Write under the gun
Local authors take on the NaNoWriMo challenge—writing a novel in 30 days
“Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing.”
There you have it—the NaNoWriMo Web site’s call to arms. The semi-acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, but that label doesn’t quite summarize the event that has taken place every November for the past eight years. A more accurate characterization would label it equal parts literary marathon, writing workshop and stage for public humiliation. The cost-free event challenges aspiring writers to make a novel happen fast, with no apology for the outcome. It is quantity, not necessarily quality, that is the driving force behind NaNoWriMo.
The rules are as follows: Each participant has exactly 30 days—that’s 720 hours for the sleep-challenged—to write a 50,000-word novel. If that number sounds intimidating, here is bit of consolation. Writers are allowed to make reasonable preparations beforehand. Creating outlines and developing characters are fine, but not a word of prose can see the light of day until 12 o’clock on the night of Oct. 31—a fitting start date for such a frightening endeavor.
Participants can upload their novels to the NaNoWriMo Web site for a word count any time between the first and last days of the month. If the numbers add up, congratulations to the conquering hero/heroine. Along the way, braver participants are encouraged to post short previews of their novels for the world to critique. The event works on the honor system, so there are no NaNo police to enforce the rules. Cheating would be a hollow victory, however, since prizes for completion are tactfully limited to a downloadable Web icon, 50,000 words of one’s own making and, most importantly, bragging rights.
NaNoWriMo (na-know-rye-moe) was founded in 1999 by Chris Baty, a freelance writer from Oakland, Calif., who was determined to write a novel. Realizing that he required more than just moral support if he hoped to complete the project, he enlisted 21 friends to commit to the same goal. Not quite a decade later, Baty has a lot more company. An estimated 75,000 signed on to become novelists during the 2006 NaNoWriMo.
In the spirit of the event, I corresponded, in writing, with some local NaNoWriMo participants. Their responses not only gave insight into locals’ experiences of the event, but they also offered pieces of sample writing. Emerging from a variety of backgrounds, each local writer shared the common ground of suffering through the exhausting and rewarding experience of writing a book.
Profiles in courage
Tom Smith is a second-year English teacher at Coral Academy of Science, a Reno charter school. He was also a first-time participant in NaNoWriMo. His wife, Michele, did NaNo last year and served as Tom’s inspiration to take up the torch in 2006. In the misery-loves-company flow, Tom decided to invite Coral students to toil with him. By Nov. 21, Tom said the 61 Young Writers Program students participating had produced more than 475,000 words.
“I am in awe at their responses; I could not have asked for more,” he said.
As for what the teacher and students hope to gain from the event, Tom said that he has several students who intend to hone their school writing projects into publishable works. He hopes to convince his administrators and the rest of the school—kids in grades fourth to 12th—to write their hearts out next year. Tom’s words of encouragement to potential NaNos are these: “Go for it! It is an amazing challenge and an amazing feeling to make those words flow.”
What does a computer programmer do for fun? In the age of prolific Internet writing, he becomes a novelist. Ron Overlist lives in Carson City, works with computers and has a family. He is also a self-proclaimed procrastinator. That potential writing impediment aside, Ron is an ideal NaNoWriMo candidate—it’s for anyone and everyone. The setting of his novel is late 19th-century Virginia City. The horror/western consists of “pure cheese, but fun cheese,” according to Ron. “It has ruthless mining barons, Pinkerton men, a few gunfights and ‘Nameless Horrors from Beyond Time and Space.'” It sounds like a healthy start on 50,000 words.
An important consideration for everyone who decides to write so profusely on a deadline is quality. Most of the local participants I spoke with voiced this concern. Most of them were also over it.
“Let go of your inner editor,” is Yve Lambert‘s advice to those who are considering writing a novel during NaNoWriMo. “Let go of any aspirations of writing the Great American Novel. This is a first draft, really rough. I’ve learned that the deadline is what I need. With it, I can let go of the need to edit everything while I’m writing. Soon, the creative mind takes over with no fear.” Lambert makes her living working in an office but is now basking in the personal glow of her new novelist status.
Completing a novel represents a life-altering experience for many NaNoers. The first under one’s belt can be a great confidence-builder, helping many would-be fiction writers gain the courage to come out of their respective closets.
As local participant Michele Smith noted in November, “I started out in the same place [as last year]—without a clue what to write about and with a lot of dread. Then the day dawned with the spark of an idea, and I took off and haven’t looked back … much. I hit 50,000 words on Nov. 11th and am still going.”
Smith was the first Reno-area NaNoWriMo participant to announce that she’d met the goal this year. After having pushed 20,000 words beyond the requirement, Michele has yet to run out of momentum.
The increasing popularity of NaNoWriMo is not limited to an audience of potential novelists.
Margaret Fisk is a local resident who had completed four novels before she jumped on the bandwagon. In fact, she was promoting her latest, a work in science fiction titled Shafter, while pushing toward her November goal. For Fisk, the challenge was not just to be productive, but also to work under the extreme time constraint. A NaNoWriMo participant must scribble down an average of 1,667 words per day to meet the quota within the allotted time. Fisk took on the challenge, successfully, for the third time in a row this year.
Writing is an inherently private process. NaNoWriMo does nothing to change that cold fact, but it does provide an inspirational public forum for writers. Benefiting from that extra support, some participants have gone on to edit and publish what they produce in November. With almost one year between us and next year’s event, there is plenty of time left for brainstorms, outlining and procrastination. So represent, Reno. Write away.