Fueling the Muse—How to Mentally Prepare for "The Novel"

NaNoWriMo is kind of like Christmas for writers—suffering, drama, no sleep, heavy drinking and really bad eating habits. Also, we start talking about NaNoWriMo months before it actually happens.

If you are a new writer and don’t know what NaNoWriMo is? It stands for National Novel Writing Month and it is held for the duration of November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month.

In a nutshell, it gives a taste of what it is like to do this writing thing as a job, because for the professional writer? Every month is NaNoWriMo, so there is NO BETTER indoctrination into this business.

NaNo shapes us from hobbyists to pros, but we need to do some preparation if we want to be successful—finish 50,000 words and actually have something that can be revised into a real novel that others might part with money to read. Genre obviously will dictate the fuel required, but today we’ll explore my favorites.


I like watching movies to strengthen my plotting muscles. Unlike novels, screenplays have very strict structure rules. Also, it takes far less time to watch a movie than read a novel, so movies can be fantastic for practice (and also our goofing off can have a practical application 😀 ) .

Study plot points. Sit with a notebook and see if you can write out each of these major points in one to three sentences.

Normal World

First of all, in recent years, Normal World has become considerably shorter. Actually, it began that way. In Oedipus Rex, the story begins with the kingdom in a real mess. There is a plague upon the land and somehow the king is at fault.

It wasn’t until centuries later that writers at large stopped trusting the audience and Normal World went on and on and on and we followed a character from birth and then about a hundred pages in? Something went amiss and we finally got to the PROBLEM.

I believe this phenomena also coincided with when writers started getting paid by the word…. *raises eyebrow*

These days? People (readers) DO NOT have that kind of patience. Normal World is often seriously condensed or even missing.

But back to the movie you are watching for practice…

If there IS a Normal World (even a brief one) can you detail it in a sentence or two?

What was the character’s life like before it was interrupted by the BBT’s (CORE ANTAGONIST’S) agenda? I will use two divergent examples—World War Z and Steel Magnolias— to make my point and hopefully not spoil the more recent of the two. As far as Steel Magnolias? Y’all have had since 1989 to see it. Tough :P.

In World War Z, we meet a guy making breakfast for his family. He’s hung up some mysterious “old bad@$$ life” in order to be with his wife and kids.

In Steel Magnolias, we meet M’Lynn taking care of all the little details of her daughter’s wedding. She’s a Hover-Mother who takes care of the broken glasses, finds the right shade of pink nail polish, and stops Dad from shooting birds out of the trees. She’s a fixer and she’s in control.

Inciting Incident

This is the first hint of the BBT’s (Big Boss Troublemaker’s) agenda, the first tangible place it intersects with the protagonist’s life and causes disruption. Can you spot it?

In World War Z, we know from watching the background TV noise when they are having breakfast that a mysterious illness has already broken out. BUT, the virus has not yet directly intersected with the protagonist. When does this happen?

Jack and his family are in the car. He and his wife are on their way to take the kids to school when all hell breaks loose. It’s the first glimpse the protagonist sees of the looming threat, but aside from escaping with his family, he’s made no vested decision to get involved.

In Steel Magnolias the Inciting Incident happens in the beauty shop when Shelby’s blood sugars drop dangerously low and she goes into convulsions. Mom tries to help and Shelby swats her away (a hint at her future defiance). This is the first time the audience has met the BBT (Death/Diabetes manifested in the proxy Shelby).

Turning Points

Look for the major turning points in the movie. According to one of my FAVORITE craft books (Story Engineering) in Act One, the protagonist is running. He or she doesn’t know where exactly the conflict is coming from or precisely what IT is. Act Two, the protagonist is a Warrior. He or she has glimpsed the face of the BBT and fights back.

For instance, in World War Z, Jack knows it’s a virus creating “zombies” and he decides to return to the old job and fight. He agrees to search for Patient Zero in hopes they can find a cure.

In Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn shifts from Running (Here’s your orange juice. Have you checked your blood sugar?) to Warrior. Her daughter defies her and decides to get pregnant even though it could (and will) cost her life. Momma puts on full battle gear, determined to “control” her daughter’s fate. Diabetes has shifted from looming “controllable” threat to a ticking time bomb Mom still believes she can defuse if she just tries hard enough.

Act Three, the protagonist shifts from Warrior to Hero.

Darkest Moment

This is right before the turning point to Act Three. This is where EVERYTHING is stripped away from the protagonist and it seems all is lost. The DM is the catalyst that shifts our protagonist from Warrior to Hero. Anyone else would give up the “fight” and go home, but not our protagonist.

In World War Z the protagonist is critically injured, he’s lost his family, outside help, and he’s faced with a crushing setback. There is no Patient Zero, at least no “clear” Patient Zero. It’s a dead end and it looks like time has just about run out for humankind.

In Steel Magnolias Shelby dies despite all of M’Lynn’s tireless efforts to control. She realizes she has no power. She never was in control and now she’s utterly lost.

Act Three/ Character Arc

How does the protagonist mentally shift over the course of the story? What was the critical flaw that would have held them back in the beginning, that would have made the protagonist “lose” if pitted against the BBT.

For Jack, he has to be willing to give up his family to save his family.

For M’Lynn, she has to admit she can’t control life or death in order to embrace the messiness of living.

How is the story problem resolved? 

Pay attention to the Big Boss Battle. How has the protagonist changed? What decisions do they make (or not make)?

What is the outcome? How is the world set “right”?

In World War Z, Jack’s sacrifice gives humanity a fighting chance. In Steele Magnolias we see little Jackson (biological grandson) running and picking up Easter eggs (there is NO mistake that this story is bookended by Easter). Resurrection through Jackson is what ultimately defeats Death. Shelby lives on through her little boy.

Beyond Plot—What Else to “Study”


Great movies have great dialogue. Study it. How do characters talk? When I get submissions, one of the major problems I see is in dialogue. Coaching the reader, brain-holding, and characters simply talking in ways that are unrealistic. For instance, most of us, when having a conversation, don’t sit and call each other by name.

“But, Bob, if Fifi goes base-jumping she could die.”

“Yes, Joe, but it’s Fifi’s life and if she want’s to be stuff on a rock, it’s her decision, not ours.”

“I agree, Bob, but I love Fifi.”

“Joe, then tell her. Fifi’s craving attention.”

*rolls eyes*


The devil is in the details. Details are like truffle oil. A little goes a LONG way and what a flavor enhancer! We writers don’t need to be super detailed about everything (because when we emphasize everything we emphasize nothing). But, a little goes a long way for good or for bad.

Get the details correct and we will love you. Get them wrong?

*brakes screech*

I am a gun person. If your character reloads using a clip? I will toss the book across the room.

This is my BOOM-STICK!

Clips go in your hair. Magazines go in your gun.

I once read a book where the protagonist was putting the safety on her revolver. O_o

Unless the protagonist is a gun collector with some weird @$$ revolver only useful for collecting? No such thing as a safety on a revolver.

Shows me the author didn’t do some basic homework. Granted, details matter more in some genres versus others. Readers of a military thriller will be far pickier than those who read a high fantasy.

I recently had a writer who had me edit her first 20 pages. The story was excellent and had to do with a soldier in Afghanistan. Problem was, there were some main details that were simply wrong that were a pretty big deal (which I fixed for her). There was also a smaller, more obscure detail. The scene was set in 2004 and her protagonist was rescuing a fellow soldier from a burning vehicle. Unfortunately, the uniforms at that time were not flame retardant (a problem the military was forced to remedy in later years).  In 2004, the fabric would have melted to him and the scene (in reality) would have played out very differently.

Granted, this detail about the uniforms is something only a military geek would likely know. But, if the writer worked that in???? Mad respect from the discerning reader.

If you need to know details, use social media. There are all kinds of military folks, law enforcement people, gun experts, history experts, medical personnel and people who do martial arts who are eager to help writers get things RIGHT. I regularly have people write me about hand-to-hand, since I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

If you’re writing a military book, watch a friend play Call of Duty or Modern Warfare. Game designers use folks from Special Operations as consultants. They use DELTA Force, Green Berets, SEALS, etc for all the world-building, so why reinvent the wheel? Hollywood is notorious for getting this stuff dead WRONG, so if you want accurate military dialogue, games are better. Or, watch movies created by folks who’ve done their homework (I.e. Hurt Locker).


Movies are great for getting an idea of setting. Pay attention to the terrain and make notes. Work to be accurate.

Grossly inaccurate setting is distracting in books and film. I loved the recent mini-series Texas Rising, because DUH, I am a Texan. But the setting drove me BONKERS.

Just so y’all know, there are no Colorado-Large mountains anywhere near San Antonio.

*Kristen twitches*

So I hope all these tips will help y’all fill that muse to bursting and NaNo will be a LOT easier.

Another HUGE help for NaNo is a solid core story problem. I strongly recommend my antagonist class NEXT SATURDAY. If you’re not too strong at plotting? This class will make even the pantsiest of pantsers a master of story.


What are your thoughts? What are some things you do to prepare to write a novel? What movies have the best dialogue? Setting? Yes, I know I have ruined all movies for you. You will thank me later :P.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Before we go…. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:

Remember! THIS SATURDAY, I am running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I rarely need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.

All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.

Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!


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  1. Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  2. Fantastic reminders for all of us. Thank you, Kristen

  3. Thanks again Kristin. Your timing is awesome. I’m gearing up for NaNo (again–two time winner YAY). But having a hard time deciding what idea I want to do with. I’m researching one of the ideas, but not sure I will have enough to go on to start. (I like historical fiction).

    This year I WILL do an outline. Or at least have the main parts filled in. LOVE your 1,2,3 acts. Another great suggestion for dialogue is to go see some plays. Play dialogue moves plot, delivers character insight, and relationships more efficiently than any other dialogue writing 🙂

    ~ Tam Francis ~

  4. Brilliant points here. I’m currently finishing the first draft of my second novel. (I’ve lost my way a little on this one). However I’ve just realised both where I’ve gone wrong and how to fix it. Thank you!

  5. Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance.

  6. You make some valid points here.

  7. Reblogged this on The Krystol Meth(od) and commented:
    Definitely give this blog a read today. There are so many good points that I myself have missed a writer. I know it has been a few days since I have blogged, but I have been having some health issues and working on videos for my channel. I will have a new post up tomorrow. The topic is ” Confessions of a blogger.” Stay tuned! Thanks to all of my subscribers, I appreciate you more than you know!

  8. I’m also preparing for NaNo for the first time. Fantastic lessons and reminders. I took notes! Thank you 🙂

  9. The movie as muse – love it. As a long-time screenwriter, this ring so true for me 🙂

  10. Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    It’s that time of year: time to start planning your NaNoWriMo novel! Here’s some great food for thought from Kristin Lamb.

    • Betsy on August 27, 2015 at 4:36 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for all the wonderful info Kristen. I subscribe to several writer blogs but you have the most concrete, immediately applicable, advice. I totally get the immediate loss of respect and interest when minor details are wrong. It pulls me right out of the story as it kills my suspension of disbelief. I haven’t seen Texas Rising, but I live in Wimberley, and yeah, “mountains” around here are what other places call hills!

  11. Love this! I read all your posts but this one I think I will have to bookmark.
    Although, just to be the annoying pedantic detail-oriented reader, I think you mean ‘defuse’ the bomb, not ‘diffuse’ it. The last thing you need is a bomb suddenly diffusing itself 🙂

    1. LOL! And THUS proving my point that even good editors need good editors, ha ha ha ha ha! Okay, I fixed it ((HUGS)) 😀

  12. Thanks Kristin, helpful advice.

  13. Very helpful post. I’ve been participating in NaNo for years, and while I’m more of a poet than a novelist, that doesn’t stop me from attempting. Thanks for the tips!

  14. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  15. I’m trying to work up the courage to try my first NaNoWriMo. Thanks for the excellent tips !

  16. Always good to restate the basics, even with a dash of truffle oil.

    • Barbara on August 28, 2015 at 7:16 am
    • Reply

    Do you think it important that farcical stories pay attention to ‘the details’?

  17. I also twitched at…mountains near San Antonio! Also, I like the idea of seeking out “knowledge nerds” to help us fact-check our stories. That reminded me of a great NPR show out of Dallas called “Anything You Ever Wanted To Know”. It’s a weekly call-in show where the people in the community ask ANYTHING about ANYTHING. Most of the time, the audience is an amazing resource for answers.

  18. Story Engineering, changed my whole perspective on writing. Awesome tool!

  19. I love how you stuck with two stories to illustrate points of story building. And thanks for the tips on getting the details right!

  20. Love the point about the revolver and the safety. One of the biggest challenges I’m finding in my writing is just that, the realistic setting/environment. Thank you for doing what you do!

  21. Still haven’t done Nano. I need to one day, just not ready yet. Not sure why.
    But I’ve been writing a lot lately. For the first time in a long time I feel authorly and productive 🙂
    This post rocks!
    Thank you for so many GREAT reminders and tips!
    Have a wonderful week,

  22. You made we want to watch both of these movies again! 🙂 Thanks, Kristen! Great tips.

  23. Thank you for all your efforts to teach authors. I very much appreciate that I can come here and usually find what I’m looking for if I need help.

  24. Great post. I love Nanowrimo. Excellent tips.
    I’m really looking forward to your critique of my first 20 pages from the last class. I’m sure it will be extremely helpful. You’re wonderful to offer such a service.

  25. Thank You! I want to do Nanowrimo as a first-timer this year, and you’ve given me a lot to think about.

  26. I get annoyed also when people or the media calls a magazine clip. It is one of my indications if a person really knows about guns.

  27. Hollywood are famous for getting stuff massively wrong. Look at U-571 – Jon Bon Jovi rescues an Enigma machine in 1942…even though the British had already acquired one in May 1941. Details like that will really get up readers’ noses if you get them wrong!

  28. Thank you !!

  29. Independence Day…that one really had me ticked. Jeff Goldblum’s character tries to sync up with the alien space ship and infect it with a virus using… a Mac Powerbook. At the time (1996), compatible with virtually NOTHING ELSE.

  30. I would love to participate in NaNoWriMo but this year I don’t think I can. Right now I’m deep in my story building process – basically taking my story and reworking it from the ground up – and I don’t want to rush the process in time for November. But I should try to dissect a movie some time! Lately, I’m dissecting the books I read and it’s been great learning.

  31. This reminds me of the movie Troy (Brad Pitt) where we see the sun rising above the see. They filmed it in Mexico, instead of the original place (Dardanelles), where the sea is at the west 😀 Huge distraction!

  1. […] Source: Fueling the Muse—How to Mentally Prepare for “The Novel” […]

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  3. […] Fueling the Muse — How to Mentally Prepare For “The Novel” by Kristin Lamb […]

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