Retro computing with a touch of modern and the home for all things, retroCombs (aka Steven Combs).

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22 October 2017

HOWTO: Prepare for NaNoWriMo 2017

by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.

During February 2017, I announced that I will write my first work of fiction. This became official in a blog post on this site and on Facebook to my friends and family. This announcement was designed to keep me motivated. And it did! Several friends have asked about my progress and the last thing I want to say is, “Oh, I gave up on that project.” I am all in on this goal. I’ve spend the last eight months preparing for my novel writing journey next month (November).

I am a published technical writer; but I have found that fiction is completely different. I know my limitations and lack of experience writing fiction. Because of this, preparation required a self-designed crash course in creative writing and I only had eight months. Why eight months? Because I also made the conscious decision to begin my first draft during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2017. NaNoWriMo begins on November first of each year. Yikes! That’s only a few days away. Here’s what I did to prepare.


If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, visit their site to learn more. If you are a budding author who keeps putting off writing, NaNoWriMo is the boot to your behind you need to get started. Here’s the quick synopsis from their site:

On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.

NaNoWriMo was just the accountability and gamification nudge I needed. There are opportunities to post your intent to publish, find a writing partner, join local groups, participate in a write-in, gauge progress and win “stuff.” That is, if you meet the 50,000 words in a month challenge.

I have been aware of NaNoWriMo since 2011, the year I created my account, but I have yet to participate. Given my lack of history with fiction, I wasn’t quite sure how to begin; however, a wonderful book set me on the right course.

Fast Fiction

If you are interested in participating in NaNoWriMo, let me suggest Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days by Denise Jaden. This book provides the basic tools and tips you need to get started. Here’s a quick synopsis from the Amazon Page:

Writers flock to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each November because it provides a procrastination-busting deadline. But only a fraction of the participants meet their goal. Denise Jaden was part of that fraction, writing first drafts of her two published young adult novels during NaNoWriMo. In Fast Fiction, she shows other writers how to do what she did, step-by-step, writer to writer. Her process starts with a prep period for thinking through plot, theme, characters, and setting. Then Jaden provides day-by-day coaching for the thirty-day drafting period. Finally, her revision tips help writers turn merely workable drafts into compelling and publishable novels.

As I read through Denise’s book, I kept notes in a Field Notes Reporter’s Notebook. The Reporter’s Notebook is the perfect form factor. I keep this notebook in my work bag and anytime I have an idea or question, I write it in this book.

At the end of each Fast Fiction chapter is homework. I used the same Reporter’s Notebook to capture this work. While I didn’t complete all assignments, I did complete several assignments to help me nail down my initial concept and create a very rough outline.

When NaNoWriMo begins, I will return to the book. In roughly the last third of the book, Denise provides day-by-day NaNoWriMo activities to get your synapses firing for a day of writing. More than anything else, it was Denise’s book that told me, “You can do this!”

The premise

I’ve had several ideas over the years and even started one science fiction book, without much success, several years ago. I’m an alternative history, science fiction and retro computing fan. What I landed on, after premise development, was a story that includes all three!

Thanks to Denise’s book and her assignments, what started as a “kinda interesting” premise, slowly turned into an intriguing conspiracy theory story that takes place in the 1980s. Through further development, I became more excited about my story and couldn’t wait to start writing. However, there was still much work to do. It was time to research.


Everything I read about fiction writing suggests I write about a genre and theme I know and love; however, while there are many components of my story that I am very familiar with, my historical setting means it is important that I get the facts correct. Wikipedia is my go to start point for research. I then take deeper dives using a Google Search, a trip to the library, or access the many scholarly journals I have access to as part of my day job. Accuracy is important, but in my alternative history narrative, it isn’t critical. I can bend the timeline in my own world.

I do want the timeline to be familiar to the reader and ensure they feel comfortable living in it for 50,000 or so words. My research presented new ideas and opportunities for my story. I’m not sure I could have written my particular book without spending much time conducting research. This research also ensured that my story flows up until the eventual climax and that the reader ultimately says, “I see how it all fits now. That was a cool ride!”

As I captured notes in my Reporter’s Notebook, I decided I would need an electronic timeline for my story since it was regularly changing. I would also need a tool to write, tag, sort, archive and manage my writing project. I found that the tool was already installed on my computer and I use it almost daily to capture notes, write professionally and write blog posts.

Selecting a writing tool

Scrivener is a favorite application among authors. I own a copy and several years ago I used it to begin my previously mentioned and abandoned book. I admittedly didn’t know how to use the software and found Scrivener too daunting. It had many cool features but, for me, it was lacking one significant feature by default; Markdown. This is not a Markdown post so if you are not familiar with this markup language, I recommend you check out the Wikipedia Markdown entry for a quick summary.

I use Markdown daily at work. I also use Markdown to write every blog post I create, like this one. I’ve used several Markdown apps over time, Byword, MultiMarkdown Composer, Atom and nvALT. Each has a unique feature that you may find perfect for your use. I still use Atom and Byword on occasion; however, there is one tool that I simply adore and am not sure how I could write without.

Ulysses is my writing tool

I am a heavy user of Ulysses on my MacBook and my Mac mini at work. This is not a review of Ulysses, but I encourage you to check out their web site to learn why this tool is popular among writers and Markdown fans. A word of caution; ignore the reviews you find on the iTunes and App Stores. Many users are angry that the pricing model changed to a subscription and are unjustly writing a software review based on price alone.

While I too did not like the change at first, over time I found that my use of this application was well worth the cost when I consider the boon to my productivity, the enhanced writing experience, and the fact that the cost also includes the iOS version (which I have installed on my iPad Pro).

During the planning phase of my book, I used Ulysses to capture ideas, organizing research, create timelines, draft character profiles, journal, experiment with dialog and identify gaps using smart filters and tags. I am a planner and Ulysses has made this process efficient and fun. I cannot imagine doing any of this pre-work in a tool such as Microsoft Word.

Supplement planning with Google Docs

One of the limitations (or features) of Ulysses is that it prefers an Apple ecosystem and many capabilities are not available if you don’t use iCloud to sync your work across iOS and macOS devices. Additionally, the Ulysses app is only available on macOS and iOS.

I use many different devices. I have computers with macOS, ChromeOS and Linux. I also use both iOS (iPad Pro) and Android (Google Pixel) mobile devices. Because I don’t always have an Apple device with me and I do want to always have access to my writing, I decided to supplement my use of Ulysses with Google Drive syncing and Google Applications to ensure I have anywhere access planning files.

I keep a single Markdown document for idea creation synced on Google Drive between all devices. When I use an Android device, I fire up iaWriter on Android and quickly capture ideas that will sync back to each device and to Ulysses when I add an external folder (not an iCloud folder) to the Ulysses document library.

Create visual profiles with Google Slides

Markdown and Ulysses are text based tools. I also have need to visually plan my book. I created a Google Slides presentation to visually represent characters, technology and equipment found in my novel. I will reference and add to this presentation while writing. Think of this as my virtual cork board.

Google Slides is available on any device, anywhere, so it was the logical application to create this reference material. A sample of a character page and technology page is below.

I used Fast Fiction to guide the information to include on my slides for each character (as shown above). Images of characters came from a Google search and while they are not exactly how I imagine my characters, they are very close and provide additional inspiration.

I chose my own data to include on the technology slides (like the one shown below).

Some of the technology in my book will be a variation of 1980s technology that I allow in my alternative history landscape. These slides act as a canvas for the creation of my alternative designs. They inform and inspire my writing. I have a strong need to exercise the creative and visual side of my brain. Text alone doesn’t work for me. This creative work prior to my writing is a requirement, but does add several hours, days and months to my preparation. Time will tell if it is all worth it.

An education in creative writing

I mentioned earlier the importance that I cram an education in creative writing in my skill set. To do this, I read several books. A list, with very brief comments, is below:

I choose these books based on reviews and recommendations. Once I complete my 50,000 page first draft, I will read the following (that are on my bookshelf now) to refine my first draft:

I supplement my reading and preparation listening to podcasts while driving or am out for a run. Podcasts I’ve found valuable include:

There are other podcasts out there for the creative writer, but these are the three the spoke to me. It’s fun to listen to other professional creative writers and say to myself, “Hey! I might be one of them someday.”


If you came to this post looking to develop your own preparation process, I wish you the best. It can seem almost as daunting as the writing itself and every writer appears to have their own process. As an educator though, I do believe in the value of outlines and preparation to success. It is likely a very small percentage of individuals (I’m talking about you Steven King!) who can write without planning.

It’s important to note that NaNoWriMo is not the end of the book writing process; it is the beginning. 50,000 words gets you a rough, and I mean rough, first draft. What follows is months of review, edits and rewrites. However, as I find in my NaNoWriMo research, those first 50,000 words are an important first step and everyone will approach them differently. My approach will likely not serve anyone else well; however, you may find tips that can help you design your own preparation process.

Has my self developed process prepared me for the month ahead? I believe so; however, I won’t for sure until November 30 when I review my final word count. I already feel more confident in my understanding of the process, story structure and what is required to succeed in writing 50,000 words during the month of November. I know one thing for sure; had I not done this pre-work, I would be staring at an empty computer screen with no path forward in November. How scary would that be?!?

Have any other tips for me? Are you a seasoned NaNoWriMo writer? Leave me a comment below and share your ideas and feedback. I would love to read them; however, I may not get back to you in a timely manner. I kind of have a book to write!

Are you a literary agent or publisher looking for a motivated, experienced writer with an intriguing genre story? Why not get in touch with me now and learn more. First draft will be finished by December 2017 with an anticipated final draft ready by in the second quarter of 2018.