NaNoCoDo #9 Supporting Cast

By now, you should be on good terms with your Main Character and their partner / sidekick / love interest. But you’re gonna need more people to make a decent book of their adventures. Each of these needs you to keep some records of them.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger a character’s part will be, the more details you need to keep a note of. The two henchmen may not have names, but you need to remember the tall, skinny one’s ginger and the shorter one sweats when he runs – if these details are likely to crop up again. But the retired knight / policeman who’s teaching your heroine to fight needs a lot more description, as he’s going to stick around for a few chapters – and may sneak back in towards the end, too.

Don’t assume you’ll remember all the details without making a note – even if you do, what happens if you make a change? To remember everything in an up-to-date way would require a freakish memory and scrupulous attention to detail.

Similarly, don’t ever think it doesn’t matter – your readers WILL notice. They always do. It’s not just me!

It doesn’t matter whether these notes are in a notebook, electronic file or written on your bedroom wall – so long as you can refer to them all the time and update them when you need to.

As well as physical and character descriptions, you need to keep track of the relationships between your various characters. This could be a list of who’s going out with whom for a High School Romance story, a family tree for your inter-generational saga or a detailed hierarchy of both military and civilian characters (as in the great Russian epics).

If you’ve got multiple threads going on, you may want to use sticky notes to keep track of who’s in each group. Try colour-coding them for clarity.

Or you may have a better idea that works perfectly for you.

National Novel Writing Month starts on 1st November but the site is open for sign-ups now. If you don’t know what it’s about, have a read of my NaNoCoDo posts. If you think you’ve got a novel in you, why not sign up? What have you got to lose? <<– Sign up here.

NaNoCoDo #8 Baddies

I can’t think of anything more boring than a story where only good things happen to your Main Character. They set out on a quest, find the treasure, meet the love of their life and live happily ever after.


That may be a life to aspire to – but it’s never going to be a book worth reading.

Readers want conflict, difficulties, trauma, drama, suffering, blood – and that’s just for a light romantic read!

Seriously, your hero(ine) needs obstacles to overcome so the reader can see them at their best. This is your baddie. It may not be a person – it could be a group of people, fate, the weather, a computer, an alien civilisation – whatever you like. It could be the Sheriff, if your “good guys” are outlaws! The Opposition. But let’s refer to it as your baddie.

Baddies need motivation (I mentioned this in my previous entry). If it’s a person (or alien or computer) then it must be sentient enough to have its own wants and needs. Even the giant wolf that’s hunting your character has needs – DINNER.

Non-sentient baddies don’t have conscious needs, but they have set patterns of behaviour. If your characters are battling to build a shelter before the monsoon, they know roughly when it’s likely to start. It may come a week early and wash away their undried mortar, but there will be warning signs.

Natural disasters may appear to be random events – but they can trigger each other. In European history, the Black Death killed a large part of the population and the survivors were not up to preventing the Great Fire of London the following year. (Which was a good thing – fire really kills all those lingering germs!) Look at the Plagues of Egypt in the Bible (Exodus) and the Q’ran. Each plague could have caused the next – the plague of frogs die and then there’s a plague of insects, presumably springing from the frog carcasses. You need to think like this for your fiction, too. Cause and effect makes the sequence more acceptable to the reader of your book – and helps you structure a crescendo of danger for your characters to overcome.

So give some thought to the way your baddies will interact with your good guys. Think about how their actions will escalate, forcing your heroes to ever greater trials to win through. And make sure you understand their motivation, so they aren’t just a collection of random obstacles on the hero’s way to win the crown.

NaNoCoDo #7 One-Hour Sprint

My favourite cure for so-called writers’ block. And it’s a useful technique to master, even though you haven’t started writing your NaNo book yet!

Can’t decide what your baddie’s motivation is? Unsure what your characters are meant to be doing? Spending too much time staring out the window and hardly any time pressing letter keys (except the ones you immediately delete)?

You need a way to tap your unconscious. Let’s face it, if the answers are ever going to find their way onto paper, that’s where you’re going to find them. But your type-ready conscious mind and creative unconscious aren’t speaking to each other. So how do you dredge ideas out of one part of your brain so they can be processed by the part you have control (*) over?
This is my answer – connect your creative mind directly to your typing fingers without going through the tiresome business of your conscious brain. Kind of like the automatic writing at Victorian Spiritualist meetings, only higher-tech.

You will need:
About an hour and ten minutes (including preparation time).
Kitchen timer (or similar).
Your computer.
Drink of your choice (I like herbal teas for this).
Small heavy objects for throwing at family members who try to interrupt.

Gather all ingredients together.
Switch off phone.
Open file on computer.
Make sure auto-backups are run every few minutes (if using computer).
Banish your inner editor to the pub.
Set timer for one hour.
Disconnect internet.
Start typing and don’t stop until the timer pings.

I begin these sessions by typing what I’m sure about, then letting the rest come out on the screen. Let’s take an example:

There’s this baddie who’s based on a mythological character. But I wasn’t sure why he wanted to stop my good guys from achieving their aims. And I don’t accept “because it helps the plot” as an answer. Bad guys need their motivation, too!

So, I began by typing what I know about the relevant myths, what this guy’s function was in the myths and extrapolated these to fit the setting of my novel-in-progress.

I found myself typing that he wasn’t actually trying to stop them achieve anything, just to maintain a balance they were threatening by their actions. So he didn’t have anything against them, as such.
Light bulb moment!

Then I continued, finding out that what I’d thought was a minor trait in this baddie is actually a very significant one. I don’t want to give too much away, as this is central to my next novel, but the way he kills people has repercussions on the way he operates with his minions.

And yes, all of this came about in a one-hour session.

It’s kind of taking the principle of NaNoWriMo to the extreme – although it isn’t about the number of words you write so much as giving yourself permission to type garbage for an hour. I find that the garbage spontaneously ignites due to the speed of your typing and the resultant ash compacts to form one or two tiny diamonds. (Not a bad metaphor – I’ll remember that one!)

We all spend too much of our writing time trying to make things sensible, coherent, realistic. Which gets in the way of the creation process. Is an hour too much time to spend on the problem?

So go on, next time you aren’t sure where to go next, see if you can find the answer in one hour!

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(*) This is untrue. A writer has even less control over their mind than normal people do. We just learn to fake it.

NaNoCoDo #6 Research

“Write what you know!” Every writer is given this piece of writing advice and every writer has those moments of, “Am I sure about that?” and has to check their facts.

I love doing research. Books, the internet, wherever. I start by looking up one detail and get distracted by an incidental fact (like another word on that page of a dictionary). And the next thing I know, hours have gone and I haven’t even answered my original question.

But I’m happy.

My biggest problem is that I love the research so much I find it hard to contain my browsing – but many writers hate fact-checking and their problem is motivating themselves to start! Whether you love it or hate it, it is important to check your facts, even for a novel.

I’m an evil reader. I’m the one who complains if a book gets something wrong. I’ve even been known to look something up if I’m not sure it’s right! Yes, I’m that pedantic. And I’m not the only one. If you’re tempted to write a fact you’re not sure about – just imagine that I’m reading it, with my inner pedant scrutinising every last detail. Yes, blame me for being picky, then you’ll be ready to deal with any normal readers who might spot the odd error.

Even with fiction. Your characters will be moving through an environment the reader has to recognise. Getting historical facts wrong will really wind people up – so will contemporary legal issues, police procedures, any science, – the list is endless. If you’re not an expert on a subject, then find someone who is.

Of course, accepted facts will change from time to time, so it’s hard to be completely certain about anything. But your reader deserves your best effort. And who knows? You may find you enjoy research as much as I do.

NaNoCoDo #5 World Building

Not just for sci-fi!

Beginning writers may assume that they don’t have to spend time working out the “rules” of their world. Only sci-fi writers need to think about World Building.

Not true.

You may be writing a book set in your own world and think that’s simple because you know it so well. But your reader doesn’t. If you hope to be read by people who live more than a few streets away, you must tell them about your world in enough detail that they know it, too. If your plot needs the rubbish to be collected every other Friday, then you need to mention this fact. If you have a character who’s a bullying prefect at school, then you must explain (before it’s relevant) just what powers a prefect has.

In other words, world building means preparing to tell the reader all about your particular setting in as much detail as they’re going to need.

Think about it – in a costume drama, TV viewers need to understand how servants below stairs and their employers above stairs would behave in their own world and when they interact outside their class. These things are shown very early in the film / series, so a viewer understands how this world differs from their own. In a police-based mystery, we need to know that our hero is on a ship cut off from his wonderful Forensics Department who could identify the killer from a blood spot in one hour.

As the writer, you will know all of this, but you may need to change the rules when you realise you’ve written yourself into a dead end you can’t get out of.

So write down the rules that apply to your world. Refer to them when you start writing and be prepared to add changes as you write. Always add them – don’t just edit your rules document. If you’re got lines at the end like:
Chapter 8: Need prefects to be allowed to go out on Wed afternoons.
-then you’ll know to check chapters 1~7 for anything that contradicts this rule.

Spend some time on these rules – you cannot assume your reader knows everything about the town you live in, and you’ll probably want to improve on reality, anyhow.

Then print this document out and go through it with a highlighter pen – so you know which bits need to find their way into your opening chapters.

NaNoCoDo #4 Second Character and Relationship

All the best stories have a central relationships, usually between two people and usually unequal.

Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin, Scarlett and Rhett, Doctor Who and …
It’s conversations and actions between your characters that let the reader know what’s going on. Whether that’s because we need Sherlock to explain things to the good doctor so we know what he’s thinking or The Doctor’s companion being held hostage so our hero has to rescue them and incidentally save the world from the Bad Guys. Or get the guy, or … ?

In many stories, the second character is the one the reader is expected to relate to. So Watson writes his memoirs about Sherlock Holmes, The Doctor (Who?) constantly has to explain things to his companion(s) and so on. It’s easier for the reader to relate to fallible human than the hero of the piece. Which means your second character must be likeable. One of the commonest mistakes is to have everything solved by the hero and their sidekick to be little more than baggage.

Or a squealing damsel to be rescued. Repeatedly.

So give your second character some thought. Write out a set of details as you did for your Main character. (
Decide which trait your reader will relate to and spend a few days getting to know them. Remember to work out what their relationship is to your hero – and what they want to get out of this adventure.

NaNoCoDo #3 Setting and Locations

Where and when is your story set? What’s the difference between setting and location? Why should I make any notes about these?

I use these terms to mean slightly different things. A location is a physical place, a setting is more to do with the mythology of your story.

Location first. You could use a real place or make something up entirely from scratch. It doesn’t matter – as long as you know it well enough to picture in your head. This is the time to draw maps / construct floorplans / collect photos into a folder. Whatever it takes. Get a clear image in your head and start writing details. Not just the appearance – engage all the senses. What can you hear? Can you smell flowers blooming at the particular time of year? And so on. Your reader wants to believe they are in this place for your story – so you need to go there first.

Settings. I often hear people confuse this with plot when they tell me they’ve got a great idea for a novel. The conversation goes something like this…

Stranger: “Hey – you’re a writer. I’ve got this brilliant idea for a bestselling novel. But I don’t have time sit and write it. Tell you what – I’ll tell you the plot, you go away and write it and we split the profits 50:50.”


Stranger: “Well, there’s this really clever device that was made centuries ago and the knowledge to make it has been lost. Except for a group of weirdoes who hide as some sort of cult and they’re really the powers behind all the monarchies and governments we thing are actually in control and there’s this really clever guy who realises…”


Stranger: “You see, there’s this kid and he’s really downtrodden and has to do everything his stepdad says and he’s really a special person ‘cos he’s got this magical… Hey – you’re not taking notes! Are you sure you’ll remember all this?”

Now, this isn’t a plot. It’s a setting. It’s the situation of a character at the start of a story. It’s background info and the reader doesn’t want to read it all! No, I’m not taking notes and I’m not about to split any profits with you. If you really think there’s a book in the idea, then write it for yourself. You’ll be surprised how many ideas go into a novel.

So – write a short back-history for your MC. Describe their situation and relationships to other people at the start of your story. That’s your setting.

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