I was 33 when I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo 2004.
I needed something to distract me from the longest November in the history of Novembers–before my daughter Ruby was born on December 8th that year.
So, in 2004, I did it. I wrote like a fiend every day for a month and I finished the first draft of my first novel. It really sucked. Like, really, really, really sucked. But I did it.
And doing it was magical for me, because once I knew I could write a novel, I knew I could learn to write one well.
But all that mattered to me on November 30, 2004 was that I wrote my first novel.
Then I gave it an edit and I was so proud of myself.
To celebrate, I sent out a round of agent query letters. This was in the olden days of the early aughties, when you still had to send an actual letter with photocopied pages and a SASE through the postal service.
I expected a long wait time, while these agents read the sample of my masterpiece and considered how they might best help me to become a bestselling superstar.
Yeah. I was fully prepared to take the world by storm.
What actually happened was that my mailbox filled, rather quickly, with a flurry of little slips of paper (agents didn’t even give a whole sheet to queries they insta-bounced) that said something along the lines of:
Thanks for sending in your work. It’s not for me, but keep trying.
What that sounded like to me was more like this:
Hey, Shaunta! You suck. Give it up now. Don’t make me, or any other agent, read another word of your very, very bad writing..
Best of luck finding some other career. May I suggest being a teacher? That’s your Plan B, right? Right.
What I’m saying is, its hard to write your story.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And the idea that you can do it in 30 days, instead of slogging on for months and months — or even years — is tempting. Trust me, I know.
It’s like this shining beacon that promises all of the good stuff now. But here’s something that I guess someone ought to tell you: You might finish your first draft this November, but it takes a lot longer than that to produce a work of fiction that’s fit for public consumption.
In fact, it took me longer to make that first book readable because I rushed it out.
NaNoWriMo was worth it, because knowing I could write a novel at all was a game changer for me. But I’m not sure that it’s a sustainable method for creating a writing career.
In reality, if you just want to tell a story once a year, NaNoWriMo is great. But if you want to become a professional-level novelist? You need to slow down.
The big reason is because what you write during NaNoWriMo is just a good start. I bet you’re great at starts.
We are the collectors of good starts, when what we need to be is the perpetrators of strong finishes.
NaNoWriMo is great for pushing writers past the start, through the middle, straight to the end. To the finish.
And that’s the only real secret to being a successful writer: You have to finish. And you have to be willing to keep finishing and keep finishing.
A few years after that 2004 NaNoWriMo, I’d studied Creative Writing at the university level. I’d written three more books. None of them were publishable, but each one was better than the last.
None of them took less than a year to write and revise.
Then, in 2010, I finished another story.
And I sent out another round of query letters (electronic this time.) And instead of a shower of ‘dear author’ form letters, I found an agent.
Actually, in addition to a shower of ‘dear author’ form letters, I found an agent. And she found me a publisher. That publisher was an imprint of Penguin and they bought two of my books.
Learning to be a finisher took me from being someone who wrote ‘write a novel’ at the top of every New Year’s Resolution list to being a Writer.
My mission is to help you make that leap from being someone who wants to write, to someone who is a writer. I’m so happy to be on this journey with you. I truly believe that a good story, well told, can change the world.
In fact, very little else ever has. I can’t wait to see yours do its thing.
If you’ve never finished writing a novel, NaNoWriMo might be the thing that gets you there the first time, too. If you’re going to give it a shot, I want to teach you some things I wish I’d known that first time around.
These things would have helped me get from that first terrible first draft to being a published author faster.
I know that May might seem like a weird time to offer them — but since I really don’t think that it’s possible to start from scratch and actually write a decent book in thirty days, I’m hoping to convince you to start planning now.
Start with a plan
I can’t stress this one enough. If you’re going to try to write as fast as NaNoWriMo requires, having a road map through that story will make all the difference. My favorite way of doing that is with a system we call How to Develop + Test a Story Idea, or H2DSI.
How to Develop + Test a Story Idea
Prepare to Turn Yourself into an Idea MACHINE!
Don’t edit until you’re finished with your first draft
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of trying to edit while you’re writing a first draft.
I have this theory: writing is so hard that the writer’s brain will go to any length to make the writer feel like they’re writing, when really, they are not. Editing is the number one culprit.
Because it makes so much sense to think that you can’t move forward if what you’ve already written sucks.
Lock your Inner Editor in a cage until you’re ready for her to do her thing.
Why Writers Need to be Imperfect
Put your inner editor in her place so you create something you can improve on.
Remember that you’re the boss of this thing
Writing is your job. It’s your work.
Pull out a calendar and write down your writing schedule for this week. In ink. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month, know that you’re going to need two or three hours a day, every day, and find them. Commit to them.
FRED (the Folder for Reaching the End of your Draft) is the best tool I know for managing your writing time.
Start with a Plot
Okay, so maybe this is against the rules. But I’m a rebel. I’ve always been one.
If your goal is to win NaNoWriMo by following the rules, go for it. Go in without a plot. But if your goal is to use NaNoWriMo to finish something that might be worth revising into something readable — break the rules.
Start with a plot. Here’s exactly how I do it.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.