Ready, set, write: Thousands of aspiring authors have vowed to create an entire novel in one month
One of these days you'll write that novel. How about today?
This is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, in which thousands of aspiring writers around the world (not just the nation) will write the first words of a manuscript. Their goal: 50,000 words (about 175 pages) by midnight on the 30th.
Laura le Tellier of Hebron, Conn., has ''won" -- achieved the 50,000-word mark -- twice, and is planning a third novel. She remembers sitting down to write on Nov. 1, 2003, with her fingers on the home keys and no clue what to type. Twenty-nine days later, she had a long story about a 70-year-old trapeze artist -- and a sense of accomplishment. ''I impressed myself with what came out of my head."
Erin McCauley is stocking her North End apartment with red wine and chocolate-covered popcorn this month, as she plans to write an Edward Gorey-inspired children's novel. She, too, is on her third NaNoWriMo, as it is called. The first year she stalled at 15,000 words -- ''I had too much invested in the story and kept being discouraged that what I was writing just wasn't that good." Last year she went in without as many preconceived notions and managed to finish.
Of course, anyone can sit down to write a novel. What makes NaNoWriMo different is that -- as with a successful diet -- participants commit to it publicly at the beginning. Before Nov. 1, they sign up at nanowrimo.org, and at the end of the month, they submit their manuscripts for word-count verification to be certified as winners.
Along the way, they can participate in online forums with other aspiring novel writers, sharing their joys and struggles (and, perhaps, finding a convenient outlet for their procrastination urges). A network of ''municipal liaisons" -- volunteers, usually past participants -- offers
encouragement and support.
Schuyler Towne, 21, of Mission Hill, is the liaison for Boston. Along with a novel about suicides and Diane Sawyer, he's also planning events for the month, starting with today's ''Write-In" at TOMB, where NaNoWriMo registrants can gather and start creating.
National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 with 21 friends in San Francisco. Chris Baty was one of them. As word spread around the Internet, the population of would-be novel-writers exploded. Working mostly on deadline and without much of a plan -- rather like a NaNoWriMo author -- Baty created an organization with a mission (donations help build libraries in Third World countries), rules (no co-authoring, no graphic novels or screenplays, no writing the same word 50,000 times), and a manual, ''No Plot? No Problem!"
Last year, 42,000 people signed up, and nearly 6,000 finished on deadline. Organizers expect 60,000 would-be novel-writers this year.
Participants say they value the format because it forces them to write. Randy Pinion, a Boston University journalism student, acknowledges, ''I am a terrible procrastinator!" But he plans to produce a fantasy novel while keeping up with his schoolwork and celebrating his 19th birthday.
''Everybody says they have this novel in them that they want to write, and then they never do it. This sort of gets you off your behind," says Annie Archambault, an editor for a newsletter publisher in Boston who will take part in this year's event.
Which is not to say that it's a piece of cake. ''The first week is easy," explains Beth Collins, a former English teacher who owns a yarn store in Camden, Maine. Collins has tried before but has never finished; she will be writing this year. ''The second week, you start getting tired of the daily writing and it gets to be a pain. You hate the stupid story and feel like it is just a waste of time."
So why do it?
''NaNoWriMo makes me realize how dedicated a person would really have to be to writing to pursue it as a profession. However, it also reminds me that writing is fun."
Erin McLaughlin, a Northeastern freshman, didn't finish her 2004 entry. ''I had a cold and skipped a day to sleep. Then [I] didn't feel like writing the next day, so I swore to make it up the following day. And so on and so forth until it was December." She's trying again, determined to finish her character study of a Victorian-era vampire as part of her path toward eventually becoming a full-time writer.
Most of this month's writers won't get money and fame from their work, but there are other rewards. Patti Cassidy of Jamestown, R.I., is 58, an age at which one starts to evaluate one's accomplishments. ''There are three things I've done in my life that have given me real self-respect. One was riding cross-country solo on a motorcycle. One was sky-diving out of an airplane from 11,000 feet. And the third was finishing NaNoWriMo" last year.
''The first thing I did when I finished my book was to print out the entire thing -- 220 pages of my book," says Travis L. Kelley of Roslindale, who this year has persuaded two friends and his brother-in-law to join the writing masses.
Lori Libby was able to sell her 2003 NaNoWriMo project,''Hunter's Arrow," to Wings ePress, an electronic book publisher. It's a romance set in Maine, involving a shape-shifting werewolf. She values her NaNoWriMo Novembers because they allow her to turn off the ''Type A perfectionist" inside her head. She can polish later.
Susan Midlarsky, who teaches fifth grade at the Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, uses NaNoWriMo in the classroom. She sets each student a goal of 500 to 5,000 words, depending on ability level. ''My goal for the children is for them to fall in love with writing without worrying about the mechanics, and to set and accomplish a goal that is much harder than they would have thought possible for themselves. Every year I have done this, every single child has had a wonderful time, and there are always a few who come out with creative writing as a true passion in their lives."
''Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap," warns the NaNoWriMo website. Lanna Lee Maheux-Quinn -- a performance artist from Westbrook, Maine, who's planning a mystery/romance set at a clown convention -- is well aware of it.
''Can I write a book? Sure. Will it [stink]? Probably. Will I have fun? Definitely."
Tips from past National Novel Writing Month participants:
Don't plan too much. Outlining is fine, but you're more likely to finish if you haven't invested too much in the story -- or gotten bored with the characters -- before you begin.
Include the kinds of characters, elements, and events you like to see in novels. ''I like action. I like zombies in general. I love highly detailed descriptions of safes being cracked," says Matthew Garelick of Dorchester. His tentative plan for his novel starts with an elaborate scene of a vault being opened and ends with an epic battle against zombies. How will he connect the two? He'll find out this month.
Don't edit as you go. Promise yourself that you will fix that scene, change that dialogue, rename that character -- but not until after Nov. 30. (A companion event, National Novel Editing Month, is held in March.) Those with a real need for speed (or a particularly persistent internal editor) may want to try using a very basic text-editing program to avoid spelling/grammar checkers.
If you know you're going to be writing ''Zebulon Galaxy Warfleet" a bunch of times in your book, assign it a single-character name -- ''z," let's say -- and then do a search-and-replace in your word processing program at the end. (This also provides a very satisfying boost to your word count.)
Wear headphones. Even if there is no music coming out, they can signal to people around you that you are writing and need to be left alone.
Participate in communities. Many NaNoWriMo participants credit their fellow writers with helping them finish -- or at least you can enjoy the company of other procrastinators.
Give yourself small rewards along the way. ''OK, I can take a break and watch 'Lost' if I finish 2,000 words by then."
This is not school. It's fun. Enjoy it.