Could you write a novel, from start to finish, in a month? What if it didn't have to be ... you know ... good?
In 1999, a San Francisco man named Chris Baty thought he could do it. He and a score of friends gave it a try, each pledging to write a 50,000-word piece of fiction in 30 days. No plot? No problem, they said. No inspiration? Too bad. All they needed was the discipline to crank out words with a little on-the-fly creativity.
Ten years later, more than 100,000 people across the country (in fact, the world) are making the same pledge this November: It's National Novel Writing Month, or "NaNoWriMo." Some 755 people (as of this writing), with more joining every day, are doing it in the greater Tucson area.
To be a participant (or "wrimo"), you simply have to try to write 50,000 words, constituting something you deem a novel, entirely during the month of November. Your novel's plot (if there is one) doesn't have to make sense; your characters don't have to be believable; your dialogue doesn't have to be understandable. The novel doesn't even have to have an ending.
While you're allowed to do outlining, research and character-planning before the month begins, you must start from scratch on the word count. And, no, you can't just write "damn" 50,000 times.
Why would anyone want to participate in NaNoWriMo?
Says the project's Web site: "To actively participate in one of our era's most enchanting art forms. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work."
Really, though: "It helps you get over yourself," says Margrit McIntosh, a local Web developer who's been a wrimo since 2006. "I think (one of) the problems faced by people who want to be writers is they try writing something, and it's not very good, and they get discouraged. With NaNoWriMo, the only thing that matters is getting to the finish line, and along the way, you learn some really useful skills." Namely, you learn how to write without revising, and how to write when you don't feel like it, McIntosh declares.
And it's working for her—two out of her three one-month novel-writing attempts have produced the required 50,000 words, not an easy feat considering that, by her estimate, only about 16 percent of wrimos actually do it.
Why'd she fail that one bad year? She didn't have a plot—and wasn't being what insiders call a "pantser," or one who writes by the seat of his or her pants.
Xander Felton, Tucson's official NaNoWriMo municipal liaison, was a pantser once, and it didn't work for him—he inserted so much filler that by the time he got through most of the novel, he'd forgotten what it was supposed to be about. Now he's become a "plotter," which he finds very empowering. One thing NaNoWriMo does, he says, is help you find out what kind of writer you really are.
Throughout the month, Felton helps Tucson's wrimos along by herding people to weekly "write-ins" at local cafés and other venues, and by sending motivational e-mails, telling wrimos to "show those words who's boss" and giving tips on beating writer's block. He doles out helpful goodies like emergency plot envelopes to open when you're really stuck, which command you to give your protagonist a terminal disease or make your leading lady fall off a cliff. Or something.
Felton also gives out little bags of marbles in case you lose yours during the course of the project.
When everyone's last word is written, and NaNoWriMo is done, Felton will host a Thank God It's Over party, where people can celebrate their new status as novelists and/or drink away the pain of failure and/or vow to write more words next year.
And, yes, people are still becoming wrimos as the month flies by. If you want to be one yourself, just go to nanowrimo.org, and sign up. Or look for a gaggle of frazzled, laptop-toting writer-types in a coffee shop near you, and try to chat one up. (Good luck with that.)
Felton insists that lots of wrimos who start their novels late do finish them in time—in fact, some people write their entire novel in 24 hours, he says. Some people write two novels during the month.
"It depends on how crazy you are," he says.