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]

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