The romantic image of penning a novel is that of a writer dreamily spending his days in a coffee shop creating his next bestseller. The reality is writer’s block, the feeling of isolation and repetitive strain injury. Most of this, however, is tempered with the knowledge that there is usually plenty of time to complete the book and that it will, with some luck, be good.
But if you take out the words ‘time’ and ‘good’ from the equation and replace them with 30 days of frantic, sloppy and plain bad work you’ve just described NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a writing competition that challenges people to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.
Venturing to write book in 30 days may seem like a futile undertaking, but there are around 150,000 budding novelists who would disagree. They are the participants who have signed up to take part in the writing extravaganza that is the brainchild of freelance writer, Chris Baty. The competition began in 1999 with a mere 21 participants – today it is run by the non-profit organisation The Office of Letters and Light and has cemented its status as the world’s biggest writing competition, with participants spanning over 90 countries from the USA to India. There are no judges, no prizes, save for the certificate confirming you as a ‘winner’, and all of the winning manuscripts are deleted from the system.
‘What we’re really trying to do is get folks to set aside their perfectionist tendencies and make time to create. You can edit a bad first draft into a great book. You can’t edit a blank page into anything but a blank page.’
So, what’s the incentive for taking part? According to Baty it’s ‘just crazy amounts of fun’. Crazy – yes – fun? Unlikely when you find you’ve written yourself into a literary black hole with just a few weeks to get out of it, but Baty says that the drive for people to take part is varied and the reward for getting involved is unique to the individual, ‘For some writers, NaNoWriMo is the first step on the road to publication…for other writers, it’s just a structured opportunity to try their hand at something they’ve long wanted to do…some people take part simply because they love books and want to connect more deeply with novels they read.’
Convinced? Slogging it out alone over a mediocre novel may sound like an unappealing undertaking but NaNoWriMo participants work just as hard to alleviate the boredom as they do to finish their book. For many part of the draw of the competition is connecting with other authors. The forums begin to buzz in October with people eager for the writing frenzy to begin. Meet-ups and write-ins (a writing lockdown where participants gather to complete the days word count come hell or high water) are organised in advance and the kick off party on Halloween night brings together creative compatriots who are all ready to toss work and family aside for the ensuing month.
Inevitably, there comes a point at which creative fatigue sets in – plot twists run dry and tedious characters plague the narrative. To combat writers block Baty suggests consuming ‘mega-doses of chocolate’ and to also stop striving for perfection. The only aspiration at this point, the only guiding goal should be to complete the daily word count of 1666 words per day. Week two is the point at which the novelty of becoming the next Stephen King wears off and most people give up. This is when connecting with a network of fellow sufferers can act as artistic Viagra and spur competitors to the ‘finish line’. Baty estimates that around 18% of the people who sign up to take part complete the 50,000 words required to declare them a winner.
The number of words officially logged during the 2010 event was 2,872,682,109 and there were 37,500 winners. But if the competition doesn’t push a writer to produce their best work how does anyone, the author or literary world alike, benefit from having this many ‘half-baked’ novels whirling around in a literary abyss? ‘I feel like thousands of amazing books go unwritten every year because people decide they’re not good enough to write them,’ says Baty, ‘what we’re really trying to do is get folks to set aside their perfectionist tendencies and make time to create. You can edit a bad first draft into a great book. You can’t edit a blank page into anything but a blank page.’
Since the start of National Writing Novel Month around thirty-five manuscripts have made it to print, including Water For Elephants, a historical novel by Sarah Gruen, which spent 12 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List and was recently made into a Hollywood movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. In addition to this, modern technology has allowed for the publication of thousands of these novels in the less traditional form of an E-Book and tens of thousands have been self- published.
The huge success of NaNoWriMo has forced the corporate world to sit up and take notice. In 2009 and 2010 The Office of Letters and Light was awarded a $25,000 grant from Amazon.com to help fund the competition as well as The Young Writers Programme, a subsidiary of the project that was started in 2005 and which has seen almost equal success as its older sibling. And it doesn’t stop there; 2007 saw the launch of Script Frenzy an event designed to encourage people to write a movie or play in the month of April. It has since grown to become the largest scriptwriting event in the world.
But for now, the month of November will see the largest community of potential novelists hunker down to labour over a poorly thought out and shoddily executed novel. Laptops, notebooks and chocolate at the ready – let the torment begin.
NaNoWriMo runs from 1st – 30th November 2011
Contributing Writer: Ambur Beg