Every November, you may notice some of your literary friends hibernating and intermittently muttering cryptic numbers, until they ventually emerge from their seclusion in December. It could be the impending winter holiday crush or seasonal affective disorder, but having been among their number myself every year since 2011, I’m pretty sure it’s NaNoWriMo. This is not an antibiotic-resistant superbug or a new entry in the DSM-V, but a portmanteau for National Novel Writing Month, which has taken place since 1999 – first in July, but then every November since 2000.
This unlikely endeavor challenges writers around the globe to conjure at least 50,000 words of an original work of fiction between the stroke of midnight on November 1st and 11:59PM on November 30th. You are a winner if you hit that word goal before December and verify your word count on www.nanowrimo.org. Other than the distinction of being able to say you’ve done it, the right to adorn your social media profiles with a selection of cool graphics, and a congratulatory YouTube video, there is no tangible prize. However, there are some perks: you can get a free printed copy of your novel and discounts on writing tools to use for future rewrites, or for whatever other projects you have in store.
Other rewards of participating in National Novel Writing Month are somewhat intangible, but they have real value; donations made to the site benefit the NaNoWriMo non-profit organization, which helps run the festivities during November and Camp NaNo events throughout the year, as well as a Young Writers program. Many participants are middle- and high-schoolers; I made my own initial NaNo attempts in high school, although I was did not win until several years later. I don’t have anything in particular to attribute that year’s success to besides perseverance, but that’s one of the lessons I now try to impart when I go back to my high school to talk to students and teachers (and even the principal!) about the ins and outs of participating in NaNo.
My first win was in 2011, and 2019 will be my ninth consecutive year submitting to the whirlwind that is NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words, but the site helpfully reminds you that you only have to write 1,667 of them per day. Of the eight years I have been successful, only one of those years was I ever significantly ahead at any point. Every other year, I stagnated, sometimes for days, and frantically played catch-up. I do not recommend this approach.
I do know some of the factors that fueled my failure in previous years: one year, I committed the cardinal sin of heavily editing my writing several days in, and other years I simply failed to keep my eye on the prize. It is difficult to write that many words daily, even for professional writers. When you factor in full time jobs, part time jobs, spouses, pets, children, and Thanksgiving for the Americans participating (whether you are working, celebrating, or dutifully ignoring it), it can seem an impossible summit to scale.
While I am not going to say that anyone should be able to do it, no matter what, I have completed NaNo while, in different years, settling my deceased father’s estate, throughout a rigorous nursing program, and working two or more jobs. Then again, in the years I failed to complete NaNo after high school, I had much less going on and still could not make my goal. I was still glad to have tried every year, which is what I have heard from most of my friends who have started but chosen not to continue to push past their needs and finish, and I am not berating anyone for abandoning it. Sometimes, it is simply too much to pile on, whether the barriers are internal or external. There is no shame in having tried, especially not for something you should be doing for fun. And if you win, the rewards are manifold, if not tangible.
Winning NaNo taught me the benefits of putting in a little work every day, of having both long term and short term goals, and of having contingency plans for when those long and short term goals were in danger of not being met. The sense of mastery gained was an achievement like few others I have attained since, but I can tell you one thing: I am certain that my first NaNoWriMo win had a lot to do with the later success I found in picking up running, starting my own small business reading tarot cards, and becoming a registered nurse – not to mention learning how to maintain a marriage. And, of course, I learned how to finish NaNo in other years, whether I was writing more queer vampire novels or autobiographical Jewish ghost stories.
There are some studies showing that telling too many people of your goals before you’ve achieved them gives you the same feelings of achievement as actually reaching your goal, but I have had more success when I have looped some people into my plans, whether on social media or in person. My first tme around, a naysayer scoffed at my vampire novel as a Twilight knock-off. My complicated feelings about young adult paranormal romance aside, I was determined not only to finish NaNo but to subvert his expectations, and I wrote 50,000 words without a shred of romance in them.
I also had to figure out what worked for me in terms of simply getting the writing done. The first year, I had an extremely long commute, and I began writing on my phone during it. I am what my Gen-X sister-in-law calls a digital native, although I was a slightly late adopter of cell phones compared to many of my peers, so I don’t find tapping away at a novel with my thumbs on a smartphone screen to be an entirely alien experience. I have probably written paragraphs of similar length in Facebook arguments on the phone as well. In other years, I brought my small laptop to work and school to write on lunch breaks, I did write-ins with like-minded friends before setting aside the work to just hang out, and I have always enjoyed doing what we call “word sprints:” timed intervals where you write as much as you can and compare word counts after with online Wrimos. I have another dirty secret: at a certain point, all of my characters sound like Spock, because I drop all contractions. Then again, sometimes they sound more like William Shatner with the convoluted turns of phrase I have employed to hit word goals.
The eternal question of NaNoWriMo is are you a planner, a pantser, or a plantser? I cannot resist the jargon of an in-group, which may be part of the allure for me. Planners are writers who go into NaNo with behind the scenes preparation and research. Those writers may have outlines, character sheets, and other resource materials written and ready to be transformed at the strike of November first into fresh words. Pantsers, among whom I am usually counted, have a vague idea of what they’re going to write but nothing else except an empty word processing document. Plantsers combine approaches: maybe a loose outline, or a few characters or scenes planned out, but nothing extensive to get in the way of raw creative output.
Under NaNo rules, if you consider what you’re writing to be a novel, the site does too: fanfiction, novels in verse, and more standard novels are all welcome. If fiction isn’t your thing, don’t think you can’t participate: every year “rebels” participate who are writing nonfiction, memoirs, screenplays, and anything else you can think of that isn’t a novel in the strictest sense. Some rebels already know they won’t hit the word goal and choose their own, although the Camp NaNoWriMo events in April and July every year are specifically designed for flexibility in word count. There are even official rebel forums, which begs the question of whether or not it’s true rebellion, but that’s just quibbling semantics. You can also complete NaNo on your own without ever registering on the site for an even more intrinsic achievement.
This year, the site has undergone a major overhaul. There are more badges for those motivated by meaningless achievements (ahem), a greater number of customization options, and more streamlined data for the various events held throughout the year. Every year there are pep talks delivered to your inbox by writers (some names better known than others) and other resources to get the creative juices flowing, as well as the forums for regional groups and solely online cliques. You validate your win by copy-pasting into the NaNo word counter, which can be done in any language (this is not an exclusively English-language event); you can also try estimating a handwritten count, but I certainly would not handwrite 50,000 words when keyboards of any sort exist. The aforementioned forums or your own group online or in-person can be wonderful for a sense of community and camaraderie. Official and unofficial write-ins are often held in bookstores, cafes, bars, and libraries, partially funded by the non-profit or by local groups.
The point isn’t winning, or badges, or fiction, but to get people writing. Frankly, you’re a winner if you wrote even one word you did not have before November 1. You’ve won a creative victory by virtue of starting. If you have even a sliver of a story you’d like to share, I hope you give NaNoWriMo a try this year. Writing 50,000 words in a month may seem impossible, but consider this: by the end of this article, you will have read exactly 1,667 words, or the number you need to write daily to hit 50,000 over the month. Broken down like that, don’t you think you can do it? I think you can, and I know I will.
Photo © Matthew Friedman