In November 2011, I attempted to write a novel. I, like 200,000 other people across the globe, sat down on 1 November with little to no ideas, and began to type, typing sporadically until 30 November.
When I began I had a very hazy, basic vignette to work from – a woman waking up, hungover, in a rusty Cadillac, in the desert. I had no plot, and no characters. The idea was one that had just popped into my head, and suddenly I was stuck with it. So, I stuck with it, and I have written 50,000 words and been declared a winner. A winner of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.
National Novel Writing Month is a ‘non-profit literary crusade’ organised by a California-based organisation called the Office of Letters and Light (OLL). NaNoWriMo is one of several writing projects that they coordinate throughout the year, others including Script Frenzy, for budding screenwriters, and the Young Writers Project, where classrooms work together to build their novel.
The aim of the project is to produce 50,000 words, and emphasis is on quantity over quality. According to Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo’s founder and executive director, the encouraged style of writing with no editing or self-critiquing has “a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creativity”. The project is monitored through a website which creates statistics of your writing successes (and failures) and hosts extensive forums.
It is the sense of community that is the most striking aspect of NaNoWriMo. The OLL is proudly claims that there are NaNo marriages, and even NaNo babies, born out of the blossoming romances of total strangers during the hectic month of the challenge. The forums were as good a place as any to begin when I started research for this article. I put out a plea for UK-based wannabe novelists to answer some questions to help me form an idea of when this originally American project became so popular in England.
Within minutes, I had replies from all over the UK, and all walks of life. I spoke to novelist Beautiful Illusion (that’s their username, of course) who is from Norfolk. Like many UK NaNoWriMo particiants, they heard about the project from a US chatroom, mostly fanfiction-oriented. I myself was prompted to take up the gauntlet this year (only on 30 October!) when I was teased mercilessly by my internet-trawling journo-boyfriend, who had somehow stumbled across the site. The majority of novelists I spoke to have been participating for one or two years, although one trooper – Kaleidoscope27 - had been doing it every November for nine years.
I asked how they found time to write 50,000 words in a month, whilst carrying on with their everyday lives. Beautiful Illusion said that, like lots of the people I spoke to, they have found the youth unemployment problem very handy for novelling. Others still at school, like Iago Grey, write on lunch breaks or between lessons, whilst the real champions – like Ben, or Enzo, as he is on the forums, fit in writing between raising two under-5s and working a full time job.
The forums on the NaNoWriMo website are where most of the writers would say the beauty really happens. I wrote my novel in quiet and kept it a secret, something almost unheard of during NaNoWriMo. The forums are jam-packed with support and solidarity, with information on everything from word-cheats to help bump up your total, to how much butter it would take to sink a ship, and how to ensure that your budding novel is factually accurate. In my opinion, it seems as though a lot of NaNoWriMo participants do it only partly for the thrill of writing – a lot seem to do it for the company.
We can’t become a nation of novelists, and not everybody’s novel is worth publishing - there is a reason that the rumour on the forums claims publishers close their doors on 1 December to keep out unpublishable NaNoWriMo manuscripts.
There are a few success stories which have developed out of NaNoWriMo, perhaps the most famous being Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants (2007), which was recently made into a film starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. The majority of NaNoWriMo novels may not, as one writer on the forums admitted, ever be read by another person. For most novelists, however, before publication even crosses their mind, reaching the 50,000 word goal is in itself an achievement to be proud of.
Having taken part this year, I can agree with this sentiment. If you use the support given, the pep-talks sent out by published writers, the encouraging statistics, it’s difficult not to achieve the goal. The feeling of that 50,000th word is talked about a lot amongst NaNoWriMo participants. As one of the writers who answered my questions affirmed, it’s likely that you will take something positive away from the whole process even if it is just the amazing feeling of accomplishment.
Read an extract from Alexandra's NaNoWriMo novel here.