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]

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