How NaNoWriMo Launched My Career as a Novelist

Claire Gem
Oct 11, 2019 · 4 min read
Image by Free Photos from Pixabay

I’ll admit it . . . I got a late start as a writer. I’ve always loved to write, always had a knack for producing interesting content and weaving extraordinary tales. But life was busy. A full-time job, a home and family to look after, the budget to balance. There simply wasn’t time for me to express my creativity in words — until 2015.

By then I’d published a few articles in magazines, won a creative writing contest in a literary journal, and scratched down dozens of ideas for novels. But embarking on that incredible journey of actually writing the damn thing? Nada. A mountain way too big for me to even attempt to climb.

Until I heard about NaNoWriMo, which sounded to me less like a challenge and more like a dare. 50,000 words in a month? While working full-time, cooking dinner every night, doing loads of laundry in volumes seemingly way in excess of the people living in my home? Could I do it? Could I take one of those dozens of story ideas and turn it into a draft in only one month?

I decided to take on the dare. Prep? Very little.

It was a colorful October in upstate New York, and my husband and I were driving through the mountains enjoying the scenery. He grew up there, you see, in Sullivan County, which was at one time a virtual vacation mecca for the city folk in NYC. By 2015, it had withered to mere shadow of its former fame and success.

Loch Sheldrake is such a town, where once the movie theater sported a line for its weekend feature films, and where nearby rambling resorts like The Browns, the Concord, and Grossinger’s drew capacity crowds. No more. All that remains now is a pizza restaurant and bar on the shores of a lake that really isn’t a lake at all, but more likely a spring. It’s rumored to be “bottomless,” which is why, I’m guessing, Loch Sheldrake earned the urban legend of being the place where the mob traveled to dump their murder victims back in the mid 20th century.

My husband grew up in the area and told me of the legend as we drove through the tiny burg. The seed of an idea took hold, and he became the captive audience forced to listen as I spun a tale on the three-hour drive home.

NaNoWriMo began one week later, and by November 30th, I had written 50,563 words on a supernatural romantic suspense novel my son helped me name: Hearts Unloched.

I’d written the beginning, the middle, and The End, but the book was far from complete. Still, I had a framework — a skeleton of a story on which I could build. And over the next several months, I did just that. The manuscript went off to an editor, my graphic artist sister designed a fantastic cover, and the book went live in March of 2016.

Beginner’s luck? Perhaps. But like a great stone rolling down one of those Catskill mountains, the book took off. It won the 2016 N.Y. Book Festival. The local museum in neighboring Hurleyville invited me to come for a book signing. When I arrived that chilly Sunday afternoon, I was sure I’d be sitting in the drafty old building for three hours by myself. Instead, the book drew a record crowd. I sold out all I’d brought with me, and they had to move my book talk and reading into their auditorium to accommodate the crowd.

Do I credit NaNoWriMo with this success? To a great degree, I do. They made me accountable: committed to write at least 1667 words a day for an entire month, every day, no matter what else was going on in my life. I had writing “buddies” with whom I could share my progress and who helped keep my enthusiasm alive. I turned 58 years old on the twelfth day of November that year.

Like I said, I got a late start.

This year, I’m signed up again (as I have been every year since) to complete a novel I began earlier this year, but had to bench when a badly broken arm — my right arm — put me on the sidelines. I’m going in on November 1st with 30K words already written, and since most of my novels average around 80K words, NaNo should bring me pretty damn close to The End.

Got a story idea? Want to write a novel, a memoir, or a nonfiction book? Sign up for NaNoWriMo this year and git ‘er done. I’m gemwriter on NaNo if you want to buddy up. Good luck!


Claire Gem is a multi-award winning author of numerous essays, short stories, magazine articles, seven novels, and a writer’s resource guide. She resides in New England with her husband, a Boston Terrier, and a rambunctious and delightfully entertaining Persian cat.

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Claire Gem

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