Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ready, set, write

Brenna Levitin, 14, of Worcester has a plot percolating in her head.
New to National Novel Writing Month, Brenna plans to write a chapter a day,
probably while sitting on the dining room floor, where she likes to work.
A brief item on National Novel Writing Month in Writers Digest caught Sariah Armstrong’s eye.

Ms. Armstrong found the idea of writing a novel in a month intriguing.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I can totally do that,’ ” she said.

And that’s how Ms. Armstrong, a junior at Fitchburg State College, came to spend November 2005 banging out a 50,000-word novel in the annual NaNoWriMo contest. She did it again last year, and she’s among more than 170 participants in Central Massachusetts for whom the clock starts ticking today on the 2007 competition.

Wrimos, as they are called, are really only competing against themselves. Anyone can join in the challenge by signing up throughout this month at In order to “win,” a participant must write a novel of about 175 pages from beginning to end and upload it to the Web site by midnight on Nov. 30 for an electronic word count.

NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing “the great American novel.” It’s about producing “the great frantic novel,” according to Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder and program director. Participants are urged to let themselves go and just write, even if it’s nonsensical. It’s about quantity, not quality. Ms. Armstrong has written long passages in which her characters are dreaming or thinking things over. “That’s straight for word count,” she said.

Last week, 14-year-old Brenna Levitin was poised to start writing, with a plot already percolating in her head. Brenna, who is new to NaNoWriMo, intends to write a chapter a day.

Sariah Armstrong, left, a junior at Fitchburg State College,
and Sara Marks, a librarian at Fitchburg State College,
are the municipal liaisons for National Novel Writing Month.
Both write fantasy and science fiction.
But 50,000 words? She’s not so sure.

“You can always hope,” Brenna, of Worcester, said cheerfully. “I’m just going to write and write and write whenever I can. I’ll steal ideas from other authors and from my friends. It’s going to be fun.”

NaNoWriMo got its start in 1999, when Mr. Baty and 20 friends decided to see if each could crank out a novel in a month, just for the fun of it. They had a blast and the experience was uplifting, as well.

“My sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed,” Mr. Baty wrote in his online history of NaNoWriMo.

The next year, a friend built the Web site, and Mr. Baty, who lives in Oakland, Calif., sent out invitations to friends who, in turn, invited other friends. By the starting date, 140 people had signed up. Mr. Baty created a message board so that Wrimos could get acquainted.

In 2001, 5,000 people took to their computers, and NaNoWriMo has continued to snowball ever since, drawing teachers, graphic artists and auto mechanics, to name a few, from 70 countries. This year, soldiers serving in Iraq are among the estimated 100,000 people participating, Mr. Baty said.

Peter Elbow, a leading proponent of free writing — writing for a set amount of time without stopping — and the author of “Writing with Power,” said the NaNoWriMo marathon is likely to help a prospective author develop comfort and fluency in the art of using a lot of words.

“It’s good practice in letting writing lead to surprise,” said Mr. Elbow, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “One of the interesting things that happens when you write fast is things emerge. The plot happens.”

Mr. Elbow emphasized that free writing is not designed to produce good writing. But it can lead there.

“A lot of good writers talk about the words taking over,” he said. “Frankly, it’s what the ancients talk about as inspiration, where you don’t feel like you are in control any more. This business of writing and writing almost inevitably leads you there.”

That may well have happened to Sara Gruen, who wrote her New York Times best-seller, “Water for Elephants,” as a Wrimo several years ago. She participates every year, Mr. Baty said.

As NaNoWriMo gets under way, it takes on a carnival quality. There are more than 500 chapters around the world. Volunteer municipal liaisons organize get-togethers and monitor message boards. Wrimos can join 40 different forums, including “NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul,” and, for the more upbeat, “This Is Going Better Than I’d Hoped.”

“We have people writing in Japanese and Swedish,” Mr. Baty noted. “We have kickoff parties in England and France.”

Closer to home, Ms. Armstrong and Sara Marks, a librarian at Fitchburg State College, are the municipal liaisons for the Worcester chapter. Both women write fantasy and science fiction.

Ms. Marks, a four-year Wrimo veteran, holds weekly get-togethers at Panera Bread, on Route 9 in Shrewsbury. Ms. Armstrong organizes group meetings at Moose Creek Coffee Co. in Leominster. They hold write-ins to boost writers’ word counts by coming up with games and posing challenges.

“Many people don’t know what they are getting into when they sign up,” Ms. Marks, 31, said. “They start off strong. The first week they have energy. The second week it takes a downturn. Things start getting in the way. They start losing sight of the goal.”

Each year, roughly 18 percent succeed, Mr. Baty said. Ms. Marks came out a winner the first year, but missed on her second try. She said she devised her plot and characters too narrowly. She also went to Miami to visit her family for Thanksgiving, and that didn’t help.

Ms. Armstrong has succeeded twice and can reel off her exact word counts: 50,071 in 2005 and 51,234 in 2006.

As Mr. Elbow pointed out, most of what is produced isn’t likely to be very good. So what’s the draw?

“At the end of the month, you look back on this OK book you wrote that you didn’t know you could write,” Mr. Baty said. “People start asking themselves: ‘If I can write a book in a month, what else can I do?’ ”

“It brings people to a new level,” Ms. Marks said.

NaNoWriMo is now a full-fledged nonprofit organization. It operates a Young Writers Program and has started a second writing marathon, Script Frenzy. Mr. Baty has published a book on the NaNoWriMo challenge. Its title? “No Plot? No Problem.”

Still, Mr. Baty is down to earth in discussing the future.

“At a certain point, it will level off and stop being cool,” he predicted. “There will be something else that will be cooler. For now, it’s an incredible thrill to let your imagination run amok.”

[Pamela H. Sacks / Worcester Telegram]

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