Getting Out of the NaNoWriByrinth — Five Lesson I Learned While Writing a Novel in November

It’s that time of year.

Aspirational writers, hobby writers, published writers, and fanfiction writers all come together for the month of November. We descend like a horde of locusts upon the internet, taking over social media with our hashtags, word count widgets, and blog posts. ‘Tis the season for commiseration, advice and encouragement.

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76November is National Novel Writing Month, when writers of all kinds and types try to write a novel in thirty days! Or… to write 50 000 words in thirty days. There’s some debate over which is the main goal. More on that later. But one thing is for certain: you want to write a lot in a short time.

I first tried NaNo in my early twenties. I only got ten thousand words – two chapters – into the book in question. I tried again off and on for years. Three unfinished manuscripts are lying about on old hard drives, the skeletal remains of NaNos both failed and succeeded.

There’s also one other. It’s called the Deathsniffer’s Assistant, and you might have read it.

To my knowledge, I’m the only published author in my circles who’s both finished and pubbed a NaNo project. And I learned a lot about NaNo that I want to share with those aspirational writers who really want to get a book out there.

To those working NaNo for the pure joy of if – this isn’t for you! Do whatever makes you happy! But for those who want to put words into something they can eventually show to an agent, here are some things that I learned.

1. Treat your NaNo prep like you’d treat prep for any other novel.

NaNoWriMo puts forward a “justgo” attitude. Don’t worry about if it’s good. Just blank out and write. And that’s NaNo’s strength. But if you’re trying to get something out there, I recommend checking out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, especially the posts on planning and outlining. Have a plan! “Justgo” doesn’t mean swan diving gracefully to your inevitable failure. Writing is a journey, and any successful journey needs a some sort of map. I’ve gotten lost in too many NaNo projects that I thought I didn’t need one for.

2. Writing 50 000 words is good. Writing a novel is better.

I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on the magic number, and not enough on the key word. It’s national novel writing month. Not national dick around until you have 50 000 words month. Too many times, I just wrote a whole lot of words, padding my word count with fluff and avoiding contractions so that I could say I arrived at the finish line. I have 25 000 words of just two chapters in one NaNo grave. That’s appalling.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: measuring progress by word count is fine, but measuring progress by progress is better. Your goal in NaNo should be to either write a novel or writing a big chunk of a novel. If you’ve got a NaNo graveyard of your own, try to switch it up this year. Maybe just ignore that magic 50 altogether. Aim for ten of twenty outlined chapters, instead!

Shooting for actual progress instead of a numerical target encourages economical writing over padded writing, and you’ll end up with something much closer to real novel status when December hits.

3. NaNo rules suggest you start something new. I suggest you work on something old.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant was a NaNo project twice, in fact. The first time I went in without an outline or real plans and ended up with three overlong chapters and no direction. Two years later, when I attempted the project again, I picked up where I left off (with an outline this time) instead of starting something new. NaNoWriMo official rules say you shouldn’t work on something already in progress, but I needed another unfinished manuscript like I needed a hole in the head. If you’ve got a bunch of stalled projects lying around that you want to keep working on, it might do you more good to put another 50k words into one of those than to just add something else to the pile.

4. Celebrate well-earned victory, but don’t let it be the end of the journey.

50 000 words is a little long for a novella, but quite short for a novel. If you’re working on something intended for publication, it’s very likely that you won’t be at the end of your outline when you reach the magic number. And the temptation when you hit it is to drink a bottle of wine and take a bubble bath… and leave the novel behind. Don’t give in! You succeeded at NaNo, but until you have a completed project under your belt, nothing is finished. I abandoned The Deathsniffer’s Assistant for eight months after reaching 50k on it during that second NaNo, and the longer I let it sit, the harder it was to get back to it. Let your November be a running start towards the discipline and momentum that’s really needed to be successful in writing.

5. Don’t forget about those all important revisions.

Even if you finish a novel in November, your novel is not done. NaNo encourages functional writing, focusing on quantity and speed. It’s a great way to marathon yourself into a lot of words – and a terrible, terrible way to get a finished product. Even an amazing first draft is a first draft. Many agents live in fear of their slush piles in December and January, wincing whenever the dreaded NaNoWriMo is mentioned in a cover letter. Cool your jets and take some time to workshop and revise your finished project before trying to introduce it to the world. Let that paper baby grow up – don’t just throw it into the world the moment it’s born.

For more writing tips, check out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, where I take stalled writers step by step through the lessons I learned from planning to publication. For all of you doing NaNoWriMo this month, good luck! Don’t listen to anyone tell you that nothing good can ever come from November. It did for me! Just be smart and be realistic. This November might be the year your book dreams come true!

Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 8 — Signing

Wow! It’s been a long time since I had a new entry in my Labyrinth series, hasn’t it? Between the A-Z Challenge, being out of the country, the upcoming release of my debut novel, and my second book wrapping up its first draft, there just hasn’t been the time for a long, meaty blog post. But things have slowed down a little bit, and I’m here to talk about the spot where the process becomes business: signing with a publisher.

Congratulations! Somebody likes you. It’s so exciting and validating when you receive that call or email from your agent telling you that its finally happened after all your months of waiting. Here are five things that I learned from the day Caitlin called me with the news and the day I signed my contract with Curiosity Quills Press.

1. Do your research.

Before you even start talking to the publisher(s) who want your book, take some time to google them. Read about them. What do they publish? Who do they publish? What’s their business model? What do they usually offer for an advance? What about royalties? Who would you be working with?

These are all things that you can find out on your own time. It shouldn’t take you more than an hour to take some time to get some notes together, and it’s going to make you a lot more comfortable and get you on steady footing. Knowing what you’re walking into gives you a feeling of control over the situation.

Plus, It always looks good when someone walks into a meeting prepared!

As a final note, if you have anything you want to be clear on before you go into talks and you can’t find it through google, ask your agent! This is information that she’ll have access to, and her job is to facilitate this very conversation.

2. Stay confident.

Oh, lord.

I remember laying on my bed, trying to keep breathing. It was my first conversation with a publisher. I was on a conference call with Caitlin, an acquisitions editor, and the specific editor at the house in question who was interested in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant. Now, I’m not great on the phone at the best of times, and during this conversation, I was a babbling mess. There was a bit of interference on the line, which had me flustered beyond belief. I had to keep asking them to repeat themselves. It was awful. I kept thinking – oh no! I’m screwing this up! I need to impress these extremely important people who are doing me the favour of being interested in my work!

I only really realized once I’d hung up the phone and laid there basking in my humiliation that I had it all wrong.

For those of us who have been writing our whole lives, dreaming of the day we see ourselves in print, it’s easy to go into these talks thinking that we’re being done a favour. These people are giving us our greatest dream. We need them to like us. We need to wow them. We create a power imbalance in our heads that just doesn’t exist.

You need to realize, just like I did, that we’re actually the ones in the position of power right now. When you have a publishing house on the line, you’ve already impressed them. They want to publish your book. They’re already convinced. They’re there to convince you.

Keeping this in mind really helped me get my feet under me and I handled myself a lot better after that first conversation. Every time I started to find myself getting starstruck by the knowledge that the people I was talking to had the power to publish my book, I just took a second and reminded myself that they wanted to publish my book, and were trying to convince me to let them. It helped me screw my head on right every single time.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

You’re about to make a really important decision. The publisher you sign with is going to have a lot of influence and control over your writing, and you two are going to spend a lot of effort and time trying to make money from one another. So as you go into this, you want to be totally informed and comfortable. If there’s anything you’re unsure about, ask for clarifications.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question! So long as you did your research like I said in step one, anything else is fair game. Your publisher will know that you’re a first timer and this is all new for you.

Signing a contract is a big deal. Don’t keep your mouth shut if you’re confused about something just because you don’t want to rock the boat. Get out in front of it!

4. Decide what matters to you.

I was torn between multiple offers when I was going to sign. The decision was agonizing because the offers came out to be equal, but in different ways. I was choosing between a traditional and a risky business model, between a bigger advance and a better understanding of my novel. What was the right choice?

Caitlin told me this:

Remember this is a business transaction, so you do want to consider whether the offer is worth it to you from a business perspective to proceed.  But it is also an artistic endeavor, so it also needs to be a publisher you feel comfortable will reflect and respect your vision and authorial intent for the work.

It’s such a simple thing, but it stuck with me. Something about how she said it and how she laid it out just made things click in my head. There was no right or wrong answer. What I had to decide was what I valued more. What I was willing to sacrifice. Worrying about your vision doesn’t make you a diva, and weighing the money involved doesn’t make you a mercenary.

There are a lot of moving parts to an offer, and when you get multiples, it can be really hard to know how to weigh those different parts. I lean back on what Caitlin told me. Each individual element is worth… exactly what it’s worth. The worth you assign to it. So if you’re trapped between offers, just sit back and think about what you value. Nobody else is making this decision. You’re the one who’ll live with it.

5. Trust your agent.

I know that I have a well documented good relationship with my agent. I only sing her praises, like, 100% of the time! But even though no other agent in the world can possibly be as amazing as mine… you hired yours for a reason.

Your agent exists for this very purpose. She is there to facilitate this very thing. She is your advocate in the field. She wants you to succeed and she wants your career to be long and inspired and successful. Not just because she presumably likes you and your work, but because she’s hitched her wagon to yours. An agent wants her clients to be happy, productive, and successful, because that’s how she pays her rent! She wants you to end up with the right publisher. She wants to be right there to help you find that publisher.

If your agent has something to say, listen. If you want her opinion, ask for it. If she has misgivings, heed them. You’ve never done this before, which is why she’s there. This is her job.

Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 7 – Waiting

At the end of last week’s blog in this series, Querying, I said it was the second hardest step of the whole process. This week, we’re going to talk about the absolute worst of them all:

Waiting.

Once you’ve signed with an agent, there’s the expectation that it’s all easy from there. It’s not. Not by a long shot. This is the phase when your new agent who you hopefully just love starts pitching your books to their connections in the industry. I remember that first week so well, sitting there squirming, sure that at any moment, Caitlin was going to call and tell me that every big name publisher in the world was beating down her door to buy The Deathsniffer’s Assistant.

Well. Surprise! That didn’t happen. Nothing even close to that happened.

Instead, I waited.

Waiting is the worst. Unlike all the other steps of the process, there’s just nothing you can be doing on your end. It’s not a matter of trying harder, being more dedicated, or commiting to your work. It’s completely out of your hands.

And it absolutely sucks.

Here are some tips that I learned to keep yourself sane during the waiting game.

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Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 6 – Submission

Now we’re getting into the professional stuff. By the time you start submitting, I’d say you’re mostly out of the Labyrinth. But it’s still looming behind you, and in front of you is a whole new wasteland… the marketplace.

The whole game changes when you start submitting your book to agents. It’s super scary and intimidating because this is probably the first time your book is going into the hands of a stranger who will judge it. That stranger isn’t just a potential hater – they hold your fragile writing career in their hands! If your dad doesn’t like your book, well, he’s never had great taste. But when a professional doesn’t like your book… that stings.

Before we get into this, I know what a lot of people are thinking so I’ll address it quickly. Do you need an agent? Honestly? Yes. I’m not even going to go through and explain why, because there are a thousand blogs written out there saying it better than I can. You do need an agent. Get an agent.

Moving on!

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Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 5 – Editing

A new week, another step forward on our series about The Labryinth! This week we’re talking about what might me the most scary of the steps, editing.

i prefer barefoot.
i prefer barefoot.

Before you even start on the editing process, you need to give yourself time to celebrate. You just wrote a book. Not a 12-year-old scribbling in a notebook. Not a really long fanfiction. An honest to goodness book that you pulled up out of your brilliant mind and made into reality. Take a few days. Go out to dinner with friends and get the most expensive thing on the menu. Order too much moscato. Buy something you’ve been looking at longingly for weeks. Take a long bath with a book and bubbles and candles. And don’t feel bad about any of it. You 100% need this time, especially if you’re been in the labyrinth. Make yourself feel good because you deserve to feel good. You just did something amazing. Writing? Writing is easy. But finishing? You are a rock star, so you should treat yourself like one.

Okay? Okay.

Today I’m going to be talking about editing. I think that this is probably the stage I was most afraid of going into it. I heard so many horror stories about authors who had to chop their beloved novel to pieces to make it fit through the tiny hole that is “publishability.” The narrative seems to be that we should be afraid of editing. It’s going to make our book into something dry and committee approved and getting there is going to be painful and full of sacrifices.

I’m here to tell a different story. Editing is never as scary as you make it out to be in your head! Don’t let it psyche you out and take it one step at a time.

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Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 4 – Writing 2.0

I’ve been writing up a storm on the sequel to The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, my debut novel, in the last few weeks. Taking time to blog about the Labyrinth has seemed so hard when I’ve been just chewing through words! But the more I’ve written, the more I’ve thought about writing and how much I’ve learned. I really wanted to talk more about the process of writing before I moved on to editing.

Well, lucky for me! I went to check my schedule, and as it turns out, I was so excited to get to my advice and experiences in writing, I had skipped a way less glamorous but no less important phase! I knew it felt like I had more to say than space to say it in!

I had intended to write a whole article on starting to write a novel, which is every bit as important as advice on writing a novel. I did talk a bit about starting last time, but there were definitely some things I wanted to cover and I didn’t!

So! Today’s blog will be Writing Part 2. I just have more to say! I highly advise you check out Part 1 if you haven’t! You can also find all my articles in this series here! Here we go: more advice about the biggest, hardest, most rewarding part of the process: writing.

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Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 3 – Writing

This is a continuation of my series on The Labyrinth, that monstrous impossible maze so many of us writers get stuck in during our inbetween years. In the last few weeks, I talked about planning and outlining and the things that I personally learned while going through those steps with my  first novel (The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, available this summer!)

It’s the big one!

I can’t say that I had fun writing The Deathsniffer’s Assistant. Not exactly. Now, don’t take that wrong. Parts of it were fun. Parts of it were pure joy. And other parts of it were slow torture that I struggled through and bled over and lost sleep and tears to. Some days, it was effortless. Most days, it was like giving birth.

Now, with my work on Deathsniffer done and the rest up to my wonderful production team over at Curiousity Quills Press, I’m concentrating all my efforts on the sequel. And I’m shocked to find that this time? It’s fun. Writing this book has been something so wondrously close to the simple joy I felt writing about Mary the Mouse that some days I can barely believe that I’ve gotten to this place. I look forward to my writing nights! I’m disappointed when Starbucks closes and I have to leave! I think about my book whenever I’m not working on it, excited to get back!

I am actually out of the labyrinth. I can remember what it felt to be like in those walls, where every word I wrote was a new hot coal I had to step on to get to the next word, and the next, and the next. But a memory is all it is for me now, and it’s because of the things that I learned about this very step. I like to think that all the advice I’m giving is pretty solid stuff, but if you’re only going to take one of my articles to heart, make it this one.

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Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 2 – Outlining

This is a continuation of my series on The Labyrinth, that monstrous impossible maze so many of us writers get stuck in during our inbetween years.  Last week, I talked about phase 1 of any novel, planning. You can read the five things I learned about planning while writing my first novel (The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, available this summer!) in this blog here.

Today I’ll be talking about the second phase of writing a novel, outlining. This is a long one because I think this stage is so important and I have a whole lot to say about it!

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1. If you are in the labyrinth, you need an outline.

Bear with me here. This one takes a long time to bring together. But we’ll get there.

I used to be one of those writers who preferred working without an outline. I’d rather find out what was going to happen as it developed, I said, and I did! All the books I wrote before my labyrinth years were written outline-free. I figured out how Mary the Mouse and her intrepid band of investigators were going to rescue Tommy the Turtle on the fly, and it was exciting and grand. I told people up until my mid-twenties that I preferred working without an outline. I hadn’t actually worked in ten years, but that was how I’d always done things before. Why change?

Well… because I had to. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the manuscript I came out of the labyrinth clutching triumphantly above my head was the first manuscript I’d ever written a full outline for.

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Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 1 – Planning

(This is a continuation of the ideas I started exploring in this post.)

It’s hard to say where I “got the idea” for my first novel, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, available this July. It’s not so much an idea that I “got” as an idea I’ve always had.

I learned to read by eating through all one hundred plus volumes of Nancy Drew. I developed a real love for the traditional whodunnit from that girl detective, and I’ve kept it my whole life. Even as my interest drifted from mystery fiction to fantasy fiction, my love for private eyes, perpetrators, and puzzles never faded. It always made me sad there wasn’t much genre overlap, and I’ve known since forever that I wanted to write a fantasy mystery novel. It just seemed right.

The problem, of course, is that “fantasy mystery novel” isn’t a story idea, it’s a concept. At best! But it was a good concept, for one major reason…

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The Labyrinth

I’ve pretty much been writing since I was born.

My first novel was finished when I was seven years old. It was done up on an old clackety type-writer with a rogue e that made it awfully hard to read.  It was about a detective agency full of rodents who solved kidnappings. The concept was clearly cribbed from Disney’s Saturday morning cartoon, Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers. The actual characters were based on a colouring book page that I really liked and created a backstory for, which lead to the incongruously reptilian Tommy the Turtle, the agency’s janitor. (My parents ran a janitorial company at the time, which made me think janitorial work was incredibly glamorous and cool.) The agency was run by Mary the Mouse, and I delighted in penning the sexual tension between Mary and Tommy. Tommy’s kidnapping by a gang of alleycats was thwarted by Mary’s clever sleuthing skills and there was a very salacious kiss at the end that I imagined myself very grown up for writing.

There’s a point to this story, I swear!

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