Saturday, November 28, 2009

Chris Baty interviews with Mark McDonald

It was a dark and dangerous night as I walked into the heavily draped Julia Morgan Ballroom near Chinatown, in the heart of old San Francisco's financial district.

More than two hundred darkly dressed shadowy figures hunched over closely packed tables, where eerie lighting from dozens of computers cast a sickly pall upon faces strained with intensity. It looked like a scene out of a film noir; at least one character would die tonight.

It was "A Night of Writing Dangerously" and we were the murderers.

From the mind of Chris Baty comes, "A Night of Writing Dangerously".
I was here to attend "A Night of Writing Dangerously", a party hosted by Chris Baty, who, ten years ago, created the idea of holding an annual Internet event called "National Novel Writing Month", where thousands of aspiring writers try to write a 50,000-word novel during the thirty days of November. This night, more than 200 writers donated $200 ($300 per couple) to attend the party. They raised $34,115.51 to benefit Baty's organization, and its associate organization, the Office of Letters and Light.

National Novel Writing Month began with the idea that people feel they want to write a book someday, but that day never seems to come. For those who sign up for the free internet experience, that day … or more accurately, 30 days, comes on November 1st, when they begin writing their novels, download them to the web site, and attempt to meet the deadline by midnight on November 30th.

Jennifer Anthony reached over 41,000 words.

During the month, they are encouraged to keep the words flowing, not in an elegant, refined, ready-for-publication manner, but in a mad dash to get 50,000 words downloaded in a rough draft of a book they could very well edit and one day publish.

When I walked into the Julia Morgan Ballroom, it took me a few minutes to find an open chair. And before I could sit down, a large school bell was being rung by someone who had just reached 50,000 words. It was about 6:30pm,the party already had writers reaching the 50k finish line, and it was only day 22.

Chris Wentworth of Southern Ontario, Canada celebrates reaching 50,000 words.
I spoke with Chris Baty, the originator of National Novel Writing Month:

"The idea of writing terrifies some people", he said. "But when you just write without being critical, just getting those words down shows you your capabilities. It takes you away from your day to day, and shows what happens when you stretch yourself." Back in 1999, he and a few college friends who thought they might someday want to write a book decided they would probably never get around to actually doing it. He figured if you write 50,000 words, you have a 175-page short novel. He put this idea on the Internet, and today there are over 120,000 registered writers and 600 schools participating in what is known as NaNoWriMo month.

I asked him about the Young Writers Program, part of the Office of Letters and Light, which helps kids and teens get excited about writing. In 2008, there were over 22,000 students taking part in NaNoWriMo's youth program, which provides workbook exercises, promotional materials and encouragement. (Young Writers Program)

"Being a kid has a lot of drudgery, but when they start writing, they build (their) world and come alive," he said.

Chelsea won, saying: "I can't stop crying, I just killed off one of my main characters!"
"About 6% of the participants who write through the thirty days have gone on to revise, find an agent, and pursue what they have written," he told me.

If 100,000 participate, 6% means over 6,000 of these "crazy writers" have gotten serious about writing, and want to see their work published, on the book shelves, and in the hands of readers. Many have been published already.

The night was filled with fun, the film noir theme was fun and adventurous, and we had lots to eat.

Figures from the site, 2008: 119,301 participants and 21,683 winners.
Number of words officially logged in 2008: 1,643,343,993
Current number of words for 2009: 1,924,987,017
This writer's current word count: 18,191 and counting…
[Mark McDonald / Santa Barbara Edhat]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mountain View writers tackle National Novel Writing Month

For some, the month of November brings with it dread of the cold. For others, thoughts turn to turkey and stuffing.

But for National Novel Writing Month's many diehard participants, November means writing.

National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo for short — challenges professional authors, aspiring writers and plain creative types to produce a 175-page, 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Now in its tenth year, the program has resulted in good times, new friendships, purple prose, demolished writer's blocks, countless reams of senseless stream-of-consciousness writing, and at least one success story: the New York Times bestseller "Water for Elephants."

For many, if not most, participants, the goal is simply to reach the word count. To help writers reach this goal, "write-ins" are held regularly around the Bay Area, including one at East West Bookstore on a recent Monday. Ten people showed up to write together in a quiet, focused group.

Diane Holcomb, a book buyer for East West Bookstore, is participating in NaNoWriMo for the third time this year. Writing what she describes as a "'Sleepless in Seattle,' mainstream love story," she doesn't have time to focus on perfect writing.

Instead, Holcomb says, she just writes as much as she can.

"You do write a lot of garbage, but something wonderful comes out and it takes over," she said. "You know you're not going to come away with the best American novel, ready to send to a publisher, (but) you'll have a rough draft."

The concept of quantity over quality — proselytized by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty in his book "No Plot? No Problem!" — seems to be the particular draw for many participants.

Bridget Flynn, a freelance editor and writer who lives in Mountain View, believes the deadline and required word count is the perfect impetus for people like her, forcing them to get the raw story on the page.

"We really need this. Because the ones who procrastinate are also the ones who I think judge their own work really harshly," she said. "If you judge your work you're going to sit there and agonize over each paragraph and I think in the end, 'You don't produce.'"

Sue Wilhite, a tarot reader and assistant manger at East West Bookstore, also finds the deadline helpful. She has published two books already, the second of which took her seven years to complete.

"NaNoWriMo is really forcing me to drill down and focus," she said. "It certainly makes (writing) the priority choice of a number of things I can do."

Holcomb and Flynn both said that putting thoughts to the page is a very personal process. Holcomb finds that ordinary observations made in her everyday life — such as meals she's eaten, or outfits she sees on the street — keep cropping up in her writing.

"It all just goes into the pot," she said. "The subconscious makes all of this make sense; it's like a waking dream."

Flynn says she's proud of the very act of writing, even when the quality is not her best. At the Monday night write-in, she said, she sat down and cranked out 10 pages in a single session.

"I felt powerful because I was being true to myself by writing this story," she said. "This story is a part of who I am. It's an expression of me, and I finally feel comfortable enough to express that part — so I'm really proud of myself for that."

[Dana Sherne / Mountain View Voice]

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On their marks, get set, NaNo!

She's a modern-day Hemingway scribbling as she eats, except on a laptop instead of a napkin -- and at the Santa Cruz Diner, where inspiration must strike among all the booths of loud, costume-clad customers.

Lisa Quintana and her party of 15 began churning out their novels at the diner on Halloween night.

Quintana and her group are among 372 people in Santa Cruz County who are registered to participate in National Novel Writing Month, a creative writing effort held annually since 1999. The project aims to support aspiring novelists as they attempt to write 50,000 words -- what would fit on perhaps a thousand napkins, or 200 double-spaced pages -- during the 30 days of November.

The Office of Letters and Light, the Oakland-based nonprofit behind National Novel Writing Month, encourages people to mince words for once and call the event NaNoWriMo.

The "national" part of its title a bit of a misnomer, as NaNoWriMo boasts international participation. Sara Nelson, a 21-year-old linguistics major at UC Santa Cruz, did NaNoWriMo during a study-abroad program in England.

"With crazy English people and alcohol and novels, only good things can happen," Nelson says. She started a vampire novel from a pub in Brighton. This year from the diner she'll write about a blind kleptomaniac.

The project's Web site explains that being able to "dramatize the [novel-writing] process at social gatherings" is as much a perk of NaNoWriMo as a finished novel.
Another benefit of is the support of volunteer mentors like Quintana, a six-year NaNoWriMo veteran whose first novel won First Prize at the East of Eden writer's conference.

Quintana and Nelson are spearheading the Santa Cruz writers this year. They organized the kickoff at the diner and plan to hold a "Thank God It's Over" party at the end of the month.

"I don't get paid to do this, but I think it's important to help people tell their stories," says Quintana.

The 44-year-old has a tech job in Silicon Valley and a family in Boulder Creek. She says her son plans to participate in the Young Writers Program, in which an under-17 crowd sets its own word-count goals. Her teenage daughter is participating in the event with Quintana, and at the diner she takes a seat at a table next to her mom's.

Dave Empey, 46, sat in a booth by himself, wearing a grey wig. Empey wrote a novel from his La-Z-Boy recliner in 2008, but he says he's committed to coming to some local NaNoWriMo meetings this year.

The Santa Cruz group will meet thrice weekly in November -- at coffee shops, UCSC and after hours at a donated storefront.

Writers who elect not to attend meetings can interact on the online forums, which are bustling in November as participants -- some proud, others sheepish -- share their latest word counts, achievements and hurdles.

And everyone receives periodic e-mails from NaNoWriMo headquarters, the first of which reads like a gym's January newsletter, with reassurances that "it's OK to not know what you're doing," advice to "embrace imperfection and see where it takes you," and valuable hindsight from veterans to stick it out because completion of the project "will make you want to yodel."

Wrimos will submit their novels to the Web site for word count validation between Nov. 25 and Nov. 30.

"They must have no lives, no jobs," Quintana says of people who reported unusually high word counts in the first week.

"Or they're using the lorem ipsum generator," Nelson quips, referring to the traditional placeholder text publishers often use to fill space.

It's one esoteric topic among many that the writers discuss before they start writing at midnight. Others include Isaac Asimov "He worked on many projects at a time"; the Star Trek exhibit that recently opened at the Tech Museum in San Jose "The props are phenomenally amazing"; and the Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" novels "Do we think the movies will make it to the end of the series?".

When the date on one writer's laptop switches over to Nov. 1, an announcement is made. The fourteen writers, half of them writing longhand, begin NaNoWriMo.

A few minutes after midnight, another UCSC student pushes aside an empty basket of fries and takes out a spiral-bound notebook. "I need a last name for a character."

Quintana doesn't look up from her laptop or miss a beat. "Male or female?"

"Male, first name Orlando."

Quintana pauses. "I'm trying to remember the last spam name I got -- that's where I get my names from."

"What was your first boyfriend's last name?" someone asks.

"I've never had one," the student says. "Does preschool count?"

Quintana chimes in with Oeudreheo. "O-e-u-d-r-e-h-e-o," she spells as the student scribbles it down.

Only 49,999 more words to go.

[Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

National Novel Writing Month observed locally

Local writers gather at Panera Bread
on Hotel Drive on Friday to kick off
National Novel Writing Month.
Around the world hundreds of thousands of novelists are penning sordid tales of romance, bone-chilling thrillers, head-scratching mysteries, and sagas of mysterious artifacts from fantastic worlds. Some of those intriguing stories are being written right here in Turlock.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s known, kicked off on Sunday and will run through Nov. 30. Last year, approximately 120,000 writers took part in the race to write 50,000 words and complete a novel from start to finish in just 30 days. By the end of the month, more than 21,000 had become novelists — many for the first time.

“The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creative potential like nothing else,” said NaNoWriMo Founder and Program Director Chris 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.”

Baty himself is a 10-time NaNoWriMo “winner,” though winning the challenge simply awards participants with a printable certificate. The finished manuscript is the true reward for NaNoWriMo participants, however.

On average, about 18 percent of participants become winners. More than 30 NaNoWriMo novels have been professionally published, including the No. 1 New York Times Bestseller “Water for Elephants,” by Sara Gruen.

For most of the self-styled “WriMos,” however, publication isn’t the end goal of the month. It’s simply a love of writing that draws most to a November spent huddled in the warm glow of a computer screen, and a dream of becoming a novelist.

In 2007, Viki Sprague of Patterson found herself facing a serious illness, possibly near death according to doctors. She’d heard of NaNoWriMo before, some time after the event’s 1999 founding, and had always wanted to write a novel. Staring down her own mortality, there didn’t seem to be any better time for Sprague to set off into the world of novel writing, she said.

Sprague said she set out to pen a mystery based on a story she read in the Oakland Tribune in the 1970s. The article told of a woman who committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning, locking herself in a car trunk with a stack of romance novels and a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.

Thanks to some good-natured prodding from co-workers, Sprague became a winner in her very first NaNoWriMo, writing 53,000 words in a month.
“It changed the way I write,” Sprague said.

The one challenge Sprague said she faced during that first NaNoWriMo was a lack of a local support group, the sort of which can be found in communities large and small around the world. Unfortunately, the nearest to Stanislaus County was located in Stockton, simply too far to travel on a routine basis.

Emboldened by her experience and wishing to share NaNoWriMo with others, Sprague signed on to serve as NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison for the Modesto region in 2008. As she sits in Turlock’s Panera Bread for weekly write-ins, she now wears a shirt that reads, “Yes, I am in charge here,” offering up whatever advice she can to the aspiring novelists typing up fantasies and works of literature alongside her.
“It’s like being a den mother and a cheering section and a mentor all wrapped into one,” Sprague said.

Finishing 50,000 words in just a month is no small task. Last year Sprague set out on a more ambitious NaNoWriMo project, a tale of twins in Jim Crow-era Georgia with revolving points of views. She didn’t quite finish, though her words are counted among the total of 1.6 million words written in last year’s NaNoWriMo.

This year Sprague has even more on her plate, undertaking a mystery novel — her “official” novel — as she attempts to complete last year’s book, serve as municipal liason, and act as moderator for a discussion forum on the official Web site, “making sure everyone plays nice in the sandbox.” The forum, titled “NaNo Rebels” is dedicated to those like Sprague who are bending the rules of the event by working on a novel that has already been started, a non-fiction book, or even a play.
Sprague says that, through her increasing involvement with the challenge, she’s come to learn more about Office of Letters and Light, the Oakland-based non-profit that operates entirely on donations and administers NaNoWriMo. Funds raised are used to teach creative writing to children, challenging fourth and fifth grade students in Canada to compete in a shorter version of NaNoWriMo, build school libraries in Vietnam, and even to help students here in America.

Sprague considers herself fortunate to have a husband who tolerates her “unique hobbies,” especially in the whirlwind month of November. But earlier this year she realized how much her “hobby” means to her — and how important her husband’s support is — when on a cruise to Alaska her husband referred to her as a writer for, what she can remember, was the first time.

Sprague says that, even though NaNoWriMo kicked off on Sunday, it’s not too late to join this year’s effort. After all, you’re only about 5,000 words behind if you start today, she notes, and she believes anyone can become a novelist.

“It’s just a matter of putting your butt in a chair and writing it,” Sprague said.

The Turlock NaNoWriMo group meets at Panera Bread on Hotel Drive at 6 p.m. every Tuesday. For more information about NaNoWriMo, to sign up online, or for further details about local meet-ups visit

[Alex Cantatore / Turlock Journal]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Keeping: Speed-Writing For Success

"All at once" is not the way most people write their first novel, but that's what Jessica Burkhart did.

In 2006, as a 19-year-old college student, Burkhart wrote a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days, along with nearly 13,000 other writers. As a participant in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was quantity over quality. Most participants compare it to running a marathon; most participants shove their completed manuscripts into the darkest reaches of their computer files, thinking, 'Anything I wrote this quickly can't be good.'

When the month-long writing spree ended, Burkhart started revising Take The Reins, a story about tween girls at a competitive equestrian school. A month later, an agent found a blog post she'd written about the novel and asked to see the manuscript. The rest is history: The Canterwood Crest series is now five books long, with seven more to come. And it all started with a marathon, madcap, month-long writing frenzy...

[Rachel Kaufman /]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

November is for Nanowrimo

Have you always wanted to write the Great American Novel but struggled to find motivation and time? Well friends, let Nanowrimo be your guide. Nanowrimo, short for National Novel Writing Month, begins November 1st and lasts until midnight November 30th. It is "thirty days and nights of literary abandon."

The idea of the contest (now in it's 11th year) is to write a 175-page novel (or 50,000 word) by the end of the month. Nanowrimo is more about quantity than quality and writers have the month of December to edit their novel. In 2008, there were over 119,000 participants and more than 21,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline. The contest rules are fairly simple and writers upload their novels on the website in order to be eligible for a winner's certificate at the end of the month.

Nanowrimo was founded in 1999 by Chris Baty and twenty other writers. That year the contest was held in July and of the 21 participants, only six met the goal. By 2003 there were 25,500 participants and 3,500 finishers. Nanowrimo is now run by the Office of Letters and Light, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California. Nanowrimo isn't just for amateur authors, many published authors do it as well. Ally Carter, wrote her third Gallagher Girls novel Don't Judge a Girl By Her Cover during Nanowrimo. This year authors like Maureen Johnson, Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore and Jasper Fforde will be participating and offering advice to writers.

For more information about Nanowrimo, visit the Nanowrimo website.

[Danielle Dreger-Babbitt / Seattle Books Examiner]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

'The Pledge' to publish Writing Group

There are writer's groups and then, there are Writer's Groups. Why do some groups just seem to fade away, and others stay together and actually publish? The difference is organization, dedication and determination. This is what you will find when you meet the members of ‘The Pledge’. As founder, Tim Yao explains, “’The Pledge’ originally started off as the pledge to publish, and the whole concept behind that was we had written stories for Nanowrimo, and that was a November thing and we wanted some kind of continuing writer’s group so that we could help each other get published."

Members of the first writing group met through their participation in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, in 2006. Tim was the Municipal Liaison for the Naperville region and kept the momentum going throughout the year with emails, Jabber chat and regular meetings. “In previous incarnations, the pledge had been a little bit more of a social group. We had more outings in previous years than we did this year. We decided early on that we needed something to focus the group with. The previous years, we had written some short stories, more as a way to practice giving critiques of each other’s work, than anything else. And so this year, we decided to actually write and publish, self-publish, a short story anthology; a little more ambitious, but not as ambitious as maybe we could have been. This seemed a little bit more, almost like a working relationship, to jointly produce the anthology. It was more productive than in previous years.”

The current group has been together since NaNoWriMo, 2008. “We started with 12, we finished with 12. We had some people who almost dropped out along the way but we managed to pull them back in. In a way, it was kind of an extension of what you see with NaNoWriMo, where some have described it as trying to ‘herd cats’. And I think there was some aspects to that with ‘the Pledge’; getting people to meet deadlines and get everything done. But we’re finally at the point where we have finished the stories, the work has been put together and edited; we are close to having a cover done, and we should be able to get it up on Amazon very shortly.” Tim Yao has been Municipal Liaison, or head ‘cat herder’ of the NaNoWrimo Naperville region and of ‘the Pledge’ since 2006.

Katherine Lato, also a Municipal Liaison, joined the group in 2007. She explains how new members hear about and join the group. “We were all part of Nano last year, so we advertised the fact that there was going to be a pledge. We started having Jabber chats and we basically got an email list together of people who were interested. We had a meeting in January, and at that, hammered out the theme for the anthology and basic rules: No more than 5000 words- short stories and you’re going to read each other’s work. We’re talking short stories. We’re going to read each other’s stories. We had to critique three other’s stories in the first round, two other’s stories in the second round with a detailed critique. That requires that you read three entire short stories. One thing I did was make sure that anybody who had given critiques got a critique” Katherine is the editor of the anthology.

Tim adds that there were times when it looked like this wasn't going to happen. "The worst part came some time after or right around first draft. After the first draft, when people had done something, most of them had put something out and we were trying to get the critiques done and then, people seemed to go into that stretch of time where they become busy. Some people started to lose interest and I just had visions of a failed pledge where we had set goals and we wouldn’t accomplish them and it looked like the whole thing was going to falter. That was the worst time." It was a lot of work for everyone involved.

There were no regrets. Katherine explains. “My thought process was it was a way to get to know the members of the group by reading their writing because you get to know a lot about a person by reading their writing. It was a nice way to be able to learn more about each person because you could read everybody’s short stories.“ Tim, “For me, the best time was when we finally regained some momentum and people went through and they produced their second and third drafts and they got the reviews done and we even pulled one writer back from the brink where he hadn’t even finished his first draft, and he went through and completed that, and did all the requirements, and now, it looks like we’re going to have a successful completion.” Mike appreciated the feedback he received on his work, and learned a lot in the process of giving feedback to others. "Hopefully, I tried to make each critique instructive, and as far as I know, nobody got mad at what I said, so it all worked out ok. The best part was the very nice feedback I was getting on my story. That’s always nice to hear. I had no idea how it would be received. I agreed with all of the constructive criticism that I got and was pleasantly surprised that …so people just liked it. “

What are the writer’s hopes for the book? Tim, “I don’t think it’s going to be a critical success. I think these kinds of books tend not to be. But its nice to go through the process and get something out there. And that’s something. I personally enjoy doing this. I hope that we can do it again.” Mike, “One thing that pushes me toward submitting my work as a novelist is encouragement from friends, and here’s something that is published in a book and they’re going to tell me if I should be putting more of my work out there. So this is one more way to push me to get some of my work ready for publication.”

What advice would they give to someone who is thinking about writing, or who wants to finish that novel? With no hesitation, the author’s answers were unanimous. Katherine, “Try NaNo.” Tim, “Yeah, NaNoWriMo. It’s fun, and you do a lot of writing. And writing with a group of people is a lot more enjoyable, I think, than just writing by yourself; maybe I’m more of a social writer” Katherine, “Seriously, try Nano.” Mike, “Or just write. You can’t say you want to be a writer and not do the writing. The more you write the better you get.”

“What do you do for an encore after completing your novel for National Novel Writing Month? At the end of 2008, twelve aspiring novelists came together in a group called The Pledge to hone their writing skills. Together they decided to write a short story anthology. There is an infinite monkey theorem that says that "a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text such as the complete works of William Shakespeare'[Wikipedia]. If monkeys could produce Shakespeare, the novelists believed they could produce a short story anthology; and so, the title "Infinite Monkeys" was born. What is in this book, however, has nothing to do with monkeys. Infinite or otherwise. Each story in this book explores themes of redemption. The stories traverse different genres and moods, ranging from light humor to dark mystery.”

For more information about the Naperville group:

For more information about NaNoWrimo, National Novel Writing Month:

[Bonnie Jean Adams / Examiner]

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Month of plotting results in novels

November will shortly settle on the valley, bringing with it colder weather, muted landscapes and, for many, the gift of family and friends in the celebration of Thanksgiving.

For a focused few of the area's writers, however, November means something entirely different -- a month of "literary abandon."

National Novel Writing Month, an organization that began in 1999 with 21 friends in San Francisco, has since expanded to almost 120,000 adults and 22,000 young writers around the world. NaNoWriMo, as participants affectionately refer to it, gathers aspiring and even published novelists together each November through the Web site

Participants begin writing their manuscripts on Nov. 1 and have until midnight on Nov. 30 to reach the goal -- 50,000 words -- which will effectively change the way they view themselves forevermore. They are no longer closet writers; they are novelists.

"It was just a whim," Tyler Willson, 35, of Winchester, said recently of his decision to join NaNoWriMo at the very last minute, on Oct. 31, 2005. He was sitting at home, then in Texas, on Halloween night surfing the Internet betwixt expectant knocks on the door from trick-or-treaters, when he happened upon a Web page that posed the question, "Do you want to write a novel?"

Willson had not written much of anything since college, but the offer to write a novel in a month was too intriguing to pass up.

"It was really interesting to rediscover my love for stories and words," he said.

Willson completed the 50,000 words, despite not having prepared a plot or characters beforehand. He just made it up as he went along.

"It was a lot of fun," he said. "I remembered how much fun it was to write stories."

Susan Warren Utley, of Front Royal, can relate.

"Year one, when I didn't plan a thing, that was the one that came full circle," said Utley, 43. None of her novels since then has been quite as complete, with a clear beginning, middle and end. She hopes her initial strategy will work for her again this year.

"I've got an idea and I'm trying not to plan," she said.

Having a plot planned out doesn't necessarily help once the writing begins, as Emily Heflin, of Winchester, learned.

"Last year I got stuck, like, 500 words into my story ... and Susan goes 'Kill someone,' [in the book] and I did, and it turned into sort of a mystery, crime novel," said Heflin, 25.

"[This year] I'm writing about corpse snatcher monster spiders, young love and pirates, set in space," she said. "I pick four incongruent concepts and shove 'em all together and see how that works out."

No monetary award could possibly equal the exhilaration felt upon crossing that 50,000-word finish line, which is fortunate because there is no promise of riches for those who win. The prize is in the achievement alone, the knowledge that now exists a novel where a month ago sat a blank desktop document. Moreover, everyone who writes 50,000 words, approximately 175 pages, "wins" NaNoWriMo, leaving the door open for potentially thousands of successful new novelists each year.

"Being a writer is very solitary," said Stacey Graham, 41, of Bluemont. NaNoWriMo is an enormous source of community, she said.

For all their efforts, the writers do receive some notoriety: A downloadable certificate of achievement, their name added to the list of winners and the assurance of assistance in publishing their novel, if they choose to self publish. Most encouraging is the fact that many NaNos (or WriMos, as many prefer) before them have succeeded in publishing their novels, some even through big-name publishers.

After a month of ceaseless typing and, for some, sleepless nights, the tiresome journey will be over and all can then relax -- until next year, for they will be back, and in droves.

The greatest reason they keep coming back year after year to go through the process all over again is for the camaraderie, the excitement and the challenge, the writers said. What could say literary victory like writing a novel in a month?

Despite challenges -- work, family, holidays -- thousands of writers still manage to cross the finish line each year.

"Don't forget, five children," Graham said of her family, laughing.

The road is a long, bumpy one, with plot holes at every turn, but for NaNoWriMo participants, the destination is worth the journey.

"The thing I like most is just the online interaction with people," said Willson.

"It's something I look forward to every November," he said. "As long as I keep enjoying writing, I'll keep doing it. I see no reason to stop."

National Novel Writing Month begins Nov. 1 and ends at midnight Nov. 30. Adults must complete 50,000 words in a month in order to win; children under the age of 18 participating in the Young Writers Program are permitted to choose their goal before beginning on Nov. 1. Teens 13 and older may choose to write as adults and try for the 50,000 word goal. For more information, visit the Web at

[Josette Keelor / Northern Virginia Daily]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

DIY: Write Your Own Novel

Illustration by Tara Fleming
My to-do list for November: rake leaves, mock American friends for their placement of Thanksgiving, write a novel.

Alright, so I may not have a yard or any American friends, but the last one is true. November is National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo, if you like — and each year people the world over join in on the fun and attempt to write their very own novel.

How novel.

Now, writing something like this isn’t as impossibly stupid or stupidly impossible as it may sound. If you can read this sentence, you can write a novel. (If you can’t, go fudge a battleship cackle.) It doesn’t matter if you’ve always dreamed of being a novelist, or if you just want to impress the ladies (which, trust me, doesn’t work.) Anyone can do it. So dust off the pen and paper, throw them away, and get out your laptop.

Before you attempt this, however, a warning. There are pitfalls everywhere. Success, then, hinges on a few important, time-tested strategies.

Free-time management
There aren’t many times in life when the following applies, but neglect is the key to success. Forget cooking. Forget house chores. Forget washing your pants. If it’s not writing, throw it out the window (literally or figuratively.) Your friends can entertain themselves for a while. Showers are optional, but shaving can be cut.

A regular sleep pattern is good. Less sleep and some caffeine is better. Sleepless caffeinated hallucinations are best.

You are not an island. Or if you are, you are part of a large archipelago. Over a hundred thousand people will be attempting NaNoWriMo this year. There are local events where you can meet and get support from fellow writers. Though should you actually live on an island by yourself, the website houses forums where you can discuss plot points, find a quirk for a minor character, or read horror stories about what happens when you don’t backup your work.

Back up your work
Seriously. If you don’t, someone will beat you with a hammer. (And that someone will likely be yourself.)

“It’s about your mom”
You will get asked over and over (and over and over) what your novel is about. Have a one-line answer prepared. “It’s about a vagrant who finds a magical pot roast and uses it to fight crime,” or something. It doesn’t have to reflect your novel in the least, just have one ready to whip out. Also, if the one-liner is weird enough it’ll also work as an instant conversation killer, thus freeing you to return to writing.

You’re glue and it’s also glue
Lastly and most importantly, stick to it! You will want to quit. Don’t. You will think your story sucks and want to start over when you’re part-way through. Don’t. Keep going. It will get better. Eat more candy, drink more coffee, punch someone to vent your frustration if you have to, just keep writing.

If it all goes well, by December first you’ll have a complete novel. Imagine. You’ll also have a really dirty house, some relationships to mend and some rockin’ face and/or leg hair. But you’ll have written a book.
And it won’t completely suck.

Parts of it will be awful because parts of every first draft are awful but, mark my words, there will be gold in ‘dem pages. You’ll read it over and marvel at your own brilliance. You’ll see how frantic writing forces your mind to vomit up all kinds of wonderful things you won’t remember having put in there.

But unlike when that happens with food, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Learn more about NaNoWriMo at

[Angus Woodman / The Scope]

Thursday, October 8, 2009

It's often been said that there's a novel inside all of us. The real difficulty is finding the time, motivation, and energy to liberate it. For many, the idea of toiling away at a computer for months on end, struggling with unruly characters and unravelling plot-lines is far too much like hard work. But this November a worldwide group of enthusiastic scribes will sit down with the sole intention of writing their 50,000 word masterpieces in just thirty days.

National Novel Writing Month, online at NaNoWriMo, is a non-profit 'literary crusade', whose mission it is to see aspiring writers turn into perspiring writers, as they work at a furious pace to hit the deliberately tight deadline.

"The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creative potential like nothing else," explains Chris Baty, the man behind NaNoWriMo, as well as a regular participant. "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."

The way it works is simple. Participants register at the NaNoWriMo site, create a profile, then once the whistle blows post daily word-counts which are publicly displayed. Over the month these accumulate until - hopefully - the 50,000 target is reached and they are proclaimed 'Winners'. Writers are also recommended to sign up to the various groups that exist on the site so they can challenge and encourage one another - a vital part of the whole idea. This community aspect turns what is usually a very solitary activity into one far more open, something first-time novelist Keith Hughes found very useful.

"It gave me the sense that I was not alone in attempting this," says Keith. "It took this large goal of writing a novel and broke it down to a manageable 1,667 words a day. I also had this strong sense of accountability due to having writing buddies on the NaNo site, posts on my blog about taking this challenge, and many tweets on Twitter before and during the month. All these things helped me to succeed and complete a novel of 70,000 words with five days left over."

It's not uncommon for participants to find innovative ways of motivating each other, as Podcast Novelist Nathan Lowell remembers.

"I entered a 'word battle' group with my town and we were competing against the next town over to see who could get the highest word count. It was fun to watch the graphs grow, as we both tried to have the most people finish. It showed me that there were more writers in my area than I thought."

Far from being the preserve of only aspiring unsigned authors, NaNoWriMo boasts several professional writers. David Niall Wilson is one such author, and a regular participant since 2004.

"What first drew me to it was the idea of a challenge," reveals David. 'It was just a change - sometimes that's what you need to get the creative juices flowing. I liked keeping track of others via the website, and sharing in the forums. Mostly I liked the progress bar feature. I'm pretty competitive, and seeing that thing shoot across the page and the percentage grow gave me extra incentive. The only downside of it is that you can get caught up in all the cool stuff on the site when you should be writing.'

Last year almost 120,000 people joined the crusade, writing over 1.6 billion words between them. So far this year 150,000 people have sharpened their word processors and await the starter's gun. Will you be among them?

[Martyn Casserly / Wired UK]

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Spotlight on

Learn the best ways to get connected, hone your skills and build your career on the Web in this expanded Q&A with the founder of

Year founded: 1999
Member stats: 2008: 119,301participants and 21,683 winners. 2009 (projected): 140,000 participants and 25,000 winners.
Mission: To help people bash out a 50,000-word novel in November. And have a great time doing it.
How to sign up: Just head to and click the "sign up now" box. You can sign up anytime for the November event. We don't charge an entry fee, but we're a nonprofit, and do ask that ably-financed participants donate something to help cover costs. If you are 17-and-under, we encourage you to take part in NaNoWriMo through our awesome Young Writers Program, located at
About the founder: Chris Baty (who fielded these questions) is the founder of NaNoWriMo and the author of No Plot? No Problem!

Describe the writer who can most benefit from involvement in NaNoWriMo.

I think there are two types of people who will benefit most from taking part in NaNoWriMo:
1) The first-time novelist.
2) The more experienced writer who can't find time to write.
For first-time novelists, it's easy to get discouraged by novel writing. A lot of that frustration comes from the fact that we've read so many great novels by the time we try to write one of our own. So our expectations tend to be very, very high. When our first drafts fall short of those aspirations, we assume something is wrong with our story (wrong idea, wrong main character, wrong point-of-view, etc.) or something is wrong with us (no-talent, tin ear for dialogue, horrible breath, bad dancer, etc.) It's demoralizing, and makes novel-writing such a slog that people abandon their books after a couple chapters.

The tragedy, of course, is that the books that made us want to write in the first place likely started out as dreadful first drafts. Most novels are born as ugly, confused creatures, and they only become the surefooted masterworks we love through a series of revisions and helpful interventions from friends, agents and editors.

With this in mind, first-time novelists should really be shooting for completion rather than perfection. They need to put aside all those dreams of elegant prose and snappy dialogue and just focus on getting an entire first draft down on paper. Then they can see where the juicy, beating heart of their story lies, and start building their second draft around that heart.

This is where huge community of writers can work wonders. There's so much camaraderie and encouragement on the NaNoWriMo site, and 99 percent of is focused on simply keeping writers moving forward. At any hour of the day in November, you can come to the site and find tips for writer's block, get recipes for mojo-boosting snacks, join an online word sprint, or find out where local Wrimos are meeting to write that week. Cumulatively, it creates a wave of can-do energy that helps keep novice writers committed to their books from start to finish.

The other group of authors who benefit most from NaNoWriMo are experienced writers who have been struggling to make time to write. NaNoWriMo is a little like a thirty-day writing retreat, but one that's plunked down in the middle of your everyday life. To make it work, you have to cut out a lot of procrastinatory pursuits, get creative about chore swapping and childcare duties, and adjust sleep schedules. But once you do, it's amazing how much you can get done in a month. Through that process, you realize that writing can happen even in the midst of a hectic schedule. And once you get into the rhythm of bagging those 1,667 words each day, it's easier to maintain a consistent writing schedule for the rest of the year.