NaNo Prep

NaNo Prep Day 3: The Mind Dump

If you’re still hanging around waiting for another prep post, dear reader, thank you. Truly. Loyal readers like you keep me going. Life kind of got away from me this past month, and I just bought myself some time to work out the kinks. The life of a starving artist and all that. (Let’s change that perception together, okay?)

All right, let’s dive into more NaNo prep because we have one week before the main event kicks off, and that’s just enough time to wrap our minds around our stories and nail down an action plan. If you’ve missed the first three parts, you can check them out here, here, and here.


This is probably one of my favorite steps, the mind dump, and it’s as messy, chaotic, and unstructured as it sounds. Every mind dump is different, and you can make your own rules when it comes to this. I’ll show you my process and what works for me, then I’ll give you some other suggestions. Take what works and leave the rest and make it your own.

For this, I take a large piece of paper (I’m talking like one of those presentation cardboard posters we had to write on for science fair projects before the tri-fold ones came out; you can get this at the Dollar Store or Wal-Mart) and a marker. I use Sharpie Fine Liner pens because I like that they’re thin enough to not take up the whole board with one stroke and they have bold colors, but they don’t bleed through the other side of the paper. (With mind-dumps, you never know how much space you need.) Make sure they’re the Sharpie pens, though. It’ll be clear on the packaging. The markers do bleed; the pens do not. [And the above link is not an affiliate link. One day, I’ll set that up but not today. It’s there just to show you what these amazing pens look like.] 

Right, you have your paper and your pen. You should have your story idea, however vague it is right now, with you too.

At the top of your paper, write the basics of your idea. It could be something simple like “dog feels abandoned and goes on a cross-country adventure with his pet pals to find their owners” (Homeward Bound) or “boy saves an alternate world contained in a book” (many stories, but let’s go with The Neverending Story). You could even go with something as vague as “boy meets girl and falls in love.” You’ll need more to drive the story, of course, but it’s a start, and that’s all we need right now. Try to be concise here, and you don’t need full sentences. Nobody but you is going to look at this.

Next, we’re going to literally write everything we can about the story. Anything that comes to you about the story, no matter how small a detail, is fair game. Your character wears purple eye contacts? Great! Write this down.

Ideally, you’ll want to focus on some of the bigger things, though, such as:

  • Plot points
  • Character arcs (how your characters grow and change)
  • Characters’ motives, fears, secrets, etc.
  • Setting/world building
  • Conflict/solution
  • Theme (what’s it all about/what are you trying to say?)
  • Magic system/rules (for fantasy)
  • Symbolism/imagery
  • Red herrings (for mystery)


What tends to happen, I’ve noticed, is that once you start brainstorming parts of your story and delve into it, it’s like unraveling a scarf–it just keeps going. One idea leads to another. Inevitably, you’re asking “why” throughout. (Or “how.”)

For example, my NaNo story this year is a suspense/thriller. My basic idea was “a mother walks away from her family and starts a new life.”

My first question, obviously, was “what triggered this decision,” and through the process of a mind-dump, I came to the realization that it wasn’t a conscious decision for my character to leave. [I’d love to tell you what happens, but that’s a huge spoiler alert.] But that was my scarf moment: discovering it wasn’t truly her decision to go. From there, my story built into the (flimsy-for-now) concept I’m working with.

When you’re doing a mind-dump, adopt the persona of an investigative journalist. You’re trying to uncover everything you can about your story–the people and things that inhabit the setting–and you constantly ask more questions, digging deeper, until you’ve hit the heart of your story and can’t go further. This is literally a mind dump where you exhaust all your ideas, however extraneous, from your mind to work on a blank slate once more.

I suggest practice writing small, depending on the size of your paper, because there will be a lot of details surfacing. In theory, at least. Take a few days to really wring your story of all important (and semi-important) details.

*A note on handwriting versus typing: I prefer to do most of my raw planning on paper. This means that I bite the bullet on wrist pain and let my hand cramp as I scribble all my notes on paper. I recognize that this isn’t always feasible or realistic for people, and that’s okay. This is one of those things that you can leave if it doesn’t work for you. I find that my (for lack of better terms) “creative brain” is more active and I listen better when I’m handwriting versus typing. If you know you get your ideas out better when you type or talk to your voicemail/recording device, by all means, play to your strengths.

Okay, you have your piece of paper, digital document, or series of voicemail recordings to yourself (I’ve been there, dear reader), and you’re ready for the next step. [First, dictate your notes in some fashion if you’ve spoken them.]

Along the way during the mind-dump, your story evolved from the basic concept you started with from step two into something a little more substantial. Perhaps you learned some important backstory information that changes the direction of your plot, or maybe you thought the killer was one character but it turned out to be someone else entirely. In any case, you’re working with something a little bit bigger now, and that’s great. It’s time to rein it in again and pin it down.

If you’ve handwritten your notes, get a different colored pen. If you’ve typed it, you can change the font color or highlight the text. (Whatever works for you.)

I go through my notes and draw lines connecting similar information together, and I create a system to differentiate categories. (Your categories might be different from mine. I tend to write mysteries, thrillers, and literary fiction. You might write fantasy, romance, or science fiction.) My categories are usually broken down into:

  • Characters > Suspects > Victim(s) > Sleuth/detective
  • Relationships between characters
  • Motive > Means (poisons are my favorite method, by the way) > Opportunity
  • Setting
  • Main plot > Subplot 1 > Subplot 2
  • Red herrings
  • Theme keywords

If you need to do some research, create a special symbol to mark it. I draw an interrobang (my favorite punctuation mark), and it looks something like this: For historical fiction writers, you might want to differentiate your research questions a bit since, most likely, you’ll need to research every facet of your story. You can divide it up between social customs, clothing, idioms, technology, scientific knowledge at the time, etc. Find the natural categories of your book (which will change with each story), and go from there.

After you’ve set up your categories and separated your notes into those, go through each category and see if anything’s missing. If you’ve completely described a minor character but neglected to describe your main character, here’s the chance to do that. Or if you’ve set up a magical system but only described what it does for the characters instead of what it costs them, consider your options. This is the time to fill in the gaps without spending too much time doing it.


In the next post, we’ll talk about boiling all this down into an elevator pitch, a quick one-or-two-line summary of your story that gives all the necessary details but withholding all the secrets.

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