For some, simply finding the time to read 50,000 words in a month can be a chore, much less actually writing that amount. But for a growing number of amateur writers, 50,000 words in 30 days is their literary Mt. Everest, a daunting challenge with abysmal success rates that demands to be taken on anyway.
The name of the challenge: National Novel Writing Month.
National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s known among participants, began as a simple challenge among 21 writing cohorts in the San Francisco Bay area in 1999. Founded by Chris Baty and currently operated by the nonprofit Office of Letters and Light, the free writing challenge annually tasks participants with writing an original novel of at least 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30.
A participant “wins” if they upload their 50,000-plus word novel onto the NaNoWriMo website by Nov. 30 and it passes word count verification.
The tangible prize for winning is not much. A nifty web badge and 50,000 more words typed out than they had at the beginning of the month.
But for freshman Kit Winner those additional words are nothing to scoff at. “If you write a hundred words and you decide to give up, that’s a hundred more words than you had when you started,” she said.
Winner, though only 18, is in her sixth year of NaNoWriMo has won all five of her prior attempts with novels like Defining Beauty, a story about a seeing boy born into a blind community, or White Hands and Ink Stains, an apocalyptic thriller. Last year she wrote a romance novel entirely through characters’ letters.
Her productivity is astounding, especially since the average success rate for NaNoWriMo participants over the past five years has been just a shade over 17 percent.
“There’s a lot of people who say ‘I want to write a novel one day,’” Winner said. “NaNo is a good push for that because if you say ‘I want to write a novel someday‘ you’re never going to actually do it. But if you say ‘I’m going to write 50,000 words of a novel, I’m going to write this much a day,’ it’s a really good push off for people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves writers.”
Other NaNoWriMo participants take that push a step further.
Vickie Hartman DiSanto is a municipal liaison for NaNoWriMo, meaning that she has volunteered to be a coordinating hub for her region, the 270 corridor, located between Frederick and Bethesda.
Municipal liaisons are responsible for organizing NaNoWriMo related events, like the “kick-off” and “thank goodness it’s over” parties that bookend the participants’ Novembers. They’re also responsible for monitoring their region’s online forum and organizing “write-ins,” which are essentially group writing sessions in a public setting. They do all of this is in addition to writing their own novels.
As a NaNoWriMo veteran in her 11th year, Hartman DiSanto has found that its more than just the writing itself that makes the event worthwhile. “Probably the best part of the NaNoWriMo experience is the people,” she said. “We’ve formed an interesting core group of writers in the Rockville area and meet year-round. Members of our group have moved away and are now living in Oregon, California, Texas and North Carolina but have elected to remain on the mailing list and meet up with us whenever they visit the area.”
That emphasis on community has been brought to the University of Maryland with the creation of the Novel Writers’ Support Group, now in its second year.
“The original intent was that it would be write-ins, it would be games, our own little NaNoWriMo community, all within the framework of (the University of) Maryland, but it sort of exploded from there,” said Abigail Stone, the founder of the club and one-time NaNoWriMo winner.
The group has since evolved and now, in addition to being a NaNoWriMo resource, it offers an opportunity to have papers edited by peers, a literary classics book club and several writing games that help to develop outlines for plot and character development for works not necessarily related to the writing challenge.
“I think that having at least a few friends who are writers definitely helps because we can do it as a group and push each other,” Winner said. “It is really nice to be in an environment where the sort of craziness is supported rather than frowned upon.”
Perhaps craziness is the best way to describe a month long writing binge that yields no official reward; except for those 100 plus NaNoWriMo novels that have been published, like New York Times number one Bestseller Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
“The members of our group are at different stages in writing careers, from ‘never plan to show anyone what I write’ to having sold works for publication,” Hartman DiSanto said. “The support is invaluable and has encouraged me to keep writing and to take it to the next level. Even if I have not yet been published, I can claim the title of ‘author.’”