‘It was a real exercise in self-discipline’: Ore Agbaje-Williams on writing her novel during NaNoWriMo

The author of The Three of Us shares her advice for aspiring authors and reflections on writing her book over the course of NaNoWriMo.

Rachel Deeley
Ore Agbaje-Williams
Photo: Jedidah M.

Ore Agbaje-Williams is an accomplished writer and editor whose work has been featured in publications including Glamour, Gal-Dem and Wasafiri magazine. It was only relatively recently, however, that she made her foray into long-form writing.

Agbaje-Williams wrote her first novel, The Three of Us, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November 2020, with the finished book coming out in May 2023 to rave reviews. It follows a woman, her best friend Temi and husband (who both hate each other) over the course of one heady, wine-fuelled day. Told in three parts from each character's perspective, the story comes to a dramatic crescendo as tensions rise and lives unravel.

We caught up with Agbaje-Williams to learn more about her experience of participating in NaNoWriMo, how it shaped her process, and what advice she would give to fellow writers looking to get published.

What was your experience of taking part in NaNoWriMo like?

It was a real exercise in self-discipline and trying to be as consistent as possible. I think I was fortunate in that I was doing it at a time when we were in lockdown so there weren’t social activities or other things to distract me, and I had friends and family who knew I was doing it who would keep me accountable and check in to make sure I had done my writing for the day!

How did you stay motivated during the writing process?

With the voice of my literary agent in my head saying she just needed a first draft! Ha! Well, that and as before friends and family. Though I also think the fact that I had an idea that I liked helped. I was also aiming to finish before Christmas, so I could really enjoy the break without that looming over my head!

Did you have to deal with writer’s block or imposter syndrome? If so, what advice do you have for overcoming it?

Not so much imposter syndrome but definitely writer’s block. There were days when I’d close my work laptop, open my personal one and just stare at the word document and wait for words to come. When they didn’t, I’d just write the word ‘and’, update the tracker on the NaNoWriMo website and then call it a day! I did learn through that process though that sometimes it’s better to write nothing when you don’t have anything to say than it is to write something for the sake of word count that you’ll then delete the next day.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Dialogue! I had to really work at it to make sure it sounded like a real conversation that people would have rather than just a series of funny quips here and there that didn’t sound natural at all. I also had to learn that the mundane parts of the day and of life also make up a story, it’s not just the interesting parts, and that those mundane parts make the story feel more realistic to the reader.

What was the best part?

You know what, I really loved writing the ending. I found massive satisfaction in that and I’m really grateful to my agent for pushing and encouraging me to write a more satisfying ending, it’s one of the best pieces of writing I think I’ve done.

How did you juggle work and other obligations during NaNoWriMo?

As it was during lockdown I think I absolutely benefitted from not having anything else to really do once the work day was over so I was much less distracted which helped. Sometimes sitting back down to write after a long day of work took some willpower I didn’t know I had, but it was worth it!

What did you have ready to go at the start of the month/what was your game plan?

I used to very much despise planning and preferred to sort of let the story come to me, so I had no plan at all! The moment the idea came to me I just started writing and let the story spill out on the page and then I moulded and shaped it from there. My game plan was probably just to get to the end and finish something and be somewhat satisfied with it!

Sometimes NaNoWriMo can be a starting point for you as a writer, don’t feel that not finishing in November means you’ve failed, it means you’ve just begun!

What advice would you give to people participating in NaNoWriMo currently?

Keep going! Get friends to keep you accountable, but also be realistic about what you can do everyday and don’t force it if you can’t think of something to write some days. Also, if you don’t get to the end by the time the month just keep going! Sometimes NaNoWriMo can be a starting point for you as a writer, don’t feel that not finishing in November means you’ve failed, it means you’ve just begun!

What do you wish you’d known at the start? What advice would you give to your former self?

I actually don’t think I would change anything about the experience – I think everything I needed to know I learned as I went along and that helped me to grow as a writer. I would definitely give my former self advice though, which would be to trust the process!

Did you have a full plan/outline for your novel before the start of the month?

No not at all – I had the concept and idea for the story, but after that I just let myself go with the flow and see where the story took me!

Did you know where the plot and character development would go?

I think I knew who the characters were and how they would react to certain things/people/situations, but I definitely didn’t know how much they would develop, that certainly came with the help and encouragement of my editors. The plot I think I did know loosely, but that also changed and improved as I wrote more of the story and got to know my characters better.

How much writing had you done before you wrote The Three of Us?

A LOT! I had written an entire other novel before and multiple other ideas, probably totally maybe 100,000 words. But none of them were written in my voice as a writer – mostly because I didn’t yet know what it was, but I know now that it was all part of the process so I’m grateful for it!

What does writing process look like now? How does it differ from when you wrote your book during NaNoWriMo?

Now, there is careful planning and character profiling and a lot more discipline than I had vs during NaNoWriMo – but one thing that is absolutely the same is that I’m still very much of the opinion that if I can’t think of anything to write at any time when I’m trying to write, even in the middle of the sentence, it’s best to stop, let the mind rest and come back to it later. I prefer to add carefully now than to delete liberally!

What advice would you give to someone looking get published when they’re finished with their manuscript?

Don’t ask too many people to read it – conflicting opinions may confuse you! Don’t self-edit more than twice or three times, otherwise you risk over-editing and ruining a perfectly good book! Also I’d think about which other books your book might sit alongside in terms of genre and content, that will help if and when you decide to look for an editor.

What happened after you finished your draft? Did you self-edit/talk to an agent?

Hilariously, I didn’t read it through or self-edit at all! I just got to the end, saved the document, and sent it to my agent – on the 23rd of December! Once it was done I just left it in her hands, and thankfully, when she read it in January of 2021, she loved it, and then we worked on edits, getting it into a good enough shape to submit to publishers.

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How did you go about getting an agent, and what was it like pitching your book idea?

I was quite privileged in how I found my agent, as she was recommended to me by a friend who was the first to read any of my long-form writing, and she was an editor at the time so she was aware of different agents and how they worked. My friend, Angelique, told me to submit my writing to agents and particularly suggested my now-agent, Niki Chang. I emailed Niki, along with other agents, with a cover letter and the first 10,000 words of my novel (a completely different novel to The Three of Us!) and she was one of the first to respond. When we met for a coffee she was so intentional with the way that she not only spoke about the opening of the novel I’d sent her, but also about her hopes for me and my career. I’d also looked her up (research is very important of course!) and she had a great reputation and a great sense of humour, which was very important to me.

It can be difficult to pitch to agents because you’re trying to walk a fine line between comparing your idea to something that you know works well with readers and is commercially viable but equally, something that is unique and will stand out from other books. 

What advice do you have for an aspiring author who’s looking for representation?  

When it comes to looking for an agent, the most important thing I would say is that you find someone whose vision for your career and your writing aligns with yours, and someone who is willing to do the level of work with you that you want and/or require. If you want someone hands-off, look for that, if you want someone hands-on who will work closely with you and guide you carefully through the process then you need to make sure you find that. Remember that ultimately, your agent is there to grow and shape your career, so make sure you find someone who will do that in the way that makes you feel comfortable and supported!

What did you learn from the experience?

That patience really is a virtue and that maybe I’m more disciplined than I realised!

What’s next for you?

Book two! I’ve recently finished it and my agent is reading it, so watch this space…

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