The idea? Write a novel of 50,000 words in one month. In 1999, at National Novel Writing Month's inception, there were 21 participants all in the San Francisco Bay area. Now, in its sixth year, National Novel Writing Month is an international undertaking with its own web site and 40,000 participants. It is expected that of these, 5000 will succeed in their attempt to finish the 50,000 words between November 1 and midnight on November 30, 2004.
I was fortunate enough to convince a handful of these speed writers to step away from their laptops and their carpal tunnel syndrome long enough to give me the insider's lowdown on this wild undertaking. Due to time considerations, I was only able to choose from those in nearby (USA) time zones for our late night chat, but as you'll see, NaNoWriMo crosses boundaries of age, location, and background.
Anne, 44: PennsylvaniaMF: Have you done NaNoWriMo in previous years?
Richard, 36: California
Colonia, 15: Massachusetts
April, 24: Texas
Teresa, 45: Massachusetts
Sara, 28: Nevada
Anne: This is my fourth year doing NaNo.
Richard: Yep. 2001 and 2003. Finished 50K both years
Colonia: This is my first year.
Teresa: This is my first year.
April: This is my first year.
Sara: Yes, in 2003. Lost miserably. I'm excited to try again.
MF: Have you attempted a non NaNoWriMo novel before?
Anne: I have, but it didn't work out very well. NaNo gave me the motivation to get it finished.
Richard: Yep. I have a couple under my belt. My first, Adventureworld, dates from when I was in 8th grade, about 1982. It's pretty awful. I have another from 1999, LTM, that I never finished.
Colonia: Not really. I've written random fanfictions here and there, and I did write this pretty weird story called The Magic Book when I was in the second grade, but I'd never considered attempting anything that could be considered a novel until I heard about NaNoWriMo.
April: I've completed a few rough drafts, starting in eighth grade, and one novel is finished except for final revisions and editing.
Teresa: I've started one that I haven't yet finished. I think I write in real time - the novel will span 30 years and I'm in about my 5th year of it.
Sara: Always dreamed of attempting, yes. Actually attempted, no. The perfect candidate for NaNo.
MF: What made you want to do NaNoWriMo?
Anne: I knew I had a novel ... or 2 or 6 in me, but I could never manage to finish. I'd just re-write the same chapters over and over. When I heard about NaNo, I thought a word count and a deadline to shoot for would help me finish. And it did.
Richard: The challenge and the opportunity to actually FINISH something. I'd had ideas for novels running around in my head for years that I had never done anything with. NNWM forced me to commit. Just like Anne, I guess.
Colonia: Well, I've always wanted to write a novel, and it seemed like sort of a fun thing to do. I always love doing those crazy things that nobody in their right mind would think are at all possible, which is why I was so attracted to NaNoWriMo.
April: I've been working on the same story on and off since 1995, and wanted to write a second. This is motivating me to take a break from editing and actually get it written.
Teresa: My daughter and her friend signed up to do it and after hearing my daughter discuss it, I decided to give it a go.
Sara: The camaraderie with other people trying to do the same challenge at the same time, as well as the deadline that helps me make the challenge a priority in my life for a while.
MF: What was your pre-writing work? Outlines? Character development?
Anne: I don't use outlines. My characters kind of tell me where the story is going. I have a basic idea of the story, but I never know what's going to happen next. When Nov. 1 rolls around, I just start writing and the rest is a surprise!
Richard: I did some world building and outlining for about four months; though my friends and I have been developing the setting since about 1997.
Colonia: The only pre-writing that I actually did was to think of the characters' names and to think of the basic idea for the novel. I don't think that I actually wrote anything down until
the First, even though it's legal to do that sort of thing before November.
April: I'm writing a prequel to my first story, so much of the plot work was already completed. I am simply fleshing it out and adding more details now.
Teresa: On 11/1, I signed up and saw that I was supposed to start from scratch, so after panicking, I Googled on "Random Plot Generator" and got something. (Six words to turn into a story.)
Sara: Nothing formally organized, but I have pages and pages of notes and I also created some topics related to my story on index cards to use to write about for 15 minutes when I get stuck. Anything to help me keep moving forward.
MF: What is your writing strategy or routine?
Anne: Uh, I don't have one really. I just write whenever I feel the urge. Sometimes I go an entire day without writing anything. Other days I write 5,000 words. My only strategy is to have lots of caffeine on hand ... for the 5,000 word nights.
Richard: I usually sit down after work and churn out about 2,000 words. Sometimes if I have some downtime at work, I'll write a little bit there as well. Yesterday I was able to write 1,000 words at work. No real strategy here.
Colonia: I carry a little notebook around school with me all the time, and I work on my novel during classes, mostly Biology class. When I get home, I type up everything that I've written, and keep going until I meet my 2,500 words per day. I try not to take any days off. I haven't yet.
April: I've broken my plot into scenes, and before writing each scene, I break it down further into steps. If one scene is too short to meet my word quota, I'll do two. I aim a little higher than the minimum because I'll need to devote at least one or two days later in the month to research.
Teresa: Sheer panic, writing, checking my word count, panicking and writing
Sara: I have written one scene at a time, in whatever order they come. I will be editing them into "proper" story order after November is over. For now, my goal is just to get my ideas out of my head and into actual words.
MF: Is it hard to keep momentum? What energizes you?
Anne: Sometimes it's hard to keep momentum but then I remember I only have until the end of the month so I have to get it done. Caffeine. Caffeine. Caffeine. That and remembering the satisfaction I get from finishing.
Richard: I love seeing the word count go up. Also, I love my story and seeing what happens next. Some days, it's just sheer cussedness that keeps me going. I can't drink much caffeine, unfortunately.
Colonia: Sometimes it's hard to keep momentum, but I know that I'm not going to let myself go to bed until my word quota's finished, so I just try to not procrastinate it too much. Besides, I find my plot fairly interesting, so I'm usually anxious to get it written. Besides, I love to watch the little blue bar get bigger and bigger and bigger...
April: I only had two days where it was hard. Once I set up a routine, it went more smoothly. What keeps my motivation up is that I enjoy to write and have a lot of fun both creating the story and learning for it. And yes... coffee helps.
Teresa: I've convinced a few friends to join me in this challenge and now I will be too embarrassed to tell them I didn't finish, so I keep on going. Also, I want to find out what happens in my story!
Sara: Chris's pep talks are always, always just what I needed to hear that week! He's amazingly motivating and reminds me to keep it FUN. I forget that sometimes in the heat of the frustration.
MF: What is your word count so far?
Anne: 30,0050 ... and, for the life of me, I don't know how I wrote that many words in 10 days.
Richard: 18,892 words.
April: 22887, but I'm not done for the day.
MF: Can you give me the 20 cent description of your novel?
Anne: Gina, a newspaper reporter, is trying to find out who is kidnapping her online friends and posting porn pics of them on the 'net. In the meantime, her lawyer husband is trying to uncover a mystery about elder abuse.
Richard: A young woman on a distant planet becomes embroiled in a massive conspiracy while investigating the mysterious death of her husband. Meanwhile, civil war is looming.
Colonia: Well, I can't really give too much of a description without giving a lot away, but it's basically about this girl, Anælicia, trying to get to this Land of Truth, called Verdira, and the people that she meets on the way, and their trials and tribulations, and all of the things that they learn about themselves on the way.
April: Essentially, my novel is Biblical fiction, the account of roughly the first half of King David's reign from the point of view of Amnon, his firstborn son. Sort of an insider look at the internal politics and court intrigues.
Teresa: this will be tough, but I think it's something like this: Anya discovers that her family in Burroughs Corners, middle America is far from ordinary and mundane when she slips through time portals in corn mazes and Walmart.
Sara: A recent college graduate lands her dream job as a Personal Reporter / Career Historian for a rising-star musician.
MF: Do you feel like you've hit your stride with your writing? Are you in the groove?
Anne: With this particular story, yes? But I know I still have a lot to learn and I'll keep getting better, as will my stories.
Richard: Absolutely. I have a very firm grasp of the story and where it's going. It's still practice, though; I have many more novels plAnned.
Colonia: Definitely. I've never written anything this long, and I never thought that I could possibly write thirty-one thousand words in just ten days.
April: Yes. I was having a little bit of trouble with the battle scenes that comprise the middle portion of the novel, so I'm saving them for last, and the rest is moving along well.
Teresa: I wish I could hit a faster stride, but this is pretty good.
Sara: Definitely not, but I'm learning so much every day, I'm bound to find it soon. I hope.
MF: How is the rest of your life faring under this duress?
Anne: Other than losing a lot of sleep, I don't have any problems. I only work part-time, so that's an advantage. And I don't have children. Another definite advantage. I don't know how people with children do this!
Richard: Not bad. My work is not suffering, and my wife understands perfectly, having gone through this herself (though she's far too involved in other projects to participate this year). I haven't lost any sleep.
Colonia: A lot more smoothly than I thought. Shockingly, I haven't really been losing that much sleep, and all of my teachers seem to be giving a lot less homework than they did in October, for some odd reason or another.
April: I normally budget 1-2 hours a day for writing and related work anyway, so I'm simply using that time for NaNo this month. I'm single and have no children, so I have enough time.
Teresa: What life? Seriously, though, I usually am writing before my kids get up and after they go to bed with a few minutes grabbed here and there in between. I am not sleeping well.
Sara: Everyone I've told has been so excited for me and supportive. I have people who allow me to send them scenes and encourage me constantly. I've been very lucky.
MF: After NaNoWriMo… what's next?
Anne: Editing! Not just for this story but for two others I'm working on, and hoping to submit to publishers soon.
Richard: Rewriting! Plus outlining a large project I've been planning for several months. And I have several short stories I'm planning on revising or submitting for publication. I want to do this for a living in 5 years.
Colonia: Looking forward to being an active part of NaNoEdMo - National Novel Editing Month (not a real month, by the way). Although, I must admit, I don't think that editing the novel will be nearly as exciting as writing is.
April: Revision and editing. I think NaNo's timing worked out great for me, because this way I can look at both stories together and edit them simultaneously for consistency. And many (more) hours will be spent at the library.
Teresa: I need to start on my non-fiction book. And maybe, finish the novel I started five years ago.
Sara: I hope to have learned to be disciplined to write every day because I want to keep practicing. I dream of publishing a "really good something" someday, so I will always be working towards that.
MF: Thank you all so much! Best of luck!
[Mark Flanagan / About.com]