How many of us have sat back, possibly after a few glasses of our favourite beverage and thought; ‘yes, I could write a novel…if only I had the time!’ Well, now there’s no excuse not to grab your writing implement of choice, be that pen and notebook, typewriter or laptop and spend thirty days (and possibly nights) doing exactly that.
But what could possibly induce someone to write a novel in thirty days? One word (or rather, acronym) that either inspires, or inspires dread in any would be writer springs to mind: NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo, or NaNo for short, is the National Novel Writing Month. Held during November, it has been going in some form since 1999. Created by freelance writer Chris Baty and sponsored by such luminaries as Amazon.com and Think Geek, the (somewhat crazy) notion involves writing fifty thousand, yes, that’s fifty thousand words of fiction during the month of November. There are no limits to what you write, quality isn’t an issue, it’s just, to quote the tagline from the NaNo website ‘thirty days and nights of literary abandon.’ In 1999, there were 21 participants in the challenge. In 2010 there are to date just over 178,000. At fifty thousand words a writer, that’s…a lot of words.
When I first started participating in NaNo back in 2006, very few people outside the United States had any notion of what it was. It was a relatively US-centric sub culture, and there was virtually no regional presence on the related message boards or forums for writers across the pond, or indeed any border. It was a gruelling, if ultimately rewarding experience, and one that I did very much in isolation. If I’d mentioned Nano to anyone in real life, I’d have been met with a fair few blank looks and possibly a few concerned ones. You want to write a novel in a month? Really?
But this isn’t just something for adults with too much time (haha) on their hands. Skip forward two years to 2008 and, in an attempt to introduce more people to the madness and mayhem of writing a novella in a month, I roped in my then GCSE English class to complete the challenge for their imaginative writing coursework. Gratifyingly, several of them actually did, and more than one exceeded the word count. They were all over thirteen years old, but for younger writers there is the Young Writers’ Program, which is a more tailored package for children and teens who want to participate in the writing frenzy.
However, it’s not just age boundaries that Nano has crossed over the past few years. Take a look on the NaNo website these days and you’ll find links to not just national forums, but regional ones as well. Live in or near Bristol and want to talk novelling with other (mad) keen Wrimos? No problem, just rock up to the Watershed Café and you can meet up and chat, or just do a write in with others who have undertaken to write the 50k. Got writer’s block in Guam and need to thrash out plot ideas? Head on down to the Coffee Beanery at Fountain Plaza in Tumon and you’ll get your chance. Denmark, Bulgaria, the Caribbean and South Africa have their own regional NaNo forums, and on those forums you will find a variety of posts from people who are undertaking the 50k in a month challenge.
Take, for example, the threads on the Johannesburg section of the Nano forums. There are topics about Write ins, meet ups and Thank God It’s Over parties, as well as advice for those writers who have hit the wall. Skip continents to the Seoul forum and there’s an enlightening discussion raging about pirates versus archaeologists, and who would win in a battle between Brendan Fraser and Johnny Depp (Depp, of course!).
It would seem that the art, or merely the process of writing is capable of bringing people together who might otherwise pass one another in the street, totally unaware that below that mild mannered exterior beats the frantic heart of a would be novelist.
And it’s not merely a mad frenzy of sub-standard, panic induced writing, either. Check out the Published NaNo Authors page off the main site and you will see an impressive list of 55 novels that have made it to hard copy, including one New York Times Bestseller, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Not bad for an endeavour that promotes ‘a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing.’ And when you think that Sebastian Faulks wrote his James Bond novella Devil May Care in just six weeks, there may well be something in this time-constrained creativity. Over the past couple of years, NaNo and its principles have really crossed over into mainstream culture, allowing people the freedom to write what they want without the worry of having to justify it.
So what happens at the end of the month, when you’ve (just about) got your fifty thousand words, and you know it’s either the best, or the worst thing you’ve ever written? Well, nothing really. There are no cash prizes, no cuddly toys, there’s just the satisfaction of submitting your manuscript (scrambled and encrypted – you can never be too careful with the next Great British Novel, after all) to the NaNo word count and then getting, by email a virtual ‘badge’ to display on your blog or website. There’s no promise of a fat publishing contract, you don’t even have to show anyone your work if you don’t want to, but what you do get is that incredible sense of satisfaction that yes, you did it. You ate, drank, slept and dreamed your novel for thirty days, and at the end of the month you might look like a cross between the Bride of Dracula and a bloodhound, but it doesn’t matter; you’ve lived the dream.
In sum, NaNoWriMo might just be an excuse for dreamers to pretend they can actually his the dizzy heights of writing a novel, but it’s also an interesting exercise in making the unattainable seem reachable. Who cares if all you’ve got at the end of November is a pile of mostly incoherent rubbish, with a paper thin plot and characters that would blow over in a mild breeze, NaNo is a liberating, frustrating, unifying experience, and is a great opportunity to join an online community where there are nearly 400,000 other writers boldly going where you, too, are striving to go.
As for me? I’m going to try to put 50k onto Little Somerby Book 3 this November. A couple of years ago, I managed to crank out the same amount of words on the first draft of book 2, and I’ve just kissed goodbye to that one, now it’s been through the final proof reading stage and is going to be released by my lovely publisher in January. I won’t pretend that the original draft, much of which was written that November, didn’t take an awful lot of reworking to get it to publishable quality, but I have to admit, the act of feeling out the story, of trying different things unfettered by the prospect of an actual structure definitely helped me to get words on the page.
So, all in all, NaNo is worth a go. It’s a boundary crossing, crazy, emotional experience that will leave you bug eyed and sleep deprived, but it’s worth every second. Now where did I put my pen…
www.nanowrimo.org – the NaNoWrimo main site
http://twitter.com/NaNoWriMo NaNo’s Twitter page