Notes on NaNoWriMo: From first draft to publication


17 November 2023
Are you doing NaNoWroMo this year? Author C.S.E. Cooney reflects on what happened after writing her NaNo novel .

Dear writer friends,

Are you, like me, attempting NaNoWriMo 2023?

Are you, like me, a bit nervous about it?

I mean, I haven’t tried – really tried – to write 50,000 words in a month since 2009, when I 'won' NaNoWriMo by completing the first draft of what was then called Miscellaneous Stones: Assassin. (LOL. The poor thing went through several working titles, but I’m still very fond of the original.)

In 2022, Saint Death’s Daughter, the book that that rough draft became, was published by Solaris Press. That’s 12 drafts, 12+ years, and about billion words later, but you know what? I’m not complaining. (Okay, so I complained a lot in that decade and change, but I’m not complaining now. It all worked out, you see?)

I wrote a lot of other things in the interim, in between new drafts of my NaNoWriMo novel. I learned so much about writing, my process, the speculative genre, and the wider literary community in the meantime. But in all those years, among all my other interests, I could never quite manage to let go of my original idea: what if the heroine of a fantasy novel could not use violence to solve any of the problems of a fantasy novel? What if my heroine, growing up in a family of glamorous assassins, was allergic to violence?

Oh, the projectile vomiting that abounded in that first draft! The rashes! The itches! The bloody noses! Oh, the Tim Burtonesque set pieces, the Grand Guignol aesthetic, the severed heads that rolled through those early scenes! How ghoulish and gleeful my first draft was, as I Jackson Pollocked my way through the pages.

Hardly anything remains of that draft except my wisp of a story idea. All right, and I kept the weird names of all the main characters because they make me laugh - but on the advice of a reader, I gave them all nicknames to make them seem more normal. (Also, the general 'Bildungsroman' air in the narrative arc stuck around. Couldn’t help that.) But every subsequent draft forced me to go deeper, taught me something newer and stranger about the story and the world. Draft eight got me my agent Marcus Hoffmann. Draft ten got me my editor Kate Coe at Solaris. Draft twelve, well… twelve’s now out in paperback. It’s pink. Very pink. Bright pink. Can’t miss it. Has skeletons. Super-cute.

Right up until that final draft – as often as I wanted to throw my novel against the wall – the process kept surprising and delighting me.

But that first draft, though, back in 2009? That was the giddiest.

I mean, I could write anything – anything! – and it was all okay, because who was going to see it? What did it all mean? What did it matter? The only thing that mattered was words on the page and the fact that it was all in good fun.

Since 2009 I’ve learned to place great value, perhaps the greatest, on having fun while writing. What a gift it is. What a glatisant. How I pursue it!

This year, the NaNoWriMo stakes feel a bit higher for me. First of all, I’m older and more anxious. Second of all, I’m on a deadline – yes, a deadline! – for the second novel in the Saint Death series: Saint Death’s Herald. I’m already 65,000+ words in, but I need to finish it, like, yesterday… so I decided to take this NaNoWriMo to write the last 50,000 words. That way, I can use December to revise it before sending it to my editor.

Totally doable, right? *whimpers*

So I started on November 1st. I meant to sit down and write all day. I did, for a bit, in the afternoon. But I couldn’t settle to it. Not until 8:20 PM, when the day was running out of hours, and the house was quiet and the dishes were done. Then I put in some serious sitzfleisch...

It took till half past 11 to make my projected 2,000 words, but I did it. And I felt that surge, you know? So great.

NaNoWriMo has changed, my friends, since 2009. Now there are local write-ins, Zoom sessions, blog posts, interviews. There’s a whole global community out there, participating in this month-long orgy of creative ecstasy.

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Last time, my friend J9 Vaughn (to whom Saint Death’s Daughter is dedicated) did their NaNoWriMo right along with me. This time, my new buddies Ben, Safia, Christofer, and Carina are all writing too. Also, a bunch of people I know on Facebook and Instagram! Also, my awesome husband Carlos Hernandez – Pura Belpé Award-winner for his incredible Middle Grade novel Sal and Gabi Break the Universe – says that he’ll use November to finish this abso-frikkin-lutely gorgeous sci-fi novella he’s been working on since the beginning of the year.

Auuugh, it’s so excellent to be in the company of writers!

So, I guess I don’t have any great advice for you, O writers of the world. I’m just like you, trying my darnedest to write words, grab all those cool NaNoWriMo badges, and I don’t know, maybe a t-shirt if I end the month in triumph?

What I do know is, 50,000 words or no, I’ll write a heck of a lot more this month because of this challenge than I’m usually able to manage. And, after all, I can’t revise something until I write it! And, as you’ve probably guessed from my first NaNoWriMo novel journey… I’m a big reviser.

I wish you the best, the giddiest, the most fun and fiendish time with your own November novels. Get cozy with it. Drink a lot of warm beverages and stare out the window like a boss. I’ll light my little tea candle in my new rock-salt candle holder that looks like the wet flesh of the inner lip, and I’ll think of you as I write.

I’ll think of you until I forget you, and forget the whole world, in the pleasures of inventing a new one.

Yours truly,

C. S. E. Cooney

Saint Death’s Daughter by C. S. E. Cooney just won the 2023 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It is published by Solaris.


Trying to complete your November target? Read our writer's survival guide to NaNoWriMo!