deeper into your existing ideas), it’s time to call upon your tarot deck. Shuffle your cards and draw one card (or more, if you’d like) for each category: who, what, when, where, why, how.

Start by looking at the spread’s overall scope. Do you see any themes already? For example, have you drawn multiple cards from the same suit, or multiple major arcana cards? Do you see any correlations in the images? Thinking about how your cards connect as a whole can spark some potent inspiration.

Three of the five cards I drew for my own novel were cups. This gave me the understanding that emotions, connections and relationships will play a major role in my novel. I only drew one major arcana card, and it came up in the ‘who’ position. This suggests to me that my plot will be very character-driven.

Once you’ve looked at the big picture, write out as much information as you can for your w’s and h. If you get stuck, shake it off. Go for a walk, or head to a comfortable coffee shop. Put on headphones and get in the zone. Don’t filter yourself, let any and all ideas flow. You can always cut things later.

When you’ve thrown around as many ideas as possible here, consider how all of this connects to start forming a plot. What story are you seeing in your cards? You don’t need to know absolute details, but things should be starting to come together. What does the overall theme and scope of your plot look like so far? Get all these insights on paper.

When you finish this exercise, you’ll have a more usable notion of what your story looks like. Your novel is now well on it’s way to being something real!

Meeting your new best friends (your characters)

When you think about your favorite books, what makes them stand out to you? For me, it almost always comes down to the characters. Interesting, dynamic, complex characters draw us into their worlds. It may once again be pertinent for me to mention that I am not a teacher or a published author. But in my distinctly unprofessional opinion, it’s good to build your characters up before you get too wrapped up in creating your plot. If you’ve got strong characters, they will often take the lead, pulling the plot in directions you hadn’t even considered!

You should already have some ideas about your characters based on your ‘who’ from the previous exercise. Your novel might have a large numbered crew, or it might center on one crucial character. Authors can easily spend months creating their characters, but since we are trying to get ready for NaNoWriMo in three weeks, we’ve got to expedite things. I recommend deciding on 1-3 main characters to flesh out in-depth. If you have a lot of supporting characters, you probably only need a few sentences of information on them.

Start a section in your brainstorming journal for each of your main characters. Write down anything and everything you already know about this character. What are their most defining traits? What do they want? What obstacles do they face? What kind of attitude do they have? Where do they live? What makes them angry? What makes them happy? What moves them? What lurks in their subconscious?

The tarot’s court cards are often associated with people, personalities, or approaches to life. Which court card do you feel best represents this character and why? What traits does this court card have and how do they manifest in your character? You might also find it useful to compare your character to a person you know, or another fictional character. This isn’t to directly imitate, but rather to give you a basis for your character’s unique behavior.

Here’s a character creation tarot spread I originally posted last year. Between now and next week, do this spread for each of your characters. Keep detailed notes about any insights that come up.

What’s in a name? I am a huge nerd when it comes to naming my characters. Having a name (both for a character, and a title for the book) makes something feel more real. However, it’s also easy to get hung up trying to find the perfect name and dwindle away precious time that should go towards developing your character’s personality. For NaNoWriMo, I think it’s best to use the first name that comes to mind (trust that intuition, yeah?), or you can use a temporary filler name (such as MC for main character).

Once you’ve done this work on your characters, come back to how they influence the plot. One of the most enjoyable things about writing is considering what kind of bizarre situations your characters will be thrust into, and how they will respond to those circumstances. This can largely influence the details of your plot.

Bare-bones plotting

In next week’s post, we’re going to talk more in-depth about plotting and outlining. But by now, you’ve already done a lot of the initial excavation. You’ve probably gleaned insight into your plot as you considered your w’s and your characters. Before we go too much further, let’s make sure you have at least a bare-bones overview of your story’s progression.

There are countless formats that can be used to consider plot. You can base your plot around the three act structure. You can use a hero’s journey format. You can do, really, whatever you please. But any way you go, you’ll need a beginning, middle and end. Focus on that for now.

Look back on what you’ve already achieved so far. Can you already see the beginning, middle and end taking shape? If so, great! Take some notes about that. If you’re still struggling to see an actual plot among your work, it’s time for some more tarot illumination. Get out your deck and draw three cards to represent the beginning, middle, and end of your plot.

Jot down what you see in these cards. Once again, look for similar themes. Do your cards tie in with those you drew for any previous exercises? Use these three cards, combined with the ideas you already had, and do your best to describe the beginning, middle and end of your story.

Whew! Okay, you are well on your way. You’ve got your genre, you have a basic idea of the beginning, middle and end of your plot. You’ve got some strong characters and things are starting to become real!

Make sure to check back next Tuesday for Part 2! We’ll be taking a more in depth look at plot. We’ll also talk about establishing the theme of your story. Then, we’ll put together a one sentence elevator pitch to describe your novel.

In the mean time, your homework is to register for NaNoWriMo and set up your profile. If you have friends who are also adventurous enough to write a novel in 30 days, you can add them as a writing buddy and track their progress once November starts (you can add me if you like, my username is happyfish).

Until next time, remember: stories have magic. Stories are transformative. You’ve got stories within you – it’s time to explore them and let them unfold in all their wild glory!

I want to hear from you! Leave me a comment and let me know how your process is going so far. Putting this series together has been a labor of love – any feedback you have would be wonderful. I’d also be INCREDIBLY thrilled if you share this post with anyone who might find it useful.

Part two of the series is here!

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