In a few days, the clock will click over from October 31st, Halloween, and pass into November 1st, a day usually associated with the major retailers of North America vomiting out as much Winter Holiday displays they can. (Once they waited until the day after Thanksgiving, but now I think they are prepared to creep into mid-October as well, before the pumpkins are even carved.)
But for tens of thousands of people across the globe, the seam between October 31st and November 1st marks the dramatic beginning of one of most anticipated events of their year: the start of National Novel Writing Month. (www.nanowrimo.org) A month of “literary abandon,” as its website proclaims. Established in 1999 between a few friends in San Francisco who wanted to know what it would feel like to be “novelists,” those magical people who had actually written a full-length novel regardless of whether it would ever go public or not, NaNoWriMo (the customary abbreviation) has expanded into one of largest creative writing projects in the world. As of this writing, 82,000 people across the world, from teenagers to nonagenarians and at least one other Black Gate contributor, have signed up to participate, and the numbers will leap dramatically in the remaining few days before the start mark. The event has not only led to published novels and new careers, but also offered form of therapy and creative exploration for people who never would dream of trying to get published. It embraces noveling as a form recreation, not an idea often associated with it.
The goal of NaNoWriMo is for it authors to write, within the thirty days of November, a novel of at least 50,000 words. A participant “wins” if he or she can cross the 50,000-word finish line by midnight on November 30th. The prize: some icons to put on a homepage or a social-networking site, a PDF certificate commemorating the achievement, and the satisfaction of having a manuscript containing a freshly created piece of fiction. (Sure, it will need some work. Everything does. But the first big step is completed: the work exists.) Every year, a huge percentage of participants come away winners. But nobody can truly “lose” NaNoWriMo, since the act of attempting to write a book is worthy of praise no matter how far the writer gets.
I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year, although I like to say I had “spiritually” taken part number of times previously: I had already completed four books to at least first-draft stage, and in each case,I had reached 50,000 words before thirty days. I had seen mention of National Novel Writing Month on a website, but the description I found was inaccurate and made it sound as if the point of the exercise was to write a purposely awful novel in as short a time as possible. Because of this misinformation, I dismissed NaNoWriMo for a few years as a stunt with nothing to offer me. When I eventually learned what it was really about, I realized that it might help me get out of writing rut I had fallen into after my fourth novel ended up an unpleasant experience. For me, NaNoWriMo offered two things that I needed at the moment:
1) A structured deadline and time frame. The threat of the deadline is the reason that the event exists in the first place. There’s nothing like a looming date to force someone to sit down and actually start writing. Even though the deadline of National Novel Writing Month doesn’t carry any actual penalties if a writer doesn’t make it, the wide breadth of the event and its social aspects makes midnight on November 31st a very potent threat. Writers who participate usually tell friends and family about what they’re doing, as well as other people participating the novel-writing adventure, and the pressure from the people in the know pestering them about whether they’ll make it or not is enough force to keep them moving toward the goal. For me, simply having a point at which I must start and a point by which I must have achieved at least 50,000 words was all I needed to stop procrastinating, get my notes and ideas in order, and start the actual doing on the first of November. (I always knew the my first novel for the event would go past 50,000 words and probably end up in the territory of 75,000 words—and that estimate ended up off only by about 5,000 words. As long as I could get to the 50,000-word mark in thirty days, I knew I would be able to ride to the end. I ended up finishing the novel at its expanded length within National Novel Writing Month, concluding on the very last day.)
2) Writing, the social experience. The nature of novel writing, and most writing, is solitary. The Ivory Tower Author image is a strong cultural one. I had always written my works in the isolation of my apartment before my desktop computer, and did not see how it could be any other way. A writer is a solitary creature. But NaNoWriMo asks writers to get involved in a massive project at the same time—each person working on his or her own creative endeavor, but sharing the experience with others all over the world. This can be local, with a regional Kick-Off party at a restaurant and “write-ins” where authors hunker down in cafes and bars or the most spacious home available and write in each other’s company; and it can be global, through forums that allow the participants to communicate their frustrations, ideas, and surprising successes. The forums also allow writers to give themselves boosts to keep writing using “word wars” with other writers, or even regions dueling each other over total word count. (Last year, my region of Los Angeles entered a race to defeat the word count of Belgium. We succeeded. We didn’t get the highest regional word count total, which I think went to Seattle. Seattle has a history of winning this, which must come from some sort of “caffeine pride.”)
I still had some doubts going into the event last year, even after attending a Kick-Off party at the L. A. Farmer’s Market—a spot famous for Hollywood screenwriters using it as their lunch counter—and meeting a slew of great and enthusiastic people who understood what I was going to do over the next month. It’s rare to meet so many other people who “get” what the act of long-form creative writing entails. But I still wondered if forcing myself at a particular pace over the next month would benefit my writing, even though I had worked at that pace before and turned out work of which I was proud. I had concerns about my long-term goals, since I was one of the NaNoWriMo participants who wanted to make novel writing a career, and who planned to revise and eventually put his work out for publication consideration. So even before the midnight hour of Halloween, I was worried about how that affair would turn out, even if I didn’t worry too much about getting to 50,000 words. Writing 1,667 words a day on average didn’t seem that onerous.
I wouldn’t be much of a novelist if I didn’t have doubts, would I? Cruise through the NaNoWriMo forums, and you’ll find more fear and doubt and maybe a bit of loathing than you will anywhere else outside of an insane asylum.
But National Novel Writing Month 2009 turned into the most positive writing experience of my life so far. Is the novel I finished last year something that will eventually hit bookstore shelves? I certainly hope so. But whether it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, or the second or fourth best, the process of creating it gave me an intoxicating feeling that I hadn’t gotten in a few years. It took me back to the younger version of me who thrilled when he finished his first book. It was so rejuvenating, that the year that has followed has been the most productive I’ve experienced so far.
Here I am, about to do it again. I had planned out an idea for a novel back in February, but I tossed it into the file cabinet of projects with only ten days left (yes, that would mean it was about five days ago that I made the switch). I picked up another concept that suddenly demanded that I write it. It’s looser and less sure way to enter NaNoWriMo, but many people go into the first day without any idea about what they’re going to write. NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty seems to do it every year. To me, it simply came down to a matter of enthusiasm: the writing event encourages energy and letting creativity carry you away, and it was second idea that I decided I really wanted to spend the next thirty days exploring as my fingers dashed around the keyboard of my desktop and my Alphasmart NEO (my magic sword for the event, allowing me to write anywhere) and I slugged back Monster energy drinks. The idea I abandoned… well, there’s always NaNoWriMo next year.
Even if you’ve already written a few novels, even if you’ve had some published, NaNoWriMo is still something worth investigating. And if you’ve never written a novel before, a crazy November with strange new friends is all you need to change that.
Finally, for anybody who already is participating, here’s my NaNoWriMo user name: kristelholly.