reflections on NaNoWriMo by Mary Ellen Gallagher
Certain she’d ditched him, Nona slipped up the back stairs to the safety of her apartment – then stopped short on the landing. Something large and white sat on her stoop. Big as a Buddha, the enormous bundle was shrouded in butcher paper. Shaken, Nona leaned against the peeling stairwell. What was it?
It was NaNoWriMo 2014!
Specifically, it was 52 more words for my November 19th word count. I was three days behind (Oh, the anguish!) but determined to reach the NaNo Holy Grail: To write a spanking-new 50,000-word novel in one caffeine-driven month.
NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, says it’s “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.” NaNoWriMo’s main event takes place every November, and it’s a big operation. In 2013, more than 650 NaNo Volunteer ‘Municipal Liaisons’ assisted more than 300,000 NaNo participants in 595 regions across six continents.
In late October, armed with coffee and chocolate, I joined thousands of 2014 NaNo wannabes at the starting gate. Each of us set up a password, personalized our “dashboard” on NaNoWriMo.org, and named our novels. Some participants prepared rough outlines, others chose to wing it, and at 00h01 on November 1st, we started a cliché-ridden climb to the top.
Fortunately, no one hikes NaNoWriMo alone. The free event promotes camaraderie alongside the steady stream of unedited words. NaNo volunteers organize café write-ins in every major city, and the NaNo staff sends daily e-mails, weekly pep talks, and periodic authors’ podcasts to all participants. NaNo software provides a “writing buddies” system, hundreds of chat-rooms and forums – everything urges the writers toward their very own “2014 NaNoWriMo Winner” certificate, almost suitable for framing.
In addition to bragging-rights, most first-timers want the experience of being a writer. Those who already know use the month to open up their writing, or to capture a book concept in their laptop before the idea fades. I wrote my first NaNo before applying to grad schools, figuring if I couldn’t write 50,000 words in a month, maybe I wasn’t MFA material. A writing buddy used NaNoWriMo to deal with an unresolved trauma. NaNo’s “Just keep writing!” mantra left her no time to ruminate or judge, and by the end of the month, she’d fictionalized her distress into an exciting story.
NaNo never reads the novels. “Winning” happens when a participant pastes the entire month’s work into the “Verifier” atop each dashboard. The widget takes an official count and deletes the upload. (NaNo supplies a “word scrambler” for the hyper-wary.) If the Verifier agrees that the document contains 50,000 words, a purple “Winner!” banner flashes across the dashboard. A cornball NaNo video (think silly hats, whistles, horns) appears above the participant’s personalized “NaNoWriMo Winner!” certificate.
There are no NaNo prizes, but writers receive discounts on various writing items. I’m learning to use Scrivener, thanks to a “50% off for Winners” coupon from Literature and Latte, a NaNo sponsor. Some NaNo buddies have purchased books at a discount, including professional layouts of their own.
Chris Baty, who founded NaNoWriMo with 20 friends in San Francisco, writes that, “Our… (1999) noveling binge had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front… (We started it) because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates...”
Now fifteen-years later, a few hundred NaNo participants can assess NaNo’s “date-bait” factor. Though the pressure to write 50,000 words generates alarmingly awful drafts (My favorite NaNo forum: “What’s the worst sentence you’ve written today?”), more than 250 NaNo winners have polished their work and found traditional publishers. Gayle Brandeis drafted Self Storage in NaNoWriMo 2003, and Sara Gruen wrote the award-winning Water for Elephants in NaNo a few years later. Rainbow Rowell wrote Fangirl in one NaNo; during another, Hugh Howely drafted Wool.
“Through all our programs, we… encourage writing and vibrant creativity around the world,” the NaNo site states. Over the years, the not-for-profit organization (formerly known as the Office of Letters and Light) has grown into an educational powerhouse. The 2014 NaNo campaign has raised over a million dollars to fund the November program and support NaNo’s other initiatives: Young Writers Program provides classroom kits, workbooks, and curricula to more than 2,000 educators around the world. The ‘Come Write In’ Program offers resources to hundreds of libraries and community centers, and Camp NaNoWriMo maintains a virtual writing retreat for a variety of literary projects.
NaNo won’t abandon the blurry-eyed November novelists, either. Starting in February, the NaNo site will “support writers during the revision and publishing process” with on-line forums, novel-swaps and instruction in “Novel Draft Aftercare.”
My “winning” novel definitely needs “Aftercare.” The large white object left at Nona’s door appeared only because I was desperate for words, not because it fit into any plot. The next morning, I had to dig up another 2,000 words. I’m not saying what I “discovered” inside her package – but you’d be surprised at the number of websites devoted to flesh-eating plants.
for more information on Nanowrimo: http://nanowrimo.org/