Every year, 300,000 people participate in NaNoWriMo. In other words, in the span of one month, 300,000 people attempt to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch. It sounds crazy, but thousands of authors successfully finish the challenge each year. And some even make it into publication!
Of course, reaching the 50k-word-count goal does not mean that a book is ready for publication. Most of the time, those words are just the start of a longer process. As November draws to a close, here are some examples of popular books that got their starts as NaNoWriMo projects.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Published in 2006, this historical fiction novel is one of NaNoWriMo’s biggest success stories — it spent weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and eventually hit the number one spot. In 2007, it won the BookBrowse award for Most Popular Book and was turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson in 2011.
Taking place circa 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, the story centers around 23-year-old Jacob Jankowski. After dropping out of veterinary school, he finds himself a new life amidst freaks and misfits when he hops on a passing circus train. There he is put in charge of the circus menagerie, where he meets Marlene, the wife of the animal trainer. What develops afterward is a story of love against all odds.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This is another great example of a NaNoWriMo success story. Published in 2011, it spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2012. Erin Morgenstern started it as a “surprise tangent” in 2005 and developed it further during NaNoWriMo in 2006 and 2007 as well.
Celia and Marco are two magicians who have been trained since childhood to duel against each other. The setting is Le Cirque des Rêves, the mysterious circus that only appears at night. Through jumps in time and point of view changes, Morgenstern carefully lays out the story of their rivalry and the people affected it. As Celia and Marco fall in love, they must make hard choices that will affect the survival of the circus and all who depend on it.
The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
If you are a voracious YA reader, then you’ve definitely heard of Marissa Meyer and her high-concept series The Lunar Chronicles — but chances are you didn’t know the series had its origins in NaNoWriMo. After taking part in two November challenges, Meyer came up with the idea for what would eventually become this series during her third run, which was in 2008. In a single NaNoWriMo challenge, she drafted three books — Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress — for a total word count of 150,000.
Published starting in 2012, Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress are futuristic retellings of classic fairy tales, depicting Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel respectively. But there’s a twist in each of them. In Cinder, for instance, Linh Cinder is a cyborg who lives with her mother and two stepsisters in New Beijing, where she earns her living as a mechanic. After the prince of the Eastern Commonwealth steps foot into Cinder’s store in an attempt to fix his android, she finds herself in the middle of violent struggles between Earth and the Lunar people.
As her story progresses, she runs into Scarlet Benoit and a street fighter named Wolf, who are working together to find Scarlet’s missing grandmother. In their efforts to thwart the plans of the Lunar Queen, the group must face dangers, plan daring rescue missions, and infiltrate the enemy’s castle.
WOOL by Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey’s third NaNoWriMo run in 2011 was unlike his previous ones: it stemmed from a 12,000-word story he had published earlier in the year that was gathering a following and requests for more expansion. So instead of following a carefully detailed and outlined game plan, he decided to use November to write three more stories that tied into his existing one. The result was WOOL, a 160,000-word book that he self-published the following January.
In a post-apocalyptic world where the environment has become too harsh for human survival, everyone is forced to live in silos, and nobody can leave or even talk about what lies outside. The first book in WOOL begins with the story of Holston, a Silo sheriff, as he decides to investigate the secrets of his surroundings. His actions serve as catalysts for the rest of the series, as more people rally to explore the mysteries buried deep within the Silos.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Having already written two books by the first time she participated in NaNoWriMo, Rainbow Rowell was no stranger to the creative process and knew exactly what it took to get something ready to publish. She took on the challenge and came out victorious, with at least half of what would eventually become Fangirl.
Published in 2013, the story centers around Cath Avery, who’s going off to college and leaving her adolescence behind — an adolescence that was spent obsessing over the fictitious Simon Snow series (a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Harry Potter) with her twin sister, Wren. Such a fangirl was Cath that she finds herself struggling to understand who she is in her new college surroundings, away from all the staples of her comfort zone. Thus, Rowell’s novel is one of “growing up” — and exploring exactly what that means.
The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough
The first time Hough participated in NaNoWriMo, he ended up with only one usable chapter from his 50,000 words. So for his second attempt, he went in much more organized and ready to conquer the competition — and conquer he did. The result was the first draft of The Darwin Elevator: an eventual New York Times bestseller and the first installment of his science fiction trilogy, The Dire Earth Cycle.
Published in 2013, The Darwin Elevator takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth that has been ravaged by plague. The only habitable city left is Darwin, Australia, where survivors are protected by an aura created by an alien space elevator. (Try saying that ten times fast.) The novel’s protagonist, Luiken, is immune to the plague and he, along with others like him, are in charge of going out into the wilderness to look for resources. When the elevator, and thus the aura, begins to fail, it is up to Luiken to figure out how to save what is left of humanity.
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs
Dana Sachs first took part in NaNoWriMo in 2007. By then she had already written a novel and a memoir, but she used the opportunity to draft a new book, one that would eventually become The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, published in 2013.
After losing her husband, Anna struggles to move on with her life. It’s during this time that she gets a call from her estranged grandmother, Goldie, asking her to accompany her to return a collection of valuable Japanese art from New York to California. Anna agrees to go along, and together they set off on a cross-country trip that uncovers deep-seated secrets dating back to the 1940s, while also healing wounds that will allow them to find happiness again.
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
Despite having already written nine books for pre-adolescent readers, Mitali Perkins decided to participate in 2014’s NaNoWriMo. This resulted in her first Young Adult novel, You Bring the Distant Near, published in 2017.
Following three generations of the Bengali-American Das family, the novel tells the story of five women as they grow and struggle to find their identity. Having lived all over the world, Ranee and Rajeev Das come to New York in the 1960s with their teenage daughters Sonia and Tara, who want to be a writer and a performer respectively. As they grow and have kids of their own, they all face the realities of the immigrant experience, racism, feminism, Islamophobia, prejudice, and more as they try to stay true to their cultural roots.
So there you have it! Whether you get your inspiration from people watching, using writing prompts, or listening to your favorite music, the truth is that it only takes a single, well-developed idea to reach your writing and publishing goals. While it may take one, two, or many more years of participating in challenges like NaNoWriMo, there’s no denying the impact that the tight time frame can have on a writer’s creativity.
Karol Owens is a writer with Reedsy, a publishing network connecting authors with the industry’s best editors, designers and book marketers.