8 Best-Sellers Started During National Novel Writing Month

Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

National Novel Writing Month starts today, kicking off that time of year when the insane among us commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days (if you’re doing the math, that’s roughly 1,667 words a day). The name is kind of a misnomer—the goal isn’t necessarily to end the month with a polished, completed novel, but simply to force yourself to write every day. After all, as any successful author will tell you, step one to becoming a writer is to write.

As a past winner of “NaNoWriMo,” I can tell you that just getting it done is a challenge, never mind actually coming out at the end of it with something readable (though if any publishers are in the market for an unfinished, typo-ridden YA dystopia with a commercially unworkable plot focused on gender issues, feel free to email me). But a surprising number of published books—including some very successful ones—got their start as NaNoWriMo projects. Here are 8, guaranteed to get you started on your own 50,000-word masterpiece:

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. Yes, the book that was on the best-seller lists for over a year, that was so popular that you read it in three different book clubs, that was turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, started as a NaNo novel. This book is easily the biggest NaNoWriMo success story, except for maybe…

The Night Circusby Erin Morgenstern. The buzz for this best seller was everywhere in 2011, and judging by its rapturous reviews and strong sales (not to mention the fact that the movie rights were snapped up by the producers of the Harry Potter films), the hype was warranted. Not bad for something that began as 50,000 words of unconnected scenes and imagery. (Remember what I said about not necessarily ending November with a finished work?) What eventually became The Night Circus began life in 2004, seven years before it was finally published.

Fangirlby Rainbow Rowell. Granted, Rowell had already published her first novel, Attachments, and sold her second, Eleanor & Park, when she sat down to write Fangirl in 2011. And though the book ended up being double the 50,000-word monthly goal, she credits the exercise for forcing her to dive into the world of her story and characters like never before, producing “some of the bravest writing” she’s ever done.

Woolby Hugh Howey. Howey’s dystopian sci-fi novel is one of those credited with putting self-publishing on the map: after selling tens of thousands of ebooks directly to readers, he signed a six-figure deal with a major publisher. Wool was originally issued as five separate novellas; Howey wrote three of them (and even published one!) in November 2011.

The Darwin Elevator, by Jason M. Hough. Hough’s first NaNoWriMo attempt resulted in a 50,280-word novel that “fell apart” after one good chapter. His second eventually became a New York Times best seller, the first in a trilogy of sci-fi thrillers that has earned the author comparisons to recent Hugo Award–winner John Scalzi.

CinderScarlet, and Cress by Marissa Meyer. Each of the three books in Meyer’s successful YA series of futuristic reimaginings of classic fairytales (including the forthcoming Cress, publishing next year) began as NaNoWriMo projects. How’s that for consistency?

Do you have what it takes to tackle NaNoWriMo?

  • Ana Berkovich

    This is great inspiration for my NaNo project. Thanks!

  • Jodie

    It gives me hope that my novel could be on the list next year.

  • Bekka

    I’m reading Cress right now and LOVE it and the series as a whole. Great inspiration!

  • Caryn

    I’m going to start writing right now! Who cares about homework anyway? I’m sure the teachers won’t mind. I’m only eight lessons overdue… Oh, well! I’ll worry about that in May! Now I write, write, write!

  • Kim Marie

    I just read the night circus and thought again and again, this sounds like a Nano novel!

  • aly

    They’re making it into a movie! Oh my god, I got the chills. I can literally see the magic now.

  • Barbie

    I did both Camp NaNos this year and wrote the first and third drafts of my novel that is now at my editor. I hope to publish late winter or early spring. The NaNo challenge has created a habit in me and I have over 56,000 words in on my second novel. If I get a tenth or twentieth of the attention these books got, I will be a very happy writer!

  • Saoirse Egan

    As much as I like the books mentioned in this post, I actually find the premise of your book more interesting. Any chance I can get my hands on a copy?

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