By the end of the day today, November 20, an on-track participant of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to most of its participants) will have written at least 31,673 words of the novel she began on the first of the month. By this count, she’ll be some 63% of the way toward the contest’s goal of having completed a manuscript of at least 50,000 words. But there’s little time to stop and celebrate—there never is during NaNoWriMo: every day an author must churn out an average of 1,667 words to hit the goal.
If this writer sounds a bit off her kilter, you can rest assured she’s far from alone: NaNoWriMo expects that, this year—the program’s 16th—some 400,000 writers from across six continents will participate, many of them as part of community writing groups and in-person “write-ins.”
And while the goal of the program isn’t necessarily to turn its members into professional authors, a number of participants have managed to parlay their NaNoWriMo efforts into published books—and even into full-time writing careers. PW spoke with a handful of these writers, including Wool (Simon & Schuster, 2013) author Hugh Howey and Cinder (Square Fish, 2013) author Marissa Meyer, about how the wildly popular (and wildly demanding) program helped to launch their publishing journey.
No More Excuses
Like most participants, published NaNoWriMoers have come to the program at different points in their personal writing journeys. But all were attracted to its emphasis on discipline.
Jason M. Hough, who wrote a draft of his novel The Darwin Elevator (Del Rey, 2013) during his second NaNoWriMo, says the program forced him to let go of the idea of an ideal creative atmosphere. “In four years I wrote eight pages total. I wouldn’t sit down to write unless I felt like all the planets had aligned and the conditions were perfect. You learn that you have to just fight through that stuff and get the words on the page.”
Hugh Howey, who has participated in the program every year since 2009, says, “I don’t think I’d be a professional writer were it not for NaNoWriMo.” He wrote his most recent novel, Sand (Amazon Publishing, 2014), as part of NaNoWriMo, despite being on tour in Europe to promote his Wool series (which also came out of NaNoWriMo). “I was writing on airplanes and in airports, every morning at hotels, in the back of taxis, on the sidewalk waiting for my publicist to pick me up. Learning that focus—and having it reinforced every year through NaNoWriMo—is what allows me to write for a living.”
Fear Not the Rough Draft
NaNoWriMo’s pressing time constraints leave little time for polishing and perfecting—and that’s perhaps the point.
Marissa Meyer, whose novels Cinder and Scarlet (Square Fish, 2014) began as NaNoWriMo drafts, says the beauty of the program is that it “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.” She adds that she “scrapped almost everything” from her drafts of Cinder and Scarlet. “Maybe 10% made it into the final books.”
Gennifer Albin, who wrote a draft of Crewel (Square Fish, 2013) during NaNoWriMo and is now on the program’s advisory board, says her first effort was “very skeletal. There was a parenthetical comment that said ‘Come back and write the middle.’ A lot got added.”
After Hough finished his draft of The Darwin Elevator, he spent some years revising it. “There’s probably not a single sentence that isn’t unchanged,” he says.
The Force of Habit
There’s no magic formula for successfully completing a NaNoWriMo draft. But Karen Harrington, who wrote her novel Sure Signs of Crazy (Little, Brown, 2014) during her second NaNoWriMo, says that having a warm-up routine—such as a listening to a certain song—can help get the creative juices flowing. Having that song, she says, “will train your brain to sit down and write every time you hear it.”
She adds that breaking up the daily word output can make the process seem more manageable. “I found sitting down and writing 500 words was very achievable. I tried to do four 500-word sprints throughout the day.”
Other published NaNoWriMoers found it helpful to aim beyond the 50,000-word goal.
During his first NaNoWriMo in 2009, Howey set a goal of 60,000 to 70,000 words and finished the month exactly in the middle, with 65,000.
Meyer tripled the NaNoWriMo goal. “There was a contest happening. The Seattle-area writer that wrote the most words… could potentially win a walk-on role in Star Trek. I was really, really excited about that. So I actually set the goal for myself to write not 50,000 but 150,000 words. And I did it!” Unfortunately, another Seattleite NaNoWriMoer had beat her by a few thousands words. “I still shake my fist at the heavens every time I think about it,” she says.
She adds that doing prep work can make the writing process run more smoothly. Before embarking on Cinder in 2008, she says, she “made outlines, character profiles, researched technology, had a whole bunch of notes about world-building, collected inspiration photos—as much as I could to prepare myself other than actually starting writing.”
Albin found NaNoWriMo’s social aspects—specifically the website’s forums and writing prompts—to be “really effective for getting the words on the screen. When you first start writing, it’s such an isolating experience because you don’t know other writers. I’ll never forget when I posted [about] two books I was thinking of doing, one of which was Crewel. And somebody private-messaged me—and I owe this girl a big thank-you—and said, ‘You’re stupid if you don’t write this book.’ ”
Look Before You Leap
Published NaNoWriMoers stress that people thinking of participating should prepare to sacrifice a significant amount of time and energy to the program. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how much work it actually is,” says Hough. “Once you get behind, it just seems that much more insurmountable. I ended up taking my laptop with me everywhere and stealing a lunch break here and there—whatever I could do to get a couple hundred more words in. It all adds up.”
But Albin added that NaNoWriMo is useful even to writers who don’t make it to the 50,000-word finish line. “It’s this magical time of the year when a couple hundred thousand people are just rooting for you to finish a book. Just the act of signing up and committing to do it is really a big key to success.