NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. From its humble beginnings in 1999 when founder Chris Baty and a group of twenty friends each agreed to write a novel-in-a-month, NaNoWriMo has become a world-wide phenomenon with over 340,000 participants in 2012. The event is held every November, and helps one-day novelists (as in, one day I’ll write a novel) achieve their dream.
“Butt-in-chair” may be the most common issue for any writer. There are so many other things to do in a day, like heading out to your paying job, or doing the laundry, or feeding your kids/animals/ spouse. Elective activities, like playing music or writing stories, get shoved down the list. Making the time to write, without a sword at your throat, may seem difficult at best.
NaNoWriMo provides that sword in the form of a deadline.
“A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form. It’s a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path. This is especially true when it comes to creative pursuits.” – Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days
With a limited amount of time, and a firm deadline, writers can accomplish anything. By November 30th, you could be a novelist!
The question of quality comes up. We are given permission to write badly, dreadfully, through both Viable Paradise and NaNoWriMo. First drafts are, in technical terms, crap. But the first draft can still make sense, and have a beginning, middle, and an end. Characters can have goals and motivations, settings can create tone, and the world presented suggest verisimilitude.
How is this possible? Because there is nothing in the “rules” that prevents you preparing BEFORE November 1st.
The secret to finishing a NaNovel, one that can be edited, critiqued, revised and submitted without considerable wailing and pain, is in the work you put into it before you start. No, you can’t write a word of prose before November 1st, but that doesn’t mean you can’t determine what you are going to write. World-building, character sketches, research and outlining, are all allowed in advance. Pantsers might do this in their heads. I’m a plotter; I like paper notes. Programs like Scrivener allow you to organize it all in one file on your computer. This process might take a few days, a week, or longer depending on how you work and what kind of story you plan to write.
To achieve 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write 1667 words each day. I recommend writers round up to 2,000 words-per-day to create a buffer in case they need time off for family or Thanksgiving. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says of his pace, “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words…only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.” NaNoWriMo forces such discipline on its writers. Some people write faster. Stephen King himself wrote The Running Man in a week. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in six days. John Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in just over two days. Last year, my ninth participating in NaNoWriMo, I wrote 95,355 words in 30 days. High word counts are achievable with a goal, some discipline, and the deadline.
Published authors started writing Pep Talks for Wrimos (those writing novels in November) in 2007. The list of authors includes Neil Gaiman, Tamora Pierce, Piers Anthony, Brian Jacques, Holly Black, Mercedes Lackey, Brandon Sanderson, Scott Westerfeld, and VP’s own Sherwood Smith. This year will feature pep talks by James Patterson, Lev Grossman, Malinda Lo, Patrick Rothfuss, and Jeff VanderMeer among others. The talks are especially helpful when you are thrashing about in the middle of your novel, or are struggling to make it to the end.
The advice to write your first draft fast, to prevent your inner editor from interfering in the creative phase of your work, is sound. If you keep second-guessing yourself, you’ll continue to rewrite the first part of your work or remain lost in the middle and never get to The End. Perfectionism will bring your momentum to a grinding halt. NaNoWriMo recommends locking your inner editor away for the month so you can finish. Take a break in December, and start editing in January instead.
Many participants take on the challenge for fun. Others take the effort seriously and go on to publication. Well-known books that started as NaNovels include Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Wool by Hugh Howey, and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
The NaNoWriMo site provides a multitude of forums for its users. The most useful include the Regional forums, where participants meet writers in their area. Municipal Liaisons, the organizers for each region, create and schedule events in their regions, moderate the forums, send informative and supportive emails, manage word war challenges, set up dares, encourage donations, and provide virtual hugs as needed. Each writer has a profile page with author and novel information, a buddy list, and the author’s history of years done/won NaNoWriMo. The site provides graphs for current word count stats for each author and their region.
If you win, you earn winner goodies like a certificate, web badges, and offers from NaNoWriMo sponsors, such as a half-off coupon for Scrivener, or free books through CreateSpace. The best prize earned is your extraordinary accomplishment. You’ve finished a novel.
Participation in NaNoWriMo is free, but donations are encouraged to help fund the site, those running NaNoWriMo, and the Young Writers Program. Each year, NaNoWriMo provides materials for thousands of students and educators through YWP.
I had been writing for two years when I first signed up to do NaNoWriMo in 2004. Could I write an entire story, at this length, for a deadline? Knowing myself, my distractions, my toddler twins, and my deadly habit of procrastination, I decided that I needed to know the answer. Not only did I win that year, I have met or exceeded the NaNoGoal nine times in a row. I’ve learned a lot about planning, organizing, and using my writing time as efficiently as possible. Most importantly, NaNoWriMo taught me that I could start, and finish, a novel.
So can you.
Lee Budar-Danoff is a former history teacher and current stay-at-home-mom. She writes sf/f, sails, plays guitar, and has been a participant in and Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo in Maryland since 2004. Lee is an alumni of VP17, the class of 2013. You can often find her on Twitter, as @Punahougirl84