Bookbanter Column: “November is National Novel Writing Month” (October 24, 2011)

NaNoWriMo.  Say it with me now: Nano-wri-mo; you can say it either “nano-ree-mo” or “nano-rye-mo.”  And what exactly does this mean, you might ask?  Well, it’s National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November.  The goal is a simple one: to write at least 50,000 words of a novel between November 1st and November 30th.  While 50,000 words isn’t necessarily that long of a book, it is still a grand accomplishment once you put down that 50,000th word.  Some popular novels that are this length include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Brave New World, and The Great Gatsby.

NaNoWriMo isn’t something special for long-term writers, or those who are looking to just get published, or even bestselling authors; the beauty about it is anyone can do it.  You may be a writer looking to put down this great novel idea, or someone who has always just wanted to write a book; or you may be the type of person who has trouble finishing ideas and hitting goals.  Whichever one or combination of these you might be, NaNoWriMo is the perfect place for you.

Begun in July of 1999 by Chris Baty, there were only twenty-one participants originally; it was moved to November to fit in better with the “miserable weather”; just eleven years later, in 2010, there were 200,000 participants.  I myself have done it twice, back in 2002 for a young adult fantasy story that I’d wanted to turn into a book, and in 2004 with a story idea that turned into a thriller manuscript which I am currently shopping around to agents.  A sister event has also developed for scriptwriting, which takes place in April called ScriptFrenzy.  In 2005, NaNoWriMo started the Young Writers Program, which Chris Baty describes as:

“. . . A version of NaNoWriMo for kids, teens, and K-12 educators.  On the Young Writers Program site kids from around the world can swap advice and encouragement with each other, get pep talks from Young Adult authors, and share their works-in-progress. We also have free downloadable workbooks for elementary, middle, and high-school students designed to help kids and teens plan their novels and learn about story structure.

Through the site, teachers also have access to six weeks’ worth of free lesson plans based on the NaNoWriMo challenge that map our curriculum to national standards for language arts education. And we mail all participating classrooms free stickers, posters, and buttons as well. This year, NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program will be taught in over 2,000 classrooms.

We also have a Young Writers Program dedicated to NaNoWriMo’s sister event, Script Frenzy. The offerings are very similar, and can be found at http://ywp.scriptfrenzy.org.”

Ultimately, participants can only get as much out of NaNoWriMo as they put in.  Users can create a free account, but it’s up to them to update their progress with their novel on the website.  With the free account, users are able to:

  • Plan your novel.
  • Join a local group of writers and attend in person writing events.
  • Receive online encouragement from staff and published authors.
  • Access a worldwide community of writers in our online forums

Theoretically, a user could just update their progress with the same word repeated over and over, but they would just be lying to themselves.  NaNoWriMo is really about those who wish to achieve this important goal of writing a 50,000-word book.

Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, of Flashforward and most recently Wonder, has always been a big supporter of NaNoWriMo, has this to say:

“People always tell me they’d love to have my job — being a full-time professional writer.  Well, NaNoWriMo affords a chance for them to get a taste of what it’s really like.  Many professional novelists do 2,000 words of a draft every working day, and so that 50,000-words-in-a-month goal that those doing NaNoWriMo set for themselves is a taste of what it’s really like to be a career novelist, month in, month out, for decades.  Actually doing that — cranking out 50,000 words to a tight deadline — is better than any writing course you could ever take or any workshop you could ever attend, because it’ll definitively answers the question of whether you’ve got what it takes, of whether you’re willing to sacrifice social and family events, other interests, and more, to produce the extraordinarily complex and wonderful thing that is a novel.  On your marks, get set, go!”

The NaNoWriMo website also features encouraging blog posts from writing experts and popular authors, to get the fires going for NaNoWriMo participants.  Recently, agent Rachelle Gardner even made a blog post about NaNoWriMo, though wisely including an important caveat:

Standard agent disclaimer: DON’T YOU DARE send out that manuscript to agents on December 1. You and I know that a first draft written in 30 days is not ready for prime time. NaNoWriMo is for the purpose of writing a first draft. Take your time and make it good before submitting.”

The world of writing and publishing has changed a lot since the start of NaNoWriMo way back in 1999, with the advent of the eBook revolution and the growing world of self-publishing.  When asked how NaNoWriMo has changed along with it, Chris Baty had this to say:

“The core concept of NaNoWriMo has always been that novel writing is a fun adventure, and that everyone who loves reading books should be writing them. I think NaNoWriMo has helped a lot of people get the first draft of a book written that they never would have otherwise. A lot of those writers go on to revise those manuscripts for years, even though they have no interest in getting an agent or going the traditional publishing route. They’re really just finishing the book because there’s a huge sense of satisfaction in doing so. The neat thing about the growth of print-on-demand and e-book publishing is that these books can find readers as soon as they’re done. I like that.

As for writers getting the most out of the program…I’d say the best thing to do is to fully commit to the 50,000-word goal and then arrange your November life in such a way that you have time to reach it. We get so busy taking care of other people’s needs that we rarely give ourselves time to tackle these crazy, invigorating challenges that make life so magical. For all the hard word you do the rest of the year, you deserve a month-long vacation in novel-land. Take it this November!

I’d also say it’s really important to turn off that critical voice that says you’re not good enough to write a novel. Novels really aren’t written by novelists. Novels are written by people who give themselves permission to write novels. You can do this. You should do this. Noveling is way too much fun to leave to the professionals.”

Now, the key I have found with NaNoWriMo, having taken the challenge a couple of times – and succeeded – is that it all comes down to that very important word count.  This was my bread and butter when shooting for those 50,000 words.  I made a chart with word count goals for every day in November, and then each day I would enter the number of words I did that day, and would then be able to keep track of how I was doing.  If I started to lag behind, I could immediately tell by how many words and work extra hard to catch up.  By the same token, if I got a decent “wordage” ahead, I could slack off a little; perhaps even take a day off of writing.  The key to it all was knowing my word count, how I was doing, and how much I had to go.

And now you people, looking to tackle the great fun adventure that is NaNoWriMo this November are in for a treat, because at the end of this article you’ll find an Excel chart I made to help you in maintaining your word count throughout the month of August.  To download it, simply right-click over the link and select “Save Link As.”

For now I wish you the best of luck in hitting your 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo . . . but then you and I both know it really doesn’t have much to do with luck.  It’s all about hard work, buckling down, and cranking out those words.  See you on the other side of November!

FREE NaNoWriMo Word Count Chart
(Click on the link to open the free file)

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