This November, I’ll be participating in my 18th NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month, if you’ve never heard of it.

The quick and dirty description of NaNoWriMo? Write 50,000 words in 30 days. It is an intense amount of words for most people to write in a month. If you succeed, you win nothing except bragging rights and some coupon codes. It may not sound all that great, but it’s an active community of people with a common interest trying to achieve the same goal. In non-COVID years, there are organized events to meet other writers in your area and write in a communal setting. No matter the time of day or night, there are virtual write-ins on sites like twitch and YouTube. Whether you’re a novice writer or even an experienced writer who struggles to finish projects, NaNo is a great motivator for getting those words written while building a network of writing friends.

This won’t just be my 18th NaNo, it will also be my 37th NaNo event, as they also have set-your-own goal events every spring and summer. I’ve successfully completed 31 so far. Not only have I done this a lot, I’m good at it. So it’s strange that in all these years, I’ve never written an advice piece about NaNo.

Sprint writing is, hands down, the best and most universal advice you’ll ever get for NaNo. Designate a period of time — most people go ten to thirty minutes — and write straight through. No stops to Google, no pausing to edit. Save the typos for later. It’s done wonders for me and most other writers who can stick with it the whole time. It also works well for people who have busy lives and can’t earmark a single large chunk of time for writing.

This isn’t the hack. This is NaNoWriMo 101. My hack is about making you better prepared for these sprints, and it’s a super simple thing we all do in our daily lives:

Make Lists.

It’s more complicated than that, right?

Not really. You just need to make the right lists at the right time.

One of the biggest killers of word sprints is research holes. You’re in the middle of a sentence and realize you weren’t as knowledgeable on what you’re writing as you thought. You’re in the middle of a swordfight, and you can’t remember if it’s the longsword or the broadsword that’s two-handed. You need a medical issue to fit the symptoms you’ve given your character. You need to know how big is two kilos of coke, actually (that’s about five pounds, and it’s comparable enough to flour that if you’ve ever bought a bag of flour, you know that your character could not have snorted two kilos of it, J.R. Ward).

It could be quick, easy research. The problem is when the thirty-second distraction turns into a ten-minute rabbit hole because of the glorious monster the internet is. And we’d all love the solution to be stop clicking Wikipedia links, it’s hard to resist. That’s where making lists in October can really save the day.

The first list I write — and where you all should start, too — is for minor character names. Most stories will have characters who exist on the periphery. Co-workers, distant relatives, people passing by on the street. Most are unnamed, but not all. Your teacher isn’t going to call on Student who sits one row back, two seats over from the MC. They’re going to call on Robby. A name will usually pop in your head, but I think we’ve all had those thoughts of, “Robby…oh but there’s a Bob over there and the MC’s best friend is Robin.” That’s all the indecision Google needs to steal the next ten minutes of your life scrolling through name lists.

If you write in the same setting every time, this is a great universal list that can be passed on from novel to novel and replenished as needed. For my contemporary stuff, I have a grid of sixty names. It sounds like a lot, but it’s broken down into genders as well as generations: my main characters’ contemporaries, their elders, and their children. Six categories total, ten names in each. I use census lists of most popular names from appropriate years, and I pick a blend of traditional and non-traditional names, including nicknames.

It’s more complicated for Sci-Fi/Fantasy settings, but the list is also more valuable for that reason. I write alien romance, and if you think alien names pop into my head fully formed, you are wrong. There’s a reason I don’t name the aliens in my short pieces: I don’t want to waste the good ones. And for my fantasy series, I use real names from various cultures, chosen for the meanings of those names. My Scandinavian fantasy characters? I spent hours coming up with a list after hunting down a pronunciation guide for all their extra letters.

But I only had to do it the one time, and it was time I’d set aside for that task. Now, whenever a new cousin shows up at their stronghold, all I have to do is pluck a name from the list.

The minor character list is great for any writer, but there are many other lists that can be just as helpful. Look at your character’s profession. Is she an assassin? Make a list of ways for her to kill people. A list of weapons she might pull out. A list of makeshift weapons, too, in case she finds herself in a pinch orwants to tell a funny story about her past kills. Is he a baker? You’re going to need a list of things for him to make. Breads and cakes. Simple and decadent. Single-serving and shareable. Do you have a scientist who likes bad puns? Throw those into a list, too.

This might not sound as useful to you if you’re a pantser. That’s the sort of writer who doesn’t have anything planned out in advance. But all you need is a genre to prepare some lists. If you write YA, your teens will have some sort of schooling with subjects, and your readers will notice if the only class they ever go to is biology. You’ll also want some extracurriculars. If you write sci-fi, already thought-out alien races and planets will save a lot of downtime. For fantasy, I like to have names of locations set up. A castle isn’t really a castle without a name, right?

For most genres, a list of professions is handy, too. I don’t mean for characters who are involved because of their profession. You’re going to have friends, family members, and neighbors. Characters whose professions don’t affect the plot. But it could come up in conversation or it could explain why a character does something.

If you’re writing in one of the speculative genres, this list has even more value. Many sci-fi and fantasy novels have characters that lack livelihoods or explanations for how they earn money or collect goods to barter. This can be frustrating to readers who are trying to understand how your world works. Making this sort of list will get you critically thinking about your story and your characters. The process of making the list can be as useful to world-building and plotting as utilizing the list is to drafting.

For these lists to work, you do need them to be easily accessible. You don’t want to lose your place in the story. Scrivener’s split screen mode is great for this. So are yWriter’s individual windows. If you write in Word or Docs, I recommend a single Excel/Sheets spreadsheet, with your lists organized by tabs. And if you’re the notebook kind of person, having one devoted to this, labelled with sticky tabs, works great.

Final thoughts on this: you’re not going to think up every list you’ll need in advance. You’ll still have to google the terms for rooms on ships and what crops grow in Michigan at some point. I want to tell you to never stop mid-sprint to do this, but you’re going to. Hardly anyone is disciplined enough to hold back every time.

When this happens, make the most of your time and save all the information you can get from it. Your pirates might be in the galley, but where will they be next? Your Michigander grows blueberries, but what grows on the next farm? And don’t think these are only useful if you’re doing NaNoWriMo, either. Keeping these sort of fast-grab lists will help your productivity times stay productive year round.

Happy listing, and good luck in November!

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