Saturday, 7 November 2009

National Novel Writing Month

For those of you who don't know, November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. It is essentially a month long, writing project in which participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in only thirty days. While it is still called "National Novel Writing Month," it has truly become international in scope. Many people from many nations now participate.

NaNoWriMo was started in July 1999 by writer Chris Baty. That first year it had only twenty one participants, all of them in the San Francisco Bay area. Since that time it has grown considerably. By 2000 it had its own website, as well as a Yahoo Group for discussions. The number of participants that year had grown to 140. It was also moved to November,  with the idea that the more miserable weather would be more inclined to novel writing (hating summer as I do, I would argue with that idea....). It was in 2001 that NaNoWriMo really took off. Expecting only 150 participants, Chris Baty suddenly found 5000 people had signed up to his creative writing project. It must be kept in mind that at this time NaNoWriMo did not have an automated system for signing up, so that Chris Baty and several volunteers had to register participants by hand! Since then NaNoWriMo has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2002 it actually received coverage from both National Public Radio and CBS News. In 2005 59,703 people participated. In 2006 101,767 did.

National Novel Writing Month only has a few rules in order to "win" the project. The first is simply that one must write a 50,000 word novel from November 1 to November 30. The second is that the novel must be written from scratch. While one can create plot outlines, create character sketches, and perform research all before November 1, any actual writing cannot begin before that date. Third, the work must be a novel--a lengthy work of fiction. Third, one must be the sole author of his or her novel. Co-authored works are not allowed. Fourth, one cannot simply repeat the same word 50,000 times and win. Fifth, one must upload his or her novel to validate that it is 50,000 words or more. Here I must point out that there are no prizes beyond the satisfaction of completing a novel in one month. I must also point out that quality does matter for NaNoWriMo. All that matter is that the novel is written in thirty days or less and exceeds 50,000 words.

For those who are thinking that 50,000 words seems to scant too qualify as a novel, I must point out that a work of fiction need only be 40,000 words to be considered a novel (anything under 40,000 but above 17,500 is a novella, anything below 17,500, well, you get the picture).. Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 only has a count of 46,118 words. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five only has 49,459 words. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby only weighs in at 50,061 words. All three of these works are considered novels, and yet only one of them has more than 50,000 words (and only a tad more at that).

Here I must point out that it is possible to write a novel, even a good novel in a month or less. The writers of the old pulp magazines actually did it on a monthly basis. Two of my idols, Lester Dent (who wrote the bulk of the Doc Savage novels) and Norvell Page (who wrote the bulk of The Spider novels) did this for literally years, and the majority of their works are quite readable. Ian Fleming wrote his first novel and the first novel starring James Bond, Casino Royale, in only around four weeks. While the emphasis for National Novel Writing Month is on quantity rather than quality--one simply has to get a novel out in 30 days, not necessarily a good one--it is possible to write something publishable in that time frame.

While I had heard of National Novel Writing Month several years ago, this is my first year participating in it. Here I must give credit to fellow writer, A Cat of Impossible Colour for alerting me to it on Twitter (otherwise I would have forgotten it until, oh, November 30....). For me NaNoWriMo is a chance to sharpen my writing skills. For those of you who don't know, while I am a published writer of nonfiction articles (and, of course, this blog), I have always wanted to be a published writer of fiction. While in my twenties I even wrote my first, unpublished novel (which will forever remain unpublished). After a lapse of  many years during which time making a living took precedence over writing, I decided once more to try my hand at fiction. I developed a concept for a novel and started on it this summer. It was then that I learned I was a bit rusty. NaNoWriMo is then a chance for me to sharpen my skills. Of course, as per the rules, I am writing a wholly original novel  for NaNoWriMo and not the one upon which I had been working.

Because of the time restraint, I am having to approach my NaNoWriMo novel a bit differently than anything I've written before. I did not even think of a concept for a novel that could be written in thirty days until November 1 was nearly upon me. This means that I could not develop a plot outline as I have for every short story I've written, the novel I'd written, or the novel I was writing. It also means that I had little time to do research ( my novel is set in England in 1654). I then find myself letting the plot develop as I write and not really worrying about too many historical inaccuracies (fortunately, I do have some knowledge of Cromwellian England). The biggest hurdle for me is finding time to write. I work five days a week, forty hours a week. This leaves very little time in which I can write even a thousand words a day, let alone the average of 1,666 words a day I  must write to reach 50,000 before November 30. I am finding now that I am having to play "catch up" on the weekends.

Regardless, NaNoWriMo is proving enjoyable. It is a bit of a challenge to actually produce a novel, even one that's not very good, in thirty days. I wholly recommend NaNoWriMo to anyone who is interested in writing fiction (although I think it would be a bit late to start now). And who knows? If Ian Fleming could start an entire franchise with a novel he wrote in a month, then maybe I could too?


Sebina C. said...

A huge project for sure - I hope you are enjoying the process and that you'll be able to complete it too, even considering the workload in the weekdays...

Juli Ryan said...

Thanks for pointing out that The Great Gatsby was just over 50,000 words. Incredible!