Someone in my writing group shared an anthology call-for-submissions for stories about female pirates. I didn't usually write stories based on prompts, but I found I had an idea for story called Belt Three, about a space pirate in a setting in which the planets had been destroyed by alien robots. The story would be told from the point of view of someone the pirate kidnaps, and we'd see that she was using her piracy to fund a personal crusade against the aliens.
The anthology politely rejected the story, saying that the focus wasn't sufficiently on the female pirate character. (Which was fair--the prisoner I'd intended just as a point-of-view character had ended up being co-protagonist.) Meanwhile, several members of my writing group gave the same feedback: that it didn't read like a short story so much as the start of a novel.
I'd already been introduced to my local NaNoWriMo community and was thinking of taking the plunge that year. Based on the feedback on my short story, I decided to make that my NaNo project: treat the short story as the start of a novel and extend it by 50,000 words.
I started November with the first couple of chapters already written (but not counting these towards the word count I needed to reach), and only a vague plan. I took my space pirate and her prisoner and sent them on a quest for a macguffin, and came up with some antagonists to chase them. There was all the usual NaNo-novel ridiculousness: a character with a verbal tic specifically designed to increase my word count, a scene in which I lovingly described a meal because I was hungry when I wrote it, characters named after snacks I was eating while I wrote, scenes that ended abruptly with [Add more here]. Turning off the inner editor in order to write 1666 words every day comes more easily to some writers than others, and I'm one of the ones for whom it's difficult. But I kept at it, spent a lot of time in the public library, drank a lot of coffee, and eventually succeeded. Not a finished novel, but 50,000 words of more-or-less coherent text.
I spent the next couple of months writing at a slower pace until I'd got an ending, bringing my total
up to about 80,000 words, and then the next couple of years revising. And by revising, I mean I threw out the NaNoWriMo draft and started from scratch. The very approximate story structure is the same, but the details and all the actual text are new. But I couldn't have written that new, decent novel without having written the NaNoWriMo draft first.
After several rewrites, I eventually had a novel I thought was good enough to publish. It was rejected by a few agents, and then I saw that Harper Voyager had an open submissions window for unagented manuscripts, and sent it directly to them. And, a few months later, I was astonished to receive an email saying that Harper Voyager wanted to publish the novel! Belt Three came out in June 2015, six years after I wrote the original short story.
NaNoWriMo is more helpful for some writers than for others, and it might be more helpful at some places in your writing career than others. Back in 2009 I was in exactly the right place for it: I had an idea that I thought was novel-worthy, but I'd never written a novel-length work before and needed to prove to myself that I could. In the years since then I was mostly too busy revising Belt Three or working on other projects to stop for NaNoWriMo. This year, though, I find I'm in a place where a bit of peer pressure to get a terrible first draft out quickly is exactly what I need, so I've signed up for NaNoWriMo again. If it's the right thing for you this year, I hope you'll join me!
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