Give me a hey-ho! Give me a Na No! Give me a Wri Mo! And… that’s about as hip as it gets around here, cats and
kittens. But I am genuinely excited about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, a free program happening right now
that encourages novelists of all ages and experiences to spend the month writing,
writing, writing and connecting with other people who write too.
Last month, I asked readers to send me their questions about NaNoWriMo. From Why participate?
to Is the
publishing world against me?
, read on for answers to the most common questions I received.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
I’ve always wondered about NaNoWriMo but have never done it. How can anyone expect to write a whole novel in only 30
days? Correction: How can anyone expect to write a good, cohesive, well-plotted, read-worthy novel in only 30 days?
To me, if anyone is serious about being a writer, this seems like an irresponsible way to start a project, more a
game than a serious endeavor. Can you enlighten me?
First, to clear up a misconception that your Aunt Paige, too, used to have: the object of NaNoWriMo isn’t to produce an
entire novel in the month of November. It’s 50,000 words of a novel — which admittedly is still quite a lot, and I can
understand why it might seem a strange activity for a serious writer. But NaNoWriMo can be a valuable undertaking in a
number of ways.
For writers who struggle to stay on task, having the goal of a certain number of words in a specified period of time can
be a great motivator. For writers who don’t need the push of a deadline, the camaraderie of being on task alongside
thousands of other writers all over the world can inspire. For writers who get stymied by the pressure of wanting to get
every sentence perfect — which for many can make the process labored and even insurmountable — the chance to
write quick and dirty can get the words flowing. Think about it this way: if you allow yourself to simply NaNo for
WriMo’s sake, you can get to the end of the month and bingo: you’ve succeeded. In more ways than one, as it turns out.
All writing practice is worthwhile — even if you don’t reach 50,000 words. And in allowing yourself to take the
pressure of perfection off, you’ll likely get to the end of the month with more words, more story, and better beginnings
to what may one day be that good, cohesive, well-plotted, read-worthy novel.
Some think of NaNoWriMo as a month to plan and prep for. Some use it as an opportunity to take time for writing that
they don’t normally allow themselves. And some, yes, play it as a game and simply have fun. And that, doodlekins, can be
a good thing too. Because what better way to start to create a story that will bring fun to your readers.
Check out the NaNoWriMo page
. It has all sorts of resources for helping you manage your time,
create an outline, develop story ideas, and more.
And then get to it, buttercup! We’re already five days in. Time’s a-wasting.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
I’d love to write, but I don’t know where to start. Jumping in without a guide feels overwhelming, but I’m not sure
what books to read. What do you suggest?
You’re in luck, my sweet and sassy semicolon, because there are a lot of excellent writing guides available.
If you’re looking for emotional encouragement more than nitty-gritty exercises, Elizabeth Gilbert’s personable Big Magic
is an inspiring book to start with. A sort of mystical pep talk,
Gilbert champions everyone’s latent creative impulses and encourages the reader to follow whatever ideas and artistic
mediums appeal to them. Big Magic
makes a nice companion to Julia Cameron’s classic The Artist’s Way
, which pairs a nurturing attitude with
effective daily and weekly practices to keep you writing without the interference of doubt or self-criticism.
If you find Gilbert’s “You are magic!” attitude overwhelming, try Walter Mosley’s straightforward This Is the Year You Write Your Novel
, which shares the NaNoWriMo
sentiment that writing a certain amount every day, even if it amounts to a really crummy novel, is the best way to
learn. Mosley’s simple tips on revision, editing, and establishing a routine are a boon to any beginning writer. Also in
the more pragmatic camp is Stephen King’s evergreen On Writing
, which combines memoir with practical
advice. Like Mosley, King is a phenomenally popular and successful writer, and like Mosley, his underlying instruction
to just keep going has a career’s worth of success to back it up.
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life
and Anne Lamott’s Bird byBird
lie somewhere in between mystical and practical.
Dillard’s musings can feel relentless (“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience
consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.”) but dryly funny and true. Lamott is warmer
without sacrificing the dark feelings that can both inspire and block one from writing. Neither book will give you a
step-by-step guide to writing a novel, but they’re full of hard-earned wisdom and fun to read.
A writing guide isn’t unlike a good therapist, so be picky. Select the voice and content that will serve you best, and
commit to daily reading and writing. Ready set, NaNoGo!
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Dear Aunt Paige,
I've participated in NaNoWriMo for years, but I always just end up stuffing finished manuscripts in drawers or
burying them in folders on my laptop. I just have too many friends who have spent years trying to get their works
published with no success. I think I'm a good writer, but I'm afraid to even try. Is there a feasible path for new
writers to get their books published or is getting a book deal just the writerly equivalent of winning the lottery?
You are not the first or the last aspiring author to feel that way. I'm not going to lie to you, getting published for
the first time isn't easy.
As anyone who works in the publishing industry can tell you, the slush pile is often more of a slush mountain.
Unsolicited pitches and manuscripts arrive in quantities that preclude even the most diligent employee from giving
attention to more than a small fraction of submissions. To have a chance, your submission needs to stand out from the
very beginning. And by that I do not mean that you should pull an Elle Woods and submit your manuscript on pink paper
complete with a spritz of your signature scent. (Unfortunately, you wouldn't be the first.)
Given the long odds, it can be tempting to submit your manuscript to every publisher and literary agent for whom you can
find an email address. Sorry sweets, but they can totally tell, and it isn't doing you any favors. Narrow your list down
to agents and publishers who specialize in books of your genre or style.
I recommend trying to find a literary agent first, but if you decide to submit to publishers directly, don't discount
indie presses! Dirty publishing secret: at the big four publishers, marketing and publicity dollars are only shelled out
for the top books, so landing a book deal with a big publisher is not a guarantee of promotional support. There may be a
small press better suited to your work and they may have more time to devote to your book.
Once you have a short list of agents or publishers to reach out to, it is time to work on your submissions. Your
submissions should be personalized, targeted, and follow all of the particular publisher’s or agent's submission
When it comes to personalizing, being heartfelt is not enough. If you are trying to sell your book, you are no longer
just an author, you are a marketer now too. Surprise! Even if the agents and editors you are working with care about
nothing except literary merit, they are still going to have to convince a sales team that your book is a smart
A smart pitch will do the heavy lifting for them. What is your book's hook? Who is your target audience? What
already published authors and titles would you compare your book to?
Relate your manuscript to books the agent
or publisher has had previous success with. If you have any author friends, see if they are willing to write you a
blurb. If you have a large social media following, make note of it (and get used to the idea of cultivating a persona on
social media if you do become a published author). Use this information to create a 1-2-page elevator pitch.
Make sure that your sample chapters are polished and professional. Pay for a copy-edit if you can afford it or bribe
your grammar nerd friend. No Comic Sans and absolutely no lime green ink.
Marketing yourself can feel icky, but think of the pitch like a resume for your book. Your submission is your book's job
application. And just like with any other job application, sometimes it won't work out for reasons that are not at all
related to your worth or the merit of your book. Don't let a rejection shape your perception of your worth as a writer
and don't let fear of rejection stop you from trying.
P.S. Never pay a publisher to publish your book and never pay for a book marketing package — these deals are not
“self-publishing,” which is a whole different ball game. Those so-called publishers and experts are scam artists who
prey on desperate authors. You are not going to recoup those costs on book sales and they are not going to make your
book a bestseller.