Four successful YA authors – Lauren James, Tamsin Winter, Laura Steven and Cecilia Vinesse – explain their writing and how NaNoWriMo helps them write
By Stephanie Williamson
Every November published and unpublished writers take part in National Novel Writing Month, with a goal of writing 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. Started by a group of friends, it has expanded year on year: in 2016 there were 384,126 participants.
Participants can create an account at www.nanowrimo.org, give their book a title and log the number of words they write each day. Progress is recorded on a chart and participants can share both their difficulties and triumphs on the forums, where everything from prepping to plot are discussed.
I have yet to complete the 50,000-word goal myself, so I sought advice from published authors who have ‘won’ NaNoWriMo before. Lauren James, Tamsin Winter, Laura Steven and Cecilia Vinesse are Young Adult (YA) authors participating in the literary festival YA Shot, where I’m currently a first-year intern. All four have benefited from NaNoWriMo and agreed to share their thoughts, advice and experience.
What do you write and when did you start participating in NaNoWriMo?
Lauren: I write Young Adult science fiction romance novels, including The Last Beginning and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. I started writing [my debut] The Next Together when I was sixteen, because my friends were doing NaNoWriMo, and I didn’t want to be left out! I never intended to get the story published – I was writing just for myself, for fun. There was no pressure to write something good. I never saw it as doing something scary or difficult. I really loved the appeal of a website where you can upload a cover and blurb for your book, and see what all your friends are writing too. I failed [to finish 50,000 words] that first year and ended up finishing the first draft of the book when I was nineteen.
Tamsin: I write funny (and maybe a little bit heartbreaking) contemporary stories for young people. My debut Being Miss Nobody came out in 2017. 2017 is my first time properly participating. Nothing at all to do with the impending deadline for my second book, honestly. But generally I write in big bursts, so NaNoWriMo is perfect for writers like me.
Laura: The Exact Opposite of Okay, my YA debut, will be published in 2018. I did my first unofficial NaNoWriMo in summer 2013. I’d never written a book before, and heard about NaNoWriMo through a friend. I really fancied the challenge – I had just graduated from my journalism degree and landed a job at a magazine, but still felt extremely unfulfilled. The only problem was that November felt forever away, so I created my own spreadsheet challenge and took it from there.
Cecilia: I’m the author of Seven Days of You, a contemporary YA romance set in Tokyo, and the upcoming The Summer of Us. I think NaNo may have rewired my brain a little. Every October 31st, I catch myself making a plan for what project I want to make strides on and how I can use the NaNo formula to get there.
What was your most recent NaNo project?
Lauren: I’m a full-time writer, so I write every month, but I love joining in the community spirit in November and documenting my writing. My profile is here. The rest of the year I document my daily word counts on myWriteClub here. I’ve spent November 2017 revising my next book, which is about the end of the world.
Tamsin: I’ve been editing my second book throughout NaNoWriMo, which for me has essentially meant re-writing the whole thing. I’ve been posting a writing tip every day on Instagram too.
Laura: The sequel to The Exact Opposite of Okay! Again, it was an unofficial NaNo, because November was too far away to meet my deadline needs. I find myself drawn towards the NaNo structure even when it’s not November.
Cecilia: I haven’t officially participated in NaNo for a few years, but I always have NaNo in the back of my head when November rolls around. This past year, I used the NaNo goal of 1,500-words-a-day to help me make progress on a project I’ve been working on for the past few months.
Have any of your NaNo novels been published?
Lauren: My first book was a NaNo novel in 2010. I think I wrote 25,000 words during the actual month of November, which I’m pretty proud of!
Tamsin: I’ve planned out my third novel [for this year’s NaNoWriMo]. But I can’t really tell you anything – it’s top secret for now.
Laura: My first two NaNo novels were published by HarperCollins under a pseudonym. I still have a soft spot for those books, but I’m glad to draw a line under them and start writing under my real name – I like to think my writing has improved a heck of a lot.
Cecilia: Seven Days of You started as my very first NaNo project. It looked almost nothing like the finished novel that was published nearly 8 years later, but the original structure was there, and I really believe that if I had never written that awful first draft, I would never have had the drive to keep honing and perfecting it until it was (finally) ready for publication.
Do you think NaNoWriMo helped you hone any particular writing skills?
Lauren: It’s a great way to forget your self-consciousness and just get the words on the page – and to think of first drafts as if you’re telling yourself the story, rather than actually writing a book. It’s easy to get delayed perfecting every word otherwise.
Tamsin: Meeting deadlines!
Laura: The most valuable thing I’ve taken from the scheme is the ability to draft fast and not obsess over the quality. My favourite analogy for drafting/editing is that drafting is pouring a ton of sand into a sandbox. Editing is when you build the castles. NaNo has made me really efficient and productive when it comes to pouring sand into the box.
Cecilia: It taught me the lesson that has been the most invaluable to my writing career — that writing is never going to be perfect right off the bat. I was a creative writing major in university and before I participated in NaNo, I spent a lot of time staring at my computer screen, feeling inadequate and terrified. NaNo is about quantity not quality; it’s about getting as many words on the page as possible, regardless of whether they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It helped me to let go and just write. And when I did that, I ended up making more progress in one month than I ever had before. Don't get me wrong — everything I wrote in that one month was absolute garbage. But I still had a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. And, most importantly, I had the belief that I could start again and do a slightly better job the next time. NaNo made writing books seem a less daunting and impossible dream.
What is it about NaNo that appeals to you as a writer?
Lauren: I think it makes writing seem more achievable, and puts a quantifiable time frame on the writing process. Showing that people can write whole novels in a single month can be a great confidence boost to someone who didn’t think they had the time to write.
Tamsin: I love writing in big bursts. I’m not really a ‘write every day’ person, but writing every day for a month is achievable.
Laura: Will you think I’m awful if I say it’s the competitive element? It gives me a bit of a thrill to see writing turn into a competitive pursuit for one month a year. I’m such a competitive person that I even get competitive against myself. I love the feeling of writing more than I did yesterday, or last year. Okay, yeah, I’m awful. I’m guessing most people will say the community spirit…
Cecilia: I love that NaNo makes writing a novel feel manageable: if you write a little every single day then, bit by bit, scene by scene, you will eventually have … an entire book. This idea changed the fundamentals of how I viewed writing. I think that’s why, in one way or another, I mentally return to NaNo every year. It’s a nice reminder that if I break things down, take it one chunk at a time, I can keep writing books, one word and day at a time.
Has NaNo ever inspired you to write something different?
Lauren: I really like the scriptwriting NaNo month, Script Frenzy, that happens in April. That inspired me to write a script for the first time, something I would never have decided to do, otherwise.
Tamsin: My main project has been editing my second book. But I've also written some children's stories for my two year old son, and written the opening chapter for a couple of ideas I've been playing around with. NaNoWriMo is a great way to essentially force yourself to write the things you've been putting off, or have been unsure about. And who knows where that will take you.
Laura: Yes! Not necessarily in terms of plot or genre, but I’ve experimented with different forms, such as diary entries, blog posts and newspaper articles. The latter was really fun, and used as part of my 2014 NaNo project – which will never see the light of day! But I had so much fun.
Cecilia: I’ve occasionally used NaNo to take a ‘break’ from a project I’m feeling stressed about and work on something just for fun. Once or twice, those fun projects have become things I take more seriously.
Did you find a good YA writing community on NaNoWriMo?
Lauren: I really love seeing friends online, who I never knew were interested in writing, dive into NaNoWriMo and see how much they can achieve during the month. And the different genres they write in.
Tamsin: The writing (and reading!) community online is enormously supportive and positive. Writing is such a solitary profession, so it’s great to connect with people.
Laura: I adore the ‘we’re all in this hell/heaven together’ vibe. I especially like Camp NaNo [virtual writing groups].
Cecilia: Writing can be a lonely profession so I love the idea of being part of a global community of writers all trying to reach the same goals. It makes the work feel less overwhelming.
What helps your productivity during NaNo?
Lauren: Avoiding social media!
Tamsin: If my toddler sleeps at all then I’m pretty happy.
Laura: Coffee, good playlists, regular word count check-ins with my teammates.
Cecilia: I use the Pomodoro method when writing even when I’m not doing NaNo, but I think it’s especially useful for NaNo. It works like this: you work in concentrated bursts of 25 minutes then take 5 minute breaks in between.
What advice would you give to writers thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo?
Lauren: Make sure you spend October thinking about your characters and plot as much as possible so you can write during November.
Tamsin: Clear your schedule of all but the most essential things, and make your writing the priority for the month.
Laura: Just do it. Seriously. It changed my life beyond all comprehension.
Cecilia: Just go for it. The pressure to be perfect is non-existent, you can connect with other writers going through the exact same process you are, and it’s genuinely fun. Don't worry about what you’ll get out of it, but I think you’ll be surprised by how much you end up taking away and continuing to use in your daily writing life.Stephanie Williamson is a freelance writer and translator who blogs about MG, YA and translated literature at Typewritered.com, and is a student on the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. Stephanie researched, wrote and redrafted this article as part of her first year internship with YA Shot (www.yashot.co.uk), with input from her second-year peer-mentor, Rachel Lee.