Novelizing with the best of them

Ah, November. The Halloween decorations have begun their slow descent from rooftops and front lawns as turkeys take over, the friendly fall breezes have developed a distinct chill, stores have already started to break out the holiday decorations ahead of schedule, and suddenly a chunk of the English department and a handful of students passionate about writing have dropped off the face of the planet for a month.

Wait, what about that last one?

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, a writing contest sponsored by the nonprofit organization Office of Letters and Light, has just kicked off its 10th run this Saturday as a record number of aspiring writers started their 50,000-word novels and girded themselves for the month ahead. The contest, which has now developed into a world-wide extravaganza, boasts over 100,000 writers this year, one more phenomenon created by Internet popularity and writers’ communities, both online and offline.

NaNoWriMo, for all its fanfare and hype, has humble roots. Originally begun in 1999 by Chris Baty, a freelance writer and now NaNoWriMo’s director, the contest sported a measly 21 writers. However, in the years since that, it has slowly grown into a month-long test of will, entrancing preteens, middle-aged office workers, stay-at-home moms, and everyone else in between.

With a goal of 50,000 words, about 175 pages of material, winning the contest won’t be an easy task. In order to stay on top of their demanding word count, participants will need to write an average of 1660 words a day for each day of the month. Understandably, November has a reputation for being a busy month: studying for exams, handing in big term papers, finishing projects, and the other responsibilities of life, all of which will likely detract from novel-writing time.

Still, the contest managers have even come up with a solution to that. Pep talks from various well-known novelists (including Neil Gaiman and Piers Anthony, for starters) have been posted on the site and sent to writers to help them along through the month’s slog and let them know that they’re not alone in their efforts.

It might come as a surprise that the novels written during the contest probably won’t be read by the general public, let alone the contest’s producers, and most likely won’t make it past their respective writers’ close family, friends, and writing circles (if that). Of the thousands that write, only around 18 percent end up finishing their works. Most of those, with a very small number of exceptions, won’t go on to be published, but will instead remain dormant on hard drives and bookshelves. Why, then, do people go through such a demanding effort to produce them in the first place? What’s the reward?

Chris Baty offered an answer: “The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creative potential like nothing else,” he stated, himself a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner. It’s by no means an easy feat, but certainly something worthy of commendation.

With the contest just barely started, there’s still time for people to sign up and give novel-writing a go. NaNoWriMo accepts late registrations until the very last day of November, for those who wish to write under the gun. However, it’s not advantageous to wait too long. After all, those 1660 words a day add up.

“Please get at least 3000 words under your belt by the end of this weekend,” Baty playfully encouraged writers online. “I don’t want to hear any excuses about having to recover from wild Halloween parties.”

With the massive community of writers online, the NaNoWriMo forums might seem a little overwhelming at first. Newly joined novelists should be aware that various regions of the country (and the world, for that matter) have set up their own writing groups and will be holding “write-ins” throughout the month. The Pittsburgh NaNoWriMo group, for example, just met this Sunday at Fuel & Fuddle in Oakland for camaraderie and literary support as they begin their first week of writing.

At the end of the month, when all is said and (hopefully, at last) done, writers will have the satisfaction that they finished something significant. They’ll hold the completed sheaf of those 50,000 words in hard-copy form in their hands, a very literal weight of their accomplishment, and will return triumphantly back to the ranks of normalcy.

And, at the very least, it puts all that leftover print quota to good use.