So, you’ve toyed with the idea of writing a novel for years, but for one reason or another, you haven’t got around to it. Don’t sweat it. Just spend the 30 days of November writing approximately 1,667 words a day, and then boom! You’ve got yourself a 50,000-word novel, all ready to hit the presses and become the next Great Novel.
Right? …Isn’t that how it works??
This notion of “simply” writing one-thirtieth of a novel each day is part of why NaNoWriMo receives some flack, but it’s of course not the intended message of the month-long writing marathon. The goal isn’t to hit “publish” on whatever you’ve written come December 1st; the goal is to get you to write every single day, and to end the month with some semblance of a novel — whether that’s a first draft or the first several chapters. (Or, as is the case in some of the stories below, the first few books in a series!) To prove that there is worth in just getting started, here is a list of bestselling novels that found their roots during NaNoWriMo.
1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
You’ve probably heard of this one. If you avoided the New York Times Best Seller list between 2006 and 2012, and didn’t watch a single movie trailer in 2011, then there’s a chance you missed it. But for the rest of us, Water for Elephants is a title that rings instant bells.
Gruen used NaNoWriMo to draft three of her novels, including Water for Elephants — a historical novel about a young vet who joins a Depression-era circus. She admits that the year she drafted her breakout success, she didn’t “win” the contest: she didn’t pass the 50,000 word count goal. Instead, she accumulated a solid 40,000 word base.
As she said in an interview with Lindsey Rivait, “Those were 40,000 words I did not have before.”
NaNoWriMo thoughts from Sara Gruen: “However far behind you are, take comfort in knowing that there is somebody else out there in the same boat, and look for that next fun scene. And then the next. And if that doesn’t work, set someone on fire. In your book, of course.”
2. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell admits that she first thought people just used NaNoWriMo to dump words on paper, and that she would be better off taking the time to write quality over quantity. She had already published two novels, one of which took her five years — so she certainly had the patience to go slow.
In the end, what she found great about the challenge was how the formation of a daily writing habit gave her the freedom to stop second-guessing herself. She discovered that writing with momentum didn’t result in just “words on paper” — sometimes these words could be pretty good.
During NaNoWriMo, I never left the world of the book long enough to lose momentum. I stayed immersed in the story all month long, and that made everything come so much smoother than usual. I got a much quicker grasp on the main characters and their voices. The plotlines shot forward…”
3. Wool by Hugh Howey
In 2011, Hugh Howey prepared for his third consecutive NaNoWriMo by creating a detailed outline of the novel he intended to start writing on November 1st. However, in October, his recently self-published novelette Wool started to gain traction, generating reviews and selling copies by the thousands/tens of thousands. So, Howey swiveled on his heel, dropped his intended writing outline and decided to turn Wool into a series.
That November, Howey had a schedule that makes us wonder if he’s cracked the secret of time travel: he worked full-time, was taking night-classes in astronomy, was volunteering in NaNoWriMo Young Writers program at a local library, and woke up every night at 3am to write. On top of all that, by the end of the month he had solidly smashed the 50,000 word count goal: three stories in the series had been completed, and Wool 2 was edited, the cover was designed, and it was published on Amazon. And it was already generating sales… whew! Today, the film rights to Wool are owned by 20th Century Fox.
“I can say with confidence that I wouldn’t have written the same books if I’d written them any other way. The compressed nature of a NaNo-novel makes for a tighter plot. It reinforces the importance of not taking a day off. NaNoWriMo isn’t a writing exercise for me. It trained me to be a pro.”
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern took part in NaNoWriMo every year from 2003 to 2009. Her best-known novel, The Night Circus, started to take form in 2005 and was refined over the next two years with blitzes of writing and re-writing in the 2006 and 2007 NaNos. Then in 2010, Morgenstern took her first break from the writing contest to edit her book, during which she altered significant parts of the story. According to Morgenstern, this is the point of NaNoWriMo: to discover a story that can be excavated and polished over months or years afterwards — until all that is left is a gem of a novel.
Published in 2011, The Night Circus spent seven weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, reaching number two on the hardcover fiction list. The film rights have also been acquired by the producers of the Harry Potter movies.
“Even if you’re an outliner, leave room for the unexpected things to sneak in. Surprises are half the fun, the spontaneous road trips through tangents and subplots. They might end up being more important than you think. And if they’re not, you can always edit them out after November. No one has to know so for now, for this glorious November, you can do whatever you please. It’s your world to create and explore and even destroy if you want.”
5. Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress by Marissa Meyer
Marissa Meyer had been writing Sailor Moon fanfiction for years when she started posting her daily word count as a means of motivating herself. And motivate herself, she did. In the 2008 NaNo, she wrote or drafted the first three novels of The Lunar Chronicles series: 70K for Cinder, 50K for Scarlet, and 30K for Cress.
As many of her successful NaNoWriMo peers will tell you, most of those words were scrapped, but not wasted. They provided an in-depth roadmap that helped her write the words that stuck. All three of these novels went on to land spots on the New York Times Best Seller list and the series is now on its fifth volume.
“[NaNoWriMo] forces you to silence that internal editor and just get something written. If you’re telling yourself that it’s OK to be writing something bad because you can always come back and fix it later, it takes a lot of the pressure off.”
So, take heart, aspiring authors! Remember that NaNoWriMo is not about writing a bestselling novel. It’s about writing, non-stop. Turning your 50,000 words into a potential best seller comes afterwards — with lots, and lots (and lots) of editing.
There is no shortage of great advice out there meant to help writers through the month-long writing blitz with the makings of great novel (and, for bonus points: their sanity). But, as Diana Gabaldon says: “…no matter how you write, it’s always you and the page. And the page isn’t in a position to tell you anything you do is wrong. Therefore…anything you do must necessarily be the Right Way to Write. Go for it!”