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Sunday, October 24, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

Every November tens of thousands of would-be novelists take up the challenge of National Novel Writing Month in the attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. As National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, enters its 12th year, let's take a look at this literary phenomenon. And before someone says this is a blog about books, not writing...try having books without authors.

It has been said that virtually everyone dreams of writing a novel at some point in their life. Whether it's the first time they read a Hardy Boy's mystery or Tom Sawyer or Paradise Lost (well, maybe not Paradise Lost), everyone comes to a point while reading that they say to themselves, "I could have written that." For me, the dream started at about eight years old, the first time I read Alfred Hitchcock's The Three Investigator's series. Most people eventually abandon this dream, along with the dream of being President or an astronaut.

But as evidenced by the steady growth of participants over the years, NaNoWriMo proves that not everyone gives up the dream. It may lay dormant for long periods, but the pull is always there, like a siren calling them toward some distant literary rocks. For me, a harmless web search for writing sites in 2005 brought 30 years of dreaming, wishing, and procrastinating crashing into the scary reality of possibility when I discovered http://www.nanowrimo.org/.

When I first found out about National Novel Writing Month during that web search in October of 2005, I though it was the craziest idea I had ever heard. I had been dreaming of writing a novel since I was a kid, and had been working on one novel off and on for more than 10 years, and these lunatics were suggesting that you could write one in 30 days? I checked out the website, more to prove to myself that it was a ridiculous notion than with the idea of participating. I was completely wrong.

Chris Baty started NaNoWriMo in 1999 in San Francisco with 21 participants. He claims it was partly to have something to do and partly as a way to get dates. In 2009 over 119,000 people participated, with over 21,000 completing 50,000 words in 30 days.

The basics of the "contest" are simple. During the month of November, you write a 50,000-word novel, which comes out to roughly 175 pages. On a daily basis, this is 1667 words per day, which sounds a lot less frightening than 50,000. You must start from scratch (no trying to complete something you've already started), and you cannot, or at least should not, edit any of what you write before you finish; Baty says if you do not silence your inner editor, a legion of guilt monkeys will descend upon you. The goal is to push through to the end, regardless of how bad much of the book will be. When you have conquered actually finishing this rough draft, you can then go back and edit. The way you "win" is to reach 50,000 words by November 30th.

NaNoWriMo 2005 was the breakthrough for me. Just knowing that there were thousands of people around the world hammering away at their keyboards at the same time I was made me feel less alone in the process, and having a set deadline helped me stick to the daily word requirement. After 10 years slogging away, starting and stopping, and never getting anywhere on my own, it pushed me over the top. On November 30, 2005 the first draft of my novel God, Guns, and the Perfect Chicken-Fried Steak was complete, with just over 51,000 words. In November 2006 I finished my second novel, The Candy Man, while continuing the editing of the first. Will either ever make the best-seller's list? Probably not, but that's not the point. (And I have to admit I was a total failure from 2007-2009, not finishing in any of those years...2010 will be different).

This method may not be right for everyone, but if you need a push, this is the way to go. There are forums and encouraging e-mails from Chris Baty, and all over the country local groups meet once a week during November to write together. In some ways, it's like a big party that ends not with a hangover, but with a finished novel. Each year also features guest authors giving words of encouragement throughout the month.

One word of caution, though. As with any writing class (and the contest is essentially a hands-on class on speed novel writing), there are benefits and drawbacks to NaNoWriMo. Writing a novel is a monumental task, especially if you have never gotten beyond page five in spite of years of trying. The daily word-count goal breaks the process down to a more manageable size. Refusing to edit as you write the first draft allows creativity to run amok, whereas re-working the same sentence on page one 50 times will kill creativity in a heartbeat.

It is also a great encouragement to know that thousands of other people around the world are writing at the same time you are. For some, simply writing 50,000 words is enough, no matter how bad the plot, dialogue, and overall quality may be. There are people who have taken part in nearly every National Novel Writing Month contest since 1999. For many, it is a month-long excuse to meet friends at Starbucks while pretending to hammer out a few hundred words. For some it's exactly what Chris Baty originally envisioned: a way to meet girls.

The danger is that for those who do take it seriously, the adrenaline of the speed-writing format can be so addictive, and the camaraderie so strong, that they cannot write any time except November. It's a great way to get past your first novel-length piece of fiction or as a jump-start if you're blocked, but writing is something that's meant to be done every day. It's a way of life, not something done on a seasonal schedule like duck hunting.

If only as a writing exercise, NaNoWriMo is something every writer should do at least once. It is only a starting point in the journey, not the destination itself, but if you're trying to finish a novel for the first time and need a push, there's no better route to go.

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