How I Won NaNoWriMo in Just 21 Days of Fiction Writing
And then on Day 22, I published the final work. And it cost me nothing.
Of course, this is unbelievable – and you probably can’t do what I did.
But some of you can – and this is for those who want some real challenge in their lives.
Just put your nay-saying aside for now – because I haven’t told you anything you can pick apart yet. (Yes, I can hear it starting up from here… Just view this with an open mind – forget the clickbait headline – and look to see if you can use any of this in your own approach to writing.)
- 2004 – Won NaNoWriMo, but never published
- 2010 – Won NaNoWriMo, but never published (even though I’d been publishing non-fiction since 2006.)
- 2011 – Failed at NaNoWriMo.
- 2017 – Won at NaNoWriMo and didn’t publish.
- 2018 – Won at NaNoWriMo – and published this one.
So I had some practice at winning. And I also got all those earlier wins rounded up, dusted off, and published this year.
What was different this year…
…and why was publishing so fast – but come on – a whole novel published in one day?
I started a Great Fiction Writing Challenge to test everything I’d been studying for the last couple of years before that about fiction writing. I’d taken a lot of courses and found a lot of books. All those blog posts and articles I wrote up as I went. Even my case studies of TV serials. Just scrounge through my blog and you’ll see me testing this stuff.
Finally, I got what I could out of them, and got to the end of what they could teach me. I worked out that the next step was to just put it into practice and acid-test everything.
I’m on week 47 now. And you can look up how many books I’ve written and published this year.
That was a key point. Writers learn by reading and writing – lots.
The average number of short-stories-as-books I’ve published this year has been two per week. The initial idea was to follow in Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s footsteps to write 50 short stories in a year. And like Heinlein, to publish and keep them in the market.
Self-publishing is so dead simple now, that this is a piece of cake.
It was just over half-way through this year that I made that goal – so decided to set another of double that. I’ve got 5 weeks left in this year, and only need to write 5 more books (which I’ll then publish, of course.)
Planning and Practicing Plumbs the Pipes to Perfection
Yes, you have to line things up to succeed.
I’m neither plotter, nor pantser (nor plantser.) I did do some rudimentary planning.
As I mentioned, I write in short stories. And while I wrote the Hooman Saga Book II, Part 1 in a fairly normal straight-ahead writing, it was with a lot of asking the characters what came next and so on. So I’d been told what the whole arc of this story was, and just had to fill in the words to match.
During this Writing Challenge, I’d actually written enough short stories in that universe to compile an anthology that became the Hooman Saga Part I.
Strengths of Writing Short and Publishing Long
Writing short stories was what I was used to. And these are far easier to write, revise, proof, and publish in a single week than trying to do the same for a 200-page novel.
These are similar to writing blog posts. You write them from the heart, proof, and then publish.
But they had to tie together and makes sense. I had to interview my characters and find out what they thought they were going to do to solve the various plot problems that the last half of Part II would bring up.
(As a sidebar, the way I write a book is to find some great art (on Pixabay.com, usually) and write from that inspiration. Format it to 6×9 cover, title it, then write the marketing hook and start in with the story hook – then just keep going until the story was done.)
For this story, I did the math of it: Four parts, each in three acts, would make 12 books. Keeping to my usual average of 6K words per book – would make 72K. So I didn’t have to finish the entire book in that time, but could get by with a “first draft” that I would add onto later.
As well, I’d already written the first short story, which had multiple story arcs starting up, each left as cliffhangers. But then I’d stalled. My muses and characters weren’t talking to me. By creating the 12 additional covers, then I got them more interested in working this all up. (Like they knew they had job security by helping me.)
In Calibre, I set up empty books, imported the cover for each, and then wrote a few lines in the description of each that told roughly what was supposed to happen in each one.
And I got surprised when I ended up telling the redemption story of the villain in addition to solving the story arc problems of the original main character.
Before NaNoWriMo started, I’d re-read the first story again to remind myself what I still had hanging there, and the elements to work with.
Practicing in Serials
The three weeks before NaNoWriMo started, I wrote three sets of serial short stories that each ended in a cliffhanger that only resolved in next story. And learned quite a bit. One of these lessons was: while a story only needs to be as long as it needs to be, some of these planned stories were better off simply being chapters.
I was happier with my stories by writing them to 6K or longer, as that made a rich story that was more than just a character sketch, or a few action episodes. They followed the arc of a true story. This meant that some of my serial books didn’t live to see the world as their own short story book – but only came alive in the anthology set.
During those three weeks, I got my average number of stories above three per week, and my average words to around 20K or more. (Which gets you up to the Erle Stanley Gardner and H. Bedford-Jones pulp-fiction volume of one million words per year.)
And I also saw that this amount of production would take most of the week.
For the two months prior to Nov 2018, I found that my average words per month was more than 50K per month. So I was completely on track.
Why You Can’t Get There From Here
(Or: don’t try this at home without a good backup.)
Each short story I write is revised, proofed, and published by the end of next day after I write it. I found that I would rather write the whole story out in a few hours than try to do other things in the afternoon and start again the next available time slot.
I also run a working farm, so have to do my chores each day – but these also give me considerable time for inspiration and interviewing characters for how they plan to solve the plot problems. (I can imagine that they are sitting down at a long table, doing a read-through of the script and are telling me what needs to be changed in it.)
Then I just go right ahead and get it all done. I revise as needed through the story, going back and forth until it rolls smoothly. I proof it twice or three times, and then publish.
And then start the next story. Like L’Amour and several pulp authors trained themselves to do.
The model was following the pulp authors – as several of them are known as perennial sellers with no advertising to keep their book on the stands. That’s the ideal (while this year mostly just accomplished getting the pulp writer volume production genned in as a habit.)
Note: Wikipedia says on their page of Prolific Authors that once you’ve written over a hundred stories, you can be submitted for inclusion. Most authors don’t reach that. Including the anthologies (which several authors there do) I reached that amount earlier this year, somewhere in the last couple of months or more ago – have to look it up…
Why You Can’t Do This:
You probably don’t have the wide skillset I’ve built over 6 decades of living:
- I’m a trained graphic artist, so designing covers is fairly simple.
- I’ve done extensive grammar training. Extensive.
- I have always had a very vivid imagination, which has only gotten worse.
- I’ve already published several hundred non-fiction books, so know all the fast/cheap/effective ways to publish for only sweat equity.
- Daily/regular blogging for several years has refined my “voice” and volume.
If you’ve got a matching skillset, then you know how “easy” it is to write and publish. Otherwise, you’re paying for editing, covers, and proofing.
And for NaNoWriMo and most of the last year, I put just about everything except the farm chores aside to write and publish fiction. (Why it’s called The Great Fiction Writing Challenge.)
That doesn’t mean marketing or advertising. It means lots of writing, and publishing wide, letting the organics take care of sales while I just hone the writing.
The results were that by the start of NaNoWriMo, I knew that I could write three short stories per week, about 18K words, and publish each of them. (And get a few sales along the way.)
And I did.
The Drawbacks – Plenty
It’s something that you have to really be into. A million words a year means you are really devoted to your art. And you have a system that will support you and cover your bills in the background while you simply do what you love.
Getting paid to play baseball is simple to say, but those people who have spent their lives up to that point devoted to training themselves and performing at their best so they can get a contract that will pay them as long as they don’t get injured and can keep performing at their best.
But for a month, if you can line up your life, then NaNoWriMo can let you sample the world of the pro writer.
If you’re like me, a little crazy and adventurous, you can take a year and devote to simply testing how the real world works, not these crazy things people sell us. (Sturgeon’s “90% crud” law.)
So, again, you probably can’t do this. But – the vast majority of authors on Amazon don’t even cover the cost of producing their few books. The percent of authors who make over $50K annually on Amazon is just .4% of all the authors who have books up there. And these days, that isn’t enough to support a family in most cities, and isn’t enough for an individual to live in NYC on average.
Writing has to be a joy. You have to love writing and love reading so you can improve your writing. My effort in this past year has been to streamline the process so a writer can simply write. (And I’ve found I’ve been missing the joy of writing just during these past few days – the characters keep coming to me with their stories…)
Most writers have a day job that they put up with. They all enjoy writing more. The idea I’ve followed is to trace down the really successful authors, find out how they did what they did, and then test to see if that can be done today.
The main thing I’ve accomplished in this year is to form the production habits that will generate the volume of writing that matches how these successful authors (Louis L’Amour, Erle Stanley Gardner, Robert E. Howard, Frederick “Max Brand” Faust) all maintained as consistent output.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of how fiction writers can earn real income – other than to find out that our modern authors don’t do it just by writing fiction. They do it by running a business – essentially another job. But instead of spending part time on their love, and full time on their job, they reverse it. And success means earning enough from your writing to support you spending more time doing it than your side jobs.
The successful authors are content creators and they run a content business on the side.
Just the way things are.
Exceptions That Proved the Rules
I had 12 covers and an overall plan for the book.
At the end of the 6th book, I saw that the intensity of the action didn’t need two of the story-sections (books) that I’d laid out. It would screw up the pace.
So I simply started the 7th book (number 9 in the series.) the 10th was also unnecessary, but I’d already cranked out over 50K words. Jumping to number 11, I saw as I ended this book that the final book in the series didn’t really have enough material to fill out a book on its own. It was just supposed to tie up all the loose ends and was supposed to be anti-climatic.) So that just became the final two chapters. And that whole 11th book came in at over 12K words.
But the books were done. I was done.
In 20 days.
In the 21st day I submitted the text file to NaNoWriMo and my book was validated as a winner.
Since I’d already proofed and published all the short stories individually, the anthology of all these books together only took a day to assemble and publish on its own. Done. Published.
So now you know.
Still have those last 5 books to write and publish in order to make my 100 short stories in a year, and now plan to spend December simply reviewing what I’ve learned through this year – and writing a non-fiction book (and course) that lays out the lessons from this Challenge.
This next year, I’m going to cut back to “only” writing-publishing a single fiction short story while I work on getting the needed breakthroughs in Marketing – and increase my income markedly.
Lots more “Really Simple Writing and Publishing” series, and each written backwards from the idea of creating a course out of them – which becomes a series of short and long courses, as well as anthologies and bundles, etc.
So – it can be done.
Here’s my stats from NaNoWriMo.
And wishing you all the success you deserve.
PS. Now you can tear it apart and work out what doesn’t work for you. You’re welcome.
Next is for you to share it with people who you think can benefit from this – people who want to up their game and have a challenge in their lives.
Just use the social links below – or better: email it to them.
Luck to us all.
Also published on Medium.