How to Write a Bestseller During NaNoWriMo
You can accomplish a lot in a month…
And, with National Novel Writing Month upon us, a lot of writers are doing just that! Whether they’re writing their first draft or focusing on only a few chapters, November is the month when writers gather together and get to work. However, many of those writers don’t fully realize what their NaNoWriMo draft could eventually become. Maybe even a bestseller?
As hard as it may be to believe, many NaNoWriMo drafts have gone on to become bestselling novels. Best of all, there are a few common traits these bestsellers share—and that you can use to write a bestselling novel of your own!
The Rise of the NaNoWriMo Bestseller
- 1 The Rise of the NaNoWriMo Bestseller
- 2 What Makes a Bestseller?
- 3 5 Steps for Writing Your Own NaNoWriMo Bestseller
- 4 It’s Time to Get Started!
While I definitely can’t speak for everyone, most of the writers I talk to view NaNoWriMo as primarily a personal challenge. This is their chance to test themselves and focus on their writing, with their finished draft acting as a trophy to celebrate their achievement.
However, that’s not all a NaNoWriMo draft is capable of.
You see, writers frequently get their NaNoWriMo novels published—whether traditionally or through self-publishing—and many authors have used NaNoWriMo as a way to launch successful writing careers as well. Sure enough, some of those NaNoWriMo drafts even became wildly popular bestsellers, whether as debut novels or entries in an established series!
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: One of the more famous NaNoWriMo bestsellers, this book was written across multiple challenges and became Morgenstern’s debut novel.
Wool by Hugh Howey: Howey woke up every morning at 3AM to turn his short-story Wool into a complete series during the month of November.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: Gruen actually didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo, but she did draft the first 40,000 words of Water for Elephants in the month of November.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Originally skeptical of NaNoWriMo, Rowell ended up enjoying the challenge because of the momentum it gave her.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer: Meyer actually wrote three novels for her NaNoWriMo challenge, hitting over 150,000 words in the process!
Of course, NaNoWriMo can’t take all the credit for this success—these novels are all excellent in their own right, and their authors worked hard to bring them to life. However, these bestsellers do share some common traits, and while there’s no guaranteed path to bestseller status, there is a lot we can learn from their stories.
So, let’s dig a bit deeper and look at how these novels became bestsellers, as well as how you can put their lessons to work in your own novels!
What Makes a Bestseller?
A Powerful Premise:
First and foremost, a bestselling novel needs a powerful premise.
If you’re unfamiliar with what a premise is, it’s basically the main idea of your story summarized in a few sentences. This synopsis acts as the foundation of your novel and helps you hone in on the unique and interesting twist that will get readers invested in your story.
You see, to truly capture readers’ attention, you need to craft a premise that offers something new. For example, Cinder’s unique twist is its futuristic setting, which looks at classic fairytales through a new lens. While your story may have more going on than just this initial twist, your premise is what will compel readers to pick up your novel in the first place—opening the door for them to fall in love with everything else you have to offer.
“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.” — Sara Gruen
Bestsellers tend to be page-turners, because readers can’t help but enjoy a story that grips them from beginning to end. Of course, a lot goes into creating a page-turner, from an intriguing Hook to compelling conflicts and more.
However, one thing basically all page-turners have in common is their pacing.
To truly be called a page-turner, these novels need to steadily raise the stakes and keep their story moving forward—and this means ensuring every element of their story’s structure feels balanced. From nailing down their overall plot to honing their chapter structure, bestselling novels have a lot going on behind the scenes!
A Cathartic Finale:
Speaking of story structure, one of the keys to writing a bestseller is creating a story readers want to share—and a big part of that comes down to how you end your novel. You see, your readers are your greatest ally, and they’ll make or break your novel’s success.
So, if you want them to enjoy your story, you need to create something called catharsis.
If you’ve never heard of this term before, catharsis is a Greek word for inner purification, as well as a major component of story structure. Basically, it’s the feeling of emotional release you get at the end of a good novel, making it a key ingredient of good storytelling!Your readers are your greatest ally. They’ll make or break your novel’s success. #amwriting Click To Tweet
The Right Market:
Last but not least, we should address the elephant in the room—yes, bestselling novels are often a product of their market.
Different trends peak at different times, and if your novel is able to ride that wave, you’re bound to find more success than if it didn’t. This means that, like it or not, a big part of writing a bestseller is knowing your market. Certain genres or subgenres are popular at different times, and while you can’t predict every market trend—for instance, the boom in vampire romances post-Twilight—there are definitely some genres that are safer than others.
Of course, plenty of bestselling novels become trend-setters in their own right.
At the end of the day, I’ll never encourage you to give up on your novel simply because its genre isn’t popular right now. However, it is valuable to know what readers are looking for, at the very least so you can set your expectations before you hit publish—and hey, while you may not become a NYT bestseller, that doesn’t mean you can’t become a bestseller in your genre! 🙂
5 Steps for Writing Your Own NaNoWriMo Bestseller
Choose the Right Genre:
With all that said, how can you turn your NaNoWriMo novel into a bestseller?
Well, as I mentioned before, there is no one guaranteed path to success. However, there are a few steps that can help you get closer to achieving bestseller status—starting with choosing the right genre.
So, take some time to brainstorm genres you might enjoy writing in, or figure out what genre your current draft falls under. Then, consider your list—what genres seem to be thriving, and what ones aren’t doing so well? If you’re having trouble with this, there are tons of great resources out there that compile sales data to help you better understand the publishing market, such as K-lytics.
NOTE: Before moving on, let me reiterate something—you need to decide what your goals are before you can write a bestselling novel. Do you want to achieve NYT bestseller status, or are you just hoping to develop a thriving fanbase in your specific genre? Either goal is equally valid, but they each require a different approach. Figuring out which path suits you best is your real first step.
Create Your Premise:
As we discussed earlier, a powerful premise is what will define your novel and intrigue your future readers. Not only that, but it’ll also act as the basis of your back cover copy, as well as the pitch you send to editors and agents—meaning you don’t want to overlook it!
So, how do you write a premise?
Well, first you need to understand what a premise contains. At its core, a premise is simply a one to two sentence synopsis of your story, covering:
- Your novel’s core conflict
- Who your protagonist is
- What role they’ll play in your story
- And how your novel begins
As an example, here are two premises you might be familiar with:
How to Train Your Dragon: A young Viking captures a dragon, but when he fails to kill it, it ends up becoming his best friend. Now the two must fight to convince his society that dragons aren’t the enemies they thought they were.
Mulan: A young woman disguises herself as a man in order to join the Chinese army and protect her father from the draft, entering a deadly war in the process.
Now, take a moment to create your own premise. Write a synopsis of your story, making sure to focus on your novel’s conflict and protagonist. Then refine this synopsis until you arrive at the core of your story. Check to ensure your new premise fulfills the requirements above, and you’re good to go!
Draft Your Hook:
Alongside a compelling premise, your novel will need an opening that hooks your readers and leaves them excited to read more! Of course, that’s easier said than done—after all, figuring out the right way to begin your novel is no simple task.
Fortunately, story structure is here to guide you in the form of the Hook.
Essentially, your novel’s Hook is an opening scene that grabs your reader’s attention by presenting them with a question. This question will encourage them to keep reading your story, giving you time to get them invested in your core conflict before they lose interest.
The Hook is a somewhat complex plot point, so I definitely encourage you to read more about it here. Still, here’s a brief summary to give you some guidance. Your Hook should:
- Present readers with an interesting element of your story’s world
- Encourage them to ask a question about your story
- Set the mood or vibe of your novel
- Establish a basic setting and sense of place
Write, Write, Write!
With your genre chosen, your premise created, and your Hook ready, there’s only one thing left to do—write.
After all, you can’t publish a bestseller without writing it first!
As tempting as it may be to plan and outline your novel forever, eventually you just need to get started. Fortunately, NaNoWriMo is the perfect time—not only are you surrounded by other writers taking on the same challenge, but there are tons of NaNoWriMo resources you can take advantage of.
Of course, writing a novel is always easier said than done. Often the biggest hurdle between you and finishing your novel isn’t a lack of time or confusion surrounding your story, but simply your mindset. It’s hard to work up the confidence to put your ideas on paper—but eventually you have to.
So, set your writing goals and then stick to them! Trust me—you’ll be glad you did.
If you start writing your first draft and feel like you need a bit more guidance, check out The Ten Day Draft. I wrote this book to help writers overcome the mental barriers between them and their novels, and it breaks the writing process down into ten easy stages—each with tons of guidance and advice. It’s definitely worth taking a look at. 🙂
Ask the Experts:
Last but not least, you’ll eventually need to seek out a second opinion if you truly want to create a bestselling novel.
This technically isn’t something you’ll deal with during NaNoWriMo itself, but it’s simply too important not to mention here. You see, all of the NaNoWriMo bestsellers I mentioned at the start of this article began their life as flawed, relatively average first drafts—and that’s ok! Through a lot of patience and revision, their authors were able to transform them into the finished novels we see now…
And a big key to their success was working with qualified editors.
While most writers understand that hiring an editor is a good choice, plenty of others view it as optional—even when it really isn’t. Ultimately, it’s impossible to fix every flaw in your story without getting a second opinion, meaning working with a professional editor is a vital component of writing a bestseller. So, if your goal is to hit the bestseller lists, then plan to hire a professional editor (or two).
After all, just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to write a bestseller!
It’s Time to Get Started!
Above all, the best thing you can do if you want to write a bestselling novel is simply to get started. You have the ideas and the desire, so now it’s time to put them on the page!
I hope the tips and advice in this article help guide you along the way. If you’re craving a bit more guidance, consider checking out the books I’ve written on the stages of the writing process, specifically The Ten Day Draft. You can also get in touch with me directly through my contact page. And finally, happy NaNoWriMo and the best of luck on your novel-writing adventure. 🙂
“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…” — Rainbow Rowel