6 Bestsellers Share Their Hard-Earned Writing Lessons


Every year, we’re lucky to have great sponsors for our nonprofit events. She Writes University, a Camp NaNoWriMo 2018 sponsor, is an online, live webinar-based writing program for writers in all genres. Today, six of their featured bestselling authors share the writing advice they’ve come by the hard way:

Aspiring authors tend to make a lot of assumptions about what a writing career is and what it takes to get published. There is a lot of cloaked mystery around how to become a successful author and these six bestsellers are breaking down those barriers.

Each of these women were featured in the recent webinar series, She Writes University. Camp NaNoWriMo Participants receive 50% off any class or the full semester bundle using code CAMPNANO through May 31. She Writes University offers webinars aimed at helping writers write and market their books and new webinars and classes are available often.

Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward is the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction winner, a Time Magazine Best Novel of the Year and New York Times top ten of 2017. Her message on voice is one all writers need to hear.

“Voice doesn’t come to you in one fell swoop. Voice is something you develop and refine over years. It takes patience and dedication. For those of us who are not precocious writing geniuses, this is how it works.”

When you’re just beginning to write, finding your voice can be both frustrating and embarrassing. Most start our modeling after those they admire, but as Ward points out, time and persistence are the only tools for developing a style that is uniquely your own.

Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers

Lisa Ko’s The Leavers is the winner of the Penn/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and a Best Book of 2017 according to Entertainment Weekly, NPR and more.

Lisa Ko shared a tip that any writer at any stage can appreciate.  

“Storytelling craft can be taught and learned—you don’t need to figure it all out on your own.”

There is a major misconception that the best writers are naturals and few consider themselves to be, making success feel unobtainable. Ko’s advice should be reassuring to anyone dedicated and ready to learn.

Abigail Thomas, author of What Comes Next and How to Like It

Abigail Thomas, the New York Times bestselling author of three novels and three memoirs has what would appear to be a dream career to most authors. Some might be surprised to find when she got started though.

“I really do think I wasn’t ready to write until I started, when I was forty-eight. It is helpful for people to know that most writers start off writing badly, and get better. I was afraid to start. Who did I think I was? But honestly I wasn’t ready to try until I was forty-eight and that’s okay with me.”

For those who think it’s too late to start or question if they are even worthy of the profession, Thomas proves that neither are true.

Christina Baker Kline, author of A Piece of the World

Christina Baker Kline is the #1 New York Times bestselling author whose book Orphan Train spent more than two years on the NYT bestseller list. Her achievements may make her appear to have a secret recipe, but her advice is something every NaNoWriMo participant should heed.

“The only tip that cannot be ignored or denied: to be a writer, you must write. (And be willing to stick with your manuscript until the bitter end.)”

Even if it hurts, make it to the end. The best manuscripts can still be difficult to finish.

Kirstin Chen, author of Bury What We Cannot Take

Kirstin Chen’s novel Soy Sauce for Beginners was an O, The Oprah Magazine “book to pick up now” selection. Chen has received awards from the Steinbeck Fellows Program, Sewanee, Hedgebrook, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.

Chen had this to say about what she’s learned in her writing career:

“Approach crafting characters with awareness and intention as opposed to simply by instinct.”

Though some may want to wait for the muse to strike, Chen is clearly an advocate for planning and deliberate creativity.

Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of nearly a dozen novels. Caroline has never been shy about the difficulty she faced to get to where she is now and her advice could catapult your career years ahead.

“Structure!  Definitely structure! I always thought you waited for that pesky muse and your writing ran on inspiration fuel. I would end up with 800 page novels that had to be pared down. Once I learned structure, it was like having a lifeline to writing—something to hold on to.”

Simply put, you can’t always depend fully on the muse.

Camp NaNoWriMo 2018: Participant Survey

Camp NaNoWriMo 2018: Participant Survey:

Hey, writers! If you participated in Camp NaNoWriMo this April, please click on the link above and take a few minutes to fill out our survey. Camp NaNoWriMo is in for some big changes next year—and we want to hear from you. This survey helps us get to know who you are so we can better serve you all. It also helps us see which parts of Camp NaNoWriMo are successful, and which parts could use some work. Your thoughts are always appreciated!

“In My End is My Beginning”: the Post-Camp Novel Effort

Now that the frenzy of Camp NaNoWriMo has passed, it’s time to figure out what’s next! That could be anything from taking a break from your manuscript to diving right into edits or revisions. Today, participant Susan Tait shares her plan for post-Camp noveling:

I feel stunned. In the afterglow of “I really did write 52,000 words in a month!” the post-Camp effort of organizing my writing feels like trying to unload hastily-packed boxes after moving to a new house. There’s all this stuff that got crammed in during the fury to finish.  

Advice was never-ending and contradictory, so I stopped reading it. It mostly amounted to this:

“Don’t edit while you write! Just get it out!”

“Edit while you write, or you’ll just have a big mess at the end.”

I think they’re both right. The novel’s gotten “out,” but what’s gotten out has more obvious problems than strengths: outline fragments, broken dialogue, zeroes filled in for o’s the week I switched keyboards (how did I forget to review my spelling and grammar more often?), a fantastic idea I remember having but can’t find, paragraphs that “seemed like a good idea at the time.” Acknowledgement for source quotes and research notes is so far behind that it feels like another book. Plus the dawning realization that some of my cardboard characters spitefully defied their assigned roles and did what they wanted to.

Now, in the aftermath, I could:

  • Put the whole binder in the drawer as evidence of effort, and write a short story that I resist titling, “And Now For Something Completely Different.”
  • Wax philosophical about what I learned, writing a personal development essay that will make it clear to me what I know now that I didn’t then.
  • Rewrite, revise, review. I can do the other two things any time. Perhaps a character with the worst character arc needs a short story to clear things up. Maybe a decision diagram on tracing paper superimposed on a generously sized timeline would show me where things went wrong—or if I’ve actually written some alternative history.

To my surprise, I like what I have enough to pursue polishing the messy draft that I started last month. To pick the advice that’s going to work for me, I need only remember one thing:

  • Maintain my engagement with my characters while re-engaging with my readers.

Some of my characters are based on real people, others completely invented. They all have a real relationship with me, something like the relationship of befriending people online that you never meet in real life. My characters make me look at how I engage with people and what I project onto them.

It doesn’t matter in what order I fix all the problems with my draft. What matters is that I start a process that will create a community larger than the sum of my novel’s parts: that place where characters and readers meet. The only way to build that is to start where I am, regarding my dirty draft as clean compost.

I adopted my writing motto (and the title of this post) from Mary, Queen of Scots: the end of the dirty draft is the beginning of a new chapter.

Recommended Links:

Susan’s first novel collapsed into a short story that she round-filed. It taught her enough to succeed at her second novel, which she wrote during NaNoWriMo 2017, and finished during the Now What? Months in February 2018. Fountain pen fiend, amateur painter, past winner of two Writer’s Digest competitions, and a certified scrum master, she lives in Oregon with her husband, son, and three cats. See more about her on LinkedIn.

Top image licensed under Creative Commons from Sandy/Chuck Harris on Flickr.

“If you’re stuck, think about the last story you loved. It doesn’t have to be a novel; it could be a…”

“If you’re stuck, think about the last story you loved. It doesn’t have to be a novel; it could be a musical, your favorite TV series, even a commercial that moved you to tears (look, it happens). Think of the joy or the catharsis or the side-splitting laughter that creative work gives you. Maybe that’s the thing to infuse into your work. Inspiration can come from all over, and I bet if something moves you, that’s a feeling that others are looking for too.”


Amy Spalding grew up in St. Louis, but now lives in the better weather of Los Angeles. By day, she manages the digital media team for an indie film advertising agency. By later day and night, Amy writes, performs, and pets as many cats as she can. She is the author of five young adult novels, including her latest, The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles). (Author photo: Robyn Von Swank)

Your Camp Care Package is brought to you by Camp NaNoWriMo. Sign up to receive more Camp Care Packages at

Where’s your story going?Need a checklist to visualize the steps…

Where’s your story going?

Need a checklist to visualize the steps you’ve taken with your story (and the steps that still need to be completed)? Check out this handy guide to our 10-step writing process… written in verse for National Poetry Month!

And don’t forget to update your Camp NaNoWriMo projects! If you’ve already reached your project goal, make sure to validate your win on before April 30th.

Follow @nanowrimo and @nanowordsprints on Twitter for more inspiration, or share your winning pictures with us on Instagram using the hashtag #CampNaNoWinner2018!

“I used to think that I had to write important works of literary fiction or I shouldn’t even…”

“I used to think that I had to write important works of literary fiction or I shouldn’t even bother trying. It feels silly in retrospect; I rarely even like to read important works of literary fiction! I like romantic comedies. I love stories where groups of friends figure stuff out together. I live for makeover scenes and love interests with great hair. And as soon as I stopped trying to be a writer I never was going to be and leaned into what I really loved, writing didn’t just get easier, it got a whole lot more fun.”


Amy Spalding grew up in St. Louis, but now lives in the better weather of Los Angeles. By day, she manages the digital media team for an indie film advertising agency. By later day and night, Amy writes, performs, and pets as many cats as she can. She is the author of five young adult novels, including her latest, The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles). (Author photo: Robyn Von Swank)

Your Camp Care Package is brought to you by Camp NaNoWriMo. Sign up to receive more Camp Care Packages at

Letters from Camp: Week Three


Camp NaNo can be thrilling, challenging, and revitalizing—sometimes all at once—but more than anything else, it’s fun. We’ve asked Campers to share their daily thoughts in a series, Letters from Camp. Read about what your fellow Campers are thinking:

April 18

Dear sleepy me,

The words you type while you’re dozing off don’t count. They do not exist. They have way more punctuation, exclamation and question marks than any other word in any other language.

Please don’t. If you’re tired, just stop, log off your laptop, set it aside and go to bed. Don’t try to cheat on Camp. That’s not fair. Also, you can ruin the rest of your paragraphs just because you’re stubborn enough to keep on “typing” as your eyes start to lose focus.

Now stop, get to bed and don’t touch the laptop until you get enough sleep.



April 19

Dear Sara,

You’re going to hate me by the time May rolls around.

I’m sorry for all the crap I’m putting you through, all the garbage that’s to come and all the pain in your past. You’re an amazing lady and I really want to tell your story, but if it’s all sunshine and lollipops then it just wouldn’t be YOUR story, now would it?  You don’t think you’re a hero. You don’t think you’re anything special, but that just isn’t true. You are the center of a world of characters and events, heroes and villains, victims and survivors. I’m going to put you through the mill, because I have to. Not because I want you to hurt or fail but because if you don’t fail sometimes you won’t learn. Succeeding on the first try only teaches you one way to do things. Failing, creates questioning; and questioning is the soul of learning. So I’m sorry you had such a rough early life. It sucks that the world keeps kicking you in the teeth.

I can’t even promise that your tormentors will get theirs in the end. All I can say is, I know you’ll stand tall and do yourself, and me, proud.


Your Author.

Dear potato,

I know I was peeling your skin off, but did you have to remove half my fingernail?!


A writer who will now not be able to finish Camp due to an injured finger

Dear Self,

It’s great that you’re suddenly interested in re-watching all the Lord of the Rings films and reading the books, but whatever happened to this writing thing you were supposed to be in April? Does that ring a bell at all?


The part of you that wants to write but simultaneously pops in the next movie

Dear McGee and Jayce,

You are an both adorable balls of fluff. Normally I would adore your snuggles but now is not the time. You can lay on my lap or next to me but my keyboard is not a place to nap. I know the iPad screen reacts to your paws…but please stop swatting the screen. You are wonderful kitties but right now I need to write.

Lots of love


April 20

Dear fingers,

I am ever grateful to you, my precious (though dying) fingers.  At the beginning of the month, you flew across my keyboard, managing to write 10k words in five hours.  You linked seamlessly with Brain *waves* and finished a story that will forever hold the most special place in the depths of my computer’s memory chip.  I am so very proud of you!  However, twenty days later, you are hanging on to life by a thread.  Your nails are cracked and worn from hitting the keys.  Your knuckles are red and swollen.  Your tips cry the sweat of your struggles.  You are desperately pushing on to the very end, even if the end may not be in sight.  But, I have good news for you.

Only 10 days left!

Yours forever,


April 21

Dear Story,

This month has been a series of ups and downs, behinds and aheads, but I think I finally worked you out. I’m still a bit behind but it isn’t about the word count (I tell myself as I type away furiously to continue my winning streak). In all seriousness, finishing you is most important  and it’s taken this month of Camp to finally get inspiration for an ending that isn’t as lackluster and predictable as the one I previously had in my head. This new idea is a different direction, and not what I planned on happening, but I am a pantser after all, so it isn’t the only thing I didn’t plan on happening. All isn’t going to go well for the characters which is a bummer for them, but I think it’s going to work out well for you. I’m excited, to have this more complete and interesting ending, one that you deserve.


We’ll post more Letters from Camp as April (and our projects!) come to a close. In the meantime, you can share your Letters from Camp on the official forum post.

Good luck, writers!

“As a writer, there’s lots to fear as you write your book. Think about the doubts that creep into…”

“As a writer, there’s lots to fear as you write your book. Think about the doubts that creep into your head as you trudge along and the page count gets bigger: What if people hate this? What if after all this work I’ve put in, this book ends up getting shelved?
Think about those doubts…
…and shrug.
What we fear doesn’t have to come to pass, and even if it does, it’s not the end of the world. But if we stop because of fear, we’ll never achieve our dreams. No matter what, keep moving forward.”


Sarah Raughley grew up in Southern Ontario writing stories about freakish little girls with powers because she secretly wanted to be one. She is a huge fangirl of anything from manga to scifi/fantasy TV to Japanese role-playing games, but she will swear up and down at book signings that she was inspired by Jane Austen. On top of being a YA writer, Sarah has a PhD in English, which makes her doctor, so it turns out she didn’t have to go to medical school after all.

Your Camp Care Package is brought to you by Camp NaNoWriMo. Sign up to receive more Camp Care Packages at

Camp Pep: How Much is Your Story Worth to You?


Camp NaNoWriMo is nothing without you, our incredible participants. Today, YWP writer Elysia Lopez offers you a boost in your third week of Camp to help you reach your writing goals:

It was the middle of NaNoWriMo, and I was 20,000 words behind in my novel. I didn’t know what happened to the time. I’d kept telling myself that I would catch up on my word count tomorrow, but too many tomorrows had passed, and here I was, a 20K-large void in my word count.

I realized that at this point, my overall goal of 50,000 words was simply unrealistic. I had homework. I had robotics competitions. I didn’t have time to write a novel.

Both Camp NaNoWriMo and the Young Writers Program allow you to change your word goal whenever you want during the month, and I’ve taken advantage of that feature. My goal dropped from 50,000 to 30,000. 30k words, which still allowed for a good chunk of my novel, so I was content. But it made me realize something:

Don’t just be content with your novel — consider what your novel means to you and what it can be.

We participate in NaNoWriMo to motivate ourselves to finally write our stories. Remember that. Our ultimate goal is to write the story, not reach an arbitrary word count.

It’s very easy to take this in the wrong direction. Since the word count doesn’t matter in the end, should we really worry about how many words we write per day, as long as we’re adding words? 

What still matters that you write as much as you can. In Logic class, I learned that if someone has the power, opportunity, and desire to do something, they will likely do it. This applies to writing. Let’s break that down:

  • Power: Writing in itself is a very low-maintenance task. We all have the power to do it. We have laptops with Scrivener and Google Docs that enhance our writing experience, but at the very least we only need a pencil and paper. J.K. Rowling wrote her initial Harry Potter ideas on a napkin.
  • Opportunity: Even though it may often seem otherwise, we all have opportunities throughout the day to write. The car ride to and from school. The wait in line at the grocery store. These opportunities exist in small pockets of time, we just have to grab them.
  • Desire: The desire to write is often where most of us fall short. This is the reason the story never gets written, which is why I would like to focus on this point more. I think I can safely assume that we all want to write our story. Sometimes we get inspiration bursts and find ourselves writing our stories at the speed of light. But what about the times when we don’t exactly feel like writing?

Everyone falls into a writing slump now and then, but the ways we respond to writing slumps can make or break our stories. It’s so, so easy to get sidetracked because we don’t feel like writing, and we open up Netflix or Instagram and suddenly time slips out of our hands. And it’s so, so easy to lose sight of our ultimate goal of writing the story.

But next time you’re in a writing slump, ask yourself: How much is this story worth to you? Or, in other words, what would you do to get your story written? NaNoWriMo is a time for big projects, and if your story is really, really worth it (hint: it is!), sometimes those big projects take big sacrifices, like abstaining from social media and television.

You might know this feeling: it’s a Sunday night, and you haven’t finished your homework yet, so you have to stay up past the wee hours of the night, and you spent the entire time wishing your past self had been more productive.

That’s the feeling of regret, and it isn’t pleasant. Guilt hangs over your head like the sword of Damocles and you just wish that you hadn’t been so careless with your time. From my experience, the bigger the project I’m neglecting, the worse the regret, and as previously said, we work on big projects during NaNoWriMo. I don’t want to end the month with biting regret. I want to make sure that I work as hard as I can, because this is my story and I owe it to myself to write it. At the end of the month, I want to feel proud and satisfied, like the burn that singes your muscles after a workout.

Let’s circle back: after my stressful NaNoWriMo experience of catching up from 20k words, I’d realized that my novel meant too much for me to put to the side. After reading many pep talks and watching videos of NaNoWriMo participants who successfully reached a goal they’d thought was impossible, I realized I wanted that experience too. 

By lowering my word count goal, I felt like I was downgrading my story’s importance. But that wasn’t right—lowering your writing goal is by no means failure. But later on, I returned my word count goal to 50k and stepped up my writing game, constantly reminding myself that this story was worth it, that it was important to me that this story was written. And on November 30, 2017, I reached my goal of 50,000 words.

So keep on writing that story. At times it may be arduous, and you may be tempted to get sidetracked, but keep your eyes on the prize: your story. Don’t end the month feeling regretful. Remind yourself exactly how much this story is worth to you, and the story will eventually get written. I’ll be rooting for you as you pull through these last stretches of Camp NaNoWriMo.

Elysia Lopez is an 8th grader and lives in the ever-sunny state of California. She enjoys reading fantasy and dystopian novels, and her favorite authors include Neal Shusterman, Cassandra Clare, Rick Yancey, and Cinda Williams Chima. Besides writing, she also enjoys building robots and programming video games. One day Elysia hopes to work as both a software engineer and a writer.

Got Writer’s Block?Fear not! Try the brand-new NaNoWriMo “Are…

Got Writer’s Block?

Fear not! Try the brand-new NaNoWriMo “Are You Stuck?” Flowchart! 

And don’t forget to update your Camp NaNoWriMo projects! Winning begins April 20th on, and continues through April 30th! 

Follow @nanowrimo and @nanowordsprints on Twitter for more inspiration, and tune in to the Virtual Write-Ins on Youtube!