How we spend October 31 can say a lot about us as people. Some of us hand out candy from the front porch. Some of us go wild and hit the town in costume. Some of us go about our day business as usual. And some of us stay up until midnight, furiously outlining the 50,000-word novel we'll start writing when the clock strikes.
Ask anyone in the last group why this is, and they might reply, in varying states of dazedness, elation or exhaustion, "NaNo." It's not a Mork & Mindy reference—it's National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. The gist of the project is not to produce a perfectly formed story in 30 days, but to create a messy, sprawling, often terrible first draft that you can either edit when you can stomach looking at it again, or simply use as bragging rights for having finished a novel. To achieve the minimum word count by the end of the month means writing 1,667 words a day, a number to which anyone who has participated probably has some visceral reaction.
Your approximately 1,700 words translate to three or four typed pages daily. My favorite method is to write three pages longhand on notebook paper; when I type that up, I inevitably add more words, and can generally make the per diem requirement. (I wouldn't say I'm old hat at NaNo: I've participated on and off since about 2004, and have actually "won" twice. But you learn as much from the struggle as you do from the victory, as anyone who's ever trained for a race can probably tell you too!)
NaNo exacts a toll, I'm not going to lie: my family has long since come to terms with my insistence that I get a couple hours alone in my room during Thanksgiving so I can finish my day's words, and social outings throughout November involve a lot of give and take (and sleepless nights or very early mornings). But if you're the kind of person for whom writing, for all the anguish, rage and self-doubt it can cause, is the thing that makes you feel most alive, NaNo is your marathon, your delirious month of living and breathing story and words, along with hundreds of thousands of other people who have given themselves permission to do the same for thirty days.
The community of NaNo is a life-saver, by the way. Writing a novel alone is hard enough, but there's something awesome about doing it at the same time as other people the world over. Advice and help come from all corners of the internet, though this year's favorite might wind up being the inevitable Fake NaNoWriMo Tips Twitter account (I promise the jokes are hilarious if you've ever tried to write a story or read a writing blog). NaNo also has an extensive system of local meet-ups in place, with communal writing parties at coffee shops, libraries and other spots. And if you're signed up for the official newsletter, every week you get encouragement and words of wisdom from authors you admire—nifty, right?
Some people use NaNo for that great idea they've been nursing for years but never acted on; others go full-bore silly (mine this year involves werewolves, though they're not sexy werewolves, so perhaps this one isn't destined to sell). Every possible genre you can think of (and many, I mean many, that you have not) has some representation, and while literary agents are famously leery of NaNo (December becomes an avalanche of unedited manuscripts in the slush pile), some books you've heard of, including The Night Circus and Water for Elephants, started out in 1700-word-a-day chunks.
Even if you don't "win" or finish your novel, the benefits of NaNo are quite tangible. For me, it does a great job of killing my fear of the blank page. Your first draft doesn't have to be good, it just has to begin. You learn to go with your first instinct and just plow ahead, because you can always change it later, and you might even surprise yourself when you stray from your own script. That's not just useful for novel-writers, that's a good skill for anyone who relies on words for a living.
November 30 can be a strange time for a NaNo participant. It often feels like the following, if you're on the verge of passing 50K:
Your story may have devolved into sputtering nonsense, or you may be on such a roll that you clear your last 8K in a single sitting (the two are not mutually exclusive). Both deserve a good round of celebratory beat-boxing. If this sounds even remotely intriguing or appealing, why not sign up and see for yourself? As for me, maybe this whole novel thing can be some sort of meta-examination of NaNoWriMo (and werewolves)—you think I can count this article toward my daily total?
Catch you on the flip side, Oy!sters—if you're writing a novel this month, break a leg (or maybe some pencils), and tell us about it in the comments!