It’s been said that everyone has a story in them, but anyone who’s ever attempted to put pen to paper — be it a poem, an academic paper or a novel — understands what it means to face the blank page. No matter how many times one has stared down the whiteout of its nothingness and risen to the challenge, the trepidation is always there — the fear that the ideas may not manifest, and even if they do, the words may not follow. If the writing process is such a painful exercise, why do so many people attempt it? And who would actually volunteer to write 1,667 words per day with the goal of completing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, without the promise of a monetary reward or even a cookie?
For the hundreds of thousands of borderline masochists from around the world who signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year, the dangling carrot is nothing more than . . . completion. Succeeding at stringing together 50,000 words in some sort of narrative (loose or otherwise), in one month, is its own reward. The NaNoWriMo winner’s certificate is pretty neat, too.
The contest gives many of these aspiring novelists that kick in the behind — aka a deadline — they need to break through their blocks and git ’er done, even if doing so in such a compact time frame has them trading their coffee cups for whiskey flasks. While some participants hope to actually be published at some point as fellow “NaNovelist” Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) was, in the spirit of the creator’s original intent, many are simply avid readers looking for a challenge.
NaNoWriMo started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 with 21 participants and six winners. It was basically a group of friends with nothing better to do. As it is explained in the press materials: “We wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise.” The project gradually caught on, gained nonprofit status and spawned geographic communities, such as the Ventura County group, where NaNovelists can support one another, share the agony and meet face to face or through online forums.
Laura Dunlap, 24, who lives in Oxnard, has already written one novel apart from NaNoWriMo, but has wanted to participate in the contest for some time. The magna cum laude CSUCI graduate with a bachelor’s in English is taking a year off before beginning graduate school, so it seemed like the right time to give it her best shot. It took five months to complete her 65,000-word first novel. Writing only 1,500 words fewer in one-fifth the time is a formidable challenge, but while her first attempt was totally off the cuff, advance preparation this time around will be her saving grace. “This is going to be the one I send to an agent,” she said. “I spent two months outlining it.”
Dunlap is following NaNoWriMo’s suggestion to write every day. Though some days are more productive than others, she understands, as most writers do, that a disciplined writing routine is mandatory for success. “It really pushes me to produce something, but I’m trying not to just produce words — my goal is something I can look at and be proud of.”
The idea of just slapping a series of words together without attention to plot, character development or revision, which Dunlap is avoiding, is actually part of the NaNoWriMo “seat-of-your-pants” approach. To wit: “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.” This sort of punk rock, no-need-to-learn-your-instrument ethic, which is outlined on the website, is not without critics, most recently Salon.com co-founder Laura Miller, who penned a mean-spirited if humorous essay about the annual contest. “Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it’s likely to produce more novels I’d want to read,” she hissed. And she went on to suggest that time might be better spent inspiring people to read the mountains of already published books rather than attempting to write more.
Thousand Oaks resident, Joyce Sully has participated in NaNoWriMo annually since 2004 and takes some offense at Miller’s sentiments. “Even writing a bad book gives one a new appreciation for how a good one works,” she says. “This writing thing is tough; any NaNovelist can tell you that. And the production of fiction promotes the consumption of fiction. We get bitten by the story bug.”
This year, Sully is challenging herself to exceed the contest’s minimum word count by 25,000. “In the past, it has been very disappointing to hit 50,000 and, Dec. 1, realize I am nowhere close to having a finished story,” she explains. Her first attempt yielded a disappointing 13,000 words, but she made the count each subsequent year. The second year, an injury forced her to quit just before Thanksgiving, but at the last minute she managed to conjure “several days of unbelievable word counts.” Unable to walk without crutches and facing surgery, her spirits were low, but when she downloaded the winner’s certificate just before midnight, she said, she felt “invincible.”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks seems to be boredom with the narrative itself. Having experienced this first-hand, organizers have enlisted well-known contemporary authors, including Dave Eggers, Aimee Bender, Lemony Snicket and Mercedes Lackey, to write pep talks that are sent to participants throughout the month.
“A lot of the struggles come in staying motivated,” says Moorpark resident Sarah Nelson, “especially when real life intrudes.” But she finds having a month dedicated to writing to be “incredibly effective.” With four NaNoWriMo contests already under her belt, she’s not letting anything get in the way of reaching the finish line. “I’ve been busy trying to move out of my parents’ house, and that’s been taking all of my focus and concentration. I don’t plan on letting this year be the first that I don’t complete 50,000 by Nov. 30, though.” The best part for her is getting to “play around in my own fictional sandbox,” she says. “That’s the thing that keeps me coming back. It’s wonderful to have the time to carve out moments of sheer, unbridled creation, and having a month dedicated to the endeavor of making something is a powerful motivator.”
To learn more about NaNoWriMo, visit www.nanowrimo.org.