Thursday, November 29, 2007

There's a whole lotta writing going on

Plenty of people have dreamed of writing a book.

Dreaming is one thing.

Actually doing it is another.

But this year, at least a dozen Grand Junction residents have devoted the entire month of November to making that dream come true.

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which kicks off on the first of November each year and ends at the stroke of midnight on Nov. 30. What began as a writing challenge in 1999 among a small group of friends in Oakland, Calif., has exploded into a global, caffeine-generated phenomenon. In 2006, nearly 80,000 aspiring novelists signed up, of whom almost 20 percent met the challenge by writing at least 50,000 words by midnight local time on Nov. 30.

This year, more than 100,000 would-be writers from more than 70 countries cranked up their laptops or bought a fresh pack of pens, ready to tackle another round of the biggest writing competition in the world. In Grand Junction alone, quite a few have made a habit of meeting weekly at Traders Coffee on Seventh and Patterson or the caf├ęs at either Barnes & Noble or Borders. You can’t miss them: They’re usually clustered in a tight group near the wall — the closer to a power outlet for their numerous laptops, the better — around a handmade orange sign declaring,

“Caution: Novelists at Work.”

For Heather Nicholson, the unofficial organizer of the local chapter and a recent Mesa State College writing graduate, this year marks her third time participating in NaNoWriMo.

“This year, I’m not juggling work and school while (also) finishing a book, so I thought I’d take my time,” she said of participating in the 2007 challenge. “I can have a social life and still cook dinner.”

Her writing schedule finds her working well after midnight, which she said dovetails nicely with her night-owl tendencies.

“Working with a group is my chance to get out of my house,” she admitted. “I get encouraged by being around other people who are doing the same crazy thing, talking about (our) word count.”

As of Tuesday night, she was only 7,000 words short of the official goal of 50,000, and she’s confident that she’ll finish in time for the Nov. 30 deadline. Others in the group have already “won” the challenge but are continuing to write, adding to their word count while they finish their stories.

Amy Pittsford is doing NaNoWriMo for the second time this year and writes her “science-fiction/vampire” novel around her work schedule at Best Buy.

“My goal was to finish before Thanksgiving,” she said, “so I could take the whole weekend off. I didn’t want to have to worry about writing after work. Retail is crazy during the holidays.”

She’s already surpassed the 50,000-word mark, pumping out an additional 2,000 by Tuesday evening. While she likes the camaraderie of a group, she admits working with others can be distracting.

“When we first started (a few weeks ago), there were only four of us, and we swapped turns at people’s houses so it was a little calmer. When I’m writing by myself, I don’t feel as competitive; I’m not comparing word counts with anyone. It’s just me and my characters and my world.” Still, she enjoys writing with the group and looks forward to the Tuesday night writing marathons.

“There’s that social aspect of it,” she pointed out. “There are other people (here in Grand Junction) who are doing this, who like to write.”

Others in the group echo her sentiments regarding the group dynamics. Rodney Larson, a telecommunications engineer with the City of Grand Junction, has been participating in NaNoWriMo for a few years and was initially inspired to join while on a business trip to New York.

“I was in training there for three weeks, and I met some people up there who were doing it. (NaNoWriMo) gave me something to do with my nights.”

Like Pittsford, he’s already met the challenge but continues to write with the group. Writing three hours a day — two hours before work and an hour after — has allowed him to write over 60,000 words over the past month. He doesn’t limit his writing to November, however; his output is about “two to three books a year.”

“I’m not sure what to do with this (year’s book),” he said. A character-driven novel about a man slowly being driven insane by an undetected intolerance to gluten, it joins other manuscripts he’s written in the past and which he might edit for possible publication.

Megan Hansen, who graduated from Mesa State in May along with her friend and fellow creative writing major Nicholson, hasn’t quite met the challenge, but is enjoying the process all the same. Unlike the majority of NaNoWriMo participants, she’s chosen to write her novel in longhand, a technique she admits takes longer but which she relishes for the opportunity it gives her to really think about her story.

“I have a laptop, but like with Jane Austen or Shakespeare, so much great literature has come from hand-writing books. Technology has really taken away the whole idea of thinking about what you’re writing. You just type what comes to your head. Writing longhand gives me a chance to really think about what I’m writing.”

Like everyone else in the group, however, she carves out time each day to write. She and Nicholson also have a writing group that meets regularly throughout the year to discuss their projects and encourage each other’s progress. “We’re all English majors,” she said with a laugh. “What are we going to do with an English major? So we decided to use it and write.”

“It really helps to know there are thousands of other crazy people out there who are doing the same thing you are,” Nicholson added. “And it’s so cold, so you don’t want to be going outside anyway. You just stay inside and drink hot chocolate and write.”

When asked whether or not they’ll participate again in NaNoWriMo in 2008, the group unanimously agreed that they would. They’re especially hopeful others will join them next year in their quest to finish a novel in 30 days.

“Everybody should sign up and do it at least once in your life. Even if you don’t think that you’re a writer,” Nicholson said.

Hansen agreed. “Sometimes you have to be forced to do something you want to do. Carpe diem, man! Sometimes you just want to go home and rest, but then you have a writers’ group meeting and you go, and you think, “Wow, I really did something today,’ and you feel so good about it.”

[Marjorie Asturias-Lochlaer / Grand Junction Free Press]

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