National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s affectionately called, starts in less than two weeks.
I’m a past winner of this book writing frenzy. I’m proud of my stickers and certificate saying that I participated and completed 50,000 words in 30 days (which works out to about 1,667 words a day). I had been struggling to complete a novel length story for years and the year I decided to do WriMo I was determined to finish a first draft “no matter what.”
The resulting work, The Sangoma’s Daughter, started out as a vague idea I had about a down-on-his-luck janitor at an American university who meets and has a tempestuous relationship with a young Zulu woman from South Africa who is a sangoma (a traditional healer). I decided to “pants” the story.
For those of you who don’t know what a “pantser” is, it’s someone who just jumps into writing a story with no pre-planning and then writes a white-hot first draft by the “seat of their pants” – a pantser. I’m now a firm believer in being a plotter – someone who writes out beats (story actions) and figures out what the characters want from each other before the story begins. As I write within the plotted out beats I often find the freedom to pants some scenes as well.
The result of pantsing a NaNoWriMo novel was a 50,000 word story that is a total mess. As I wrote I became fascinated with this janitor who lived by himself in a utility closet on campus and the Sangoma’s daughter never quite made it into the story. It was a wreck.
Some days, in order to get out my writing quota of 1,667 words, I’d make up lists of things that my janitor would be thinking about instead of figuring out what he was doing. I’d write endless run-on sentences just to pile up words. The “novel” is full of long passages of description that aren’t important, dialogue that is pumped up with unnecessary information and general fumbling around to try to find what my story was about. I still haven’t made another pass at this story, but I will return to it someday to see if I can salvage a chapter or two.
What I did get out of participating in NaNoWriMo, though, was a sense of accomplishment and a respect for the hard work it takes to complete a novel. I said I was going to write 50,000 words and I did. I met a wonderful community of people who were all struggling with the same journey of discovering what their stories were about. I also realized what it would take to stick to a novel-length story: lots of hours in the chair, no editing, staying immersed in the story, keeping to word counts and deadlines, being okay with writing a terrible first draft and not giving up. No wonder Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Although my story was a wreck, there are several best-selling novels that came out of participation in NaNoWriMo. Perhaps yours will be a best-seller some day, too.
Leave me a comment about your participation in NaNoWriMo and let me know if you’ve published your work. Please include a link to the work so we can check it out.
8 Best Selling Novels Written During NaNoWriMo
The Lunar Chronicles
Some novelists struggle to write ONE first draft during WriMo.
These futuristic re-tellings of famous fairy tales with a sci-fi twist were all written during a 2008 NaNoWriMo. As a self-professed geek and chronic over-achiever, Meyer says she participated in WriMo that year because she was trying to win a contest where the Seattle based writer with the most words written during the month would get to play a walk-on role on a future episode of Star Trek. She came in third with a word count of 150,011 and didn’t get the role, but she ended up with 70,000 words for Cinder, 50,000 words for Scarlet and about 30,000 words for Cress.
Before she published the novels, all three had to be completely scrapped and re-written. Meyer said, “I may not produce anything of quality during NaNoWriMo, but I always come away with a great roadmap.” It was two years to the day she started Cinder during WriMo that she got her first offer from a publisher.
Meyer says she’s a neurotic plotter who spends weeks, months even, on brainstorming, plotting, re-arranging notecards and making character arc charts. She also uses the Scrivener color-coding feature to help keep track of what’s going on in her stories. Her revision process is extensive. For these best sellers she did two entire rewrites, six or seven rounds of revisions, had eight beta readers, and did countless polishing and editing after WriMo was over. All that hard work paid off for Meyer and her Lunar Chronicles series is a huge success.
Jason Hough (pronounced “Huff”) is still in denial about his success with his WriMo novel, Darwin Elevator. He did a WriMo in 2007 and said his story, Tact or Fiction, basically fell apart after the first chapter because he tried to pants it and just jumped into it with no planning. He did finish with 50,280 words, however. Although the story was a bust, he had a sense of accomplishment and a new found respect for the hard work it takes to write a novel.
In 2008 he tried again, but this time he had a highly detailed outline, lots of character sketches and maps, and an idea of what he was getting himself into. He completed the first 50,000 words of Darwin Elevator, then after stepping back for awhile and doing a first revision pass himself, he hired a freelance editor.
He recommends using writing software like Scrivener to get the job done because it makes the revision process so much easier. He also advises everyone to do their research when they are querying an agent. He says, “At least 75% of queries are discarded almost immediately by agents for simple mistakes. Lesson: It doesn’t take much to increase your chances significantly.”
For more inspiration from Hough check out his post: Doing NaNoWriMo: some tips for success.
Hugh Howey has been a supporter and participant in WriMo for several years. His breakout dystopian sci-fi novella series, Wool, thrust self-publishing into the national media spotlight. After selling tens of thousands of books directly to readers, he was picked up for a six-figure deal by a major publisher. Howey wrote three of the five novellas of the Wool series in 2011 and published one of them.
Check out Howey’s post NaNoWriMo is Almost Here for some great inspiration and what to look for if this your first time participating.
Rainbow Rowell says she did “some of the bravest writing” she’s ever done during her 2011 WriMo stint. She was already an accomplished author with two published books, Attachments and Eleanor and Park, and thought that WriMo was something amateur writers did.
She was reluctant to participate because it seemed like something writers who needed to trick themselves into writing did to just pile up words. But then she thought it might be wonderful to have a nice big pile of 50,000 words to play around with.
Her pile of words written in 2011 wasn’t a mess at all and became the first 50,000 words of a best-selling novel called Fangirl.
Rowell credits WriMo with changing how she wrote. Usually she would start writing by rewriting what she had written in the last session, but for WriMo she had given herself three goals: to write every day, to write at least 2,000 words a day, and to keep moving forward.
She was surprised to find that she could easily pick up where she left off and felt like the momentum she generated by staying in the world of the story contributed to its success. She didn’t finish the novel during WriMo, but after a heavy rewrite that Spring to finish the story, she was shocked to realize she kept almost all the words she created during WriMo.
Rowell said, “NaNoWriMo helped me push past so many of my doubts and insecurities and bad habits. And I think that’s partly why I love Fangirl so much now—because I remember how swept away I felt when I was writing it.”
The Night Circus
Although Erin Morgenstern‘s novel, The Night Circus, has had rapturous reviews, strong sales and the movie rights bought by the producers of the Harry Potter films, it started out as a much different story during NaNoWriMo.
Morgenstern said, “I was working on a different story altogether, one that was becoming progressively more and more boring because nothing was happening. I needed something exciting to happen and I couldn’t figure out how to do it with the locations I had so I sent the characters to the circus. That circus was immediately much more interesting and eventually I abandoned that other story and its characters entirely and focused on the circus instead. What eventually became The Night Circus started from exploring that spontaneously-created location, figuring out who created it and who performed in it and what its story was.”
She calls herself a binge writer and prefers to write in long sessions rather than every day. She attributes this to getting her start as a serious writer by participating in NaNoWriMo.
Water for Elephants
The transplanted Canadian, Sara Gruen, (now a U.S. citizen as well) moved to the U.S. for a job as a technical writer in 1999. When she got laid off in 2001, she decided to gamble on writing fiction instead of looking for another job. Her novel, Water for Elephants, started as a WriMo novel and has been on best-seller lists for over a year, read and discussed by book clubs around the country and turned into a film starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison. (60% on RottenTomatoes.com)
In her pep talk for NaNoWriMo participants Gruen says was having trouble with her own word counts when she realized she wasn’t heeding her own advice. She was ignoring her own rules: no editing, it’s okay to write a really bad first draft, and move around the story as much as you want. When she realized this for herself, she tossed all that aside and started focusing on writing the fun parts of the story that she wanted to write.
As her last bit of advice, Gruen said, “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.”
I found a lot of inspiration in reading about these authors and their varied paths to publishing success that began by participating in NaNoWriMo. I wish all of you much success with your writing journey this coming month and hope to hear from you how it’s going. If you haven’t yet done a WriMo, I urge you to take the plunge.
Remember, Stories are the Wildest Things, and they can take you places you’ve never been before, especially if you’re the ones writing them. See you in the Winner’s Circle.
(Sources: Nanowrimo.org, BarnesandNoble.com/blog, Author websites)