Not a boys’ club anymore
One college student‘s NaNoWriMo journey from inspiration to publication — and the empowering novel that got her there
“First female football player?”
Casey Baumberger writes this intriguing question in the corner of a classroom chalkboard at Iowa State University, straining to make the words visible upon layers of chalk dust that have collected over the years.
Underneath it she writes: “Breaking the Pocket: available December 31.”
Writing a book is often one of those idealistic dreams that few ever really expect to accomplish. It takes too much time, or they don’t have the drive, or the ideas, or the writing ability. The excuses given to no one in particular for never reaching that goal are abundant — unless you’ve actually done it.
For Baumberger, the dream of writing a book is becoming a reality in a big way as her début novel, Breaking the Pocket, hits stores on New Year’s Eve. Many take the path she did to complete her first novel, but few take their first manuscripts all the way to publication within just one year.
And anyway, how many people can say they published their first book by 21 years old?
National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is an annual event that challenges writers to write 50,000 words — a novel-length work — from 12:00 a.m. on November 1 to 11:59 p.m. on November 30.
While the inaugural 1999 event took place in the month of July, creator Chris Baty moved the 2000 writing fest to November “to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.”
This depiction is probably more descriptive of Iowa’s harsh late autumn temperatures than the temperate climate of Northern California’s Bay Area, where the original NaNoWriMo writers were based, but the sentiment is the same: it’s crappy outside, so as long as you’re staying inside, why not do something life-changingly productive?
To that end, nearly 400 novels crafted during NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. Both have spent time on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Not bad for a month spent on their computers.
As the internet grows, allowing for more creativity and self-sufficiency than ever before, even more novels coming out of this month end up being self-published by their authors. More still never see the light of day, serving only as proof of one’s success — or, in some cases, multiple successes. The personal triumph that come with writing multiple novel-length works cannot be overstated.
In 2015, more than 400,000 people participated in NaNoWriMo, of which around 10 percent reached 50,000 words — or “won.”
Despite it being her first try, Baumberger ended up becoming part of that 10 percent.
One day, Baumberger, an Iowa State English major, was searching for writing prompts on Pinterest when she discovered a post referencing something she didn’t recognize.
“I saw a pin that said, ’15 Tips for Actually Finishing your NaNoWriMo Novel,’” Baumberger explains. “And I had no idea what that was, so I read the article and thought it was a great idea.”
Some writers are “pantsers,” the unofficial term for writers who begin NaNoWriMo with nothing but a spark of an idea that they hope they can extend to 50,000 words. Others, like Baumberger, are “planners” — the more second-nature term for writers who do extensive planning in the preceding weeks.
“I took all of October to outline my novel and get to know my characters, which made the writing process much easier,” she says.
In spite of never having completed a novel-length work before — though most who participate in NaNoWriMo haven’t — Baumberger saw this new experience as an opportunity to stimulate herself to reach that goal.
While one of the informal, honor-system “rules” of NaNoWriMo is not to start early, nothing prevents writers from preparing ahead of the start date, as long as they don’t do any actual writing. Several participants come up with their ideas well before November, lying in wait for that motivation to come all at once as soon as the proper stroke of midnight gives them the green light to begin furiously writing.
For Baumberger, an unassuming day at the cusp of a completely different life change ended up sparking the idea that would turn this New Year’s Eve into a celebration of more than just the end of the year.
More than 205 million unique people tune into NFL games each year, not counting those who watch more than one game throughout the season. Unsurprisingly, there are no statistics for those who come up with a full-length novel idea while watching one of these games — but at least one person has.
In 2013, Baumberger was a freshman at Drake University in Des Moines. A Green Bay Packers fan, she and some friends were watching a game one Sunday when a clip came on about Sarah Thomas, who in 2013 became one of 21 finalists for a permanent NFL officiating position. She got the job in 2015.
“From what they were saying on TV and from what my friends were saying, it was pretty clear that her presence was controversial,” Baumberger recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘How controversial would a female player be? That would be fun.’”
Two years later, Femme Fatale Football was born. The story follows Chelsea Tucker, a lifelong football player who takes her talents all the way to becoming a popular collegiate athlete. When college ends and she thinks her career is over, she gets a chance to make the jump to the pros.
As it turned out, Femme Fatale Football ended up being a decent working title and nothing more. November wore on, and Baumberger realized the deeper she got into her novel, the less appropriate the title was.
“As the manuscript developed and Chelsea grew, it just didn’t fit,” she says. “I know Chelsea would hate having her story called ‘femme fatale football.’ ‘I’m just a football player, dammit,’ is what her response would have been to seeing that title.”
Although Baumberger began with extensive outlining, she relished the idea that her characters were able to shape her story in the same way that she originally shaped her characters. She also found that the actual writing process told her more about Chelsea than her pre-November planning ever could have.
“I changed [the title] to something she would appreciate,” Baumberger adds contentedly.
“Breaking the pocket” is a term not normally used in football — players can “break the line” or “collapse the pocket,” but the phrase that combines the two is uncommon. It’s a fitting metaphor for the first female professional football player’s impact on the game.
“She’s not your typical football player, but she’s still a football player,” Baumberger says. “The title isn’t a typical football term, but it’s still a football term.
“And it is her story, after all.”
When most people think of the process of publishing a novel, one common factor tends to run through their minds whether they are conscious of it or not: the presence of a publisher.
Typically, a publisher seeks out new talent that fits their company’s brand, negotiates contracts with authors, oversees editing and design duties, and arranges who will sell the book, where it will be sold, and how much the author will be paid for each unit sold.
But Baumberger decided early on that she didn’t want to go through what can sometimes be a years-long process: she was going to self-publish instead.
“It’s a fairly simple process, but it’s not an easy one,” she explains. “Since I don’t have a publisher, I have to do everything myself: finding a reliable editor, marketing myself, creating covers, finding an ISBN number, pricing my book, learning how to correctly format everything.”
However, as someone whose entire scholarly repertoire revolves around writing and editing — her English major is supplemented by minors in Teaching English as a Second Language and Technical Communication, and she also serves as president of Iowa State’s literary magazine, Sketch — Baumberger initially wanted to dive into the editing process on her own.
She began formally editing on January 1, 2016, one month after finishing the manuscript, with an original goal of publishing by her birthday, June 10.
“Two weeks into the process, I realized that was not a realistic goal,” she admits.
So she did a little revision within her revision, enlisting the help of her retired copy editor uncle and a fellow writer friend to aid in her editing process. Baumberger refers to a phenomenon she dubs “author blindness,” not being able to see plot holes and grammar errors in her own work due to the fact that she is so close to her story.
“I had to find an editor who not only knew what they were doing, but would also want to work on an author’s first novel,” she explains. “These two people have been lifesavers in this whole process.”
Baumberger also learned along the way that seeking outside editing help set her apart from some self-published authors, where she claims it is “blatantly clear” who edited their own work. “You can self-publish,” she advises, “but you can’t self-edit.”
As the completed manuscript came together, she turned to the long process of self-publishing. Overall, it certainly involved a learning curve, but according to Baumberger it ended up being a completely feasible goal, even within her time frame.
“You just need to have the right motivation,” she adds. “And I’d say that seeing your name in print is a pretty good motivating factor.”
Her release date for her début novel just weeks away, Baumberger maintains that she doesn’t have any glamorous plans to celebrate.
“Nearly all my family and friends are out of town for [winter] break,” she says. “It might just end up being me with a glass of wine at my house, eagerly watching the Amazon page for my first sale.”
The lack of fanfare doesn’t mean her journey was somehow less legitimate, though. Baumberger’s newfound confidence extends beyond her writing, even beyond the stress of publishing.
“I learned that I don’t have to be afraid to be pushy,” Baumberger tells me. “If your editor slacks off, doesn’t do what they say, go ahead and find a new editor. If your cover photographer isn’t giving you the photographs you want, let them know.”
So as December 31 rapidly approaches, it’s more than a new year for Baumberger; it’s a new outlook on life, including her work. She’s learned to stop second-guessing herself and maintain ownership of her writing, realizing that what she once perceived as rudeness was actually the assertiveness she needed to succeed.
But for this soon-to-be newly-minted published novelist, her view extends to others as well.
“I firmly believe that anyone can become published author,” Baumberger says. “You just have to want it badly enough to put in the effort and time to accomplish it.”
This post originally appeared at Onward and Eastward on December 9, 2016.