What if you had to write 50,000 words? What if you only had one month? And what if those words had to form a complete novel? Could you do it?
In the last eight years, thousands of people worldwide have accepted the challenge each November by taking part in National Novel Writing Month—also known as NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo began in 1999, when founder Chris Baty and 20 other people from the San Francisco Bay Area decided to write complete novels in one month. It didn't start out as anything official, but each year the event expanded and gained popularity, even making its way into other countries and onto college campuses.
According to Western senior R.M. Kehrli, a NaNoWriMo municipal liaison for Bellingham, about 55 people have started NaNoWriMo this year in the Bellingham area. About 10 to15 of those are Western students.
“Most students are not sacrificing a nice, stable, comfortable schedule [by participating in NaNoWriMo],” Kehrli said. “We're already used to frantic, work-heavy Novembers.”
But even when stress coping skills are taken into account, few busy college students, with midterms, extracurricular activities and a social life, could even consider the idea of completing a 50,000-word novel in a single month.
“The key is to be persistent and to seriously think about where you're spending your time during the week,” Kehrli said. “If you notice that you have a free hour or two between classes, for instance, you can easily write then. The nice thing about Western is that there are computer labs everywhere, so you don't need a laptop to bring your novel to school with you.”
Bellingham NaNoWriMo participants have also found that getting together to discuss their novels and the writing process can help ease the tension of the challenge and sometimes provide much-needed distraction. Kehrli holds such meetings every Friday night.
“We usually talk about any trouble we're having with our novels for the first hour, and then write for the second hour,” Kehrli said. “Except for last week, when we shared funny videos that we'd found on YouTube.”
According to the NaNoWriMo Web site, the key to success is remembering that the only thing that matters with NaNoWriMo is output. With only 30 days to write, participants can't expect to produce the next Great American Novel. And there are no official NaNoWriMo judges who read all the submitted novels. The only judge in NaNoWriMo is the Validator, the word-counter on the NaNoWriMo Web site that participants use to upload their novels and confirm their 50,000 words.
“Kill your inner editor,” suggested Western alumna June Hatfield, a NaNoWriMo municipal liaison for Olympia. “Nothing slows down progress than constantly going back and fixing bad grammar or typos as you go.”
Still, the tight deadlines and stress of balancing a novel with day-to-day life prove to be the downfall of many “Wrimos.” Of last year's 79,000 participants worldwide, only about 13,000 “won” the challenge by completing all 50,000 words by the deadline.
But NaNoWriMo is not a typical contest: when you win, you don't get a prize or individual recognition (after all, thousands of other people have also won.) The true value of the win, and what happens to the completed novel, is all up to the writer. Some authors, like Hatfield, end up publishing their novels.
“The first NaNoWriMo novel I ever wrote [“Dancing About Architecture”] did end up getting published,” Hatfield said. “It has an ISBN and everything. To date I think I've sold a whopping dozen copies, but the fact that I can hold it in my hands and say ‘I did it!'—that's an incredible feeling that most people won't ever have.”
Acclaimed author Sara Gruen also published her NaNoWriMo work. Her novel, “Water for Elephants,” became a New York Times #1 Best Seller.
While most NaNoWriMo winners will never see their novel on a bookstore shelf, Kehrli has found that completing the NaNoWriMo challenge can come with unexpected benefits.
“On the plus side, doing NaNoWriMo means that your schoolwork schedule for winter quarter seems a lot easier!” Kehrli said.