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.

Like Dryden, Faulkner enjoys having an outlet for her literary side. Her U of G studies are in science -- "the most writing I do (at school) is in chemistry lab reports, which is not the best way to let loose any pent-up creative energy," she said.

"There's no room for character development in A + B ¤ C."

It's a good time of year. Faulkner's midterms are over and she can take things a little easy this month, hitting the books again in December to study for exams.

"I've always liked writing," she said. "Not professionally, but just to get out that creative urge." That's why NaNoWriMo appeals to her -- "It's just about writing, instead of being good. It helped me learn to let go."

Faulkner says she tries not to take it too seriously, since lightheartedness is the point of the exercise, but like many other NaNos, she's been preparing for today.

Sitting down and facing an empty page is intimidating, and she says having a plot outlined ahead of time helps.

Faulkner's book, aimed at young adults, is called "It's . . . complicated." It follows a boy and girl from Grade 2 to high school, as they move from fearing each other's cooties to friendship and, eventually, a romantic relationship.

Although she enjoys reading science fiction and fantasy books, Faulkner prefers to write something closer to her own life.

Writing a book while trying to be clear about an entire world created out of nothing is too large a task, she said.

Faulkner has a blog where she details her progress. Announcing what you're doing to the entire world is the No. 1 tip in the NaNoWriMo tool box. In the email each participant receives upon signing up, the power of public shame is explored.

"Tell everyone you know that you're writing a novel in November. This will pay big dividends in Week Two, when the only thing keeping you from quitting is the fear of looking pathetic in front of all the people who've had to hear about your novel for the past month," it reads.

"The looming spectre of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse."

Telling everyone you know helps, but the only way to accomplish NaNoWriMo is by being organized, says Laura Rainbow Dragon, who prefers to be known by her online name. She successfully finished a novel last year and credits her intense organizational skills for helping her through the attempt at such a large project. With a sci-fi plot including more than 40 named characters born on different planets, she created a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. At a glance while writing, she could tell how old a given character would have been during a particular event. That kept her on track and prevented distraction.

"I'm a meticulous, well-organized person," she says. Planning is especially important to her this year because she's much busier. In 2007, she was doing a lot of freelance web design and managed to wrangle a pretty clear schedule for November. This time around, being organized and focused will be even more important when she has less free time. The goal is to finish while stepping up her game.

"Last year, it was all about 'can I do it?' " she said. "This time, it's still 'can I do it,' and also, can I produce something cleaner than last year, something closer to being ready for a publisher."

Having other NaNos around to commiserate with and boost morale is another part of the process. Overall, about 15 per cent of NaNos finish their novels, but people who participate in online forums or live write-ins at coffee shops have about twice the success rate. She said it helped her last year, when she was living in Blenheim, Ont., where there were no other participants. She found other writers on Second Life, where the avatars of NaNos from around the world could meet and keep each other motivated. Knowing her father was reading updates on her blog also kept her in line.

Now living in Guelph, she’s looking forward to doing the same thing in person.
When there’s lots going on, she says, “you have to schedule time. You have to actually write.”

It’s hard to know exactly how many people in Guelph are participating, since users don’t have to disclose their location. At least 20 have definitely signed up, and many are eager to meet each other.

Local events help keep everyone connected and able to commiserate. There was a meet-and-greet at the eBar last week, write-ins are planned for keyboard-clicking company throughout the month and there’s sure to be a giant bash to celebrate when it’s over.

Yet despite their welcoming attitudes, after talking to the Guelph NaNos, it’s hard not to be a little intimidated. With their plot outlines, practice writing and obvious enthusiasm for the task, I’m not sure I belong.

I’m worried I won’t finish, whether through boredom or because of the sheer enormity of the task. I’m worried I won’t be able to turn off my inner editor. I edit for a living; the temptation to go back and polish instead of writing more copy will be tough to resist.

Avoiding editing is a tough challenge, according to the Guelph participants as well as founder Chris Baty. But it’s important to resist, or you get stuck where every other wannabe writer is: with what Baty calls the Beautiful First Chapter Syndrome. “You kind of feel like you just want to make sure that first chapter is just perfect, and as a result you could spend 10 years getting a first chapter done,” he said. The magic of NaNoWriMo, Baty said, is that the less seriously participants take it, somehow the better the writing gets and more gets done.

“That’s the magic of it. You can edit a bad first draft into a great novel, but you can’t edit a blank page. Ultimately, when we put all this pressure on ourselves, to write the great Canadian novel or whatever, you end up just kind of shutting yourself down, where you’re really critical about everything, you second-guess every paragraph, and you end up with that blank page.

“Here, you’re embracing the idea that, some of this is going to be crap, some of it is going to be great, but I’m not going to edit it until December . . . as a result you’re able to tap into these worlds of intuition and improvisation, and it helps you to enjoy the process.”

The only way to find out if I’ll enjoy the process, I decided, is to do it myself. So starting today, my cheesy romance novel will start to take shape. And within 30 days, I hope, 50,000 words will be in the can.

After discussing the challenge in the newsroom, my colleague Tanis Fowler agreed to join me in the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Follow my procrastination techniques, victories and failures at
writersblog, and watch for Tanis’s comments, too. Check regularly for updates on my word count and to see if I’ve given up yet, or to join in the contest. Look for the Here section in a month, when I’ll publish an update on my 30 days as an author.


To pad or not to pad? That’s an important question when you’re writing 50,000 words on deadline.

Plenty of NaNos pad their stories by adding extra words (it’s not a car, it’s a vibrant red car) or even whole passages.

Laura Rainbow Dragon says she’s talked to people who don’t use contractions — in a whole book, “do not” instead of “don’t” can add lots of words. Others don’t use hyphens or write out all numbers the long way.

When you’re totally stuck Writer’s block is tough. Beth Faulkner says she tries not to jump right into to the next scene, though “The next day, . . .” can be a great way to get the creativity going. She says, “I think, how do I get there, the characters have to do this now.”

Laura Rainbow Dragon has read other NaNo’s novels with passages like “She was typing, then a fly started buzzing around her computer.” Write what’s happening in the moment — it’s one way out.


NaNoWriMo is above all an online project. Keep up with Kate Hopwood as she works toward the 50,000 word goal at the writer's blog, writersblog.

[KATE HOPWOOD / Guelph Mercury]

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