So You’re Participating In NaNoWriMo

This is a re-post, slightly updated.

***

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is all about getting creative writers motivated to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, is ending today. If you’ve been participating in this, awesome. Go you.

NaNoWriMo

Seriously, good for you. 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 find 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 is completed, all they have to do is run spellcheck once and that’s it — their novel is finished.

No. No no no. Your work has only just begun.

First of all, 50,000 words is not necessarily a proper novel; depending on your genre, that might only be a novella — which isn’t a bad thing, 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 (and, honestly, 50,000 is a great goal to aim for, but I’d advise you not to hamper yourself by insisting that you fit the story you’re trying to tell into a 50,000-word box if it’s meant to be longer).

This piece by Chuck Sambuchino is a great reference for typical 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.”

Conversely, you shouldn’t pad out what you have just to meet a word count benchmark. Chances are you’ll edit that out anyway as superfluous fluff (more on that in a minute). Tell the story and don’t worry so much about the word count. Just be aware it will affect how you market the book, whether to an agent or publisher or, if you go the indie author route, to readers.

If November is 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 not finished 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 you think. Four to six people is a good number of beta readers, 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 you’re no longer seeing. 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 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.

If and when 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 or that, and you want a real artist to put together an eye-catching cover that will attract readers’ attention.

Services such as Kindle Direct Publishing 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. Chances are, they’re not.

An aside: yes, these people will cost you money. 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. Prepare 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. For now, it’s time for you to get back to work. Go write something!

Unsolicited Advice

Over the past several weeks I’ve found myself engaged in numerous conversations about the craft and business of writing, and it got me thinking about how I started out and how I fumbled around because of all the things I didn’t know.

(There’s still a ton of things I don’t know, BTW. Indie authorship still is and I suspect always will be a learning process. If I feel I’m not learning anything new, that’s the time to start worrying.)

So I decided to jot down various points I’ve discussed with other authors, established and aspiring, as a sort of living master post of advice to writers — and I’m going to stress now that these are all my thoughts and opinions and they should not be taken as gospel. In fact, I’ll make that my first point…

  • No one’s rules of writing are the be-all and end-all and should not be taken at face value. What works for one writer might not work for another, so figure out what does work and adopt it, and ignore any advice that doesn’t work for you.
  • You do NOT have to write EVERY DAY. Get that out of your head now. I know authors love to throw that one out — “You must write every single day! Even if you don’t feel like it!” — but it’s BS. Artists are not machines. Our creative energy ebbs and flows and it is not limitless. Sometimes what you need is to step away from your project, go do something else, and clear your head. It is okay to not write every single day.
  • That said, you do need to write. I know that seems like an absurdly obvious statement, but I’ve met so many aspiring writers (emphasis on aspiring) who spend more time building their social media presence (more on that later) or world-building or polishing their outlines than actually writing their book. I don’t know if they have a serious procrastination problem or a fear of failure or what, but they seem destined to always be in pre-writer mode and will never actually finish a project. Don’t be that person. Write your story.
  • Cover art featuring CG pseudo humans. My god, don’t. They are always, always terrible and cheap-looking. Note that I am not talking about digital art as a medium, I am talking specifically about anything that features a fakey, cheesy, PlayStation One-era video game cut scene-quality figure. I don’t want to pick on any one cover as an example, so instead I’ll send you over to Lousy Book Covers so you can bask in the awfulness of the site’s “pseudohuman” tag.
  • When you’re looking around at publishers and small presses in particular, remember the Neil Gaiman rule: money flows toward the author. If you’re asked to shell out money for anything — editing, formatting, cover art, printing, distribution — you’re either dealing with a shady publisher or a self-publishing platform masquerading as a publisher. When dealing with any entity calling itself a publisher, your sole responsibility as the author is to write the book, not finance its production.
  • On a related note: there is a predatory cottage industry that’s sprung up around indie authorship — everything from writing contests to pay-to-play fake awards to marketing and publicity services, all designed to capitalize on authors’ desperation to succeed. Be skeptical of anyone who asks you for money, and question the value of whatever they’re offering.
  • Sending press releases about your book to the media is the second biggest waste of your valuable marketing time. I say that as someone who worked in the media for 15 years. Large outlets don’t care about Joe Nobody releasing his self-published book because they have bigger fish to fry, and smaller outlets need to be convinced to care because a lot of people are competing for not a lot of space, so the outlet is going to be very particular about what they give free publicity to. Besides, even if you do get some ink, chances are you’re only going to reach a tiny fraction of your target audience. It’s just not the best ROI.
  • The biggest waste of your marketing time? Throwing up promotional posts on any Facebook page that claims to connect writers with readers. They don’t. They’re all just echo chambers, nothing but authors all shouting “Buy my book!” to other authors too busy also shouting “Buy my book!” to give a toss about what everyone else is pitching.
  • Speaking of social media, there is this (to my mind) baffling philosophy among new writers that before they release their first novel, they first have to create a massive online following so they have a fanbase ready to scoop up their book when it drops. If you’re an as-yet-unpublished author and you’re spending as much time on establishing an online presence as you are on finishing your first book, STOP DOING THAT and finish your damn book. One, publishers and agents considering your work are going to consider your work, not how many followers you have on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Two, if you’re going the indie author route, you can only string people along for so long. If your release date is weeks away, and is firm, and you have good stuff like excerpts and cover art to post to rev up interest, then go for it, but you can’t start talking yourself up months or even years in advance and expect everyone to stick around until you finally get off your ass and finish your book.
  • Part of this job is talking yourself up, but you can do that without sacrificing honesty or indulging in puffery and self-aggrandizement. Getting a positive review from one guy in Australia does not make you an “internationally renowned author.” Receiving a pay-to-play award from some nonentity does not make you an “award-winning writer.” Cracking the top twenty of some tiny, obscure subcategory on Amazon does not make you a “best-selling author.” You should be able to promote your work based on its merits rather than front-loading your pitches with artificial accolades.
  • Also? Avoid backdoor promos of your work. I belong to several online writer groups and some of them have a strict “no self-promotion” policy to keep the spam down, but there is always that one guy who starts every post with, “As the writer of the Such-and-Such Trilogy, I think…” There’s a time and place for self-promotion; the time is not all the time and the place is not everywhere.
  • Writing the middles of stories sucks. Beginnings and endings, when you’re setting all your pins up and then knocking them down, have an energy to them. Middles, when the ball is rolling down the alley, are boring. I always struggle during the second act, as do a lot of writers. If this is you, take heart — you are not alone.
  • Quality, not quantity. It’s true that indie authors need to be fairly prolific, and putting out a decent number of books in a relatively tight time frame can be very beneficial, but it’s not a contest to see how many books you can churn out. Stephen King, considered one of the most prolific writers of the modern age, has produced 59 novels — over the course of 44 years. That’s about 1.3 books released per year. And he has the luxury of being able to do nothing but write. Not everyone can be Terry Pratchett.
  • Do not ever dub yourself the King/Queen of (Insert Genre Here). Just don’t. It’s pretentious and presumptuous as hell, more so if you’re producing crap. Let someone else give you an impressive sounding title after you’ve earned it.
  • Test readers. Get some. Use them. Listen to them. Having test readers is not creating art by committee, as I’ve heard some claim. As the author, you quickly grow blind to your own story’s flaws and faults, and the best thing you can do is get fresh eyes and outside opinions on your work. That does not mean you have to implement every suggestion you receive — you are still the ultimate arbiter here — but test readers are your eventual reading audience in miniature; their issues with your book might well reflect issues others are going to have with it.

Have any tips or advice for writers? Post them in the comments section!

So You’re Participating In NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is all about getting creative writers motivated to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. If you’re participating in this, awesome. Go you. Pound on your keyboard until it begs for mercy.

NaNoWriMo

Seriously, good for you. 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 find 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 is completed, all they have to do is run spellcheck once and that’s it — their novel is finished.

No. No no no. Your work has only just begun.

First of all, 50,000 words is actually not necessarily a novel; depending on your genre, that might only be a novella — which isn’t a bad thing, 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 (and, honestly, 50,000 is a great goal to aim for, but I’d advise you not to hamper yourself by insisting that you fit the story you’re trying to tell into a 50,000 word box if it’s meant to be longer).

This piece by Chuck Sambuchino is a great reference for typical 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.”

Conversely, you shouldn’t pad out what you have just to meet a word count benchmark. Chances are you’ll edit that out anyway as superfluous fluff (more on that in a minute). Tell the story and don’t worry so much about the word count. Just be aware it will affect how you market the book, whether to an agent or publisher or, if you go the indie author route, to readers.

If November is 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 not finished 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 you 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 you’re no longer seeing. 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 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.

If and when 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 or 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.

An aside: yes, these people will cost you money. 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. Prepare 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. For now, it’s time for you to get back to work. Go write something!