Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The cult of NaNoWriMo

Coffee shops everywhere are loaded with people preparing
for the National Novel Writing Month contest
My first mistake was admitting to National Novel Writing Month founder and director Chris Baty that I had attempted to participate in NaNoWriMo the past two years, reaching a combined word count of zero.

He sounded disappointed in me, but I had my excuses. I had school to attend full-time, a couple jobs to work part time, a high score to beat in Tetris, a lot of email to check and blogs to read.

Baty doesn’t buy any of it. After all, this will be his ninth year and his ninth novel. He runs a non-profit organization and consumes what is certainly an unhealthy amount of coffee, yet he still finds the time. “The difference between people who hit 50,000 words and those who do not is the decision they make,” explains Baty.

Time management skills are learned and honed for many thanks to NaNoWriMo. “When I cut out aimless Internet surfing and spending ridiculous amounts of time checking my email inbox, I have 18 hours a day that I didn’t have before. People end up finding that they have more time in November for things than they did before. They become more conscious with decisions about their time.”

NaNoWriMo was born in July 1999 when Baty and his friends got together and set out to write one novel each in a month. “I was 26 years-old at the time. I had a group of friends in the Bay area who kind of have a hard time saying no to bad ideas,” jokes Baty. “None of us tried to write novels before, none of us were fiction writers or even studied fiction in school. We were doing it because it seemed like it would be fun to do and that it would be fun to tell people at parties that we did it.”

When Baty began the second year of NaNoWriMo, it had shifted to November to better accommodate his friends. “I hadn’t expected a second year, but the first ended up being so much fun,” admits Baty. “That second year when we had 140 people, I was convinced we had peaked. We are the largest writing contest in the world.” Last year, NaNoWriMo brought in over 79,000 aspiring novel writers with almost 13,000 of them hitting the 50,000-word mark. That’s impressive for a contest with no judges or prizes besides self-satisfaction.

Baty first realized how big NaNoWriMo had grown while preparing an order with a photocopy clerk at Kinko’s. “He rings me up and I pay. He says, ‘I only made it to 20,000 words,’” Baty recalls. “It’s just a testament to the power of the idea. Set a goal and follow through. You’ll never read or write the same way again. It’s a life-changing experience.”

Baty didn’t set out to start any of these projects—the world’s largest writing contest; the Young Writers Program, a reading and writing program for individual students and for classrooms; or to start a non-profit organization, The Office of Letters and Light. Baty simply wanted to drink coffee, have a good time with his friends and see if there was a story in his head that he could write down.

“I love that every year, whatever is happening in my life, November will be a chance for me to spend 30 days running amok in my own imagination,” says Baty. NaNoWriMo participants must start fresh on November 1—preliminary notes are allowed, but writing that would be going into the actual body of the book is prohibited.

The 50,000-word goal does seem a bit much for only 30 days. “Deadlines are invaluable for a large daunting creative project like writing a novel,” says Baty. “It keeps you from picking at it for a little bit and going away for a while and coming back to it for a bit.” Breaking up the 50,000-word goal between the 30 days and writing 1,667 words a day sounds more reasonable.

Reaching the 50,000-word mark has a lot to do with quantity over quality. The aim is to get that first draft written and then work on it from there.

“Some people see it as ridiculous to just vomit out these words, but when you do write a novel in 30 days you’re freed up to write some wonderful things that your inner-editor would never let you have access to,” explains Baty. The novel participants write in November is by no means a completed work and could take years of revisions.

Writing in groups helps keep participants in line and motivated enough to hit 50,000 words. “Try to get at least one other person to do it with you. Siblings or family members are good because you get that stubbornness you wouldn’t have if you did it alone,” advises Baty.

The project has evolved to include a large offline portion to its online home. There are local NaNoWriMo chapters in cities and towns meeting in coffee shops all over the world. “I travel around the country and see these groups of people that are best friends that met through this novel writing event. They get together all year ‘round to talk about books and motivate and encourage each other,” says Baty.
Thanks to NaNoWriMo, there have been at least four NaNoWriMo marriages and at least one NaNoWriMo baby coming into the world. “I think it’s great, creating this sense that no matter where you live in the world, someone is in a coffee shop writing a novel in November,” Baty says.

Some authors have even sold their NaNoWriMo manuscripts to big-time publishing places. “We hear reports of book deals every month. It’s a testament to the fact that you can write the first draft in a month and it has potential,” says Baty. Sarah Gruen has found tremendous success with her NaNoWriMo novel, Water for Elephants, which was a New York Times #1 best seller.

Baty sends out pep talks to participants during November, but new for this year are best-selling author pep talks, including emails from Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Tom Robbins, and Sue Grafton.

Upon wrapping up the interview, Baty turns the tables and asks me a question—if I can email him my word count in December. I guess my Tetris high score will have to wait one month longer.

To participate in NaNoWriMo, join up at and start writing.

[Lindsey Rivait / The Lance]

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