Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The write stuff: Novelists take on challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days

Andra Marquardt had a science fiction novel "banging around" in her head for the past year. She let it out last month.

The 36-year-old landscape surveyor from Mandan was one of thousands of wannabe writers around the world to take part in the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

The idea is to write a 50,000-word novel in November. That's an average of 1,667 words a day for 30 days. It's enough to fit in a 175-page book.

"I made it - it's 50,315 words," Marquardt said of her novel featuring futuristic galaxy travel.

"The Red Dagger" was completed on Tuesday, a day before the deadline, she said.
She spent about three hours a day writing the novel on a computer about the size of paperback novel.

"I was pretty confident I was going to make it," she said. "I punched out 10,000 words in the last week."

Marquardt said there is no secret to speedy inkslinging "but it helps not to have a life."

Chris Baty, a 32-year-old freelance writer from Oakland, Calif., started NaNo-WriMo in 1999. That year, only a dozen people participated. Baty said he expects 59,000 people from every state and 30 countries to take part this year.

Baty expects 6,000 to reach the goal of being a "winner," the term used for the 50,000-word club. He's made the winner's list every year, including 2005.

Baty calls the project a "30-day kick in the pants for would-be writers." It's done in November because it's "generally ravaged with bad weather."

The goal is quantity over quality.

Baty said the 50,000-word first draft is a "blueprint for a second manuscript."

A few writers have turned their rapid-written novels into "big-time book deals," Baty said. Most just have bragging rights for having written a book.

"All you win is the satisfaction of having done it," said Derri Scarlett, of Bismarck. The 47-year-old copy editor at the Bismarck Tribune finished her novel, "In Search of Grace."

The novel "is about a woman searching for her missing daughter who finds herself instead," Scarlett said.

Scarlett, one of about 50 North Dakotans who participated in the project, finished her 50,600-word novel on Saturday.

Baty said people from all occupations participate in the novel-writing project and journalists make up a good percentage of them.

"Those are the people that are drawn under the magical and terrifying power of the deadline," Baty said.

The NaNoWriMo Web site offers help to novelists with writer's block. They can get tips from their fellow "caffeinated and frenzied" writers, Baty said, by posting questions.

A sampling ranges from such queries as "What happens to coal when you spit on it?" to "Am burning two of my characters alive, Yes, morbid and sad, but it has to be done. … I need to know how burnt flesh smells."

Crysta Parkinson, news editor at the Williston Herald, said Wednesday that she would not make the novel-writing deadline - she was hampered by the desire for perfection.

"I will finish it eventually, but not this month," said Parkinson, 26, the mother of three. "I only made it to about 30,000 words."

Her novel, which has yet to be titled, is about a little girl left on the streets of New York after her father killed her mother, she said. Fiction is more difficult to write than fact, Parkinson said.

Baty said the quest for perfection goes against the grain of the novel-writing project.

"Really, the goal is to turn off the inner-editor and embrace the idea of imperfection and allow yourself to make mistakes," Baty said.

Parkinson said about five people were writing the 30-day novels in the Williston area but none was expected to finish.

Baty said the goal of a 50,000-word novel is "very doable" and several have written two novels during the time limit. Three people have written three novels in a month, he said.

"Their typing fingers should be bronzed," he said.

[JAMES MacPHERSON / The Bismarck Tribune]

Thursday, November 17, 2005

How to Write a Novel in 30 Days

Are you convinced you have a novel in you but just don't want to spend all that time and mental effort to actually work on it?

If that's the case, you could join 60,000 other intrepid, wanna-be novelists competing in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) -- a sprint to finish a 50,000-word novel from scratch during the month of November.

Word count is what matters in this race, and those words can be "crap," says NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, a 33-year-old from Oakland, Calif. This is a contest that values enthusiasm and perseverance over craft, quantity over quality.

Baty, a freelance journalist who never had aspirations to become a fiction writer, came up with the idea for NaNoWriMo in 1999. "I had been drinking too much coffee and wanted to think of something fun to do with friends," said Baty, who has himself completed seven -- in his words -- "mediocre" manuscripts.

From its humble beginnings with 21 participants and six finishers (or "winners" in NaNoWriMo parlance) the contest has grown exponentially, to 42,000 participants and just shy of 6,000 winners last year.

NaNoWriMo's popularity is due in no small part to the Internet, where writers from all over the world can commiserate, celebrate and share ideas in Web forums. You can even get those sticky plot points worked out in one of the forum's threads. Some of the questions these would-be novelists need answered include: Could a dog accidentally hotwire a go-kart? How much does a Singapore Sling cost in Malaysia? How might a murderous beautician immobilize her clients using only hair-care products?

"It is very lighthearted," admits Baty, but he adds, "It's a month to run amok in your own imagination."

Creating a 'Chick Lit' Empire

Though many don't finish the race, and the vast majority don't expect a book deal -- or in some cases, to even let anyone ever see what they've written -- seven participants have had novels that began in NaNoWriMo picked up by publishers.

Lani Diane Rich joined NaNoWriMo on Halloween night in 2002 when she was living in Anchorage, Alaska and "bored to tears." Rich had attempted to write novels before but said that each time, she got to chapter five and wanted to "drop a bomb and kill all the characters."

So Rich joined the contest and she says it "opened up this magical literary free fall." She wrote 2,000 words a day, even if they weren't that great. "And once you stop worrying about them being bad, it started being good," she said.

After a lot of editing, that first NaNoWriMo effort became "Time Off for Good Behavior," which was published in 2004 by Warner Books and won the Romance Writers of America RITA award for Best Debut Novel. Rich's 2003 NaNoWriMo effort became "Maybe Baby," published this year. This year, Rich is starting another book in the "chick lit" genre, tentatively titled "Ex and the Single Girl."

Despite her success, Rich says there's nothing easy about writing or having the discipline to do it every day. But for some writers, the goal and the community support of NaNoWriMo works. "I'm not agonizing over every little thing," she said. "It allows my brain to open up."

A First-Timer Catching the Writing Bug

Janet Bowler, a 57-year-old former high school teacher in Astoria, Ore., was inspired to try her hand at NaNoWriMo by her teenage daughter, who participated the last two years.

"I didn't know what she was doing that first year," Bowler said. "I talked about getting a Spyware program to figure out what she was doing on her computer all the time."

This year, Bowler's daughter is in a student exchange program in Austria and can't participate, so Bowler is standing in as a "surrogate."" As of Nov. 9, Bowler had already hit just over 21,500 words -- almost halfway to the goal.

"Things are going much better than I anticipated," said Bowler, who writes about 2,000 words a day.

On midnight of Nov. 30, when (and if) she reaches her goal, Bowler said she plans to put her manuscript away for a few months, then revisit it for editing.

And though music is her first passion, Bowler says she's caught the writing bug through the experience. "I started it as a one-shot deal," she said. "But when you get so involved with it and the characters, it gets fun. It ends up being a mini-vacation."

And that, says Chris Baty, is exactly what he intended when he started NaNoWriMo. But does Baty's contest mock the craft and painstaking effort that goes into writing a novel?

"People might say, 'Oh just what the world needs, another mediocre novel.' But yes, that is exactly what the world needs," he said. "Making art is a visceral pleasure ... it's the joy of creation."


Friday, November 11, 2005

Novel writing contest seeds interest in aspiring authors

The clock strikes midnight, and all across the nation, thousands of writers rush to their computers to compete in the National Novel Writing Month's annual competition.

For students who aspire to write a novel, the NaNoWriMo is offering a chance to do just that. Starting Nov. 1 at midnight, writers will have 30 days to complete a 50,000-word story.

"It's an opportunity to knock something off your to-do list," Austin senior Brandi Ledenbach said.

"Not many people can say they wrote a whole novel in one month," she said.

According to the NaNoWriMo Web site, this is a chance for anyone who has even momentarily considered writing a novel.

The idea is for amateur writers to develop their skills and maybe even get published.

"What I read on the Web site was true," Denton freshman Sarah Anisowicz said.

"Writing a novel is always one of those things you want to do, but never get around to doing," she said.

Sign-ups began Oct. 1 and will continue until the competition begins.

Even though no writing may be done prior to Nov. 1, the month of October is usually used for preparation.

"Most people spend the month creating outlines and doing background research," Ledenbach said.

Some writers choose their themes well in advance. Anisowicz said her story will be a fantasy novel, although she has yet to work out the specifics.

On the other hand, some novelists enjoy the thrill of waiting until the last minute to choose a topic.

"I'm looking forward to finding out what I'm going to write," Shawnee, Kan., sophomore Rea Corbin said.

"I haven't decided for sure yet. And if tradition holds true, I won't decide until Halloween," she said.

Once the competition begins, Ledenbach said "it's a challenge" for writers to meet the deadline while balancing school, jobs and social lives.

"I'm definitely looking forward to late night writing sprees, hopefully spurred on by caffeine and writer friends, both at home and here at school," Corbin said.

Often participants who accept the challenge return again and again.

"I found out about NaNoWriMo like I find out about most things -- completely on accident," Corbin said.

"The idea was just crazy enough to appeal to me. That was about four years ago, and I've been doing it ever since," she said.

Corbin said writers have come up with creative ways to reward themselves because the only tangible award is a downloadable certificate of completion.

"When I'm done ... it's the 'thank God it's over party!'" Anisowicz said.

Anisowicz said that, despite a severe lack of sleep, NaNoWriMo offers a chance to produce a novel.

She also said it puts school in prospective because after all, what's a two-page essay compared to a 50,000 word novel?

The way to win the NaNoWriMo contest is by writing 50,000 words by midnight on November 30. Every year, there are many winners.

Although no winners are given publishing contracts through the contest, the Web Site says many participants have been published through their own means.

There are no "Best Novel" or "Quickest-Written Novel" awards given out, but all winners get an official "Winner" web icon and certificate.

They are also all added to NaNoWriMo's hallowed winner's page, and receive a handsome winner's certificate and web icon.

[KELLY MYERS / The Lariat Online]

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Writer's novel idea: Dash off book in month

In the olden days, novels were produced by combining one rickety typewriter, a drafty garret and years of neurotic hand-wringing.

Now meet Chris Baty of Oakland. At 31, he's the brash, friendly inventor of the literary microwave oven called National Novel Writing Month.

"NaNoWriMo," as Baty calls it, is this month.

Since 1999, Baty has spent one month a year furiously pounding out a new 50,000-word novel. With five such efforts under his belt, he readily admits: "None of them have been published. Two have been buried deeply in a hole in my back yard. I just pretend those didn't happen. I have two others that, with a lot of work, could become actual books."

The fifth book – which was actually the first, chronologically – is almost ready to be published, Baty says. In the meantime, he's traveling to promote his nonfiction book, "No Plot? No Problem!" (Chronicle, $14.95), subtitled "a low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days."

The book echoes information on Baty's Web site,, where last year more than 25,000 people registered for the 2003 campaign.

Baty believes that while it might take a while to write the Great American Novel, the Mediocre American First Draft is another matter. The only thing standing between most people and their dream of finishing a novel, he says, is the lack of a deadline. He fixes that by creating an absurdly unrealistic deadline and some devious ways to shame oneself into meeting it. (One participant publicly vowed to commit his life savings to the National Rifle Association, which he loathed, if he failed to make deadline. He reached 50,000 words in the nick of time.)

The NaNoWriMo campaign emphasizes quantity over quality, rejects revision until after the first draft is born and advises writers to fuel up on caffeine whenever they're gripped by the urge to toss their laptops beneath the wheels of a speeding Hummer.

Baty doesn't oppose producing great work – he just thinks that lowering one's standards also sets free creative inhibitions.

He isn't the first to divine ways to avoid the tortuous years of chewing one's own hair to produce a book of fiction. Robert J. Ray's out-of-print guide "The Weekend Novelist" remains popular in resale circles for its tips on managing the mysterious beast called the novel.

In his book "On Writing," Stephen King allowed as the first drafts of his own novels are usually done within a few months.

Still, those who have devoted themselves to fiction say Baty's notion has its limits.

"The idea gives me vertigo," says Neal Chandler, who runs the creative-writing program at Cleveland State University.

"There are people who would advise you just to plow ahead, that revision is the enemy, partly because the great danger with the novel is that it will never be finished. Ever," Chandler says. "There's some real truth that, for the sake of the book, you should keep writing to figure out what the trajectory is."

Mark Winegardner is more blunt. He doesn't consider 50,000 words much of a novel, nor does he think those 50,000 words are likely to be all that useful to their creators.

"I don't believe in people just up and writing their novel any more than I believe in people just up and performing open-heart surgery," Winegardner says.

The Florida writing teacher will watch his latest book, "The Godfather Returns," hit store shelves Nov. 16. Winegardner spent two years writing it.

If he isn't a big fan of the NaNoWriMo notion, he admits that "anyone who devotes November to National Novel Writing Month will be better readers. For which I say, 'Thank you, and on behalf of established novelists, buy our books.' "

But Christine Huth believes Baty's program can help people become better writers. Huth, 38, is a geologist and the Cleveland liaison for the 2004 NaNoWriMo campaign. She completed her first NaNoWriMo work last year. The novel, called "Light Ship," is in revision now.

"I had been a sporadic writer before," Huth says. "I've noticed that since I did this last year, the amount that I write has increased exponentially."

Huth encourages anybody who has ever wanted to write a novel to try the method.

"You might not hit 50,000 words," she says, "but it gets the engines going."

[Karen Sandstrom / San Diego Tribune]

Friday, November 4, 2005

Stop Dawdling, Get Scribbling

NaNoWriMo director Chris Baty speaks
at the Bay Area Kickoff Party in San Francisco
This month aspiring writer Diane Reese will join thousands of others in a marathon scribbling session that encourages entire novels to be hammered out from scratch by the end of November.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, and writers from Cape Town to Cincinnati will commune online while racing to complete 50,000-word novels.

The effort has grown from 21 writers when NaNoWriMo began in 1999 to probably 60,000 this year, and has launched several careers. Seven past winners have sold the books they wrote during the challenge to major publishing houses.

Last year, about 42,000 people entered and 6,000 completed the challenge. And as the NaNoWriMo site points out, "They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists."

To some, the event has been the key to a real writing career.

Lani Diane Rich had tried to write a novel before, to no avail. But late one night in 2002, she impulsively joined NaNoWriMo after hearing about it from friends who had already signed up.

"NaNo helped me shut down that internal editor," Rich said. "After a few days of writing 2,000 words a day, I was just too busy to worry if it was any good or not.... By the time I got toward the end, I was all focused on that 50,000-word goal, and I was very excited to meet it."

After the deadline, encouraged by friends who had read the book, Rich edited and expanded her manuscript, and sent it out to an agent. Not long after, she signed a two-book deal with Warner Books.

Her book, Time Off for Good Behavior, won the RITA for Best First Book at the national RWA conference.
Still, everyone who completes the 50,000 word count is a winner -- even if all they get at the end is a web icon and a certificate. The bigger prize is being able to boast they've completed a whole novel, even if only a first draft.

"It's a contest with yourself," said Reese, an IBM employee from Silicon Valley. "A personal challenge, to jump-start my creativity for the year. I find that spills over into the rest of my life."

Reese said she doesn't expect to become a published author, but the challenge leaves her feeling refreshed and creative.

"I get so much satisfaction out of letting my creativity go, and I love the social aspect on the website," she said.

The aspiring writers often post their work to the NaNoWriMo forums, link to their own websites or blogs, and share their word counts and novel excerpts. Many post progress reports.

Meanwhile, NaNoWriMo is going multimedia. This year, the event is being accompanied by WrimoRadio, a weekly podcast available through iTunes or from the NaNoWriMo site that lets participants hear the experiences of other writers, as well as a psychologist studying writer's block.

One prolific professional novelist thinks the event is a good idea for aspiring writers, even if she doesn't participate herself.

"Putting out six to eight novels a year means every month is like NaNoWriMo for me," said novelist Lynn Viehl. "Most pros write under constant deadlines, and NaNoWriMo's 30-day pressure is excellent practice for the real thing."

In any case, said NaNoWriMo director Chris Baty, quality isn't really the point, at least not at first. "It's OK for the book to suck," said Baty. "Forget about publishing for a while. Stop worrying. Just make your numbers."

Signup for the writing marathon is free. Participants can join until Nov. 25, but the contest ends at midnight Nov. 30, 2005.

[Kathleen Craig / Wired]

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

National Novel Writing Month Begins

The streets are dark early on Oct. 30 as I rush toward Espresso Roma, construction paper and markers balanced in my arms. It's almost time for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and we're having a kick-off party. That's right, the nearly 20 of us who gather tonight will spend November in pursuit of a mad goal: Each of us will write a novel.

The idea is for each participant to write 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. NaNoWriMo began in 1999 with a couple of people, including the founder, Chris Baty. The internet has fueled growth. Last year more than 42,000 people across the world registered for the month, and well over 6,000 completed the task.

The final number of registrants isn't in for this year. There's still time to register at Baty doesn't turn off registration until Nov. 25.

We still have 30 hours to go before NaNoWriMo begins in the Pacific Northwest, so we gather to plan — high school and college students, several writing teachers and assorted others, ranging in age from 15 to somewhere in the 50s. I know there are others, because 117 people (or more) have signed up in the Eugene area.

One of the Eugene-area newbies asks, "So, say I write my 500 words or whatever …" An experienced WriMo interrupts, "No, no, you need to write 1,667 a day." An awed pause falls over those gathered at pushed-together tables. "Sixteen hundred and sixty-seven words a day?" someone asks. "Well, it's really 5,000 words every three days," I say. "However you do that, it's fine."

With the ugly math behind us, we move on to something more visual. "OK. Take some markers, take some construction paper, and create the cover for your book," I suggest.

Holding up the covers, we talk about our plans. I'm writing a realistic young adult novel (no cheering); a senior will create "something with zombies at South Eugene High School" (cheering). The other YA novel author elicits applause when he mentions, "There will be magic!"

By our 4 pm meeting on Sunday at Triomphe, each of us should have written between 8,333 and 10,000 words. We end with what will be our chant for the month: "Quantity, not quality! Quantity, not quality!"

[SUZI STEFFEN / Eugene Weekly]

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

It's the write time

And they're off! It's November 1 so it's time for the annual month of madness that is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

The premise is simple but it'll hurt: participants sign up at, begin writing their masterpiece from scratch from today, share their experiences, absurd caffeine/chocolate intake, and swift breakdown of relationships with everything apart from their wordprocessor, on the site's forums and write like crazy for the next 30 days.

Now in its seventh year, this global write-fest was the brainchild of Chris Baty, a Californian freelance writer, and has grown from 21 participants in 1999 to over 42,000 last year, all trying to meet the 50,000-word finish line by midnight on the last day of the month and make it onto the NaNoWriMo roll of honour. This year, an estimated 60,000 speedwriters are taking part and there are local chapters scattered across the UK, from Brighton to Birmingham.

As Baty says on the website, "It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: you will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down".

In addition to angsting on NaNoWriMo's own forums, the event has also entered the blogosphere, with many Nano's sharing their stories, successes and woes on their online diaries. There are also some nifty bits of tech. Steve Kane's blog sports a "Nanowrimo progress meter" to track his wordcount, while Light from an Empty Fridge is writing a "a web-based NaNoWriMo editor/publisher thing" to ease the job along. Wellyblog, meanwhile, is ever so excited about the new foldout keyboard he has bought in order to take part in NaNoWriMo and claims to have "one hell of a story" lined up.

If close-up pictures of a keyboard don't float your boat, you could take a look at Wongablog instead, where Andrew West has provided a photo of the corner of the spare room in which he'll be penning his masterpiece (using Writely and Firefox 1.0). West has set himself an additional spur to progress: if he fails to reach the 50,000 he will force himself to donate £500 he can ill-afford to an organisation he despises, the Institute of Creation Research.

The pleas for help have started, already. Jamie at Practical Useful provides an outline of his SF NaNoWriMo novel but isn't keen on his title, Star Shot, and is requesting alternative suggestions, while Lee Penney from Southampton is desperately seeking ideas on his blog, The Digerati Peninsula. "I need your help, folks, and I need it fast," he pleads.

Ari Sweeting in Bedfordshire is confessing to feeling left behind already (On the first day?! Oh dear.) because she couldn't start her opus at midnight but is ready to roll down the window of opportunity today between finishing work and the school run, while Graham Binns had already passed the 2% written mark by 50 minutes past midnight with 1,142 words but confesses this morning to feeling "slightly silly" about the whole thing.

Are you taking part this year? How's it going? Are you blogging your progress? Tell us about your masterpiece-in-the-making and link to your NaNoWriMo blog below.

[Michelle Pauli / Guardian Unlimited]