NaNoWriMo: Write a novel in 1 month?

I’m staggering around on my computer like a drunken sailor… Okay, I should have said that I was surfing the Net but late at night when I pooped and a little zoned out from fatigue, I’m not sure I’m surfing so much as staggering around mindlessly clicking on one link after another.

In any case – Whew, long winded digression! – I run across a blog article someplace where I see the term NaNoWriMo. WTH? What the heck? (No, not hell) It turns out that this stands for National Novel Writing Month and that month is November which is now apparently an annual event.

The point? In the space of 30 days, you write a fifty thousand word novel, about 175 pages. From scratch. By yourself. No help, no cheating.

Really? You can do that? I just checked. Fifty thousand divided by 30 is 1,667. So that’s 1,667 words each day, every day for 30 days straight. 

There’s a web site, NaNoWriMo.Org, where you participate in this annual event. The home page has a countdown which as of this writing shows 302 days to the start of the next NaNoWriMo. You sign up and describe a bit about yourself. At midnight, October 31/November 1, you start writing and must stop at midnight November 30/December 1. Starting on November 25, you can upload your work to the site and have an automated system count your words. If you "pass", you get an official "Winner" web badge and a PDF Winner’s Certificate. There are no awards per se; no best novel or quickest-written as they say, just the satisfaction of doing it.

The organisation describes how all of us have those projects we’re going to do someday, someday when we have the time. That project could be writing a book. Well, this is it; this is your chance. Did I hear the word procrastination? This is the moment to set aside everything else in your life, kiss your partner and the kids good-bye then immerse yourself in yourself with unfailing egocentric dedication for 30 days of trying to accomplish what you may have put off for just about forever.

They emphasize that this is not about quality, this is about quantity: 50,000 words, nothing less. Curiously enough, while all of this may seem a tad ludicrous, it seems to match in its objectives what none other than Stephen King says in his part autobiography, part advice book called On Writing (see my book review). Mr. King is a strong proponent of just doing it. Writing is about writing. Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends.He goes on to describe how anybody should start and keep going. He even recommends not looking up the spelling of words as this distracts from the flow of getting the story out of your head onto the page. Finally, he says to put the work away in a drawer and come back to it later. With a little time, you can distance yourself from your own work and come back to it more objectively and do a better job of editing and revising. I take this as meaning that what you write the very first go around may not be gold. As for 50,000 words? Mr. King says that when he is in the midst of a work, he will set himself a goal of 2,000 words per day and will not quit until he’s at least done his two thousand. Hmmm, that would make 50,000 in the month of November to be an achievable goal. In fact, on the web site, NaNoWriMo.Org admits this goal is difficult but doable.

50,000 words
Okay, just what do fifty thousand words represent? Wikipedia’s article Word Count defines various literary works by size:

 Classification     Word count Novel              over 40,000 words Novella            17,500 to 40,000 words Novelette          7,500 to 17,500 words Short story        under 7,500 words
How does this translate into the books we all know? I found a web site dealing with school books and looked up a few examples of the novels I have read over the years either on my own or possibly as part of my English classes in high school.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
word count: 49,459

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
word count: 63,766

1984 by George Orwell
Word count: 88,942

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
word count: 47,094

Animal Farm by George Orwell
word count: 29,060

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
word count: 73,404

NaNoWriMo 2010
According to WikipediaIn September 2006, NaNoWriMo officially became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization operating under the name "The Office of Letters and Light". All contributions are tax-deductible under U.S. law.

Their web site has the description "The Office of Letters and Light organizes events where kids and adults find the inspiration, encouragement, and structure they need to reach their creative potential." They compiled information about the latest writing month, November 2010:

  • 200,530 participants, up 20% from 2009’s total of 167,150.
  • Everyone wrote a total of 2,872,682,109 words up 18% from 2009’s collective word count of 2,427,190,537.
  • This averaged out to 13,960 words per person.
  • There were 37,479 winners, up 16% from 2009’s total of 32,173.
  • This was an 18.6% win rate!
The list of stats goes on to show the top 50 wordiest regions and my city of Toronto came in as #12. In the Top 50 Wordiest NaNoWriMo Regions by Average Words Per Person, I see that Quebec City was #8 and Sudbury

The main web site has stats for previous years:

  • 1999: 21 participants and six winners
  • 2000: 140 participants and 29 winners
  • 2001: 5,000 participants and more than 700 winners
  • 2002: 13,500 participants and around 2,100 winners
  • 2003: 25,500 participants and about 3,500 winners
  • 2004: 42,000 participants and just shy of 6,000 winners
  • 2005: 59,000 participants and 9,769 winners
  • 2006: 79,000 participants and 13,000 winners
  • 2007: 101,510 participants and 15,333 winners
  • 2008: 119,301participants and 21,683 winners
  • 2009: 167,150 participants and 32,178 winners
Has anybody gotten published?
So it seems. A growing number of these novels have found publishers, including one New York Times #1 Bestseller (Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen). Wow, this woman Sara Gruen now rates a Wikipedia article and has her own web site which indicates she has now published 4 books.

NaNoWriMo.Org gives a list of published authors who all apparently started out by pounding out their 50,000 words in the month of November. Of course the above stats indicate that only 18% of all participants "pass" the test by completing 50,000 words so what number out of the 18% end up being published or should I say are worthy of being published? As NaNoWriMo.Org suggests, this event is about quantity not about quality.

On a humorous note
Is it not a classic scenario where so and so has the unfinished novel in his or her desk drawer? They’ve just never found the time to get around to completing it? Is there something of that starry eyed budding novelist in all of us dreaming of the New York Times best seller list and a limo ride to our press conference? Let’s come back down to planet Earth and have a chuckle at our momentary delusions of grandeur. There is only one Stephen King. Not two or three, just one. Yes, there are many authors out there in the world and many of them are considered successful and are making a good living at it even if we the public have not heard of them with the same frequency of one Stephen King. It’s a big world.

However, look at the stats given above. In 2010, there were 200,530 participants and out of all those people, there were 37,479 "winners", the word winner meaning they completed their mandatory fifty thousand words. If I look through NaNoWriMo.Org’s list of published winners, I see three with a date of 2010. That makes me think they probably did their writing in 2009. Hmmm, that makes 3 published out of the 32,178 "winners" of 2009. The winners represent 19% of all participants in 2009 and 3 represents 0.0018%. That’s almost one fifth of a hundredth of a per cent. To put it another way, you would need to have 1,672 works published to even be equal to 1%. [chuckles] Can anybody spell "rarity"? 

101 Reasons to Stop Writing
Now that we’ve had our hopes raised, let’s dash them to pieces. Yeah, as if the stats I just gave you shouldn’t make all of us think twice about quitting our day job.

In my "staggering" around the Internet, I ran across this funny web site for writers. However, unlike other such web sites which offer up all sorts of pearls of wisdom and nuggets of information about writing, this one has the express purpose of trying to dissuade you from ever picking up your pen and if you’ve already picked it up, of getting you to put it back down.

On the About page, the author of the web site gives his FAQ, Frequently Anticipated Questions. To quote but a few of these hilarious gems:

Q: This is a gag, right?
A: I’m deadly serious. I’d break into your house and steal all your pens if I could. 

Q: What’s your motivation?
A: I’m sick of reading crappy books. I want to cut them off at the source. 

Q: Why do you hate free expression, you Nazi?
A: Express yourself all you want. Just don’t keep submitting it for publication. You’re filling the world with shit. 

Q: But I can write just as good as lots of books that get published.
A: You mean you can write just as "well" as "many published authors". QED and whoopee-doo.

That last one had me laughing so hard, I thought I was going to swallow my tongue!

The web site also offers its own demotivators two of which are dedicated to NaNoWriMo:

NaNoWriMo: The challenge of an arbitrary target and deadline without the burden of any expectation of quality.

NaNoWriMo: Anyone can be a writer, if you set the bar low enough.

A last glimmer of hope
Do I write? Do I not write? Hmmm, I could reword that as a line from Hamlet. Alas, poor Yorick, I wrote him well.

NaNoWriMo.Org offers up many little tidbits of advice for any potential author especially about picking up the gauntlet to undertake a personal challenge that may have been sitting on the back burner for years. In their FAQ article If I’m just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?they explain:

There are three reasons.

1) If you don’t do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly a "one day" event. As in "One day, I’d like to write a novel." Here’s the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It’s just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will come. And you’ll have friends to help you see it through to 50k.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing, shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations, everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. And you’ll start surprising yourself with a great bit of dialogue here and a ingenious plot twist there. Characters will start doing things you never expected, taking the story places you’d never imagined. There will be much execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of it.

3) Art for art’s sake does wonderful things to you. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you want to take naps and go places wearing funny pants. Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the chores and "must-dos" of daily life. Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives.

Final Word
Will I do this? Are you now mulling over doing it yourself? As I sit here thinking about the idea and comparing it to Mr. King’s advice from his book On Writing, I can see some advantages to "creating" a sort of artificial situation which forces us to do something which under the normal circumstances of day to day living we would just never get around to doing. Maybe there is something to the Nike slogan of "Just Do It".

I leave you with one final FAQ from NaNoWriMo.Org under their "Novel writing Guidelines"

Q: Can I write one word 50,000 times?
A: No. Well… No.

Click HERE to read more from William Belle

References

National Novel Writing Month: official web site
http://www.nanowrimo.org

Wikipedia: National Novel Writing Month
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Novel_Writing_Month
National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo) is an annual creative writing project coordinated by the non-profit organization The Office of Letters and Light. Spanning the month of November, the project challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel in one month. The project has been running since July 1999 by Chris Baty and started out with only 21 participants. In 2000 the project was moved to November and in the 2010 event, over 200,000 people took part in the event, writing a total of over 2.8 billion words. Writers wishing to participate first register on the project’s website, where they can post profiles and information about their novels, including synopsis and excerpts. Word counts are validated on the site, with writers submitting a copy of their novel for automatic counting. Municipal leaders and regional forums help connect local writers with one another for holding writing events and provide encouragement.

101 Reason to Stop Writing
http://101reasonstostopwriting.com

101 Reason to Stop Writing: Demotivators
http://101reasonstostopwriting.com/demotivators
Quite amusing. Check them out!

Meaning
People don’t read books to find meaning in their lives, but to take comfort in someone else’s misery.

Writing
The recording of life as it passes you by.

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