Thursday, December 21, 2006

Write under the gun

Local author Margaret Fisk, above in
her home office, wrote a novel for
NaNoWriMo for the third time this year.
Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing.”

There you have it--the NaNoWriMo Web site’s call to arms. The semi-acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, but that label doesn’t quite summarize the event that has taken place every November for the past eight years. A more accurate characterization would label it equal parts literary marathon, writing workshop and stage for public humiliation. The cost-free event challenges aspiring writers to make a novel happen fast, with no apology for the outcome. It is quantity, not necessarily quality, that is the driving force behind NaNoWriMo.

The rules are as follows: Each participant has exactly 30 days--that’s 720 hours for the sleep-challenged--to write a 50,000-word novel. If that number sounds intimidating, here is bit of consolation. Writers are allowed to make reasonable preparations beforehand. Creating outlines and developing characters are fine, but not a word of prose can see the light of day until 12 o’clock on the night of Oct. 31--a fitting start date for such a frightening endeavor.

Participants can upload their novels to the NaNoWriMo Web site for a word count any time between the first and last days of the month. If the numbers add up, congratulations to the conquering hero/heroine. Along the way, braver participants are encouraged to post short previews of their novels for the world to critique. The event works on the honor system, so there are no NaNo police to enforce the rules. Cheating would be a hollow victory, however, since prizes for completion are tactfully limited to a downloadable Web icon, 50,000 words of one’s own making and, most importantly, bragging rights.

NaNoWriMo (na-know-rye-moe) was founded in 1999 by Chris Baty, a freelance writer from Oakland, Calif., who was determined to write a novel. Realizing that he required more than just moral support if he hoped to complete the project, he enlisted 21 friends to commit to the same goal. Not quite a decade later, Baty has a lot more company. An estimated 75,000 signed on to become novelists during the 2006 NaNoWriMo.

In the spirit of the event, I corresponded, in writing, with some local NaNoWriMo participants. Their responses not only gave insight into locals’ experiences of the event, but they also offered pieces of sample writing. Emerging from a variety of backgrounds, each local writer shared the common ground of suffering through the exhausting and rewarding experience of writing a book.

Profiles in courage

Tom Smith is a second-year English teacher at Coral Academy of Science, a Reno charter school. He was also a first-time participant in NaNoWriMo. His wife, Michele, did NaNo last year and served as Tom’s inspiration to take up the torch in 2006. In the misery-loves-company flow, Tom decided to invite Coral students to toil with him. By Nov. 21, Tom said the 61 Young Writers Program students participating had produced more than 475,000 words.

Yve Lambert wrote her novel for
NaNoWriMo here, at Walden’s Coffeehouse.
“I am in awe at their responses; I could not have asked for more,” he said.

As for what the teacher and students hope to gain from the event, Tom said that he has several students who intend to hone their school writing projects into publishable works. He hopes to convince his administrators and the rest of the school--kids in grades fourth to 12th--to write their hearts out next year. Tom’s words of encouragement to potential NaNos are these: “Go for it! It is an amazing challenge and an amazing feeling to make those words flow.”

What does a computer programmer do for fun? In the age of prolific Internet writing, he becomes a novelist. Ron Overlist lives in Carson City, works with computers and has a family. He is also a self-proclaimed procrastinator. That potential writing impediment aside, Ron is an ideal NaNoWriMo candidate--it’s for anyone and everyone. The setting of his novel is late 19th-century Virginia City. The horror/western consists of “pure cheese, but fun cheese,” according to Ron. “It has ruthless mining barons, Pinkerton men, a few gunfights and ‘Nameless Horrors from Beyond Time and Space.'” It sounds like a healthy start on 50,000 words.

An important consideration for everyone who decides to write so profusely on a deadline is quality. Most of the local participants I spoke with voiced this concern. Most of them were also over it.

“Let go of your inner editor,” is Yve Lambert‘s advice to those who are considering writing a novel during NaNoWriMo. “Let go of any aspirations of writing the Great American Novel. This is a first draft, really rough. I’ve learned that the deadline is what I need. With it, I can let go of the need to edit everything while I’m writing. Soon, the creative mind takes over with no fear.” Lambert makes her living working in an office but is now basking in the personal glow of her new novelist status.

Completing a novel represents a life-altering experience for many NaNoers. The first under one’s belt can be a great confidence-builder, helping many would-be fiction writers gain the courage to come out of their respective closets.

As local participant Michele Smith noted in November, “I started out in the same place [as last year]--without a clue what to write about and with a lot of dread. Then the day dawned with the spark of an idea, and I took off and haven’t looked back … much. I hit 50,000 words on Nov. 11th and am still going.”

Smith was the first Reno-area NaNoWriMo participant to announce that she’d met the goal this year. After having pushed 20,000 words beyond the requirement, Michele has yet to run out of momentum.

The increasing popularity of NaNoWriMo is not limited to an audience of potential novelists.

Margaret Fisk is a local resident who had completed four novels before she jumped on the bandwagon. In fact, she was promoting her latest, a work in science fiction titled Shafter, while pushing toward her November goal. For Fisk, the challenge was not just to be productive, but also to work under the extreme time constraint. A NaNoWriMo participant must scribble down an average of 1,667 words per day to meet the quota within the allotted time. Fisk took on the challenge, successfully, for the third time in a row this year.

Writing is an inherently private process. NaNoWriMo does nothing to change that cold fact, but it does provide an inspirational public forum for writers. Benefiting from that extra support, some participants have gone on to edit and publish what they produce in November. With almost one year between us and next year’s event, there is plenty of time left for brainstorms, outlining and procrastination. So represent, Reno. Write away.

[Cheron Taylor / News Review]

Saturday, December 2, 2006

For a Block of Writers, 50,000 Words in 30 Days

The secret to writing a novel in a month is just to do it — and it’s a good idea to accept from the start that, barring miracles, it will be very, very bad.

This year about 80,000 people embraced that principle and agreed to try to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. They did not need to begin with a plot, characters, setting or any writing experience. What they did need was to commit to writing an average of 1,667 words a day in November, which was National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo, as it is known, goes against the time-honored cliché of the lonely, misunderstood writer laboring in isolation and agonizing over each word. Rather, it encourages its writers to commune online and to socialize in person at meet-ups and write-ins.

The sound of other novelists typing is a powerful incentive, said Chris Baty, 33, of Oakland, Calif., who has written a book every November for the last eight years. He started the novel-writing event in 1999, when only 21 people participated, and 6 finished. Since then it has expanded to 250 chapters around the world and has become a nonprofit corporation.

During National Novel Writing Month, quantity is everything, and quality is merely optional. As a result, participants are defined by, goaded by and obsessed by their word counts. Anyone who reaches at least 50,000 words is deemed a winner. Shortly after the clock struck midnight on Thursday, the results for this year were in: nearly 13,000 of the writers reported making it to the finish.

Each year exhausted and triumphant writers insert their novels into the word-count verifier — the words are encrypted in case anyone might want to steal that brilliant mess — on the official Web site, It is done on the honor system, which means that someone could theoretically submit “The Great Gatsby” (about the right length).

Winners receive an online certificate, and “win or lose, you rock for even trying,” the site says. Even the nonfinishers are invited to the “Thank God It’s Over” parties, and they can have their words included in the collective final word count, which was 982,495,939 this year.

For many of the writers the month is as much a series of social events as a way to put together a novel. But that is not to minimize the true suffering that occurs. Every year more than 80 percent of those who sign up for the project do not finish, often because the experience is just too painful. First there is the toll on the rest of the novelist’s life, with friends, family, co-workers and living spaces sure to be neglected.

And then there is the sheer torture of trying to write fiction continuously for several hours every day. Week 2 is the worst, Mr. Baty said, because that is when the book can feel like “a truck parked on your face.” Forced to make hard decisions about plot and characters, many people give up: “They love their book so much they stop writing it,” Mr. Baty said.

In online forums and at get-togethers, NaNoWriMo participants complain, sometimes desperately, of plots that have ground to a halt, make no sense or have written themselves permanently into a corner. Characters have a way of boring their authors to tears, completely disappearing or, most perplexing of all, behaving in utterly unexpected ways.

At a meeting of writers in Manhattan this week, Josh Cacopardo, 24, described his dismay at discovering on Day 10 that almost every character in his murder mystery had been killed off. Only the pressure of the Nov. 30 deadline, he said, made him forge ahead and somehow find a way to revive his depopulated story line. (At least one person, fortunately, wasn’t really dead.)

The program’s novels span genres and points of view. At the Manhattan meeting Olga Kogan, 22, was finishing “a coming-of-age story about a pair of incestuous twins in Edwardian England.” Clarice Meadows, 27, was writing a story about three tattoos; it was partly a mystery, partly a story of a teenage pregnancy and partly “a romance about a guy without an arm,” she said. Alexis Camp, 23, was close to finishing a young-adult quest fantasy featuring a character known, for now, as “the Great Evil.”

During the month the writers use various tricks to keep writing when they have absolutely nothing left to say — internal monologues, for instance, or impromptu sex scenes or the sudden appearance of a new character. Collectively, novelists can challenge one another to write a certain number of words on a certain topic in a set span of time. The results may end up being pure drivel, but they do wonders for the word count.

Mr. Baty knows he will hear this question: Does the world really need another 13,000 bad-to-mediocre novels?

“I feel that is exactly what the world needs,” he said. That is because “everyone who tackles this challenge comes away from it changed in some way, as a writer or a reader,” he explained.

It is a way to “lose yourself to a challenge that is bigger than you are,” he said.

But is it any way to write a good novel?

Eric Puchner, who teaches writing at Stanford University, is not so sure. Many of his students put speed first and “don’t spend enough time on their drafts,” he said. Their hastiness prevents them from concentrating on individual sentences “and making sure they’re blocking each scene carefully with sensory details,” he said.

Mr. Puchner, who has published a book of short stories and has been working on his first novel for two years, said, “I’m a slow writer because I need to be, and it makes me a better writer.” But he can see the value of a program like NaNoWriMo as a way for a fledgling writer to gain confidence.

In at least a dozen cases, novels that began during National Novel Writing Month have been subsequently published. Lani Diane Rich, whose humorous romance novels “Time Off for Good Behavior” (Warner Books) and “Maybe Baby” (Warner Forever) got their start that way, said the experience helped her banish the perfectionist tendencies that had held her back.

Her edited and published novels, though, were a far cry from their NaNoWriMo forebears. In November 2003 the novel that eventually became “Maybe Baby” contained this paragraph:

“49,622. That’s my exact word count right now. I have to make 50,000 in order to put this horrendous thing to bed and never, ever, ever have to look at it ever again. That’s why I’m writing this bit to you, my reader. All maybe two of you. Since I probably won’t be showing this to anyone lest I die of humiliation. And if you’ve read it, you know I’m not kidding about how horribly, horribly bad it is.”

[PHYLLIS KORKKI via New York Times]