Every fall, I contemplate whether or not I should attempt NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is a manageable challenge, though not an easy one.
For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempt to write a novel—by NaNoWriMo’s definition, 50,000 words—within that 30-day timespan. That’s 1,667 words a day. Over the course of the month, participants are encouraged to track their progress on NaNoWriMo’s website, make friends at regional “write-ins,” and consume unhealthy amounts of caffeine. Published authors such as James Patterson, Malinda Lo, and Bella Andre often give pep talks to participants on the NaNoWriMo forums. In fact, more than 250 novels that began as NaNoWriMo projects have been traditionally published, such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.
Although many companies offer incentives like product discounts or free ebooks to people who complete the challenge, there is no traditional prize to be won. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in creativity, self- discipline, and silencing one’s inner editor; the only true prize is self-satisfaction.
This year, there are several NaNoWriMo kickoff parties for Portland-area participants, and I attended one at the Central Library downtown. More than 60 people were present, introducing themselves and describing the plots of their novels in great detail. Last year, I had my novel thoroughly plotted out and completed the challenge with 10 days to spare. This year, I have yet to decide what my story will be, but thankfully I wasn’t the only one without an idea. Many attendees declared they will write by the seat of their pants this year, and these “pantsers” will learn the story of their hearts once November is upon them.
As a newly minted publishing student, NaNoWriMo invites a change in perspective I hadn’t expected. I recognize the value of self-publishing for authors whose stories don’t fit neatly into a market, but now that I work for Ooligan, I’m more curious as to why people forgo the traditional route, which a lot of NaNo-ers intend to do. A seasoned NaNoWriMo participant I spoke to believes traditional publishing requires time he simply does not have, that it “seems like an awful lot of networking and a lot of stuff that I really don’t want to get into.” A winner of ten NaNoWriMos (that’s approximately 500,000 words in 10 years), he will look into self-publishing this year, but ultimately he writes for the love of writing. “It’s okay to write and not publish,” he says, “. . .because I’m a writer, and that’s my creative outlet.”
I’m more curious still about participants who don’t wish to publish their stories at all. One high school student said she doesn’t plan to publish her story because she “will be the only one who understands it, and that’s okay.” As someone who’s dabbled in grandiose fantasies about landing on The New York Times Best Sellers list since high school, hers is a maturity and confidence I wish I’d possessed at that age.
As the kickoff party dispersed, I spoke with another participant who works for an online publishing company and runs an editing service for self publishers. She admits that publishing is very trend focused, and self-publishing allows writers to not “feel so bound by the market the way publishers do.” However, she advises Nano-ers seeking to publish their novels to edit their work first: “When books go through traditional publishing houses, even small ones, they get at least two, sometimes many more rounds of editing, and if you want to self-publish, and if you want to stand next to the books coming out of the houses, you need to be able to do the same thing, and you can’t do it yourself.”
NaNoWriMo begins at 12 a.m. on Nov. 1. I don’t know if I will want to publish whatever I write, nor do I know if I will even complete the challenge. It’s quite possible I may not get past 1,000 words. But I appreciate that such challenges exist. More than anything, NaNoWriMo motivates people to tell the stories burning inside them. Though not everyone will get published, anyone can be a writer.