National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is all about getting creative writers motivated to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, is a few days behind us, and I’ve already seen a few participants crowing about meeting their goal — which they should, because writing 50,000 words in a month is no small feat.
If you’re among the NaNoWriMo winners, good for you.
I mean that. Whether you’re doing this for the first time just for the fun of it or you’ve always wanted to take a serious crack at becoming a novelist — via traditional or self-publishing — and you’re using NaNoWriMo to light a fire under your ass and finally get it done, I hope you found it an exciting and rewarding experience.
Now comes the “however” part…
I’ve known a few people who did in fact attempt to parlay their NaNoWriMo product into a published novel and failed hard, and what I’ve gleaned from their efforts is they made a critical mistake of thinking that once the novel was completed, all they had to do was run spellcheck and that would be it — their novel was finished.
No. No no no. Your work has only just begun.
First of all, your story might not actually be finished. If your larger goal was to produce a proper novel, you probably still have some writing to do. Depending on your genre, 50,000 words might only be a novella — which isn’t a bad thing, and maybe 50,000 words is the right length for the story you’re telling, but if you plan to seek an agent or traditional publisher for your work, you might want to think about going beyond 50,000 words.
This piece by Chuck Sambuchino is a great reference for defining novel lengths, and you’ll see that once you start writing for any adult market, 50,000 words isn’t going to cut it as a “novel.”
But let’s say you have produced a finished work. If November was National Novel Writing Month, December should be National Novel Revising Month. This is when you take your finished first draft, read through it, and recoil in horror at how truly unfinished it is. You’re going to find spelling errors, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, continuity gaps, plot holes, inconsistent characterization, clunky dialog — all manner of major and minor screw-ups. Suddenly, the literary masterpiece you think you wrote will turn into a steaming pile of crap that will make you doubt your talents as a writer.
Welcome to the world of writing.
First drafts aren’t about producing a finished work; it’s about getting the ideas out of your head and onto the screen. Second drafts are about replacing or scrapping entirely everything that’s wrong with the story and strengthening everything that does work. Since you’ve given yourself a month to do this, take your time. Go through the manuscript a few times and keep fine-tuning it.
No, you’re not done yet, because January is National Novel Test-Reading Month. This is when you send your manuscript to some trusted friends to look it over and tell you what they think. Four to six people is a good number of beta testers, but make sure you choose people who will be brutally honest with you. You don’t want their praise, you want their criticism. You want them to tell you what still isn’t working so you can fix it in February, which is National Novel Revising Month – The Sequel.
Don’t undersell the importance of this step. By now you’ve gotten a little too familiar with your novel and aren’t seeing a lot of flaws anymore. Outside eyes will catch the problems that have become invisible to you.
And don’t dismiss this as “art by committee.” Just because your readers make suggestions, you’re not obligated to heed them — though you’d be foolish to ignore them out of hand. Think about their critiques long and hard before you make a decision one way or the other.
While the book is out with your test-readers, you can consider whether you want to try and pursue a traditional publishing avenue or go the indie author route. Each approach has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so consider what you need, want, and hope to get out of putting your book out there, and see which path fits better. Personally, even if you decide to go with self-publishing, going through the process of preparing your book for submission to agents and publishers is a good experience. It’ll help get you in a professional mindset, you’ll learn how to concisely describe your book and pitch it to a prospective reader — something you’ll have to do a lot as an indie author — and who knows? Maybe you’ll get picked up.
You can find an extensive list of publishers and agents in the Writer’s Digest market guide, along with many helpful hints for putting a submission package together. I’d also advise checking out the SFWA Writer Beware page, especially if you go looking at small presses. There are a lot of predatory small presses out there, as well as self-publishing platforms that falsely present themselves as small presses, and the last thing you want is to unwittingly give up the rights to the novel you worked so hard on.
If you decide to pursue indie authorship, this is a good time to start hunting down editors and cover artists — two things you do not want to skimp on. You want someone with a professional eye to review your finished manuscript for any lingering errors and perhaps make final suggestions for tweaking this and that, and you want a real artist to put together an eye-catching cover that will attract readers’ attention.
Services such as CreateSpace can help you put together a prefab cover that looks decent, and for little to no money, but if this what you choose to do, tread carefully, and never assume your skills as a graphic artist are sufficient to the task. Go check out LousyBookCovers.com to see what happens when a cover misfires if you need further convincing that hiring a professional is the right call.
Yes, these people will cost you money but it’s worth the investment. If you can’t pay for them out of pocket, crowdfunding may be your salvation — but again, do your research to find out what makes a successful crowdfunding campaign or you’ll hit a brick wall pretty fast.
Assuming you’ve managed to stay on schedule so far, dedicate March to preparing everything while your editor does his/her thing. Get your submissions list ready — or, if you’re self-publishing, make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with your chosen platforms, because preparing a novel for publishing is a major undertaking in and of itself. Write your cover/query letter, synopsis, and any other required submission materials. If you need to, go back into your manuscript and fix any lingering problems, even if it pushes your timeline back (unless you want to be embarrassed by putting out a novel that isn’t ready for public consumption).
Once all your ducks are in a row, once all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed, it’s time to face the scariest part of the process: pulling the trigger and actually submitting the novel to agents/publishers or releasing it via your chosen self-publishing platform. Trust me, it’s terrifying, but take the leap. The worst you can do is fail, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
There’s a LOT more to do once the book is out there — marketing, promotions, publicity, etc. — but that’s a dissertation for another time.
Final word of advice, which is admittedly a bit of a personal pet peeve: don’t use NaNoWriMo as a promotional point. I’ve seen self-published books that are pitched to readers as a “NaNoWriMo Award-Winning Novel,” but that’s perhaps the least impressive “award” you could claim. It doesn’t speak to your story’s quality at all, it just means is you wrote a 50,000-word first draft in 30 days, so don’t start out your career by slapping disingenuous awards on your book.