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That'll Always Be The Dream: National Novel Writing Month

Hands on a typewriter

Did you know November is National Novel Writing Month?

It isn't by order of Congress, but it is on the internet, where you'll see this combination of letters — NaNoWriMo — all over the place, making absolutely no sense and sounding to the uninitiated like a species of caterpillar or a ship on Star Trek. Amusingly enough, even that is too long for participants trying to pound out a book in a month, so they call it, very often, "NaNo."

The marquee project of a nonprofit of the same name (one that "proudly displays an oil painting of Tom Selleck"), NaNo encourages people to spend the month of November on a mad writing sprint designed to let them write a novel in one month. (Or, given that the word count target is 50,000, perhaps a novella.) If you finish your 50,000 words (and submit them through the site for counting, though they continue to be yours), you're declared a "winner." In 1999, there were 21 participants and six winners. In 2012, there were 341,375 participants and 38,438 winners. The web site currently lists 267,884 participants this year, and presumably, they're still signing up.

It might seem unlikely that anything hatched under such a wacky scheme would turn into a real book, but NaNo is not without its real live successes: Rainbow Rowell's latest, Fangirl, was her NaNo project a couple of years back. Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants was a NaNo project, and so was Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Morgenstern wrote about NaNo for NPR in 2011, making the point that the month of November was certainly not enough to create a novel; it was about "exploring and making things up," and those things later — after two more years of Novembers — became a book.

After all, there's no shortcut to the work it takes to write a real novel, but by the time many writers reach adulthood, they've got twenty first chapters sitting in drawers, unfinished ideas that fell victim to other commitments or inertia or day jobs or lack of confidence or impatience.

(So I've heard.)

The idea of NaNo, really, is not just the doing of it, but the saying of the doing of it. The web site will connect you to other people in your area who are holding "write-ins," group meetings to sit and work on your book. The ones in my area, the site says, are at places like public libraries or bookstores or Panera. It's a time when people commit to a set of completely arbitrary rules — you can have an outline ahead of time, but no writing done; you can "win" with 50,000 words even if your novel isn't finished; you are at the mercy of NaNo's word counter, no matter what yours may say — in return for having an excuse to do what they want to do anyway.

The NaNo forums are a delirious mess: people helping each other name characters, sharing success stories, posting their soundtracks. In some cases, it must be said, they are doing everything except writing. You can find communities where people are in the same age group you are, writing in the same genre you are, or writing in the same circumstances you are. Some forums are more active than others; as of this writing, there are 1400 posts in Literary Fiction and 14,161 posts in Fantasy. Talk about your writing! Talk about your process! Talk about your title!

Of course, for all that rigidity and determination, only about 11 percent of last year's participants, by my math, were "winners."

And this is where I tell you my sad story.

Some of you remember that last year at around this time — one year ago tomorrow, in fact — my apartment unexpectedly filled with water because the sprinklers in a nearby boiler room decided that four in the morning was as good a time as any to turn themselves on for no reason, and by the time I woke up, I was roughly an inch deep in water. A surprisingly disruptive event, it had me out of my apartment for something like 10 days, during which I was largely focused on drying my stuff, finding an alternate place to stay, and waiting for a bunch of giant fans to do their thing.

That's at least part of why I was in the 341,375, but not in the 38,438. "Ah," you say, "but if you were really committed, you'd have written on a notepad while sitting on the curb waiting for the drying equipment! You'd have incorporated a whimsical tale about damp socks, because everything is inspiration!"

Right, of course. But 50,000 words is a lot to write when you have a job, and dishes, and laundry, and things to do. And your momentum is interrupted, and something else comes up, and everything else is more important, and then when are you going to get back to it? You have to work, move, paint, go to the dentist, file something, mail something, call somebody.

Well, you can see why they invented this project in the first place, right? It's not that you can really finish a good novel in a month; it's that you can spare a month when this is what you think about. Work a little less, go out a little less, order in a little more, let the laundry pile up. The month is chosen not because it's long enough for the project, but because it's short enough for your life.

So when you see people at Starbucks or the library hunched over baby-name books or fussing with the perfect playlist to write a mystery by, just remember that they may be a little in the way for the next few weeks, but then they'll be mostly in over their heads, same as we all are, for another 11 months.

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