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50,000 words or Bust: Interviews with Three Authors Who Published Their NaNoWriMo Works

Each November writers all over the world, both professional and aspiring authors, embark on a journey to reach 50,000 words by November 30th. The word count works out to roughly 1,667 words a day. It’s a marathon writing event. You must spit the words out on the page without second guessing yourself as there’s always time to edit after November. I’ve participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge for five years, and it’s always the best writing motivator. Today I’m chatting with three authors who completed the NaNoWriMo challenge and published their novels.

Donna Gephart: I did NaNoWriMo in 2009. I’d been struggling to come up with my next book when I’d read about NaNoWriMo online about two days before it was to begin. That didn’t give me a lot of time to prepare! I went to our local library and brainstormed ideas for two hours. About one minute before I was ready to leave, I came up with a title: Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen. The day before NaNoWriMo, I figured out that if Olivia Bean (whoever she was) liked trivia, then she might like the TV quiz show Jeopardy!. From there I learned about Kids Week on Jeopardy! and knew that would be Olivia’s external quest. The internal quest was a little tougher. Turns out she needed to come to terms with who her father really was and why he left the family two years earlier.

By some miracle, I completed the entire novel in 29 days. It’s still hard to believe. And my agent tells me to remind people that it took me months to revise it. My editor at Delacorte Press (As If Being 12 3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! and How to Survive Middle School) was a huge Jeopardy! fan and had even taken the online test herself. She enjoyed Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen and made an offer immediately.

It’s been a fun book to work on (research included dozens of trivia books and books written by Jeopardy! champs). One of those champs — Ken Jennings — was kind enough to write a blurb for the back cover.

Jessica Burkhart: I learned about NaNoWriMo via the Internet. It sounded like the perfect thing for me! I’d never written novel length fiction until my first NaNoWriMo in 2006. I was a magazine writer and most of my pieces were short — under 1500 words. I learned about NaNoWriMo quite late — October of that year — and had no idea what to write! I had days to come up with an idea and I had the worst case of writer’s block.

Then, an idea hit. What if I wrote about what I wanted to do as a tween? But I didn’t know if writing about horses was something I could do. Six years prior, at the age of thirteen, I’d undergone life-saving spinal surgery for severe scoliosis. I gained four inches in height, two titanium rods in my spine, and a handful of screws. I lost the ability to ever ride horses again. At first, I thought, I’ll just ignore the doctors and ride anyway! It was the most shocking thing when I stood beside my horse and just stared at her. I was afraid. The doctor’s warnings of “You could become paralyzed if you ride and fall off” rang through my head.

Now, six years later, the idea of writing Canterwood Crest wouldn’t go away. What if I could live vicariously through my characters? What if writing about riding took me back to Horse World? I got my answer on November 1, 2006. I opened a blank Word document, started writing, and didn’t stop. Soon, I was immersed in a twelve-year old girl’s world. A girl who left home for boarding school and wanted to chase her dream of becoming a professional equestrian. My character, Sasha Silver, had a little bit of me inside of her.

My publication journey was unusual. I kept a blog during my NaNoWriMo experience and on December 1, 2006, I blogged that I just finished my novel and wrote up its summary. Days later, I got an e-mail from an agent who said she liked my work and wanted to see my manuscript. Um, SCAM! Agents don’t email authors, right? I contacted my published author acquaintances and told them the agent’s name. They said she was a legit agent at one of the top literary agencies in NYC.

I wanted to send her my novel immediately, but I’d just finished writing it. I had to revise and edit. I wrote the agent back and told her I’d have it off to her within two weeks. I sent it in late December and signed with my ex-agent in January 2007. My ex-agent helped me revise the book, , until May. She sent the book on submission and within 10 days we had interest from several publishing houses.

Finally, we decided to go with Simon & Schuster. They felt like the perfect home for AND they didn’t want one book. They wanted four! That later turned into eight. Then twelve. Sixteen. Finally, twenty. The first book published in January 2009 and the final book will hit stores in October 2013.

 Marissa Meyer: A friend told me about it the first week of December in 2005. Of course, it had just ended and I was so sad that I missed it, as I’ve always loved pushing myself with just these sorts of challenges. So by the time November 2006 came around, I was ready for it.

Getting a first draft written fast is a technique that really works for me. It creates this awesome momentum and knowing that you don’t have the luxury of being stuck for an extended period of time means that your brain is forced to come up with some really fun and interesting plot twists to keep things moving along. Of course, the hard work comes in revisions, but it’s a lot easier to revise a terrible first draft than it is to revise a blank page, and that’s precisely what NaNo excels at.

The revision road was a little long and treacherous — it took me two years of rewriting, revising, and editing before I was really happy with the manuscript. But after that things happened for me very quickly. I queried about a dozen agents and two months later I had offers of representation from three, including my #1 dream agent. She and I worked on the submission package for Cinder and The Lunar Chronicles for two weeks, and then she went out to publishers on a Friday. We had our first offer the following Monday, which happened to be November 1, 2010, exactly two years after I’d started writing the novel!

Writing this month? Check out these tips.

Donna: To motivate me to actually show up at my keyboard and write every day, I blogged daily and included daily word counts. Nothing like public humiliation to make one work harder. I also included a daily trivia question on my blog. Here are 6-1/2 Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo.

Jessica: Remember one thing: You only have 30 days and they’ll go by SO fast! You have NO time to edit, so don’t even try. Just write! When you feel like you’re not going to make it at week two, keep going! When you hit 50,000 words, give yourself a reward. Buy a new DVD set you’ve been wanting or go out to dinner with the friends you probably haven’t seen all month. Make sure to give your novel time to breathe. Put it away for December. In January, come back to it and you’ll have a fresh pair of eyes to spot errors and whip it into shape before you begin querying agents.

Marissa: Have some sort of plan. It doesn’t have to be a fully detailed outline and elaborate character sketches, but having some idea of what you’re going to be writing about and some of the major plot points you want to hit will help you keep pushing forward when you get stuck. Also, I think it’s really important to reach The End, so even if it’s clear your novel is going to go beyond the 50,000-word mark, skip to the end or write some very skeletal chapters, anything to make sure you’re resolving the plot before NaNo is over. Trust me, it will make it a lot easier to go back and fill in the blanks later!

Good luck with your novels, everyone! If you need inspiration, be sure to check out the collaborative NaNoWriMo board from several YA authors.

— Jennifer Rummel, currently reading The Twelve Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen

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I'm a YA Librarian who love love loves books and reading. My favorite types of books include mysteries, romance, thrillers, and spy books. I adore crafty books, regency romances, and cozy mysteries. When I'm not reading or talking about books, I love baking, crafting, and watching the Celtics.

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