Writing A Bestseller With NaNo

Writing A Bestseller With NaNo

Each year, the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or just NaNo), gets writers buzzing to finish a whole novel in just 30 days. Quite a few bestsellers have started as NaNo projects! This post will look at some of them and see what we can learn.

Writing A Bestseller With NaNo

Every November the literary world breaks out in a frenzy. All over the globe, thousands of words are written at top speed to complete a novel within thirty days. Since a novel requires roughly 50,000 words, that means you need to write 1,667 words a day!

Can it be done? Yes! There are lots of resources: You can start with this 5-post-guide to NaNoWriMo, or even download a free workbook on NaNoWriMo from Writers Write. NaNoWriMo.org offers a community, and there’s an incredible boost of motivation to reward you once you’re done. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from. By the end of November, NaNo will have transformed you into a writer.

If you think that all this scribbling is just for the bin, then you’re wrong! Wikipedia says that since 2006, roughly 400 NaNo novels have been released through traditional publishers. 200 more have been marketed by smaller presses or have been self-published.

Here’s a small selection of bestsellers (for a longer list, click here) that made it from NaNo to your bookshelf:

  1. Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants, 2007
  2. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Persistence Of Memory, 2008
  3. Stephanie Perkins, Anna And The French Kiss, 2010,
  4. Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus, 2011
  5. Marissa Meyer, Cinder, 2011
  6. Hugh Howey, Wool, 2013
  7. Jack Heath, The Cut Out, 2015

Sara Gruen sold over 10 Million copies of her novel. Stephanie Perkins and Marissa Meyer’s novels were their debut novels. If you think about these books starting as a frenzy on NaNo, then that’s quite a feat.

Let’s look more closely to find out how these authors did it.

Learn From The NaNo Bestsellers

  1. Open the faucet.

Marissa Meyer wrote her novel Cinder and two follow-ups (Scarlet and Cress) in the same NaNo! She had entered hoping to win a walk-on role in Star Trek for scoring the highest word count in NaNo.

She did not win the prize she had hoped for. Instead, she completed three first drafts of her bestselling series, The Lunar Chronicles.

That’s what you experience when you open the creative faucet. The words just keep coming. Let them; NaNo is not the time to edit or to censor. Let the story flow until it’s all on paper.

  1. Develop a strategy to keep writing.

Every writer knows that there are fun parts to write and tricky ones. It’s these you need to watch out for. When writing gets tough, writers tend to put off writing. But nobody wants to drop out of a challenge, right? So, you need to develop a strategy to keep on writing even if you don’t feel like it.

Here’s what Sara Gruen says: ‘(…) I am going to jump around and write only the fun bits! I’m going to write about food fights, and disastrous sex, and escaping in-laws, and apes with unlimited credit! (…) And whenever one of those scenes starts winding down, I am going to ditch it without so much as a sayonara and look for the NEXT fun scene. The transitions can wait.’

Remember, NaNo aims to make you write a first draft. Nobody ever needs to see it. You’re still allowed plot holes, minimal descriptions, and a lack of transitions.

  1. Learn the right attitude.

Hugh Howey wrote the bestselling Wool omnibus in his third NaNo. Before starting number three, he had published a novelette of the same title. Sales were picking up, but his reviewers were urging him to write ‘the rest of the story.’

He decided to ditch his original game plan for NaNo and write sequels to his novelette instead. By the end of the month, he had completed three stories, each about 30,000 words. He had even edited the second.

Howey says: ‘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.’

Of course, not everybody aims to be a professional writer. But most writers want to see their novels published. That’s why you need a professional attitude. NaNo is the perfect place to learn.

  1. ‘The End’ isn’t really the end.

Erin Morgenstern wrote The Night Circus during NaNo in 2003. She attempted publishing but received only rejections. According to Writersrelief.com, it took several more NaNos to fine-tune her manuscript until she secured a lucrative deal with Knopf Doubleday Publishers in 2011.

What this story tells us is that completing NaNo is a great feat, yes. But it’s not the end of your project! You need to tweak, edit, rewrite, fine-tune. Maybe even rewrite.

It also says that NaNo can be used for editing as well. So even if you don’t have a shiny new idea, why not revamp an old manuscript and see what NaNo can do?

What You Need To Make NaNo A Success

There are a few things, these success stories about bestselling NaNo authors don’t tell you. How much preparation did these authors put in before they started? How did they manage to juggle family life, a full-time job and writing? Did they have support from family and friends? We don’t know.

What is clear is that a successful NaNo requires a game plan. You need to prepare. Once you’re done, you’re not really done at all. You can expect your manuscript to need loads of work before it is submittable.

So, don’t be starry-eyed. But please be full of hope and enthusiasm. The NaNo experience is so much fun!

Of course, there’s no guarantee that your first draft will be a bestseller. But like every first draft, it’s a bestseller-in-waiting. So don’t let this talk about bestselling NaNo novels put extra pressure on you. You can always sign up for the next NaNo.

The Last Word 

NaNo is not for the faint of heart. It will be easier if you have the right attitude. Make sure you don’t see it as a chore but as a game. Keep it playful. After all, as Naomi Alderman said, ‘Writing is storytelling, and storytelling, after all, is play.’

Happy writing!

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 30th October 2023