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, nanowrimo.org. 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]