NaNoWriMo starts in two months (*pauses to let the hyperventilation pass*) and I’m in once more, for my third (!) year as a Municipal Liaison and tenth (!!) year participating. I write year-round and I’m never short of projects, but I like to use NaNo to experiment, indulge, connect, and generally enjoy my hobby that, these days, tends to feel more like work.

I also like to do NaNo with a new, standalone story idea. To that end, it’s time for me to run my best off-season writing exercise.

I don’t have a name for it. (So if you’re clever, suggest one–maybe something like Gail Simone‘s recent #MyThemesAre.) I take a blank sheet of paper, write FAVORITE STORY ELEMENTS at the top, and list twenty or thirty things I currently think are awesome.

In fandom they’re called “kinks” whether or not they’re of a sexual nature, or “squees” (as opposed to “squicks”) whether or not they’re positive moments. Most of these can be found cataloged on TV Tropes–but don’t go there, it’s more important that you name them yourself, and also TV Tropes is an Internet tar pit, where productivity goes to die. Look, I didn’t even link to it.

Types of story elements include:

Character archetypes or subtypes
Emotional beats (ex., “David Tennant cries in rain”)
Very Important Opinions
Plot twists
Forms of dialogue (ex., “snappy”)

Everything goes in the list, no matter how weirdly specific, fleeting, or inconsequential. And it doesn’t matter if they work together or not. Even opposites are fine! It’s less of a checklist than a wishlist.

The quicker you write, the better; the goal is to draw from your id, so the list is as potent as possible. It’s also a good way to suss out what’s made an impression on you recently, that you might want to explore on your own. My list this year includes “allies who kind of hate each other”–thanks, Guardians of the Galaxy! They can also be valuable insight, if you do them regularly. Why did I love X book so much? Why do I never get sick of writing Y? Why are my curtains blue?*

Once I’m done, I don’t try to form a story out of what I’ve got. I just read it over and bask in how awesome it would be to use those elements. Then I put it away. But it’s brought those elements to the front of my brain, so when I do start coming up with a NaNo idea–a proper idea, with all the important parts–those elements are ready and waiting to attach themselves to the structure, and make everything awesomer.

And, you know, if I DO end up writing about, say, an ocean ghost who falls in love with a warrior nun trapped in a seabird’s body…I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

*A reference to this meme, about which I have Strong Feelings, summed up as: If it was YOUR brain that made the curtains blue, take a minute to figure out why it chose blue over every other color.