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Writing a novel during NaNoWriMo: What next?

Leah McClellan Colors - A Novel

Here’s what can happen if you’re writing a novel during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which is in progress right now.  

Last year, I wrote almost 80,000 words and figured I had a great rough draft. But during my revisions, I was overwhelmed with the complexity. So many characters, themes, and subplots. I couldn’t see how to redraft it, and I got mired down in research.

But another idea kept bugging me, and in April I decided to take a break and give it a shot. A short story emerged, and I couldn’t stop. The characters came to life, and the more I wrote, the more the narrative unfolded, almost without effort at times.

The main characters are essentially from last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, but the theme is clear. The goals are clear. The conflicts emerged. It was the story I wanted to write, and it took that practice run during NaNoWriMo to get there. To peel away the non-essentials and get to the point, to the real story.

The plot is completely different, though, and I might still be able to do something with the original attempt. But it doesn’t matter either way because I’ve captured the essential story. It’s like taking 1000 photographs and only one is exactly right.

So I’ve finished a novel, and the exuberant emotions that go with it are long since gone.


Writing a novel, as far as I’m concerned, is the fun part. The exciting part. Even the early revisions were enjoyable and, of course, I adored the copyediting stage. Slashing wordiness is my speciality, after all, and I swung my sword with a vengeance.

The work—or when writing didn’t feel like fun anymore—set in when I thought I was done and realized I wasn’t. That was back in September. Friends reassured me and said I was being too nit-picky, too worried, too anxious. Maybe I was.

The thing is, I know what I know. I knew I had to listen to that nagging doubt rather than rest on the praise and encouragement of well-meaning friends. Besides, I could clearly see the problems that had to be fixed. 

Sure, it’s been “good enough.” But the last stage was to have an editor look at it, and that’s exactly what I did. More work, but this time I finally felt satisfied and (mostly) enjoyed the process once again.

I originally decided to go with traditional publishing.

And that meant writing a lot of queries to agents. And rewriting them. Writing a good query letter is no mystery, and there’s plenty of advice online and even articles written by agents about what, exactly, they’re looking for in a query. 

But it’s not easy. I had to make sure my queries had a strong hook to grab an agent’s attention. Plus I had to condense 114K words into 150-300 or so. Ouch. But let me tell you, when you do that (and do it well), you can see where your novel might be lacking something. Or not.

And I’ve had a lot of rejections, positive and encouraging though some of them were. If my queries were that bad, I figure, I wouldn’t have received the responses I did, especially since I targeted well-known agents in fairly large literary agencies. So it wasn’t really a loss. And most got back to me within a few days or a week or two, much faster than I expected.

On top of queries there’s a one-page synopsis that some agents require. Or a three-page synopsis. When condensing your own novel, it’s necessary to be objective. But that’s hard as the author because I know a lot about my characters, but not everything is in the novel. And it’s easy to get into details that don’t matter. But I did it.

I stopped with the queries after writing almost 20 over the course of two weeks. I’m impatient, what can I say?

And I’ve finally chosen to go indie.

Which, of course, means a lot of work of a different kind. A book cover and graphics. Blurbs. Deciding the best route to take. Formatting. Lots of research. The marketing. But it’s not any more work than if I went the traditional route.

Besides, many literary agents are not opposed to taking on a self-published author. Many are quite interested, in fact, depending on how well the book is selling and other factors. And for me, it means I’m not closing that door. It will still require a lot of work and careful planning—if I eventually want to make a switch. But I might not want to, even if asked, as Hugh Howey was (should I be so fortunate!).

I’m looking at it like this: in the time it takes to query agents, I could write the sequel. And that’s the main reason for making the switch.

No matter which way you look at, writing a novel and publishing it is work.

A lot of work. And don’t believe for a second that traditional publishing means less work: it doesn’t. You still have to do marketing and readings and everything an indie publisher does—and you have to do it on a publisher’s timeline.

Now maybe you’ve written something so outstanding that it sells by word of mouth. But that only rarely happens whether self-published or not (Fifty Shades of Gray is a good example of word-of-mouth popularity before it was picked up by an agent). Sure, you’ll get a little publicity in traditional publishing early on, if this is your first novel. But if your novel isn’t good enough to create major earnings for the publisher, and if you’re not able or willing to do a lot of marketing yourself, you won’t get much.

If you can afford to pay someone to do the work, or even part of it, no matter what choice you make, that obviously makes things easier. And it’s always best to get professional help unless you have experience with some facet or other of self-publishing. But even for me, with my years of experience in copyediting, it’s always best to get a second set of eyes. A blog post is one thing. But a long novel? Even my eyes glazed over and missed things my editor caught.

So when will Colors be available? Very soon. By the end of November. I’m not putting a date on it because, well, there’s a lot of work involved. Of course.

You can get on the notification list right here and get a very special price. 

UPDATE: Now available on Amazon.

Maybe I’m getting a little excited again now that I’m releasing it into the world. I can see my characters getting nervous. “Do I look all right? asks Autumn. She’s looking in a mirror and fussing with her thick auburn hair. Jory rolls his eyes at me and says to get it done already so I can start on the sequel. See, he has a lot he wants to say, and he didn’t get the chance in Colors. But he will in Spectrum.

Comments and questions are always welcome! How is your novel going? 

2 comments… add one
  • Thank you Leah. And thanks for taking the time to relate the whole story.
    I am doing NaNoWriMo right now and my story feels just like the first one you described. I already know it will need a lot of editing, but I’ll keep going for now. I’m not sure where I’m going with it and I think that’s mainly because I didn’t have a complete outline before I started, and now there isn’t time. I just have to keep writing for now.
    But I have written four novels now by starting with NaNoWriMo then I take almost the rest of the year knocking the story into shape, formatting, and doing the cover. All have been published in CreateSpace and Smashwords, and I’m happy with that. They are four books in The Maddison Family Series: 1. The Eleventh Hour. 2. The Greatest Thing; 3. Where There’s a Will; and (just out) 4. Born Lucky.
    Thanks again for your story. Robbie McCauley

    • Hi Robbie,

      Glad you can relate! I agree: keep going. I don’t think any kind of writing is ever a waste of time. It’s always a learning or development process, as long as we look at it that way. I didn’t have an outline with last year’s Nano novel either or some kind of quest or goal in mind. I find it hard to outline before I start writing, but I think having a basic idea of the quest/journey is a good idea. But once I have the gist of things worked out—a really rough draft that hardly fits together—then I can put it into an outline. I had to do that with the current novel even though it went so well. That “saggy middle” was the problem plus upping the stakes and the conflicts and a few other things.

      Thanks for sharing! And I’ll try to check out your series if I get time; hopefully others will too.


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