Saturday, November 15, 2008

Writing Novels in Thirty Days at the WriterHouse

For many of us, just reading an entire novel can be a daunting task, but a group of local writers are taking part in a nationwide contest where they have to write a novel--and they have to do it in thirty days.

November is National Novel Writing Month, and the WriterHouse in Charlottesville is giving aspiring writers a place to speed-write their 50,000 page manuscript.

This year, the WriterHouse is opening its doors to all participants.

50,000 words is about 175 pages. Liz Tidwell is already at 40,000 words.

"I expect that it will be 70,000 eventually," said Tidwell.

The contest gets people writing and the emphasis is on quantity of words, not necessarily quality. Published author Christie Strick says so much of writing is about getting started.

"So often you try to write at home and you're so easily distracted by everything that happens during the day," explained Strick, the President and a founding member of the WriterHouse. "Anything you can do to avoid writing you'll do."

Another founding member of the WriterHouse wrote a novel before but,

"Not in thirty days," said Rachel Unkefer, Vice-President with a laugh,"I've spent the last four or five years writing a novel and I'm on my third draft of that novel, but I set that aside for November."

They offer writing courses and space for writers to interact with others. For some, the social aspect motivates them to get through the difficult contest.

"This is the halfway point," said Tidwell. "I thought it would probably be a good idea to meet some people who are also participating in the project."

Louise Ball, a WriterHouse member has already written 30,000 words, which is 5,000 ahead of schedule.

"I've thought about doing this every year, but I've never really had a reason to knuckle down and do it, so I had a go at it last year, and I really enjoyed it. I decided I would definitely do it this year."

Louise is a former Microbiologist and she spends about three hours a day writing. This year she's determined to submit a finished work.

"I'm doing OK I'm five thousand words ahead, but my goal this year is to finish the story and,actually, my last two words are going to be 'the end'," said Ball.

It's not too late to sign up for the National Novel Writing Contest. Click here to find out how you can sign up.

The WriterHouse offers courses in writing taught by graduates of creative writing programs. The winter schedule is already posted and discounts are being offered. To sign up for classes click here

[Bianca Spinosa / Charlotesville Local News]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Two Science Fiction Writers Share Their 30-Day Novel Writing Experiences

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where writers attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days, is almost at the halfway point. While some writers might be breezing through this writing marathon, others are starting to feel the strain on their creativity. We talked to James Strickland and Simon Haynes, two science fiction authors who have not only successfully completed NaNoWriMo, but have had the fruits of their labor published. They offer plenty of insight into how to finish that first draft in 30 days and survive the month with your sanity intact.

When we spoke to NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty about the project, he mentioned that 27 novels composed during NaNoWriMo have been published in print. James Strickland’s first published novel was his NaNoWriMo cyberpunk novel Looking Glass, which he followed up this year with Irreconcilable Differences. Simon Haynes (who answered questions via email) also published his NaNoWriMo novel Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch, the fourth installment of his Hal Spacejock series. We spoke with both authors about how they approach novel-writing, their experiences with NaNoWriMo, and their advice for aspiring novelists who find themselves in a creative jam.

What made you decide to participate in NaNoWriMo and try to write a novel in this way?

James Strickland: Well this is actually, I think, the sixth time I’ve done it, I’d have to check. But I did 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006. So it’d actually be the fifth time. And actually, what happened was in 2002, I’d been playing online role playing games a lot typing a lot, and I finally reached a point where I was starting to pull back from that. And I wanted to create some characters and had some interesting things that directly involved a role playing game. Plus, you know, I had a degree in writing and it always annoyed me that it had never actually earned me a dime. So I signed up for NaNoWriMo as soon as I heard about it and gave me a shot.

Simon Haynes: Initially it was the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month. I'm a procrastinator, and even with a publishing contract under my belt and a publisher keen for more of my novels, I still find it hard to settle down to write. This is because I'd rather settle down and tinker with all my software programs.
Initially it was the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month. I'm a procrastinator, and even with a publishing contract under my belt and a publisher keen for more of my novels, I still find it hard to settle down to write. This is because I'd rather settle down and tinker with all my software programs.

Do you go into NaNoWriMo with any sort of set plan or do you tend to go in cold?

James Strickland: No, I’m one of those writers who jumped in cold, basically starts writing and gets the narrator – I write in the first person almost exclusively – so I jump in get the narrator to talk to me. Normally for NaNo I wait until about a week in and I start writing an aimless roadmap of where I want the plot to go so I don’t get myself into corners. But no, normally I start with a blank page and somebody talking to me.

Is it easier for you to work with that deadline?

James Strickland: Yeah, it’s easier to bash the content out. Now, whether you’re going to get good content out is another matter. The NaNo novel that I’ve published took about another four or five months of work to polish it up and make it really sellable, because you know, it’s only half the length of a normal novel when you come out of NaNo, and there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s just…you’re in a hurry.

But do you come out with a better sense of where the story is going?

James Strickland: Yeah, as a first draft it’s great. It gives, at least for me, by the time I’m done with the NaNo novel, I’ve met all or most of my characters, have a general idea of the plot, a general idea of the emotional ebb and flow of the story, and it also nails down the world a great deal for me.

(To Simon Haynes) Your published NaNoWriMo novel features Hal Spacejock, a character from your previous books. Did you find that having that deadline changed the way you wrote about him? Did it change his world in any way? Was it more difficult to write a Hal Spacejock book with a 30-day deadline?

Simon Haynes: I'd say it's easier to get started, because I don't have to worry about the first chapter or so. My plot outline for chapters one and two can usually be described as 'Hal or Clunk makes a trivial mistake, with huge consequences' Then I spent the rest of the book torturing them with the consequences.

However, each Hal Spacejock novel is about 2/3 Hal and Clunk, and 1/3 someone else entirely. That someone else might be the antagonist who is trying to achieve some plan of their own, which inevitable leads to their crossing swords with our hero, or sometimes the other 1/3 of the book is written from the POV of another character with a major problem.

I believe that's what keeps the Hal books fresh. It's not just Hal-Hal-Hal…sometimes he's just background material for the real plot.

How long was the process from finishing the NaNoWriMo draft to publication?

Simon Haynes: Hal Spacejock No Free Lunch (released in June this year) was the first novel based on my NanoWrimo efforts. My novels evolve as I write them, so I can't point to Hal 4 and say 'I remember writing that section during November 2006' because it's likely only traces of DNA remain. I can say that I wrote and edited the novel between November 2006 and October 2007. (Yes, I handed it in last year and three days later I started on NanoWrimo again!)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Aspiring writers have novel play on words with lighthearted group support

He's a blind, suspicious, obsessive-compulsive aikido master who drives a tractor and wears tutus.

He loves cats, pies and Skittles and is pursuing his lifelong dream of acting, despite his freakishly large feet and pesky allergy to goats.

His name begins with a P.

This oddball character is featured in Jenny Franks' latest novel. He can also be found in works-in-progress by Carolyn Stein, Cylithria Dubois and a dozen other local aspiring novelists.

They're participating in National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit literary endeavor encouraging would-be novelists to write a 50,000-word novel in any genre in a month. Like other regional groups around the country, many Memphis-area participants meet often during November to support one another's efforts.

"Writing is such a solitary thing, so making it a group activity and getting encouragement from people also doing it is a lot of fun," said Franks, 26, a NaNoWriMo municipal liaison taking part for the seventh time. The UPS employee scheduled several get-togethers this month for local participants to meet, discuss their stories and put pens to paper or fingers to keyboard. Writers also keep in

touch via regional forums on the national organization's Web site,

Though writing a novel in 30 days is difficult enough, the Memphis group often creates additional challenges, such as inclusion of a "communal character," which this year is the tutu-wearing, wannabe actor. At the local kick-off meeting in late October, attendees each named one characteristic, giving birth to the man now affectionately known as Mr. P.

Local participants are encouraged to fit this character into their manuscripts -- an easy task for one local author's novel set in a circus, but a bit more difficult for fantasy sagas set centuries ago.

NaNoWriMo began in 1999 as the brainchild of freelance writer Chris Baty, who emphasizes quantity over quality for people who would like to write a novel but can't devote the time and effort usually required. The initial contest drew 21 participants, while last year's NaNoWriMo attracted more than 100,000 writers from 80 countries.

More than 15,000 writers "won" by hitting the magical 50,000-word mark -- verified by the Web site's robo-word-counter -- by midnight on Nov. 30. Their rewards for winning are a certificate, Web badge and pride -- and no one need ever read the manuscript.

During write-ins, participants meet at restaurants and other venues with laptops in tow, while frequent breaks allow them to discuss characters, plots and progress. Cheers erupt when someone hits a word-count milestone, and a bout of writer's block might send someone to the "dare jar" for a prompt -- for example, inventing a character who "thinks they're in a cheesy novel."

Writers are encouraged to don funny hats at one write-in, while Dubois will be wearing her blue suede shoes all month. A municipal liaison taking part in her ninth NaNoWriMo, Dubois drew inspiration for her story this year -- a romance set in Memphis -- from a $2 pair of blue suede shoes she bought at a clearance sale several years ago.

Dubois, who moved to Memphis from Michigan in January, has won NaNoWriMo each year, though 2007 was a close call. She broke her hand in late November, but thanks to the help of some friends was able to hit the word count about 10 minutes before the midnight deadline, she said.

While encouragement from fellow writers is important, Franks said, the support of family members and significant others is a necessity for those participating in NaNoWriMo, which usually entails a monthlong sacrifice in leisure time.

Stein, 47, said her husband is very supportive of her first-time participation in NaNoWriMo, including thinking ahead on meals for the month.

"The entire garage and kitchen are filled with instant foods," said Stein, a computer programmer with FedEx who heard about NaNoWriMo during a podcast about writing.

For Franks, NaNoWriMo is primarily about fun, friendly competition and the chance to socialize with other writers. At the first local write-in this year -- which began at midnight Nov. 1 after a New Year's Eve-type countdown -- the 15 attendees split into three teams of five to compete in a "Word War," a timed contest to see which group could write the most words.

About 20 people participated in the "First Day Dash" on the afternoon of Nov. 1, and a few raced in a "5K," a goal of writing 5,000 words on Day 1 to get off to a good start. The Memphis writers will have a "Thank Goodness It's Over" party the first weekend in December to read excerpts from their novels and celebrate a month of "frantic noveling."

Franks said most of her NaNoWriMo stories are strictly for fun, and her 2006 novel is the only one "coherent enough" to revise, edit and possibly submit for publication.

This year, her story centers around "a scientist/male stripper who is framed for the murder of one of his clients, who happens to be a vampire," she said.

"You get a pass during NaNo to write about ridiculous things that no one will want to read about."

Jenny Franks focuses on writing her story while sitting
across from another writer who's working on his own novel.

Sitting around tables at McAlister's Deli in Germantown,
a group of writers kick off National Novel Writing Month
with a write-in, including (clockwise starting with the woman
in blue) Karen Mathis, Jenny Franks, Eric Guenther and Sam Franklin.

Diana Smith and other writers work on novels together.
Each writer can tell his or her own story, but in this group,
they must include certain characters and elements into the stories.
This write-in kicked off National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.
[Lisa Kelly Eason / Memphis Commercial Appeal]

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

NaNoWriMo's Chris Baty Explains How to Write a Science Fiction Epic in 30 Days

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when amateur and professional writers alike scramble to write a first draft of a novel in a mere 30 days. For science fiction writers, that’s an especially daunting task, which can involve not only telling a story and creating compelling characters, but also craft an entirely new world. We talked to NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, who told us how the process works and why science fiction writers should speed through their first drafts.

Baty, who also wrote the novel-writing guide No Plot? No Problem!, started National Novel Writing Month in 1999. Each November, participants attempt to write 50,000 words of an entirely new novel, with little or no planning. Sound impossible? We caught up with Baty, who explained how impossible deadlines can inspire surprising works of fiction.

What got you started on turning this whole thing into this whole national movement? It’s becoming really huge.

It wasn’t at first. It was really never supposed to be national. In fact, the first year that I did it, it was just a bunch of us in the Bay Area in 1999. And the name “National Novel Writing Month” was sort of an inside joke that I think made us feel better about our sort of dismal chances of success. It was nice to kind of have a big-sounding name for what I was pretty sure was going to a pretty small thing.

So I think the idea kind of came from my past both working as an editor and putting out a ‘zine that I had done from the time I was about 22 years old until I was 27 or so. And it just seemed that when you give someone an impossible deadline, miracles happen, and things that you shouldn’t be able to pull off you can if the deadline is scary enough. And I think that was sort of the idea that drove this notion of writing a novel in a month – was you know, writing a novel seems like an impossible thing, so let’s give it a deadline and maybe that will make it doable. And strangely that’s kind of what happened. It really did.

There were 21 of us that first year and the books that we ended up writing were not great, but they weren’t abysmally, embarrassingly horrible. And to me, that felt like this tremendous accomplishment and I thought if we can do this, anyone can do this. So I put up a better website and extended the call a little bit wider the following year and it’s just grown from word of mouth from there.

It’s funny. I’ve talked to a lot of people online who say “Don’t talk to me. It’s November and I’m writing my novel.”

I feel like we owe a great apology to the blog readers of the world because I think that a lot of the great blogs are affected by this NaNoWriMo virus where all of the bloggers are sort of taken out of commission for the month of November.

And beyond people finishing the 50,000 words – which I think is amazing – you’ve had a lot of people get their novels published.

Yeah and it’s been interesting over the years to see the number of people who have ended up selling their NaNoWriMo manuscripts grow, because I never thought that would happen. It was really just supposed to be a creative kick in the pants, an adventuresome month spent running naked through your imagination. But it’s fantastic. It’s actually a pretty great way to get a book written. I mean you have to write the first draft in a month and then you go and spend probably the rest of the year actually revising it and expanding it, because, you know, 50,000 words is not really a classic literary length. You tend to preferably end up adding anywhere between 30 and 100,000 words on top of it. But yeah, more and more people have been finding publishers. I think we have 27 people so far have sold their manuscript to print publishers, and another probably three times that many have sold them to ebook publishers. And last year we had our first New York Times number one bestseller in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. And it’s amazing. I mean, I go to airport bookstores and there’s Water for Elephants and it’s a NaNoWriMo novel. It’s pretty cool.

I was talking to someone whose first published novel was a NaNoWriMo novel, and felt he really needed that experience.

That’s kind of the interesting thing about NaNoWriMo as it’s grown. I think there’s definitely a large group of people who just do it for the sake of doing it, because it’s outrageous amounts of fun, because it pokes your imagination in really nice ways. I think because it also improves your reading ability in this really interesting way where once you’ve actually written a book you read on a completely different level. You are able to see both the really exquisite but you’re also able to see the seams of the book that couldn’t see before and that’s really fascinating. But there are, I would say at this point, 20 percent of us participants taking part in National Novel Writing Month really as part of this multi-stage process of getting that thing sold. And it works really well and we’ve had more and more published novelists come and take part in this just because you know everybody needs that deadline. And the really nice thing is that we’ve paired that terrifying deadline with a really supportive, fun, funny community that absolutely takes this goal of 50,000 words very seriously but does not take themselves so seriously as a lot of writing sites do, that it’s okay to have fun, it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to learn by doing. And I think that is such a great atmosphere both for book lovers who are giving this a shot for the first time as well as book writers who do this for a living.

Do you have any sense of what genres are the most common for NaNoWriMo?

It’s pretty evenly spread out. I think our top genres are fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction, however you define that, and romance is also a big one. And in terms of science fiction, there’s always been a huge contingent of scifi writers that have done NaNoWriMo and they were really some of the earliest adopters. I think because the science fiction reading community has already had so many great online resources so they were already in some ways gathered together on message boards and websites and blogs. And so the NaNoWriMo virus that I talked about earlier was really able to take hold because these are connected people already and so the word can really go out. When one person’s doing it, there’s “Oh, maybe we should all do this.” And I think that’s been one of the reasons that we have had such a high turnout among the science fiction writers and fans.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Contest forces writers to think differently

NaNoWriMo. It's one silly little word with a lot of other words behind it - 50,000 words, to be exact.

November is National Novel Writing Month and this year marks the 10th anniversary of an organization whose mission is to turn people into budding novelists. Founded in 1999 by freelance writer Chris Baty, is a nonprofit literary crusade that encourages aspiring novelists all over the world to write a 50,000-word novel in a month.

"The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creative potential like nothing else," says Baty. "When you write for quantity instead of quality, you end up getting both. Also, it's a great excuse for not doing any dishes for a month."

Participants can log on to the Web site anytime between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30 - keeping in mind the 50,000-word challenge - and throw caution to the wind.

The purpose of the "contest" is to encourage people who normally wouldn't have time or patience to sit down and write a novel to actually do so, according to one local participant, Melody Smith.

"You have a deadline. You don't have time to be self-critical," she said. "What you write may not be the greatest, but you get it out."

Smith, 27, has had an interest in writing since taking journalism and English courses in high school.

"I read a lot. I love Dave Barry, and I'm inspired by people. I'm a people watcher," she said.

Smith, who is an office manager at River City Tavern and Grill in Marietta, has met other aspiring writers through the forums on the Web site.

"It's a great way to communicate, to ask questions and get input from other writers," she said.

Locally, according to Smith, there are about 10 to 12 folks signed up with the site, but she hopes more people will be inspired to give writing a try. She said the owner has even agreed to allow the local group to come together at River City Tavern and Grill and take advantage of a private room and Wi-Fi access.

Baty says he continues to be stunned by the number of participants.

"When we started, there were 21 of us. Now we have 120,000 in 80 countries," he said.

There is also a secondary Young Writers Program, which allows participants 17 years old and younger to set reasonable, yet challenging, word-count goals, according to the site. There are more than 18,000 young people who are involved in the program.

"A lot of what we do defies conventional wisdom," Baty said. "There's the belief that everyone under 25 is too busy playing video games and texting, but we have so many students who make time to write a novel and the only prize is the novel itself."

Some NaNoWriMo participants, however, have gone on to achieve more than just the knowledge that they have the ability produce a 50,000 word novel.

Sara Gruen's NaNoWriMo novel, "Water for Elephants," spent 12 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Gruen joins a growing list of "Wrimos" who have had their works sold to publishers.

"It's not something that I expected," said Baty, adding that some professional novelists use the Web site to get over a slump. "They need the terrifying deadline.

"There's a misconception that it (NaNoWriMo) is about writing bad books. It's not. It's about giving them a time frame to let them focus," he said.

The real idea behind National Novel Writing Month, however, is the love of words and the magic of storytelling, not making money.

"It's not done for fame or fortune," Baty stressed. "It's all about the love of creating.

"Novel-writing can be fun. It doesn't need to be cloistered agony. Everyone has a book in them," he said.

[Erin O’Neill / Marietta Times]

Can you write a novel in a month?

The Chicago marathon may be over and the race for the presidency has finally ended, but the adventure for writers has just begun. The destination? A novel composed of 50,000 words to be completed in one month. How to accomplish that goal? It takes some long hours, lots of coffee, endless typing and no looking back.

The National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) officially began at 12 a.m. Nov. 1 for its 10th year. The event will end on Nov. 30 when thousands of people will have completed a novel and somebody will have won the challenge. In 2007, 15,333 people crossed the finish line, completing a 50,000-word novel. Over a billion words written by the participants were officially logged into the website.

Chris Baty, creator and director of NaNoWriMo, started this challenge in 1999 with 20 other friends in the San Francisco Bay area. Now in 2008, there are over 100,000 participants signed up and committed to the challenge.

“Every year, National Novel Writing Month feels like a crazed wildebeest escaped from his pen and I am chasing after it and trying to catch that thing down,” Baty said. “We never have enough resources, and there are always more people than expected.”

Although it may be a high stress month for Baty, he continues to expand on the original creation of NaNoWriMo.

“I’ve always loved books,” Baty said. “I was an only child, and books were kind of my siblings. I never thought that I could write one though, because I was intimated by the idea. So I created this concept of stunt writing a book to make it less scary.”

After convincing some friends to create it with him, NaNoWriMo was off. Baty and his close friends often got together at coffee shops and bookstores during any free time to write together.

“Novel writing is an awesome social activity,” Baty said. “Doing it with other people increases your commitment and productivity.”

After a month of late nights and lots of coffee and encouragement, six novels were completed.

“I was amazed at how un-horrible the books we wrote were,” Baty said.

The second year then came with a website and 140 people ready and willing to commit to writing an entire novel in one month. On Dec. 1, Baty announced 29 winners who had completed their novels.

“I never thought that it would be a reoccurring event after that first year,” said Baty. “I thought the second year we had hit our peak and it would be all downhill from there.”

Downhill was the last direction NaNoWriMo was going.

During the third year 5,000 people had heard about the challenge and wanted to sign up.

“I am going to die,” were the first thoughts Baty had.

Instead of curling up into the fetal position and abandoning the huge task ahead of him, he embraced not only the challenge of writing his only novels for NaNoWriMo but also expanding the competition.

Through the grapevine, friends of friends, links on blogs and a lot of hype, NaNoWriMo has not just become a nation-wide event but also an international event, reaching over 80 countries.

So what � these people abandon their lives for a month and lock themselves in their rooms to write an entire novel? The old lady who lives with 20 cats now has a new hobby for a month? No. It could not be further from the truth. Here in Madison there are over 500 adults, students and teenagers (and possibly old, cat-loving women) who have signed up to dedicate their month to finishing a novel.

University of Wisconsin freshmen Amanda Detry and Michelle Czarnecki are attempting the challenge for the first time together in their residence hall. Detry was told by a teaching assistant to check out the website, and she then shared the challenge with her friend, Czarnecki.

“[NaNoWriMo] seemed a little daunting at first,” Czarnecki said, but once they started writing in the early morning hours of Nov. 1,” it seemed more approachable.”

Both agree all their schoolwork gets done before anything else, and then they spend their nights writing away.

“Homework takes precedence, and with NaNoWriMo there is no penalty, so I am not hitting myself over the head with it. But our late evenings have been dominated with NaNoWriMo,” Detry said.

Interestingly, every person who attempts the challenge does so for nothing more than his or her own pride and as a personal test.

“When you think about it, there are no prizes, no judges, and no one reads [the novels]. It is not the most promising writing competition,” Baty said. “But I think that because it is not for fame or fortune, people just do it because it’s so much fun, and that’s the best reason to be writing.”

Last year, Elise Larson, UW sophomore and second time participant of NaNoWriMo, finished her novel and celebrated by printing off her certificate and mounting it on the wall to admire.

To finally cross that 50,000-word finish line, she wrestled with attending college and writing a novel.

“Caffeine and chocolate definitely helped a lot,” she said. “I would want to procrastinate a lot [when writing] and would use that to get my homework done. If I ever got any inspiration at all, I would start writing so I wouldn’t get behind.”

How Baty can manage directing and managing NaNoWriMo, working at the non-profit Office of Letters and Light, reading numerous e-mails, responding to anyone who would like to pick his brain and writing a novel of his own is incomprehensible for most people. However, for Baty, “the busier you are, the easier things get done.”

“I discovered back in 1999 for the first NaNoWriMo that squashing an entire novel into a busy month somehow makes it easier to do than if you give yourself 10 years. It is a strange law of human physics,” he said.

The future of NaNoWriMo is somewhat clearer than Baty’s original plan for himself 10 years ago when he started a club with 21 members who had a goal to finish a novel in one month. The Office of Letters and Light is launching a new event in the near future. It will be a month challenge again that will consist of making neighborhoods a better place. A person would “take on a project, spending a month working on something,” Baty said. “It could be giving a ride to the grocery store or volunteering at the local non-profit organization.”

There is a lot of hope to get a large group to make a difference if NaNoWriMo was able to get 120,000 people to write a novel in a month.

“If we can get a fourth of that to do something like this challenge, we can make a great impact on the world,” Baty said.

If you’re considering writing a novel in a month, look for more information at

[Lisa Kibiloski / The Badger Herald]

War of words under way between Maryland and Texas

The grueling war between Marylanders and Texans rages on.

About 200 Marylanders are trying to write more prose than Texans in 30 days. In its third year, the mentally taxing competition occurs during National Novel Writing Month, when novice and published writers in pockets across the country write 1,700 words a day from Nov. 1 through Nov. 30. That’s 50,000 words or 175 manuscript pages per person by the end of this month.

“This year, we are the amazing underdog as our super-secret weapon John Caeraerie, who wrote over 500,000 words last year, moved to Texas. He’s now on the other team,” said Carol Remsburg, who heads Maryland’s team, called the Blue Crabs versus the Texans’ Lushguins.

About 30 novels written during previous National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are published or under-contract, according to the NaNoWriMo Web site. The most successful story is Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants.” The novel hit the New York Times Best-sellers List in 2007.

Lee Budar-Danoff, a Columbia mom of a toddler and 6-year-old twins, said she amazed herself when she completed her first NaNoWriMo four years ago. “I’m a procrastinator, so to be able to sit down and bang out a couple thousand words at a time is exhilarating.

“To go from saying ‘One day, I’ll write a novel’ and actually becoming a novelist is what I support,” she continued. “People choose to take their novels as far as they like. Some do it for fun, some for practice, and for some, they eventually want to be published. My goal is to be published.”

For Rosalia Scalia, a lifelong Little Italy resident who has published a collection of short stories, the real challenge of NaNoWriMo is “shutting up the editor in my head who is always thinking ‘How can I say this better?’ So I tell myself, ‘In December, I’ll revise. For now, write.’ ”


It’s not too late to begin your novel during National Novel Writing Month. To register, visit

[Kelly Carson / The Baltimore Examiner]

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Write a novel in 30 days? Sure, says McKim

Whitney McKim of Lovettsville, Va., wrote a novel in less
than 30 days as part of National Novel Writing Month.
Whitney McKim is not a writer by trade. But last year, she finished a 50,000-word novel. In less than 30 days.

"It was awesome," McKim said by phone from her home in Lovettsville, Va. "I could not believe it. The creativity, the excitement. Getting out a novel in a month."

In November 2007, McKim, 28, joined more than 101,000 other writers from around the world in trying to write a 50,000-word novel within 30 days. The program, called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it is affectionately known, is intended to encourage ordinary people to write a novel.

McKim is organizing a kick-off for this year's NaNoWriMo at Beans in the Belfry, a coffee shop in Brunswick, Md. The kick-off will be from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 1. The event is free; the public is invited.

The key to NaNoWriMo's success is providing writers with a crucial bit of managerial support: a deadline.

"NaNoWriMo is all about the magical power of deadlines," says the Web site of the National Novel Writing Month on its frequently asked questions page at "Give someone a goal and a goal-minded community and miracles are bound to happen. Pies will be eaten at amazing rates. Alfalfa will be harvested like never before. And novels will be written in a month."

McKim said she convinced a close friend from Connecticut to write with her last year.

"We don't see each other very often, but we were on Facebook almost every night, 'Oh, my god, let me tell you what my character just did,'" McKim said.

"I never thought I could write a novel, but I did it last year, my first year," she said. "People tell me they don't have time to write a novel. I have a full-time job, a part-time job, I volunteer in my community. You don't have to have time. It just happens."

McKim said her writing routine took two forms. Whenever she and husband Steve would go somewhere in the car, she took her laptop and wrote as much as possible. Her other favorite writing spot: bed. She said she would tap on her laptop. Her husband role-played some of her plot's turns and twists.

"I would ask my poor husband, 'OK, what would you do if you were in this position?'," McKim said. "He'd act it out and I'd be writing at the same time."

McKim's 2007 novel was based on bank robberies. McKim said she ignored the boilerplate advice given to authors to write about what they know.

"I don't know anything about bank robberies," she said, with a laugh. "I'm the most law-abiding person you'll ever meet. But all my ideas were about people breaking the law."

McKim finished her 50,000-word novel by the deadline last year - one of 15,335 participants to do so - and thereby "won" the event. All writers who reach the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words are considered winners. There is no overall prize, no promise of publication - simply the satisfaction of having written a novel.

"They say no one is going to read your novel. I thought, 'Well, that's silly. Why would I write this if no one's going to read it?'," McKim said. "But it's a big self-gratification. It makes you feel so great to think you can do something like that."

Anyone who wishes to follow McKim's progress on this year's NaNoWriMo novel can read updates on her blog at


How to participate

WHAT: National Novel Writing Month

WHERE: The program is Web-based, but writers work on paper or computer at home or wherever they choose.

WHEN: Begins at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, and ends at midnight, Sunday, Nov. 30.

COST: Participation is free; donations are requested.

CONTACT: For complete information or to register, go to

[CHRIS COPLEY / The Herald-Mail]

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A marathon of words

November is National Novel Writing Month, when tens of thousands of people take part in an annual 'contest' to write 50,000 words in 30 days. After talking to Guelphites who plan to write their own books, Kate Hopwood decided to try her hand at novelling,

Like so many ideas that seemed good at the time, this one started over drinks. While sipping daiquiris at a cottage last summer, two friends and I had a conversation about romance novels. We'd all read a couple and had some laughs contrasting the formulaic stories with our own love lives. Then the rum started talking, and the three of us decided to pen our own Harlequin-style books -- just to prove we could.

Back in civilization, I quickly dismissed the idea. I figured I was crazy. I might think I could do it, but sitting down to write a whole book was something else entirely.

I'm not the only person who thinks she has a novel in her. Plenty of people are convinced that, given the right set of circumstances, they too could publish a work of fiction for the world to admire. But the reality of life makes it difficult. These same people have jobs, families, school and a whack of other legitimate time-sucking commitments. Novel writing is something to be talked about, not to actually do, right?

Actually, no. More than 100,000 members of an online community have proven otherwise. Each November at, the National Novel Writing Month home page, people decide to accomplish something they've dreamed about for years. They log into the website, keep track of their progress, and write a 50,000-word novel -- in 30 days. It's called a contest, but the "winners" -- anyone who hits the target number of words -- get little more than a certificate and a sense of personal pride.

The idea started in 1999 with Californian Chris Baty and 20 of his friends. They imposed a deadline of a month and started writing. Six of them finished, but the whole group had enough fun that they went online the next year, when 140 people signed up. It quickly snowballed; more than 100,000 people registered at in 2007.

About 20 Guelphites have signed up for this fall's NaNoWriMo. Many have tried it before, though not all were successful. After meeting some of them and catching some of their enthusiasm, I decided to join in. Once I remembered my romance-novel-writing "pact," I realized the idea is still floating around in my brain and despite myself, I'm intrigued. So along with thousands of amateur novellists in Canada and around the world this month, I'm going to write a book.

Chris Baty, who continues to run the contest he founded, told me it's like running a marathon.

"It's just a great personal challenge. You set this ridiculous, overly ambitious goal, and then you just spend a month achieving it."

He should know, since he's continued to participate in the challenge every year. Today, Baty will start writing his 10th NaNo-WriMo novel, and said he still looks forward to it all year long.

"Every single year in November it's the busiest month of my life, and I still just love it," he said over the phone from California. "There's something about doing something with 100,000 other people -- even though it can be painful at times, it just feels fun."

The personal challenge is what draws most people to the contest, judging by what Guelph's "NaNos" say.

"I just want to write it and say that I did it," said Matthew Dryden, who is determined to succeed in this, his second attempt. Writing a novel in any time frame is a daunting task, he said, and doing it in a month is really scary. He tried last year but only got about a tenth of the way. With a wife, son and full-time job, it's easy to find reasons to walk away from a project like this and he pretty much had given up. Who has the time when you're working 60 hours a week and looking after a family? But writing is important to him, so this September he started getting back into it.

This year, Dryden's job takes up less of his time and he realized how important it was to get back in touch with his creative side. He's been getting himself into practice by spending the last two months writing between 1,400 and 2,000 words a day -- to finish the 50,000-word novel, NaNos must write an average of 1,667 words every day in November.

There aren't many hard and fast rules to the competition, but no one is allowed to start before Nov. 1. Planning plots and creating outlines are encouraged, but the novel itself is a November-only project. The 50,000-word finish line is also non-negotiable. Either you reach it or you don't. There's still value to attempting the contest (most people don't finish), but the length was chosen for a reason. Though it sounds like a lot, it's actually a little too short for what most publishers would consider a novel. It's really a novella, an extended short story. But part of the ethos of NaNoWriMo is that the daunting task is still something accomplishable, and getting the words out is the most important part. You're writing a novel now because if you don't do it now, you never will. It's about quantity, not quality. Editing is for December, and many writers do revisit or expand their novels after the contest is over. Some have even been published.

Novelling within the confines of this contest may seem whimsical but, much like running a marathon, it is easier if you've been training. After failing to reach 50,000 words last time, Dryden is determined to make it this year.

He's used to the daily word count and, starting today, he'll pound out his quota of words every morning until he's finished.

"My goal is to stay persistent, to stay on target," he says.

People who have already completed novels in previous years often come back for more. Second-year University of Guelph student Beth Faulkner is taking part in her fifth NaNoWriMo -- the last two of which she completed successfully.

100% perspiration

National Novel Writing Month began at midnight. With the 50,000-word deadline just 30 days away, Michael Dwyer slips on his writing sneakers.

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
- W. Somerset Maugham

WRITERS LOVE RULES and mantras and motivational aphorisms. We're like athletes that way. "Write what you know" and "Show, don't tell" are standard nuggets of locker-room wisdom. "Just do it" is the best one of all. No, wait. That's a sports wear commercial.

There is a canny writer's equivalent, however, which is both litmus test and definition: "Writers write." This is the unspoken axiom of National Novel Writing Month, actually an international undertaking that celebrates its 10th year this month.

The premise is laughably simple. Everyone on the planet is invited to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. That's about 175 pages of double-spaced type, from scratch, between now and midnight on November 30.

Training and planning are encouraged, but bringing prewritten prose to the table is "punishable by death", cautions the blurb at "You'll care about the characters and story too much to write with the gleeful, anything-goes approach that makes NaNoWriMo such a creative rush.

"Make no mistake: you will be writing a lot of crap," it continues. "It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly."

There are no prizes at the finishing line, but last year there were 15,333 "winners" in a field of 101,510.

Were their manuscripts any good? Hell no. Even Ernest Hemingway maintained that "the first draft of anything is shit", and he was Ernest Hemingway. He was also talking about the standard kind of first draft that usually takes a year or three to whack into shape.

The speed freak's first draft is much more about psychological process than literary flair, according to NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty. The Californian author of No Plot? No Problem! believes that leaving your inner critic choking in your dust can open almost mystical vistas of creativity.

He cites his own "interesting and confusing rule: When you write for quantity rather than quality, you often end up getting both of them. By giving up the idea of making every sentence perfect you get a momentum that allows you to tackle the larger story arc and really lose yourself in a very productive way.

"Characters take on a life of their own and you become more of an observer than a creator," he says. "Your novel becomes something that is unfolding as it goes and I think that's one of the great joys of writing, this sense of being surprised by your own imagination."

Ironically, the idea of NaNoWriMo is likely to sound less absurd to successful writers than to dilettantes. To the ubiquitous party bore who merely talks about writing a novel, the romance of inspiration seems paramount. In real life, it's stamina that separates authors from talkers, a fact acknowledged by many of the published writers whose "pep talks" appear on the NaNoWriMo website.

This online base is a virtual gymnasium of motivational games, tips and resources, as well as a scoreboard for tallying individual and collective daily word counts. It's also the nerve centre of a vast global organism in the grip of an escalating fever. Baty expects 20,000 new novels to materialise this year, more through the brute force of chat-group peer pressure than any more mysterious process.

"By making novel writing a social activity you tap into a spirit of camaraderie, and you also have a sense of accountability which you don't have when you've gone off to a cave to toil alone for a couple of years," he says. "People are gonna ask how your novel is doing and that is invaluable in keeping you on track when the going gets tough."

Last Sunday, about 50 members of Melbourne's NaNoWriMo chapter threw a pre-season barbie in Middle Park. As is often the case in large groups of strangers in this town, the conversation was mostly related to scores and degrees of fitness.

There were howls of envy for Scarlett, who can write 50,000 words in a day and "regularly beats whole regions". There were oaths through gritted teeth to "crush" Sydney, Montana, Saskatchewan - and especially Edinburgh, UNESCO's first "City of Literature". Melbourne came second, in August. But not this month, if one circle of twentysomething geeks, gamers and goths can summon a combined word count to equal their enthusiasm.

"It's like playing tennis or any sort of sport," said Steph, who crossed the 50,000-word finishing line on her third attempt last year. "Just because you're not a world champion doesn't mean you can't have a go."

This was just a fraction of Melbourne's 850-strong NaNoWriMo community. The majority, perhaps less comfortable with the rough and tumble of chat-group face time, was no doubt home alone, brainstorming synopses and character bios in the solitary space that is every novelist's paradise and prison.

So far, more than 25 books begun during NaNoWriMo have ultimately found publishers. Canadian author Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants even topped the New York Times bestsellers list last year.

Admittedly, taken from a nine-year total of more than 50,000 completed manuscripts, this result vaguely recalls that uncomfortable aphorism about typing monkeys. In the plotless caffeine frenzy of week three, that kind of wisdom is likely to be the marathon writer's nemesis.

Don't think about Stanislaw J.Lec's cruel advice to fledgling writers: "Sometimes you just have to stop writing. Even before you begin." And it's definitely not worth dwelling on Truman Capote's withering riposte to Jack Kerouac: "That isn't writing, it's typing." Better to focus instead on more practical advice, such as Stephen King's adage that "any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word", and Kurt Vonnegut's first rule of creative writing: "Do not use semicolons ... all they do is show you've been to college."

CHRIS BATY HAS HEARD plenty of critics damning NaNoWriMo for "mocking the art form". He merely points out that novel writing has benefits to the individual imagination and sense of worth which have little to do with the publishing industry as we know it.

"For me, the success story is somebody who always loved books, who winds up finding something inside them that they didn't know was there. I get thousands of emails with that tale. People come away from this with this sense that, 'If I can write a book in a month, what else can I do?"'

Write another one, is the obvious answer. As the director and chief motivator of NaNoWriMo, Baty feels more pressure than most to knock off his 50,000 words every November. Of his nine completed manuscripts, four are "redeemable", he says. "That has been one of the surprising lessons for me, that you can write a reasonably unhorrible first draft in a month."

Stick that in your rulebook, budding novelists: "Forget masterpiece, aim for reasonably unhorrible." Then if you really want to bridge the gap, just add two words: second draft. That's what the other 11 months are for.

[The Age]