Sacramento, city of authors

Sacramentans put their pens to paper trying to reach the National Novel Writing Month’s lofty goal: 50,000 words in one month

SacNaNoWriMo participants work on their novels at the Howe Avenue Panera Bread during a Nov. 26 write-in.

SacNaNoWriMo participants work on their novels at the Howe Avenue Panera Bread during a Nov. 26 write-in.

Photo by Maxfield Morris

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Chris Fairbairn’s hands flew across the computer keys, probing for words and finding them with loping rapidity. The UC Davis psychology major’s focus was pinpoint, as she grappled with the psyche of a man in crisis.

She was in a race against the clock—seconds evaporated as she sculpted Andrew Grey’s fate.

Until recently, Grey was a typical, middle-aged real estate agent from England. He owned a goldfish and sold homes, until the frenetic Fairbairn decided it was time he had a little “relocation.”

Twenty minutes were up, 765 words of Grey’s life set into the record. Grey found himself countless miles from home, sitting on an unfamiliar bed in Vor’usne, utterly unaware of his most profound truth:

He would never, ever meet his maker.

OK, to be fair, it would be impossible to meet his maker: Grey, his real estate career and even his goldfish are fictional details born from Fairbairn’s mind for National Novel Writing Month—a dash each November to finish a 50,000-word novel. With four days to go, Fairbairn was participating in a 20-minute writing sprint, a friendly competition of quick writing with other local authors.

The nonprofit that organizes the contest, NaNoWriMo, was founded in 1999, and offers programs to get kids and adults writing more year-round. It also offers the more laid-back, set-your-own-goal Camp NaNoWriMo, as well as the classroom-based Young Writers Program.

Some of this year’s hopeful authors found themselves facing an insurmountable wall of unwritten words—as well as their own creative demons—while trying to share their voice and stories.

The book palace

The Valley-Hi North Laguna Library in South Sacramento—colorful polished concrete floors, airplane hangar ceilings, wide-open scenery visible through enormous bay windows—buzzed with activity. Against the westernmost wall, though, there was a sole, quiet aisle. No one walked through and the metal shelves lining the passage were bare—crying out for some new books. Luckily, some library visitors were hard at work crafting tales.

At the opposite side of the library, four writers typed away on their own novels at a NaNoWriMo write-in, organized by librarian Cat Fithian. Crystina Luna and Laura Roberts were returning competitors who’ve both published their own novels.

Luna first wrote a novel at age 13. “That one will never see the light of day,” she vowed. At 15, she published a novel that was read by more than 1 million people on the storytelling platform Wattpad. But she said the pressure of an enormous audience was too much. So she took it all down.

Now 21, writing is a full-time job; NaNoWriMo was a force for making writing more social.

“I’ve just always seen it as writers supporting other writers,” Luna said. “Because there are whole groups of people who don’t even necessarily meet in real life. They just meet online, and they can make so many friends.”

As far as writing 50,000 words goes, it’s no small feat. Aside from the sheer volume, other difficulties arise.

“It’s hard to figure out how to divide stuff up. Am I writing a scene, or am I writing a chapter a day? Should I just do a chapter a day and see how it shakes out?” Roberts says. “This year I’ve been writing lots more notes than an actual novel.”

Her newest story is a romance novel set in Paris. The author got her creative writing degree in 2007, and has written steamy romance and instructional books, including the 2017 Careers in Gaming.

“November is always a good time to start,” Roberts says. “So even if you don’t hit the 50,000 words, even if you just get something started and stick with it for 30 days, that’s always a good exercise.”

It’s also the mantra of first-time participant Fatima Sahak, who got started on her life story mid-October and used November to get a chunk of the work on paper.

“The country I was living in was war for so many years—and I left,” Sahak says. “So many other countries, traveled from cities to cities, countries to countries, and finally I came here. So everyone heard about my story, my coworkers and my friends, and they always told me, ’Oh, you should write this story, you should write your life story.’”

And it’s quite a story. Sahak was trying to leave Afghanistan in the 1980s, along with her daughter, husband, sister, brother and his friend. Young, educated men were being taken into the army, and both her brother and husband had just graduated college. Sahak was working with an American organization at the time, and it was time to leave.

Sahak says they left in the middle of the night, Sahak wearing her grandmother’s clothing to appear older and avoid suspicion, and flew from Kabul to western Afghanistan. Then, they traveled to a village near the Iranian border, where they rented three donkeys for the women and children—$200 per donkey.

And the rest of the story? You’ll have to wait for the book.

Meanwhile, in a coffee shop

For Roberts, it’s all about the different stories being told during the month.

“It’s the excitement of ’Everybody is writing!’” Roberts says. “Because you might not know these people, but if you go into a coffee shop, there’s probably people doing NaNoWriMo there.”

Panera Breads across the city have been flooded with aspiring authors and sprinting wordsmiths—and Max Christian Hansen is partly responsible. As one of two “municipal liaisons” for Sacramento’s chapter of NaNoWriMo, Hansen organizes meet-ups and coordinates 800 or so registered participants in a region bounded by Elk Grove and Yuba City, Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Last year, 8% of the event’s 287,327 global participants met the word goal. But only about 122,000 people actually started a novel, meaning that an overwhelming majority of those who sign up don’t write a single word. The meet-ups try to address that by offering some shared community.

The cafes and bakeries offer a space for authors to congregate, as they did at the Howe Avenue Panera on Nov. 26, the Tuesday before deadline. It was the first storm of the season—palm fronds littered the parking lot, but seven dedicated writers showed up, including Fairbairn and her spouse, Alanna Fairbairn.

Alanna teaches middle school English in Fairfield, and made all of her students join the Young Writers Program. The kids aren’t required to write full novels; it’s just a way to get them writing, Alanna says.

“Some of them write scripts, some write nonfiction stuff,” Alanna said. “It’s interesting to see which of them who basically do nothing else for the class are super into this.”

The next table over, Beverlee Cvitanov, Karina Records and Jennifer Thompson had laptops out, and between their many laughs still managed to write. The trio met at the start of the month, and share a combined 12 years in NaNoWriMo.

“It’s more toward building your own self habits,” Cvitanov says. “I never feel actually it’s like competing, I feel like it’s just more supportive.”

Still, there’s a competitive element; Records won a writing sprint against Chris, with more than 800 words down in 20 minutes. But more than just the mad dash to put words on paper, the month helps bring people together and share their stories.

It’s not just about the 50,000 words. It’s about self-discipline, building community and finding time to work on your craft—because you’ll need all three in abundance if you’re going to try to publish your manuscript.

“At the end of the evening, I’m walking away with 1,000 that I probably wouldn’t have written if I was at home,” Thompson said. “I know whatever I have at the end of the month is not necessarily going to be a coherent storyline, but I got the words on the page, and now I have something to work with.”