Nanowrimo – Make a list

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m sure many here are aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month.
As explained at the official site here, and here and here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a single month.

I could not be more supportive of this idea – it gives focus and a nice juicy competitive edge to an endeavor that can seem completely overwhelming when you’re facing it all on your own. Through peer pressure and the truly national – now international – focus on the event, Nanowrimo forces people to commit. It’s easy to get caught up in and carried along by the writing frenzy of tens of thousands – or maybe by now hundreds of thousands – of “Wrimos”. 

And I’ve met and heard of lots of debut novelists, like Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), and Lisa Daily (The Dreamgirl Academy) who started novels during Nanowrimo that went on to sell, sometimes sell big.

Nanowrimo works.

I’ve been doing a series of Nano prep posts on my blog, but today I’m going to give you the bottom line of everything I’m ever saying about writing.

Make a list.

I am pretty sure there is no story problem that cannot be solved by stopping the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth, breathing a bit, and then sitting calmly down to make a list of examples of the way great storytellers (YOUR favorite storytellers)  have dealt with the particular problem that you are tearing your hair out and grinding your teeth over. 

I am talking about specific, personalized, Top Ten lists.

Can’t figure out a great opening?   List your Top Ten favorite or most striking opening images.  

Your villain isn’t villainous enough?   Make a Top Ten Villains list, and take some time to really break down why those bad boys, or girls, turn YOU on.   (More here….)

Your story isn’t hot enough?   Have some real fun and list your top ten steamiest sex scenes – and/or best kisses.  (Warning: try to have some loved one close at hand for later… better yet, make a night of it – rent the movies and… analyze… those particular scenes together.   Don’t you just love research?)

Not enough suspense?   List your top ten most thrilling suspense scenes (and this would be a great list for you to do anyway, because we’ll be delving further into suspense this week.)

Top Ten Character Introductions  (see here).  Top Ten Climaxes (story climaxes, I mean now).  Top Ten Heroes and Heroines.   Top Ten Inciting Incidents/Calls to Adventure.  Top Ten Crossing the Threshold/Into the Special World scenes.   Top Ten Image Systems (more posts on this coming.)

Are you starting to get how incredibly useful  – and fun – this can be?

Here’s a more in-depth example.

I recently read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the oh-so-it YA series – and for good reason.  Talk about a high concept premise!  Actually we’ll talk about that some other time.

But just one of the many, many things this book does well is develop a unique and memorable mentor character, that often crucial character archetype  – so-called for the original mentor, Mentor, in the Odyssey.  Of course that Mentor had a little more than human wisdom, as it was really the goddess Athena taking Mentor’s form who guided Odysseus and his son Telemachus at critical junctions in the story.   This is good dramatic history to know, as we often see the same god/desslike wisdom and nearly supernatural – or overtly supernatural – power in more modern versions of the mentor.

I’m a particular fan of the mentor story, so I thought I’d make a list and see why this character so appeals to me.

In fact, if you want to play along, just stop right here and try it – just take a minute to brainstorm ten great – or at least memorable – mentor characters. That is, great according to YOU.  Oh, all right, you can do five now, and get down to some juicier ones later.  You can even throw in some not so classic ones, for contrast.

My off-the-top-of-my-head list:

Hannibal Lecter (but you all knew that!)
Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid
Glinda the Good
Morpheus the Bad
Obi Wan Kenobi
Their granddaddy – Merlin
Mary Poppins
The Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth
Johnny in Dirty Dancing
My new favorite, Haymitch in Hunger Games

And that’s already more than ten, but I’ll also throw in Baba Yaga, that most feared witch of Russian folktales, a pre-Lecter villainess who often served up great wisdom to her protégés… if she didn’t eat them first.  

And yes, yes, I know, Mr. Miyagi in the ORIGINAL Karate Kid.

It’s an interesting thing to look at mentors in terms of what they bring to the story structurally, as well as just as individual characters.  Of course everyone on my list is quirky, outrageous or frankly off the charts (except Johnny, but it’s that dance thing…).  And yes, a couple of my choices reflect that I am partial to the hot mentor type.   But I also love some of them for how they enhance the stories structurally. 

In The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a past (distant past) winner of the games who is supposed to guide the two sacrifices from his province to victory in the Games (think Survivor meets The Lottery meets Lord of the Flies).  We meet Haymitch as he falls off a stage, stumbling drunk.   In fact, he vomits all over himself on national TV.  He has a reputation as a complete buffoon.   Not a great omen for his protégés, right?   But doesn’t that up the suspense incredibly?   How are Our Heroes Katniss and Peeta supposed to survive the Games with only this loser to rely on?


Katniss and Peeta do their damndest to get the most information they can out of Haymitch, and the relationship begins to develop, first as Haymitch realizes he might have a couple of survivors on his hands, and then with Katniss learning at key points that she can actually rely on Haymitch’s sponsorship and guidance – they develop an almost psychic bond, and Katniss comes to understand through her own growing success in the games exactly what would have turned Haymitch into an alcoholic: she can see herself going down exactly the same road if she survives/wins.   In the end, Haymitch is the first one she runs to embrace, showing how deep the relationship has become.

(Unfortunately I can’t see this coming as such a surprise in the movie version with the rumored – or is that desired? – casting of Alan Rickman.  The minute we see Alan Rickman we know there’s more to a character than meet the eye.  I will never in my life argue the casting of Alan Rickman in anything, but it really would be a big tipoff, there.)

The Harry Potter series is a wonderful example of how can give your story a fairy tale mysticism
and resonance by creating three mentors (also sometimes called supernatural allies) in the pattern of the three witches or three fairy godmothers – one of the world’s most powerful and enduring archetypes.  In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid are fantastically unique characters on their own, but as a trinity, they are mythic.   Of course, the classic A Wrinkle In Time (novel) does the same with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which – direct descendants of the three Fates, Moerae, Norns – all themselves derivative of the Triple Goddess.

And speaking of fairy godmothers… helpful as she is in a pinch, Glinda is less a mentor to Dorothy than an anima figure, a personification of the pure strength and goodness of Dorothy’s feminine Self.   For all Billie Burke’s campiness, it’s still one of the most powerfully transcendent images of the feminine ever put on film.   And please – give me a mentor who bestows ruby slippers!

Yoda, of course, and Ben Kenobi, also bring depth to the mentor roles by their utter contrast in characters and similarity in strength and spiritual power.   And of course the feisty Zen charm of Yoda, the utter surprise of this tiny indomitable creature when he harrumphed his way onto the world stage, earned him a place on the Top Ten Mentors Of All Time list.

Both of these are direct descendents of Merlin, as are Dumbledore and Gandalf.   I especially love T.H. White’s depiction of that classic wizard/mentor in The Once and Future King.

Hannibal Lecter, as I’ve discussed here before, is a delicious (sorry) take on the mentor character – a cannibalistic sociopath who turns out to be a damn fine teacher.

Besides being a delight for the pure badass sexual charge of Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, The Matrix is a great film to look at for a structure you often find in a mentor story: the mentor drives the action for a good long time, and when the protégé, in this case Neo, finally takes over the story to save his own mentor, we feel that action as a huge and exhilarating character growth. 

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Faun is a unique take on a mentor not just for that amazing creature created by the filmmakers, but also because we really don’t know if the young heroine should be trusting this bizarre and erratic being who is her guide into the underworld.   This unease creates a lot of suspense and dread in this very emotional film.

While not as fantastical as the others on my list, Johnny from Dirty Dancing is a memorable mentor because he really is a great teacher, from a dancer’s perspective, and personally I particularly like the mentor/lover combination, the forbidden quality of that dynamic.   That kind of story generally has a bittersweet end, and Dirty Dancing delivers the poignancy.   Back to Merlin, again – I love his own backstory (or front story, as he lives life backward…) with Nimue, a protégé/lover/destroyer to him.

Mary Poppins is also a Mysterious Stranger character – the mentor who pops in to fix a situation (in this case a family), and pops out again.   Everybody’s ideal of a teacher, who literally opens magical doors.   As much as I love the druggie movie, the PL Travers books are must-reads for the sheer prickliness of Mary P.  – Julie Andrews she is not, but the adventures are all the more fantastical and bizarre.

Now, remember – not all stories have mentors, it’s not a requirement of a great story.  I should also note that often instead of a mentor you will see another classic character: The Expert From Afar.  Both Hooper and Quint in Jaws fall into this category, in my opinion (as well as being Sheriff Brody’s chief Allies).  They’re great characters, but they don’t take on the deeply personal and often spiritual dimension of teacher that a true mentor character tends to have.

The Expert From Afar, done badly, can take a turn into “Morris The Explainer” – a character (to compound the cliché, this is often a professor) who appears in one scene to take an exposition dump (okay, REALLY sorry, but if you think of it that way it might discourage you from ever doing it…) and promptly disappears into oblivion. 

I really should do a list of bad examples for contrast, but maybe you all can just take care of that for me in the comments (she says hopefully…)

And there’s another character that shows up sometimes that I guess I’ll call the Oracle, or Sibyl – like the Oracle in the Matrix, or the little Indian woman who tells Jamal to “Win it for India” before the last round of the game in Slumdog Millionaire, or the three witches with their fateful prophecies in Macbeth.   This is not to my mind the same as a mentor, who takes on the protégé as a much longer commitment (although I think the Oracle comes back to do something more like that in the Matrix sequels, but I wouldn’t swear to it…).   But it’s a variation that can have a lot of dramatic power, done well.

So how about it?   Give us a few examples and why you love your favorites.   Or tell us about one of your own mentor characters, and how they came to be.

– Alex


I am teaching an online story structure workshop throughout the month of November, through RWA’s PASIC.

These workshops are an outrageous deal: $20 for PASIC members, $30 for non-members.

Click here to register.  More detailed information

18 thoughts on “Nanowrimo – Make a list

  1. JT Ellison

    Apologies for the late post – Squarespace did site maintenance this morning.

    Alex, I'm doing my very own NaNoWriMo this month, looking forward to the madness. This is a great primer!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks to whoever got my post up – I was trying for hours before I had to run and teach.

    JT, I'm hoping to ride the Nano wave – need to crank out pages, but book promo is definitely going to get in the way.

  3. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Good luck on the NaNo wave. Did it last year and it was great experience. This year, I'm just plugging along on my daily writing thing and, I think, it's going to get me further down the road — at least for my goals — than anything else.

    Great, great post today, Alex. I always learn so damn much with you. Thank you.

  4. Allison Brennan

    Alex, as always, I love your posts. You understand story so well I feel like I'm shouting, Yes! Yes! Yes! 🙂

    I, too, love mentors. I love mentors who are good and tragic (Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars) who sacrificed himself to save the galaxy. Morpheus is another favorite (why Morpheus the Bad?) The Old Black Women in Stephen King's THE STAND. Mentors or spiritual leaders who don't want the role are also intriguing (similar to heroes who don't want to be the hero, but in the end they transform.)

    I particularly love mentors who ultimately betray the hero especially if they have an understandable–and even justifiable–reason for it. And then who come back into the fold at the end . . . or the hero has to slay them . . . or something else that twists the emotional strings. In so many ways, betrayal by a mentor is far more devastating to a hero than betrayal of a lover.

    As far as NaNo, I have a short story due 11/15 and will be focusing on that, but I also love the concept of writing fast, then editing. Unfortunately, I think too many people don't understand what revising and editing REALLY is, and how to effectively revise for STORY. Usually, my first chapters stick. Everything after that is rewritten. :/

    I just did a compare documents from my first draft (I edit as I go, so it's fairly "clean" but it's still the first draft) and my final revised draft of KMKM. EVERY page had more changes than not. Entire chapters were added and deleted. The only exception was the first and second chapters, and a couple chapters in the middle of the book that had maybe 20-30% total changes. The entire book? My guess is 85% of it changed from first to final draft. And almost all the changes were strengthening the story.

  5. Dudley Forster

    I’m doing NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. Really looking forward to the experience. My oldest daughter, who’s a fan of yours, is participating for a third year. We have our regional kickoff tomorrow. Already have one Word War, Spokane challenged us. Trying to get our ML to support a Word War with Moscow, where my daughter is writing so we can kick some ass, in a fatherly sort of way.

    As for Mentors:

    From your list, I’d take:
    Obi Wan Kenobi
    Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid

    And Add:
    Lincoln Ryme
    Vinne — “Searching for Bobby Fisher”
    Giles — BtVS
    William Forrester
    Charles Xavier

  6. Karen in Ohio

    Excellent ideas, Alex.

    I'm going to give it a shot again this year, but I have to tell you–November is a terrible month for this. You can sure tell a bunch of post-college guys thunk this one up.

    Hope I do better than last year, when I wrote myself right into a box canyon.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Pari. The list thing seems to me the easiest way in the world to teach yourself anything about writing. I'm teaching a workshop this week and I don't care what else they learn as long as they GET the list.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Re: Morpheus – so very bad. Good bad.

    AB, I agree 100% about editing for story. And I think a lot of people don't understand that the story you think you wrote is never the story you actually wrote, so when you edit, you have to look at the story that's actually there, and cut and tweak and expand and polish to perfect (well, kind of) the story that's actually there.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Dudley, wow, some great mentors there, thank you! I need to see a couple of those movies.

    I don't quite participate in Nano on that level, but I love that people do, it's a trip! For me it's a spur to write more pages because everyone else is. But Karen's right – lousy month for it….

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Your post is amazingly instructional, as always, Alex.
    Believe it or not, I am currently reading "Silence of the Lambs" for the very first time. Jesus Christ! What a fucking great book! In every way.
    Wish I could say more…I could go on and on…but, well, I'm finally writing, and I got a little momentum behind me….

  11. Reine (Marie-Reine)

    Alex, great post! Thanks for this. I'll be doing NaNoWriMo this year for the first time. I know I will never, ever be able to come close to 50,000 words, but I will be a Wrimo.

  12. Dudley Forster

    Reine – You are a marvel and inspiration.

    Alex – If you haven't seen "Searching for Bobby Fisher" I highly recommend it.

  13. Reine (Marie-Reine)

    Dudley- Naaaaah.. but you can say that again when I actually do something! You are terrific, by the way.

  14. Shizuka

    I signed up for Wrimo for the first time after eyeing the website covetously for the past few years.
    It was always a close-to-impossible goal because I'm not an outliner.
    But thanks to your book and your posts, I'm ready to try it.
    And for extra incentive, I signed up for your PASIC class.

    Hope I don't wimp out after 10,000 words.

  15. Eika

    This is going to be my sixth Wrimo, and I am looking forward to it. (I predict I'll also freak out five minutes in about being unable to do it again, as well).

    One other thing that's fun? Make a list of every possible thing that could happen at that point. My stories don't feature aliens, never have, so I'll rule out every option using aliens. But everything else that could apply, from being attacked by bandits to my heroine turning her bodyguard into a fish, will be listed. Then choose the one that'll cause the most trouble and use it.

    Loved the mentor list, and Haymitch is definitely high on it. I'd add Commander Buri from Tamora Pierce's Wild Mage series. She's only a mentor for the first book, but there's just something about someone who takes on a young girl as a sidekick so bandits don't get her, and then lies to her. (Granted, most lies are because the safety of the realm depends on it…) Also, the unicorn in A Swiftly Tilting Planet is very good.

  16. Perry Wilson

    Ah so much NaNo advice out there. I think it's great that those of us who have 'won' are willing to share our techniques.

    I suggest people get involved. There's nothing like sitting in a group of writers who are clicking away to get you past a block. Mostly people will be happy to shoot some quick answer your way like a character name, or a location. But, when other writers tell you to shut up (sometimes with just a look) and write it's hard to ignore.

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