ADVENTURES IN NaNoWriMo LAND

By Brian Kaufman

In 1999, freelance writer Chris Baty started National Novel Writing Month, gathering 21 San Francisco participants to attempt a singular goal—to write a novel in one month. Having realized the limitations of a July event, Baty moved the second year’s festivities to November to “take advantage of the miserable weather.” The second go-around gathered 140 participants, 29 of whom completed a novel. 



It’s not about the fancy fix.


By the third year, 5,000 participants had registered. By 2015, the event had become an Internet sensation, drawing over 400,000 participants, 40,000 of whom completed a 50,000-word novel. The website (nanowrimo.org) boasts 367,913 books completed since its founding (one of which is mine).

More than 400 of the completed novels have been published. Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants and The Persistence of Memory by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes are two examples. 

However, NaNoWriMo is not for everyone or every project. What sort of writer (and what sort of project) is a good fit for a single month of manic writing? My own adventures in NaNoWriMo Land left me with a mountain of questions.

I signed up for the NaNoWriMo challenge the first time I heard of it. I’d already published a book, but it had taken me five years to research and write. Finishing another book in a month sounded pretty good. Besides, if you knew other “contestants,” you could “friend” them and compare notes, sending “I kicked your ass” messages. I even roped writer friends into joining the challenge—more winning for me.

National Novel Writing Month introduces the element of competition in book writing and achieving high word count goals . . .

~A.L. Mengel, author of Ballet of the Crypt Dancer

People who hold actual conversations with me know that I tend to drone on—a tendency I strive to edit out of my writing. But this was NaNoWriMo! I could wax eloquent as much as I pleased. I felt the project should match the method, so I wrote a modern Gothic. The rigid, linear narrative fits my new “throw it on the page and move on” work routine. I finished with a few days to spare, retaining every convoluted sentence I wrote.

There’s an old folk saying: whenever you delete a sentence from your NaNoWriMo novel, a NaNoWriMo angel loses its wings and plummets, screaming, to the ground. Where it will likely require medical attention.

~Chris Baty


Later, I took an axe to the bloat, finishing with a publishable novella rather than a novel. No prizes were involved. I received congratulatory notes from the administrators for “winning” the challenge—and requests for donations in the name of my victory. Did I mention that NaNoWriMo is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization? They sponsor the Young Writers Program, which aids creative writing in the classroom for children in grades K through 12 with curriculum and teaching tools. Good cause.

I took my time on another November go-around, initiating what later became a more organic work process. I let the story grow at its own pace. I not only didn’t win, I only managed just 15,000 words. But they were good words.

Having dipped my toes in the frenetic waters of NaNoWriMo, I have some observations to share:

  • First-time novelists often worry about finishing a novel. How can you keep the whole project in your head and get it down on the page over an extended time? You can’t, of course. But NaNoWriMo won’t allow you time to worry about such things.

  • Some writers procrastinate. (Almost impossible to believe, but it’s so.) I’m a slovenly writer and need writer’s groups and deadlines to keep my fingers moving. NaNoWriMo is a writer’s second-best inducement (the best being a contract and an advance that might be revoked).

  • You can overdo it. I have a great friend who finished the challenge in just thirteen days—and then found himself sick of writing for a while.

  • Some genres work better for this kind of writing. Linear narratives are less likely to run away from you. Thrillers might benefit from the ticking clock of the calendar. 

  • You will likely turn off your internal editor. I did. This is good for building a word count and not so good for writing a quality novel. But a net gain may be involved if your inner editor is a bully.

  • They don’t bottle and sell “focus” at the grocery store. NaNoWriMo may be as close as you can get.

I would add that self-knowledge is priceless. By participating, you may learn that NaNoWriMo is not for you. I did. But I took that knowledge and turned it into a different process; slovenly or not, I write a lot of pages.

Suppose you intend to take the plunge. Preparation is advised. Some writers are discovery writers—they set up a situation and then see what happens. Other writers need to know as much as possible before they tackle a novel. The latter has even more reason to be ready to write on November 1st.

How should you prepare? According to the folks at NaNoWriMo:

  • Develop a story idea
  • Create compelling characters
  • Construct a detailed plot or outline
  • Build a strong world
  • Organize your life for a month of writing 
  • Learn to manage your time

In fact, NaNoWriMo prepared a preparation handbook. Download it at https://nanowrimo.org/nano-prep-101.

One last note. You’re not alone. Others will join you in the struggle to write 1,667 words per day. Encouragement comes from both the organization and from other participants. Writing is a solitary endeavor. A touch of community helps. Keep the faith.



Wait, that’s your idea? That’s your expert advice? You’re going to tell these novelists to just keep going? You’re going to tell these honest, earnest writers: You gotta have faith? Those are George Michael lyrics, asshole. They could just hang out inside a mall elevator if they wanted that pep talk.

~Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove

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