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 NaNoWriMo.org 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 www.NaNoWriMo.org.

[Alex Cantatore / Turlock Journal]

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