Make 2020 the Year of the Heirloom Novel

When the dust settles at the end of November, frantic and frenzied NaNoWriMo writers may be left to wonder: what’s the next challenge? Where do we go from here? Whether your NaNoWriMo manuscripts are destined for slush piles or hard drive hibernation, might I suggest pivoting to a low-stress project for 2020 that’s designed with joy of craft and love of self in mind: the Heirloom Novel.

What is an heirloom novel, you might ask? It’s a book you write solely for yourself, your family, and your closest friends. The idea is that instead of passing down store-bought knick-knacks or breakable collectibles to future generations, you leave behind a personally-created legacy, a book that only you could write.

heirloom octopus

He’s scraggly, but he means the world to me.

To share a personal example, I’ve acquired a set of doilies knitted by my grandmother, a pink yarn octopus made by my mother in grade school, and two of my mother-in-law’s paintings. These items are more valuable to me than any fancy-pants china pattern I might inherit. In that vein, I want to leave behind something personal and meaningful for my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. I can’t knit or paint, but I can write.

Writing an heirloom book also grants the dual benefits of progress and results. Traditionally-published authors often share publication journeys fraught with numerous shelved manuscripts and years of slush pile rejections. It’s a demotivating experience that can damage one’s earnest love for storytelling. Taking a break from working toward traditional publication to write and publish the book of one’s heart for an intimate audience can restore and solidify love for the craft.

Here are some guidelines for if you choose to embark on creating an heirloom novel:

Select your topic. Choose a story idea that has personal meaning to you and your family or friends. I don’t mean an autobiography or one “based on true events,” though you can certainly go that route. Rather, select a theme or setting that resonates with your experiences but also one you are excited to explore. If you hated summer family vacations in the Poconos, don’t make that your setting or you’ll dread working on the book. You don’t need to pick something positive and cheerful, but it should be honest and heartfelt, or even just fun. Does your family have a horror movie marathon tradition on Halloween? Then write a horror novel set in your hometown. See? Fun!

Set your deadlines. You may be writing this book for yourself, but that doesn’t mean you should slot it as your lowest priority. Let’s be honest—it won’t get done that way, and you don’t want to leave your family with vague plot notes or a half-finished manuscript on your hard drive. That’s not a legacy! Give yourself at least six months but no more than a year to produce a completed first draft. Feel free to extend that out a bit more if you are writing it concurrently with other projects, but don’t neglect it. No one else is going to write this book, so you better get to it!

Pay yourself for writing it. Money is a great incentive to get things done, so set aside a coffee can (or a savings account, if you are completely digital) and pay yourself for measurable progress on your heirloom novel. Negotiate on your behalf an inspiring pay rate that you can afford. If possible, aim for at least ten dollars per 5,000 words. For a 75k word novel, you’ll have $150 by the time you type out THE END. It’s not much, but don’t touch it just yet. I’ll tell you what to do with your modest payday shortly.

heirloom book

A heirloom photo album. 

Follow the full manuscript process. Don’t be sloppy and half-assed about this project simply because you know it won’t make it beyond the audience of your immediate circle. After all, don’t your loved ones deserve the best of you? Of course they do! So tackle this novel as if you intend to query the hell out of it: outline, draft, build, polish, get critiques on it, edit, polish some more, and solicit a beta reader or two. Make this manuscript shine. Make it a book you can be proud of!

Resist the query urge. At this point, you may be convinced you have a masterpiece on your hands. You should query it, because it could be the one to net you an agent and 6-figure book deal, right? Do NOT. Part of what makes an heirloom book special is that it’s written especially for those you love. Imagine explaining to your family that they are getting a book no one else wanted. That’s like bringing home an untouched store-bought crudité platter from the church potluck—yuk! Now, imagine telling them you’ve written a book that no one else gets to read. That’s more like baking a full cheesecake solely for your family to enjoy after (or before!) the potluck.

Now, publish it. Remember that hard-earned pay you paid yourself for writing your heirloom book? Here is where you put it to use. You want this book to be beautiful. You want it to be a joy to hold. And yes, you want your family to be able to actually hold it in their hands. Use your book money in whatever way will make that happen. Hire someone to proofread and copyedit the manuscript. Purchase a gorgeous cover design. Enlist the services of a reputable print-on-demand company. Buy a modest number of copies. Consider what you can handle yourself, what you might need a bit of help with, and what would have the biggest impact for your book, and channel your funds accordingly.

You may be thinking, “Any book I manage to get traditionally published will automatically be part of my legacy.” Insta-heirloom, right? Yes, but that misses the entire point of the heirloom novel, which is to embrace the simple joy of writing for oneself and to create an intimate labor of love that only you can for your family and close friends.

Besides, when you do manage to attain distinguished literary and/or national bestseller status, what could be better than your descendants being able to dust off and present to the world your never-before-seen masterpiece?

  1 comment for “Make 2020 the Year of the Heirloom Novel

  1. November 18, 2019 at 9:35 AM

    i LOVE this idea!
    my dad actually did this (bless his heart, he DID kinda think it might become a best seller, despite not being edited, beta-read or cleaned up at all) and it’s a family treasure.


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