Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).
I first heard about NaNoWriMo in late October of 2010. I had been toying with the idea of writing a novel, but the task seemed overwhelming. My background as a writer was in essays and short stories, and I was trying to develop the skills necessary to undertake a longer piece of work.
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It is a thirty-day writing challenge that takes place during the month of November every year. The main goal of the project is to encourage creativity worldwide. At the NaNoWriMo website, writers can register and create their own page. The website offers information about local groups, encouragement, a shop, and a place to enter your novel at the end of the month for verification of word count.
The slogans for NaNoWriMo are “Thirty Days of Literary Abandon!” as well as my favorite, “No Plot? No Problem!” The focus is completely on generating a first draft and not on writing quality. NaNoWriMo even has an unofficial theme song.
At dinner one night, I shared the concept of NaNoWriMo with my family. My daughter, eleven at the time and an avid reader and writer, was intrigued. We decided to check out the website and both signed up that night. We would each write a novel in the month of November – mine would be 50,000 words – and my daughter, taking advantage of the children’s version allowing one to choose the length, decided to sign up for 25,000.
With little time to prepare, I assumed I would just work on the novel I had had gurgling around in my head. It was a fairy tale based on a series of stories I told my daughter at bedtime when she was little. I was finally determined to write this book that had been inside me for so long. We signed up with a local NaNoWriMo group and were on our way!
And then a funny thing happened. Without any planning or research, I sat down at my computer on November 1, ready to begin my novel. My subconscious, without even a shred of foreshadowing, changed her mind. The first sentence I punched out on that first day was this: “As the captain’s cheerful voice on the intercom instructed passengers to look out the windows for their first glimpse of Africa, Amelia Armstrong shifted in her coach seat, straining to eavesdrop on the couple’s conversation behind her.”
During the month of November in 2010, I wrote 50,000 words of an action thriller. To say this is not my genre would be an understatement. But I did it. I did it in thirty days, and I am a better person, and writer, because of it. My daughter won too, and went on to participate at the 50,000 word goal for the next few years.
The first few days were intoxicating. I was on a roll. I had multiple windows open on my computer, and I researched as I wrote. I used Google Street View to richly describe places I had never been before, had field guides of local flora and fauna open on my desk to add authenticity, and I wrote like crazy. I laughed giddily as I punched out witty comebacks on my keyboard and started to worry about my characters. Was I showing who they really were? My daughter and I would yell across the house our latest word counts and cheer each other on.
About two weeks in, my internal editor snuck in the back door. My momentum slowed, and I started to question everything I wrote. I went back and read passages from days before and deemed them garbage. For me, the trick to writing a lot, and writing a lot every day for a month straight, was to completely ignore the urge to edit as I go. I simply didn’t have the time. As soon as I was able to remind myself that this is about quantity and not quality, I picked up my pace again.
As the dust bunnies began to appear in great numbers, and carry-out was the dinner plan more often than not, I plodded through the Thanksgiving holiday and made it to the end of the month. With more than 50,000 words written, I had officially “won” NaNoWriMo. That, to me, is the most wonderful thing about NaNoWriMo: your only competition is yourself.
At the end of the month, I had a good idea sketched out in about 180 pages. The writing was good in some places and downright awful in others. There were plot holes, point-of-view breaches, and characters that seemed shallow and lifeless. But I had accomplished what I set out to do. I had written a novel in one month!
My WAG critique pod is currently helping me flush out the errors and inconsistencies of the book I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2010. I am finding that NaNoWriMo and a solid critique group are the perfect marriage. I have plenty of raw material to work with, and now I am chiseling out the unnecessary and adding depth.
People prepare for NaNoWriMo in various ways. Some create plot outlines, others develop character sketches. Some dive in without testing the water and just sit down and write. It’s easy to get frustrated during this process, but in my experience, working through those frustrations makes me a better writer.
NaNoWriMo is fun, challenging, and a great way to connect with a group of area writers, but is it an effective method for actually producing a publishable novel? For me, I won’t say no, just not yet. Other writers, however, have been successful. Perhaps the most widely known novel written during NaNoWriMo is Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants, but several best sellers first came to life in November. The NaNoWriMo site also keeps an extensive list of published wrimos. If you have a novel inside of you, waiting to burst free, but struggle with committing to toiling away regularly at your computer or typewriter, NaNoWriMo may be just the push you need.