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]

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