How joining NaNoWriMo turned me into a published novelist

by Bonnie Meekums

I found out about NaNoWriMo by accident. I can’t quite remember how it happened, but I found myself turning up, at Oldham Library, in early November 2018, feeling a more than a bit nervous. 

I had drafted my first novel by the end of 2017. In 2018, I sent out my draft to what I, as an academic, called ‘critical friends’ (I now know they are called beta readers, in the biz) for feedback, then did my rewrites. And so it was, that by the time I walked through those doors and inquired at the desk, I had got to the point of thinking about trying to submit my novel to agents. I had even visited another library to scour the Writers and Artists Year Book, in search of appropriate names. I discovered that such begging letters are called ‘queries’, though at that point I was absolutely useless at writing one. I wasted a lot of valuable energy. 

Meeting Jacqueline Ward, who had set herself the mission of putting Oldham on the NaNo map, was so reassuring, and my nerves quickly dissipated. For someone who has been honoured by the Queen, and has an agent along with best-selling books to her name, I discovered she was refreshingly down to earth, and not a bit snooty. Plus, like me, she was from a working-class background, a feminist who had also worked hard and got herself a PhD. I could feel my shoulders getting somewhere nearer my chest, instead of hugging my ears. 

I quickly discovered I was a pantser – someone who can’t be bothered to plan her writing in advance, and just loves the thrill of finding out what will happen next, a bit like watching a box set over several weeks, except that I am the one with the keyboard in my hands. I was in awe of Jacqui, who is the complete opposite, and even shared her planning methods with us. It terrified me, but I thought I probably need to borrow a bit of that. 

I had completed my first novel, when it dawned on me that to turn my 30,000 words written as linked short stories into a full length novel of around 80,000 words, all I needed to do was write a thousand words a day (which I can rattle off easily). In not very long at all, I would have the 50,000 words needed. But to write 50,000 in a month would mean upping my game. Amazingly, thanks to Oldham NaNoWriMo, by the end of November 2018 I had my 50,000 words – the skeleton of a second novel. 

I found turning up each week, meeting other writers, drinking tea (very important!) and writing as we chatted gave me huge amounts of confidence. Writing can be a lonely business, but here was I, with a bunch of other people who were committed to using this time to write. 

What I hadn’t expected, was Jacqui’s determination to help each and every one of us, not just to turn up and write, but to learn about the business of being a writer. That included thinking about the possibility that we might actually get published. I think up until that point, I had been going through the motions, not actually expecting my debut novel to see the light of day. But Jacqui sewed a little seed. 

And so, began the rejections. Yes, folks, this is not a straightforward happy ending. I sent queries off to dozens of agents, and got as many rejections. And then, I was on twitter one day, when I saw an indie publisher (that means, not one of the big publishing houses, and crucially, not one that requires an agent introduction) stating they were open to submissions. I thought it was worth a punt, and so I threw a query out. What came back, was a fairly terse response, saying my query letter had been pretty rubbish, but (bless her), the proof is in the pudding, so please send more. I did. And then, silence. 

I was in New Zealand, visiting my daughter in early 2019, when, just after she said she was off to bed (my daughter has three small children, including twins), I opened my emails, and there it was: 

‘…[yadayada] we would like to bring your book to the reading public.’ 

OMG, as they say. Of course, I knocked on my poor daughter’s bedroom door, tears streaming down my face. I read out the email, we hugged (we were allowed to do that, in those days, remember?), and – well, the rest is history. My book was released on January 7th, 2020, the day I set foot once more in New Zealand, and this time I was there not only to see my daughter and her little family, but I was back in libraries once more – this time, Queenstown and Lakes District Council libraries, where I did a mini book tour. I still sometimes feel like pinching myself. 

And the second novel, the one I wrote at NaNo 2018? Well, that’s at the tweaking and querying stage. Wish me luck. 

In case anyone is interested, my debut novel can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Kind-Family-Bonnie-Meekums/dp/1950502074/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?keywords=bonnie+meekums+a+kind+of+family+amazon+uk&qid=1602523203&s=books&sr=1-1-fkmr1 

I also have some signed copies, for £10 including p&p within the UK. Email me if interested: bonnie.meekums@outlook.com.

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