By the end of November, tens of thousands of writers around the world will be able to call themselves novelists. They are participants in the National Novel Writing Month, a nonprofit writing contest with the challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
Founded by Bay Area freelance writer Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo, as the contest is affectionately called, is meant to encourage writers to forego their painstaking self-critiques that prevent them from taking on a huge endeavor like a novel. The NaNoWriMo website offers a few words of encouragements and sums up their “quantity over quality” approach:
“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. “
More than 100,000 writers are participating in what is now the tenth year of the contest. Several thousand of them are expected to be declared “winners,” which just means that they will have submitted a 50,000-word manuscript by the deadline. The NaNoWriMo staff does not read any manuscripts. Instead, they encourage writers to continue working on their new novels, many of which have been sold off to publishers.
A 50,000-word novel in 30 days works out to about 1,667 words a day. For UC Davis students who are participating in the contest, their novels – and the daily word quotas – are taking over their lives.
Junior English major Jayne Wilson is teaming up with her roommate, English and communication major junior Teresa Pham, to write “Matt and Cass,” a young adult novel inspired by high school relationships and the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
“The writing gets really addicting,” Wilson said. “Every time I’m in class, I think about, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen in the next chapter?'”
Writing from the perspective of the Mathlete champion and food aficionado, Matt Wilson said that the young adult genre is a departure from her typical writing style. Pham writes the chapters from Cass’s point of view. Each writer uploads her chapter onto a blog to help keep the other updated. This process has helped them reach 40,000 words already, giving them a great chance to finish their longest work so far.
“It’s rewarding just knowing you’re making progress with something,” Wilson said. “My biggest thing has been that I start stories, I start novels, I start poems or creative nonfiction, but I never finish to the point where I can say, ‘This is done.‘”
Motivation to finish the literary marathon can come from anything, from coffee-inspired writing surges to friendly competition to meet the deadline. Senior English major Ryan Mahan challenged a friend to participate and they have pushed each other past the 40,000-word mark as of last week.
“Our word counts have been dueling back and forth throughout, but I have a secret stash of words he doesn’t know about,” Mahan said in an e-mail interview. “I plan on registering them as we’re nearing 50k and blasting past him. It’ll be glorious.“
Aside from beating his friend to the 50,000-word finish line, Mahan wanted to take on the challenge of writing a novel in between internships, school and studying for the GREs to prepare him for a career in writing.
“What finally convinced me [to participate in NaNoWriMo] was that I realized that balancing life with writing is something all writers have to manage – there are always going to be reasons not to write,” he said.
While some NaNoWriMo participants work through the night to finish their daily quotas, Mahan starts each day by making the word count, and he’s having fun doing it.
“Not only am I able to sit down and write even while not in the throes of inspiration, but I’ve been making my 6 a.m. wake-up call every day without fail,” he said. “Writing 2000 words before 9 a.m. is an exhilarating experience.“
Long-time writer and UC Davis English professor Andy Jones said that offering challenges and deadlines to writers through events like the NaNoWriMo is a good way to start writing.
“It’s an effective way to demystify as well as to kind of make the writer more comfortable with the writing process,” he said.
Jones, along Brad Henderson of the University Writing Program, is creating a similar challenge called “40 Poems and 40 Days,” which they will be presenting in February at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference.
“There are so many barriers and distractions to writing,” Jones said. “Anything that gets writers writing on a consistent basis and gets them curious about character and plots and scenes, should be encouraged.“
CHRIS RUE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.