As we sling toward Halloween, wondering if we’re too fat to pull off a Captain America costume, many of us are unaware of another event looming at the end of the month. A less spooky, but certainly more terrifying fate awaits some poor bastards – the beginning of National Novel Writing Month.
National Novel Writing Month is a grueling slog through a fetid morass of self-doubt, insane workloads, and truly godawful storytelling. Your facehole will stink of coffee, you clothes will reek of neglect, and your pillow will be crusted over with bitter tears of disappointment. Why would any person who is sane in both the brain and the membrane attempt to write a NOVEL in only 30 meager days?
The answer to that question is thus: because National Novel Writing Month will change your life. Won’t you join me?
What is NaNoWriMo?
National Novel Writing Month, more frequently abbreviated to “NaNoWriMo,” “NaNo,” or “JESUS WHY,” takes place in the month of November every year since July, 1999. That’s the same time Buffy graduated high school, just a heads up. The first NaNo only had 20 participants, and it took place locally in San Francisco. The event has ballooned in the intervening years – for instance, this year’s NaNoWriMo already has over 100,000 people signed up, and it’s still two weeks away. That’s effectively the entire population of Burbank, California all sitting down to write a novel. Which, is only unusual because the entire population of Burbank, California is usually writing screenplays.
The goal is simple: you have one month to write 50,000 words. You do that, and you win. No fuss, no muss. Now, 50,000 words is technically a novel by the secret tome-laws of Libraria, but it isn’t a very long one. A normal-sized novel averages 80,000 words, by comparison. However, “The Great Gatsby” was around 50,000 words and that’s about as novel-y as they get, so no point in splitting hairs. Trust me – it is a MASSIVE amount to have to write in four short weeks. For a blow hard long-winded writer like myself, that figures into about half a book.
Thee total breaks down to roughly 1,600 words per day, which seems easy, doesn’t it? You’re not afraid, are you?
So, why in Rao’s name would you commit yourself to such a back-breaking endeavor? Why would you give up your free time for an entire month, subject yourself to wrist-cracking carpul tunnel and stomach-splinching self-doubt when you could just as easily play Grand Theft Auto V and eat an assful of Turkey?
On the surface, NaNo doesn’t sound compelling. Do you want to know what you get when you win? Nothing. There’s no reward, no cash prizes. No trip to an exotic destination, and certainly no awards ceremony. You get to continue on to December, massaging your fingers and trying to figure out how you spent the gross national debt of France on Starbucks venti Frapuccinos.
There are a few material perks, certainly. Sometimes companies will pop in and offer discounts to NaNo winners – I got my Scrivener writing software at a huge discount thanks to last year’s NaNo win. CreateSpace, a print-on-demand company, is known to offer free proof copies of winning manuscripts, bound and covered, to the writer. There are dozens of little perks like that, but none that couldn’t be obtained by a cheater with 50,000 words of lorem ipsem text pasted into the “Verify My Wordcount” box.
That’s right – NaNoWriMo is almost entirely run off the honor system. There’s a nominal test to see if you’ve written 50,000 words (the aforementioned “Verify My Wordcout” box), but it doesn’t check to see if you’ve actually written anything coherent. No person sets eyes on your novel – except for you. You see, NaNo isn’t about shiny medals or standing ovations or even cash – it’s about proving to yourself what you can do, what you can create, with no motivation but the knowledge that you are not alone. Any creative endeavor has its lonely moments, but none so much as writing as book. I guess maybe those people who do tiny paintings on a grain of rice are more lonely, but that’s insane.
It’s a one-man (or woman) job. Stephen King once equated it to “crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.” It’s you, a computer screen, and twelve thousand reasons to stop working at any time. It’s not even remotely possible to write a novel in a day or two if you “really push.” A novel is a pre-historic elephant – one bite at a time is the only way to take it down, and there’s plenty of problems on any given day to distract you from taking your daily chomp.
That’s why actually finishing a novel, something of such enormous scope, feels like the best damn accomplishment in the world. Maybe it has giant plotholes, or the characters are inconsistent, or the whole book just seems like a rehash of Star Wars (coughEregoncough). None of that matters. Your crappy novel is better than every single novel never made. Count on it. You’ve done the impossible, and that makes you mighty.
Remember how I said you’re not alone? I said that because you aren’t! Alone. I mean. You see, the NaNoWriMo virus is contagious – watch in the upcoming month as mentions of NaNo trickle into your twitter and facebook feeds. Going to the NaNoWriMo website itself is like following that stream upriver to the mighty waterfall at its source. There are more forums (fora, I guess) devoted to writing than you can shake a stick at, even if you happen to be a very fast stick-shaker. Need help naming a character? Forum. Got stuck in your plot? Forum. Want to run your magic system past some fresh eyes? Forum. There are groups devoted to literary critiques, camaraderie, and even procrastination.
If hanging out with weirdos on the interwebs isn’t your thing, why not hang with them in real life? Odds are there’s a local NaNoWriMo group in your area, and it isn’t hard to find them. On your profile, you can select what “region” you belong to, and it will automatically hook you up with local crazy people who think they can write a novel in one month. Most local groups organize write-ins at coffee shops, restaurants, and under bridges. Many even have launch parties and wrap parties, devoted to celebrating how great you are. I myself have attended a coffee-shop write-in or two with fellow NaNobots, and I had a blast.
Okay, so there’s a bunch of amateurs involved. How do I know that any of this is even legit? Would a real writer even screw around with this? I have two words for you: Neil Gaiman. Wait, here’s two more: John Green. How about this pair: Dave Eggers. Hell, even necromancer James Patterson is involved this year, and that guy writes or co-writes or co-produces like sixteen books a week.
New York Times Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson had this to say about NaNoWriMo: “NaNoWriMo certainly helped me become a better writer. That was because, in coming to understand myself as a writer, I began to learn how to use writing tools. NaNoWriMo trained me in habits I still rely upon today.”
Another stupidly successful writer, Dave Eggers, said this: “And that’s why I love NaNoWriMo. It gets you started. It gives you the impetus to finally start, and/or finally finish. Knowing there are thousands of others out there trying to do the same, who are using this ridiculous deadline as cattle-prod and shame deterrent, means goddamnit, you better do it now because you know how to write, and you have fingers, and you have this one life, and during this one life, you should put your words down, and make your voice heard, and then let others hear your voice.”
I got nothing to tell you that beats that.
I do have a confession: my first published novel, “Deadgirl,” was written during the 2008 NaNoWriMo. Two more of my manuscripts that are under representation and sitting on some publisher’s desk somewhere were written during the 2011 and 2012 NaNos. I’m certainly no Neil Gaiman*, but I can tell you that I get about 50% of my yearly writing done during NaNo. “NaNo Is Magic” is the phrase, and it’s absolutely right. Motivation is water in the desert when it comes to writing – it’s impossible to find somedays, and it’s the only thing that will keep you going. NaNo is an oasis, if you follow the metaphor, a place to drink deep and drink long, to load your canteens and waterskins and trade maps with fellow travelers.
If you’ve ever even flirted with the idea of writing, there’s no better time to start than November 1st. You’ve got two weeks to figure out the plot and the characters – you don’t even need to do a lot of planning. NaNo has a proud “pantser” tradition – folk so called because they write by the seat of their pants, going into the first week of November with nothing but a main character or two in mind, a genre, and a laptop. Plus brass balls that could tear a pair of Dockers in half like they were made of wet Kleenex.
Head on down to nanowrimo.org and get your profile together. Feel to friend me while you’re at it – my user name is “Septimus.” Epic poem, fictionalized version of your life, Sherlock fan fiction – whatever. Where there’s a Will, there’s a Way.
Here’s a couple Wills to get you started.