In the month since I resolved to write a novel, I’ve been to Paris, Ghent, Ispwich, and London (twice). I’ve taken point on caring for a sick, despondent child. I’ve been to freelancers’ meetups, Christmas markets, and board game nights. In response to a political nightmare come to life, I’ve teetered in between vitriolic rage and paralyzed despair. I’ve drunk a lot of Belgian wine. I’ve written a dozen of these blog posts.
While I’ve been so busy, thousands of writers wrote hundreds of thousands of words as part of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. Caught up in the messy riptide of creativity, I washed up on the cold, lonesome island of December clutching six chapters of my own book – about 35,000 words. Here’s how it all went down.
NaNoWriMo started in 1999, when 21 San Franciscans challenged themselves to write one novel (each) in a single month. The parameters were precise: 50,000 words in 31 days, quantity over quality, just get ‘er done. The following year, they moved their month of madness from July to November, sacrificing one whole day but taking better advantage of a less pleasant season – since who wants to spend July indoors, in San Francisco especially? From there, the trend took off, as trends tend to do in the age of the Share button. By 2002, there were 14,000 writers signed up; and by 2015, the “Na” in NaNoWriMo no longer applied: 430,000 novelists in 633 regions worldwide turned their phones off last November. This year, I’m sure the numbers were even higher. If voter turnout amongst writers was low in your area, now you know why.
There are a few oddities about the whole affair, apart from the sheer audacity of its premise. First, it’s debatable that 50,000 words even constitutes a novel – Google says that adult-oriented novels average 90,000 – but “National Novella Writing Month” lacks rhythm. Stranger still, for non-writers observing the phenomenon, NaNoWriMo offers no reward for its ambitious benchmark. There’s no cash prize for hitting 50,000, and no companies have offered to publish any NaNoWriMo manuscripts (although certainly some do go on to get published, probably after copious editing). In fact, NaNoWriMo is a charity, which means a lot of participants end up giving them money. When you add to all that the number of participants who don’t cross the finish line (in 2015, only 10% made 50K), the labour of love starts to seem like a mad dash of masochism.
The appeal is community. Writers are a solitary crowd, and self-motivation doesn’t come easy, particularly if it’s your first stab at a large-scale project. By framing the experience in terms of friendly competition, writers take a page from athletics, trying to set a personal best among peers. Also, misery loves company, and chances are good there will be other writers nearby eager to commiserate, no matter what their current word counts. Mostly, though, it’s fun to feel like part of something bigger than yourself. When the only other November project on offer is growing a moustache for cancer, joining the ranks of the wordsmiths starts to seem like a great way to spend a chilly month.
The NaNoWriMo website lets you log your word count daily, then converts your totals into graphs, printed alongside encouraging quotes and slogans. It offers a range of badges that help writers classify themselves (are you a Planner or a Pantser? Have you Moved Yourself to Tears? Do you practice Caffeine Abuse?). Mostly, the site provides support, through forums, articles, videos, and pep talks. It’s all cheerful pastels and quirky icons, but I found it awkwardly laid out, and didn’t end up using it much, although I certainly see how other writers might dig it.
I skewed the statistics a bit by registering in two different regions: Cape Breton (37 novelists; average final word count 20,755) and Lille (102 novelists; average final word count 17,484). Each region has a volunteer writer wrangler, in charge of organizing Write-Ins where participants can gather to be anti-social under the same roof. It sounds dumb, but it works; not only did I have some of my most productive writing jags during Write-Ins, but I got to discover some sweet public writing venues, including the ultimate geek hangout, La Dernier Bar Avant la Fin du Monde. And of course, I met other writers, if “met” can mean “glanced up across back-to-back laptops to silently acknowledge the pain in another pair of eyes.”
I didn’t ask many questions about their projects, because (blog posts aside) I don’t like talking about my own writing while it’s in progress, and I wanted to respect the privacy of their respective hells. The other thing I didn’t do, which you’ll have noticed if you’ve been running the numbers, is finish. My 35K is higher than both the CB and Lillois averages – in fact, from what I can tell, it’s higher than most regional averages – but it’s not 50K. And even if it were, it wouldn’t be the first draft of A Muse of Shadows. My outline involves 18 chapters; now, after a semi-intense month of semi-committed writing, I’m one-third of the way through.
But it’s all good. Without NaNoWriMo, I doubt I’d be this far along. Moving forward, I won’t have Write-Ins to help me, but I’ll have some other good habits, and a pointed, month-long reminder that success is personal and subjective. You can’t evaluate your novel on other people’s terms, and I can’t shackle my word count to a deadline set by a pastel website.
(Target for this blog post: 1,000 words. Final word count: 911).