Sunday Writing: Quick, What’s Your NaNo Story About?

Guys, I’m super excited about NaNo this year. My book Sole Possession started out as a NaNo project! I had to throw big chunks of my first draft away, though, because I didn’t plan enough up front. In this writing challenge and the ones in the next two weeks, I am going to try to save us all from that fate!

OK, so when someone (an editor, an agent, your grandma, whoever) asks you what your NaNoWriMo novel is about, it’s good to have a short, clear answer rather than a vague and rambly one. It’s especially good to have a short answer to that question before you start writing, or at least soon after. If you can distill your story idea into a short description, this can keep you focused as you write. And if you can’t boil it down, this may be a clue that you don’t quite have a story yet.

So your writing challenge for this week is to describe your story in just a sentence or two.

You will probably want to say who it’s about, what they are doing or trying to do, when and where it takes place if you think that’s important, and what the conflict is. Fair warning: if you have a story idea with little or no conflict, it may be very hard for you or a reader to stick with it for 50,000 words or more.

These short descriptions of movies I’ve taken from the imdb site are decent examples of how to distill a plot. I’ve corrected some atrocious punctuation.


In small-town Iowa, an adopted girl discovers her talent for butter carving and finds herself pitted against an ambitious local woman in their town’s annual contest.


A man awakens from a coma to discover that someone has taken on his identity and that no one, not even his wife, believes him. With the help of a young woman, he sets out to prove who he is.

The Artist

A silent movie star meets a young dancer, but the arrival of talking pictures sends their careers in opposite directions.

It’s great if you can get the mood of your story across in this short description. As a bad example, here’s a description of Hope Springs, a romantic comedy that starred Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones:

After thirty years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.

Nothing in that description suggests it’s going to be a funny movie, or even a fun one. It could just as easily be some Lars Von Trier mess. Just replacing “intense” with “hilarious” would have fixed this.

OK, but what if your story isn’t a straightforward narrative? What if it’s experimental, meditative, impressionistic? Fantastic! Just see if you can describe your project. For instance, here’s the description for the movie based on the novel Cloud Atlas. (By the way, is that a good book? Does anyone know?)

CLOUD ATLAS is an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

If you want to do NaNo this year and have no clue what you’re going to write about, even better. Brainstorm and try writing several of these, and then see which one works the best for you. You might want to ask yourself: what kinds of stories do I always enjoy?

Share your assignment with the class in the comments if you’re so inclined, and ask for feedback if you want it. Don’t give constructive criticism unless it’s requested, though. I’ll be doing one of these, too!

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

40 replies on “Sunday Writing: Quick, What’s Your NaNo Story About?”

Im thinking something like this:
“A young Moroccan law student from Casablanca is trying to live her life as a free woman and get her overbearing mother and dysfunctional family off her back. ”
Think Arrested Development meets a (hopefully) nicely written chick lit.

I got REALLY into NaNOWriMO in 2010 but last year didn’t have any time due to tons of work obligations. And this year I’m in my first semester of grad school, so THAT ain’t happening!

But I’m super sad that I’ll be writing research papers instead of working on a novel. Le sigh. NaNoWriMo for research paper writers, anyone? ;)

Assistant Alliance Advocate Habiba Clearey has always been able to manage her thankless job—prosecuting criminals on a moon-wide city whose entire economy is based upon crime. However, when she and her adversary, Public Advocate Jonah Song, inadvertently discover evidence that there’s nefarious business afoot that may affect the isolationist [planetname] Gohraht orbits, her job becomes rapidly more difficult. Though they can barely agree on what to eat for lunch, Clearey and Song must work together to prevent an interplanetary conflict that could change their entire world as they know it.

This is about as “short” as I can make it, haha.

Popping my head back in for November. Reading all of your ideas and experiences is very motivating!

First, I reviewed Cloud Atlas here at P-Mag, actually. Short version: it’s awesome. I hope the movie isn’t awful.

My NaNo book… no title yet. It’s just “Manchester story” as a place holder for now because it’s…. set in Manchester. CREATIVE.

I’m still working on the details, so I can’t give a snappy elevator style pitch yet, but two men from different-yet-both-complicated backgrounds must settle the mess their murdered club promoter boss has left them in, shortly after they’ve started dating.

That’s about all I can own up to so far because saying anything else out loud at this point just about guarantees that a particular detail stated WON’T happen.

“In the future, when war destroys Earth, a spaceship of refugees escapes to colonize a new planet, but they can’t escape their own natures. Centuries later, a weaver named Lydia must follow her destiny as the very fabric of her world threatens to rip apart once more.”

See what I did there? I just can’t resist a terrible pun.

OK, here’s my first try.


A brooding psychic warrior from an ancient, secret society tries to help an impetuous woman in Tucson get rid of her accidentally acquired familiar, who takes different animal forms to attack anyone who makes her angry.

Not perfect I’m sure, but it was really helpful because it reminded me of the opportunities I have to get some humor and spark from their contrasting personalities.

I don’t mention, “and they’re going to bone and fall in love.” Maybe I should make that clear, since it’s a romance. Ha.

Noo, don’t feel like a failure as a writer!

At the risk of being annoying by giving advice: one thing you could try is writing down 5 or so of your favorite novels, and 5 of your favorite TV shows or movies. Then see if any of them share common threads…outer space, forgiveness, a misfit hero, whatever. That might help you think about what kinds of stories you really like.

A friend of mine just finished a short film project. He didn’t start it with any ideas, so he just brainstormed ideas about people with a goal in mind.

But maybe none of that helps. In any case, you have plenty of time before November!

That’s actually great advice! I’m a big fan of transgressive fiction and without even putting much thought into it, I know the common thread among my favorite books is that they’re full of some pretty deviant characters and twisted events. (Except for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ which is my all-time favorite but is nowhere near transgressive.)


I almost never start with an idea for a plot. I typically have a character or a setting and then build from there. My last short story began with just “Female engineer aboard a smuggling ship in steampunk setting.” I probably went through two dozen plot ideas until I found one that didn’t suck, and even then I had to tinker with it quite a bit before I liked it well enough to show it to other people. But on the whole I still think characters are easy and plots are hard, so you are totally not alone, and it doesn’t make you a bad writer.

Maybe figuring out some character details that could lead to a plot point might help? I tend to favor slightly actiony stories so I like to know what my characters value highly enough to get into a fist fight over, or if they have some ideals they will become completely irrational about, and that sort of thing. Once I have a few of those, I can get mean and take away something they love, or have someone challenge their most cherished belief. It might not get a whole plot on the move, but at least it gets the character doing something. For instance I have a character who places high value on personal stability and I’ve put him in the middle of a very chaotic situation. It gives him something he has to work for.

You don’t need a whole worked-out idea. Start with at least one character in one place and go from there. Last year I think I had two scenes and a vague idea in my head and ended up with 52+k words of story. That’s the good thing about NaNo – you just don’t have the time to be self-critical, you just have to write.

I really liked the book Cloud Atlas, but think I’m going to stay far away from the film.

Erm, next story in my collection will be ..I think ..:

Erika has a bit of a problem. It’s not her wheelchair, it’s not her crush on the coffee-girl nor her wedding-craving best friend. No, she hears the first thing on people’s mind. But what to do when that first thing is really dangerous?

Darn, one sentence too much. I hate the ultra-short.

I’ve been toying with the idea of using NaNo to finish a long fanfic I’ve got the beginnings of, but I think I may go with an original idea I have. It goes something like this:

A young woman, who suddenly finds herself bereft of family and friends is offered an opportunity to change herself and the world. Of course, new beginning comes at a price.

For me, the hardest thing about NaNo is putting away my fanfic for a month.  I tried last year and couldn’t do it.  Then again, I write Bones fic and it came back from the longest, hiatus. ever last November so that may have something to do with it.

This year, I’m resolved. Resolved, I tell you!

Ah, elevator pitch I know thee well. We were constantly drilled on these back in art school when we started a new project. I’m still tinkering on mine for this year. I have had the idea for this story for a long time, or as I tend to tell my friends, I have been not writing this novel for years. I’m not really sure who the main character is yet either, which complicates maters. I’m leaning one way at the moment, but I might change that. Right now it’s something like:

A robotic bodyguard, supposedly unable to make important decisions, realizes that one choice he made years ago could shift the balance of power in a decades old war. Now, he finds himself imbedded in a group of uneasy allies from both sides of the conflict with only one goal, ending the war. He struggles as his loyalties are tested again and again.

Another elevator thought problem that was given to me by a Cartoon Network exec at a film festival was this, “If your characters were stuck in an elevator, could you write 23 minutes of material about them?” It’s meant to help gauge how character driven your plot is. It’s particularly important to TV writing because as he put it, they can only go to grandma’s house so many times. I like it simply because I find the conflicts that characters bring on themselves to be more interesting than conflicts forced on the characters.

Cloud Atlas is a very good book, and very worth reading. Whether the Wachowskis are doing to do it justice, I don’t know.

I struggle with this as well, but in a writing class I did one of the exercises was to write a blurb for your novel, which I found really difficult, but helpful. My one-sentence pitch/blurb would probably be something like:

A girl who knows everything is haunted by the one night she can’t remember- a boy has no idea how important his memories could be. Apart, they are each other’s worst enemy: but together, can they really take on the might of a city, and escape their sentence of death?

That doesn’t really give a flavour of the setting, though. Hmm.

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