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]

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