Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Writers Race to Finish Novels by Month's End

For many of us, writing a novel is a lifelong dream we never seem to find the time to accomplish. But over a thousand Chicagoans, including students at a South Side high school, are determined to make that dream a reality. And they're going to do it all in the span of a single month.

F. Scott Fitzgerald spent eight years writing Tender Is the Night. Finnegans Wake took James Joyce seventeen years to complete. But this November, some Chicagoans are joining a global community of writers trying to finish novels in just 30 days as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo started in 1999 as a challenge among a group of friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. They found that writing a novel in a month was a lot more do-able than they'd expected, so they decided to try it every year. The event has grown from 21 participants in its first year to 79,000 people from around the world.
SAM: National Novel Writing Month kick-off party - 'I'm Sam, this is my first year…Okay, cool, I'm not the only one!'
Here in Chicago, NaNoWriMo participants meet throughout November at gatherings like these. Both first-time novelists and veteran writers, like Michael Goldman and Sarah Condic, bounce ideas off each other and offer tips learned from previous years about how to reach the official goal of 50,000 words.

GOLDMAN: Well, I started all purple prose everywhere, and then around chapter 2, I realized - I've written a thousand words in four days, I really gotta speed this up. And then it's like -'Tom said this, then she responded to Tom saying this!'

CONDIC: I replace all the contractions -'it's' is now 'it is.' You will never find a contraction in my novel.

The rules of National Novel Writing Month are simple. To win, you must write at least 50,000 words between midnight on November 1st and 11:59 pm on November 30th. You can outline and plan ahead, but you can't write a word of prose until the beginning of the month. Each day in November, novelists upload their most recent draft to the NaNoWriMo website, and the site then automatically detects and charts their word counts. It's not just adults who are getting into National Novel Writing Month.

RUSHEK: You're going to take an orange piece of construction paper, and you're going to write in the center a bubble diagram - My Novel - and then all of the ideas you could possibly do.

When Kelli Rushek heard about NaNoWriMo last year, she immediately thought it'd be a great opportunity for the Writers Workshop class she teaches at Corliss High School on the South Side. But it turned out the school didn't have the technology for the project.

RUSHEK: There weren't enough computers in the school for me to do it for the whole month. So, I brought it up to my kids last year and they were actually very excited about it. And then, when we weren't able to do it, they were kind of upset.

Then, earlier this year, she won a contest sponsored by the NaNoWriMo office to receive 25 laptop computers for use in the classroom. Two days before November began, Rushek surprised her students with the announcement that each of them would be writing a novel. Students like Allen Wallace and Kiera Torrey reacted with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

WALLACE: I was a bit shocked when she told us about it cause it came out of nowhere. She said the minimum was 50,000, and I kinda choked on my breath or something. But I'm going to do it anyway, because I like the challenge.

TORREY: I think it's gonna be fun. I'll get to see how far I can push myself and how much I can actually write. I think I might reach my goal, I don't know. If I reach it, I'd be happy. I might cry.

Allen and Kiera's teacher Kelli Rushek is confident that her students will make it to the finish line. They're motivated by the competitiveness that high-schoolers are famous for.

RUSHEK: So, there's going to be the student vs. student - "I'm at this many words, how many are you at?" And then there's the class vs. class. If period one is reaching their goal more quickly than period five - it's amazing what a pizza party will do.

To make the process as stress-free as possible for her students, she's letting them choose a word goal they feel is appropriate. She's also telling them not to let worries about grammatical errors get in the way of their creativity, as might happen in their other English classes.

RUSHEK: They might have had a teacher that said, 'Oh, you have to have a comma here, you have to have a period here. Your subjects and verbs don't agree.'

BATY: In some ways, it really should be called National First Draft of a Novel Writing Month.

Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, agrees that simply writing anything is more important than worrying about the quality of the writing.

BATY: The lesson that I've learned from this is that you can edit a bad first draft into a good novel, but you really can't edit a blank page into anything but a blank page.

For most people, finding the time and inspiration to write even that first draft isn't easy, but Baty thinks that what you gain is worth the trouble.

BATY: You do come away from it feeling, "Wow! If I could write an okay book in a month, what else can I do?" That tends to be kind of the start of a lot more other kinds of adventures in people's lives.

And those adventures might just provide the plot for your next novel.

[The Archives / Chicago Public Radio]

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