Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s an initiative invented by Chris Baty, a wacky Berkeley guy. When I interviewed him for Oakland Magazine, he said, among many witty things, “In every group of friends, there’s someone who says, ‘Let’s dress up like donkeys and go down Market Street.’ I’m that guy.” After that, I knew I had to participate in Nanowrimo myself.
In essence, each November 1, thousands of people around the world drop everything and try to write a novel—well, at least 50,000 words—by Nov. 30.
There’s a supportive, cheerful website that fuels the whole endeavour, www.nanowrimo.org. You sign up for free, and once the month begins, you are able to update your word count (obsessively, in my case) in a display next to your name/photo. Your page includes a bar graph showing your progress and the expected progress, and your statistics show you the date you can expect to finish if you continue at the same rate. You can add buddies and track their progress too. You can attend local write-ins, where you meet up with other nanos and write together; I went to one with a group that wanted to talk rather than write, but I really liked the concept anyway. At the end of the month, you cut and paste your novel into a little text box, and within seconds your word count is verified and you’re announced a “winner.”
If you hit 50K words, that is.
And it’s….really….just not that….easy.
To hit 50K words in 30 days, you must write 1,667 words per day. That’s about six double-spaced pages. For me, six pages represents not just a good writing day, but a great writing day. And therefore, during November, you must have a great writing day every day. That’s hard.
Right away, I felt overwhelmed. By Day One, I was already behind. By Day Two, I was thousands of words behind. By Day Three, I thought, “I might not be able to do this.”
On either Day Four or Five, I invested in myself. I parked the children at a drop-in daycare center and hied myself to a café. There I worked for 1.5 hours, writing steadily, then walked down the length of the little strip mall to a taqueria, where I spent the next 1.5 hours, again writing steadily. In three hours, I wrote 5,000 words. That was enough to almost catch me up. Not quite, but enough to feel like I was in the running again.
My month continued like that. Days where my word count was abysmal, and then days when I would write hell for leather and almost catch up. “Almost” being the key word. I kept watching that darn diagonal line in my bar graph and trying to reach it.
I came up with a few strategies to up my word count:
1. If your sentences are excessively wordy, great! Don’t fix them. Plenty of time to do that on Draft 2. Just let them stand. Every word counts in Nanowrimo.
2. Find some kind of gimmick to up the word count. My novel is set in Ireland so I hit on the idea of including characters from some of the fantastic Irish ballads. Nancy Spain? Why yes, there she is on page 125, trying to hawk her ring. The Star of the County Down? That pretty lady appears too.
3. Try writing from another character’s point of view. All along, my novel was written first person. When I decided to write a few scenes from another character in third person, suddenly pages came pouring out of me, and I had a couple of 2K word days. I think those scenes enrich the book and they’ll stay.
By the last week of Nano, I was exuberant. I knew I could make it. I had to stay up to midnight to do it (my target bedtime is 9:30, wild life, right?) and I’m still reeling from that. But it was worth it. It was just one month out of the year, and I threw myself into a project with a zeal that has previously only come from doing writing retreats where I was by myself and someone else fed, sheltered and studio’d me.
Nanowrimo will certainly humble you if you can’t make space in your life to achieve that “ridiculous” (Chris Baty’s word) word count. A good friend’s father went into the hospital this November and she had to suspend her nano writing or I know she would have made it (yes, he’s fine!). It’s fun, zany, serious, debilitating, exhilarating, all-consuming. Thanks, Chris Baty, for a fantastic month.
What about you? Are you on board for next year?
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