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Novel Idea 

Why 14,000 people tried to crank out 50,000 words in 30 days

Published December 18, 2002 at 9:00 p.m.

My friend Jonah Jackson wrote a novel last November. He told me this in April while my husband and I were visiting him in San Francisco. He said it without an ounce of pretension, with no hint that he had achieved the impossible: "I wrote a novel." I was stunned. And intrigued. I mean, who writes an entire novel in one short month?

Lots of people, as it turns out.

Jonah wrote his novel as part of National Novel Writing Month -- a.k.a. NaNoWriMo -- a 30-day, 50,000-word odyssey started four years ago by another Bay Area resident, Chris Baty. A freelance writer, Baty says too many people carry around a "One day" novel in their heads -- as in, "One day I'll write a novel."

"People wait on writing their novel until the golden illumination, until a story presents itself with an intricate plot, all braided together, with duplicity and a hero," Baty said. "NaNoWriMo [turns] all of that 'I have to wait' to 'I have to start that novel today,' and the pieces come together as people write."

Strangely, 27-year-old Baty never felt compelled to write fiction before, claiming he's "really bad at dialogue." But the Kansas native says he was always carsick on family trips because he couldn't take his nose out of whatever book he was reading. He loves novels so much he thought it would be fun to write one; 50,000 words seemed close enough to novel length but not so long that it would be impossible to achieve in 30 days.

The first year, NaNoWriMo attracted about 20 people, mostly Baty's friends. The second year, 100 people joined; the next, 5000. "The idea that it would get over 200 people seemed beyond the pale, because it's such a masochistic way to spend the month," Baty said. This year, 14,000 people signed up, including me and 23 others from Vermont.

People come to NaNoWriMo for different reasons. Some join just for fun. "It sounded like the kind of time-wasting, absurd activity that I love to take part in," says Jeremy Paquette of Dorset. Others, like Cathy Wright of Middlebury, hope it will push them to complete a story. "I'm a real procrastinator and never finish anything," she confesses. Me? I guess I wanted to see what I could accomplish.

I write for a living, mostly articles and the occasional nonfiction TV segment. Writing is also my passion, but it doesn't come easily. I haven't completed much fiction as an adult, except for a screenplay in graduate school and a couple of really bad short stories. I like what I do for a living. But fiction keeps calling, and I keep not answering. Because to answer would mean facing up to my least favorite writing companion: my Inner Critic.

Most writers wrestle with their own version of the Inner Critic. Mine points out, among other things, that people will read into my fiction what my subconscious puts there. Do I really want others peering that deeply inside me?

With a looming deadline it's easier to ignore that negative inner voice and get to work. And to meet the NaNoWriMo deadline you've got to work fast. Not only that, you're encouraged -- even expected -- to write crap. So who cares if your story is about nothing? Just get to it.

The day I declared myself a "Wrimo" I felt giddy, and for the next two weeks I let the excitement of knowing that I'd soon be writing a novel sink in. Sticking to the rules of the game, I jotted down notes, attempted a few outlines and daydreamed... not about my characters, but about how great it would feel when I was done. And then came November 1. I turned on my computer, opened Microsoft Word and stared hard at the blank, white screen. I felt sick.

A few weeks earlier I had seen an interview with Sandra Cisneros, who mentioned spending nine years on her latest novel. I've also read about writers who spent as much time or more writing short stories. Why, then, did I think I could complete a novel in 30 days? But NaNoWriMo is not about producing a saleable book, I reminded myself. In the parlance of Anne Lamott, it's about writing a really long, shitty first draft.

When the goal is word count, the tenets of good writing go out the window. Forget William Zinsser's On Writing Well; don't even think about The Elements of Style. If you can say something in many words over one word, you go for it. So "ambition" becomes "a sense of ambition"; "needed" becomes "felt the urge." The expectation of crappy prose feels freeing to many local Wrimos, including Cathy Wright. "Because I knew nothing had to be good, my story took on a life of its own," she says of her semi-autobiographical "goofy romance."

An English teacher at Middlebury High School, Wright was the only one of eight friends-and-family Wrimos to reach the 50,000-word goal. She explains, "They were way too concerned with quality and I was very committed to the quantity."

I kept my butt in the chair that first day and pounded out 1900 words; the next day I wrote 400; and the next, 1000. My story -- working title, Flatlanders -- was about a group of people who had moved to Vermont, separately, for various reasons. I planned that eventually they would all meet and, well, something would then happen. Right from the beginning I encountered problems. I had five characters vying for the position of protagonist. I had no antagonist. And forget narrative structure. My story had no beginning, no middle, no end. It didn't even have plot points -- or a plot, for that matter. Lucky for me, NaNoWriMo's motto is "No Plot? No Problem!"

Whenever I felt bad about my writing, and by extension myself, I visited the NaNo message boards, where the NaNo community gathered online to commiserate, share writing tips and chat. During the first week I started at the "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" forum. I felt infinitely better knowing that other people doubted their talents as much as I did my own. By mid-month, however, I needed to read only positive messages. I sought out forums like "Reach-ing 50,000" and "This Is Going Far Better Than I Had Hoped."

One forum I particularly liked was called "Janet Kagan's Little Corner of Hell Room Party." A published author and Hugo award winner, Kagan had responded with encouragement to one of my posts in another forum. I started seeing her name on many message boards; all of her posts contained cheerleading, prodding and writing advice. This was Kagan's second year as a Wrimo, and I wondered why a published novelist would join in.

"I had such fear of a blank page for so long," she told me. "Seeing all those people who had never done it before sign up, I said, if they're so brave, how could I be such a wimp?"

Writing fast actually has benefits, Kagan told me. "At that speed you get a lot more out of your subconscious than you'd expect."

NaNoWriMo may be about speed, but it's not a race. There are no prizes for finishing first. No one at NaNo HQ reads anyone's work. Those who complete the challenge can send in a text file for automatic word-count verification, and upon reaching 50K the status bar next to your online screen name turns from blue to purple. That's it.

"It's a bizarre, non-competitive competition. It's like running a marathon, but with people ready to carry each other if they fall," Baty comments.

If there is any competition, it's with yourself -- to overcome your own fears and inertia, to conquer your procrastination and actually put pen to paper. In that regard, every Wrimo who writes a word is a winner.

On November 20 I hit 25,000 words, the halfway point. Paging through my text -- some bad, some really bad, some actually OK -- I thought, How did I get here? I'd never written one piece longer than 2500 words, and here I was with 10 times that amount. I couldn't imagine writing that same amount in the next 10 days.

Two days later I was still at 25,000 words. Life had interrupted in the form of work assignments, and as the weekend approached I found myself faced with hard choices. I wanted to go to the craft fair at the Sheraton, the sock sale in Northfield, and out to brunch with friends. For some reason I also felt compelled to watch the entire Monarch of the Glen marathon on BBC America. I skipped everything, except brunch. Still, I only managed 9000 more words during the next week.

On Thanksgiving I drove to my mother's in Massachusetts, where my family gathered, including my brother, whom I only see once a year. Two days later -- the official end date of NaNoWriMo -- my mother threw a party for me and my husband to celebrate our wedding with my entire extended family. My laptop sat unopened all weekend.

More than 2000 people, including seven Vermonters, completed their NaNo novels this year. My friend Jonah wrote 5000 words before deciding he'd rather spend this November on his bike than at his computer. I ended up with 34,000 words.

In one of Janet Kagan's forum posts she explained how, 18 years ago, she completed her first novel, Uhura's Song, by writing 150,000 words in three months. "I NaNoWriMo'd the first draft, spent nine months on the rewrite, got published. Was the agony worth it?" she asks rhetorically. "Hell, yes!"

Of course, most Wrimos won't get published, even if they do complete the 50,000 words. But again, that's not the point.

"The best thing people could come away with is a realization that culture and art are not something you need to buy at a bookstore or purchase a ticket for," says Chris Baty. "You, as a human, have the ability to be part of it, and life will be so much richer if you roll up your sleeves. You just need to make a little more time."

The National Novel Writing Month takes place each November. This year the requested donation was $10 per person. For more information, visit www.nanow

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