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NaNoWriMo explained: Why hundreds of thousands of people are writing novels this month

NaNoWriMo is a month devoted to writing for pleasure.
NaNoWriMo is a month devoted to writing for pleasure.
Shutterstock

For the entire month of November, the term NaNoWriMo will be trending on Twitter and floating throughout the internet. A friend might utter this combination of syllables to you to explain why they can't go out. "Oh, I've gotta work on my NaNoWriMo submission," they might say, leaving you puzzled.

So what is it? The acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month. It represents an annual quest embarked upon by thousands of people around the world who pledge to try to write a novel in a single month of just 30 days.

The organization is part personal fulfillment, part literary ambition, and part religious devotion. Here's everything you need to know to understand this month of furious writing.

1) What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is an annual celebration and challenge for people who want to commit to writing things. As mentioned, the goal of National Novel Writing Month is to write a novel in a single 30-day period.  It's a non-exclusive event, so anyone who is willing to make the commitment can participate by signing up at NaNoWriMo.org and writing 50,000 words in a single month. The tagline for the organization is "The world needs your novel." (Whether it actually does is debatable, but that's a good thing to tell yourself when seeking motivation.)

2)When did NaNoWriMo start?

Chris Baty founded the program in 1999 with a group of 21  writers in the San Francisco Bay area. In their second year, 140 people joined their quest. In that year, Baty set up the three ground rules for the competition: 1) the writing project must be new instead of something previously started; 2) it has to be written by a single person; and 3) it has to be finished by midnight on November 30.

The community around the program grew: launching a website, creating message boards, and founding "write-in" events for people to attend in order to catch up on their writing in long binges. Last year, more than 400,000 people participated.

3) What are the goals of this program?

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A woman writes on her computer (Shutterstock)

The only concrete goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words of fiction that presumably becomes a novel. (You can write a short story collection or non-fiction or something else. But then you're deemed a "rebel.")

Broken down over the month of November, this means that writers have to pen 1,667 words on average per day, or about three single spaced pages in Microsoft Word. Even if someone started their NaNoWriMo book a week into the month — like, say, today — they would still only need to average 2,500 words a day (or about one-and-two-thirds copies of this article).

"NaNoWriMo gave me an excuse to not care about how good the writing was, and just to sit down and write something," Zachary Ricks, a municipal liaison for the Austin, Texas NaNoWriMo group told me, "It's really the only way to finish that first draft. You can't care about how good it is. You just have to keep writing, and NaNo reminds me of that every year.​ It's been a great outlet."

4) How long is 50,000 words, actually?

50,000 words is actually pretty short. 40,000 words is generally considered to be a novella, and most published novels are longer — often much longer. The average novel length, according to Amazon's Text Stats feature, is close to 64,000 words.

Here are a few famous novels close to 50,000 words:

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald  (50,061)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (47,192)
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (46,333)
  • The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks  (52,000)

5) Do you get a prize for finishing?

Sort of! The biggest prize for finishing NaNoWriMo is the satisfaction one gains by finishing something that seemed big and impossible. If a writer reaches the 50,000 word mark and verifies their word count on the organization's site, they get two paperback copies of their work for free, and several subscriptions to various writing softwares. Mostly, winners get bragging rights.

6) Have any NaNoWriMo books been published?

Yes! Many NaNoWriMo projects after heavy revision and rewriting are published as novels in traditional and electronic formats. Some of the most acclaimed NaNoWriMo books include:

  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • Entrechats by Cecile Duquenne

7) Is it just about writing a book?

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The stereotypical writing lair. (Shutterstock)

No. What makes NaNoWriMo different from simply sitting in a quiet room and pledging to write a first draft of a novel is that joining NaNoWriMo places a writer inside a community of other people all trying to do the same thing. The national program hosts several online "write-ins" and a couple of bigger events, but local chapters of the program are more active, putting on in-person events to kick-off and close-out the month, as well as several events to take place throughout November.

As a municipal liaison, Ricks plans and schedules many of the events for the Austin area. "[NaNoWriMo has] been a good way to make connections here in the area with other writers, and gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with professional authors," he told me.

8) Why is NaNoWriMo controversial?

When 400,000 people are writing a novel in a single month, their collective chatter about their work grows into an audible roar.  Many people participating in NaNoWriMo have no formal writing experience or training, which means that — at times — the questions they raise seem rather banal to more experienced writers. They are perfectly legitimate questions, but ones that are easy to parody and make fun of.

Some of these jokes have taken hold on the internet. There are Tumblrs that call out the bad and the horrifying from the forums on the site, and there are numerous parody Twitter accounts.

The twitter feed @nanowrimo_txt parodies some of the absurd things said in the NaNoWriMo forums. Because she did not want to reveal her NaNoWriMo screen name, she communicated with me through her twitter handle."I started the account mostly because of the Research Desk forums — people asking questions easily googled, or the dozens of threads about people who would say 'I need to write about Place/Subject, but I know nothing about Place/Subject! Help!,'" she told me.

But she also noted that "Despite the premise of the account, I don't actually dislike (most) Nano participants. It's great for people getting interested in writing, and the enthusiasm and passion can even get a crusty jerk like me excited about participating."

It can be all too easy to look down on NaNoWriMo as a silly, unimportant action that could never possibly come to anything. But what's easy to forget is that it is sometimes the silly, unimportant things that are the best for us as human beings — whether or not we manage to write the Next Great American Novel. And though there are plenty of participants who take part just to see if they can do it or figure out how to be writers, there are plenty more who understand what they will get out of the process will be a messy first draft that will need further work.

9) Isn't it offensive to the craft of writing to think you can write a novel in a month?

There is a group of people who would certainly say so. NaNoWriMo participants have a reputation for being entitled, loud, and mildly disrespectful of traditional methods of novel writing, which often involve a lot of thoughtful contemplation, rather than manic speed writing.

Yet many great books evolved out of drafts written in a single month. Like any form of art, different types of work take different amounts of time. There is nothing keeping a NaNoWriMo writer from creating a beautiful, funny, or even bestselling work of fiction.

Not every writer can afford to live up to the romanticized ideal of the novelist, sitting in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village, smoking camels and writing in long-hand on a desk beneath a plaque holding an expensive college diploma. We are not all Hemingway, and we shouldn't try to be.

But everyone can afford to be a NaNoWriMo participant because it's free, and 1,667 words of your first draft can be written after dinner, or after the kids have been put to sleep, or in the spare moments of a hectic lifestyle. As NPR's Linda Holmes said last year, NaNoWriMo forces you to take time to do something you've maybe wanted to do for ages. And that's valuable.

"You can't care about how good it is," Ricks told me, "you just have to keep writing, and NaNo reminds me of that every year."

10) Is it too late for me to join this year?

Nope! You can sign up at the website today. But remember you'll have to stick to a 2,500 words per day rate to finish.

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