The Insanity and the Inspiration: National Novel Writing Month

by
Anndee Hochman
10.9.19

On the second floor of Big Blue Marble, an independent bookstore in the leafy Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, Roz Carter plugged in her computer, popped in her earbuds, and turned on a playlist heavy on Prince and Janelle Monáe. At another table Sara Head pecked away at her keyboard, water bottle beside her. Nathan Long sat on the lumpy couch, computer parked on his lap, imagining a small town called Harbor and a young woman whose brother has been killed in a distant, ongoing war.

Among the three hundred thousand or so writers who participated in National Novel Writing Month in 2018 were (from left) Sara Head, Nathan Long, and Roz Carter. (Credit: Long: Courtney Doucette; Carter: Cole Carter)

It was November 1, 2018, day one of the twentieth annual National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo to its aficionados—a project that, depending on one’s perspective, is either insanity or invitation, a thankless exercise or a creative kick-start: Write a fifty-thousand-word novel in a month. Slam out 1,667 words a day, every day, weekends and Thanksgiving and Black Friday included. Don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t tumble down the rabbit hole of research. And, in the process, join a community of three hundred thousand people around the world attempting the same literary feat. 

Big Blue Marble had agreed to host three write-ins over the course of the month: casual gatherings where NaNoWriMo disciples could sip tea, compare word counts, and find kinship in the solitary slog of writing a book.

On this Thursday evening the writers briefly described their projects. “I’m working on a historical novel set in ancient Egypt that has paranormal aspects,” said Carter, a fifty-two-year-old administrative assistant and mother of two grown sons. “It has a set of twins as the main characters. There’s lust and magic. And hopefully I’ll get it done.”

Long, who at fifty-three is tall, reedy, and a little rumpled, looking every bit the professor on sabbatical he is—he teaches creative writing at Stockton University in New Jersey—explained that his book would be a series of linked flash fictions revolving around a young woman whose gender identity is in flux. Head, a forty-year-old archaeologist and avid online gamer, described her work as “a sci-fi novel set in space, kind of a horror story in space, so sort of cross-genre.” 

The chatter quieted. Head typed steadily; Long stared hard at his screen. Carter opened a blank file and wrote: Kiya, where is your sister? The only sounds were the crunch of popcorn, the tap of fingers on keyboards, the barely audible pulse of worlds being made.

National Novel Writing Month started in 1999, when novice writer Chris Baty persuaded twenty friends to join his crackpot venture. By year three, five thousand people had signed on, and then NaNoWriMo took off: The seventy-five thousand participants in 2006—the year Baty had established a nonprofit in Oakland to support the project—increased to three hundred forty thousand by 2012, when he stepped down as the organization’s executive director. 

Grant Faulkner, who took over the helm, describes NaNoWriMo in grand terms: a creative challenge, a journey of self-discovery, a means of nudging underrepresented voices into the literary world. “So often, people don’t think their stories matter because they don’t see people like themselves getting published,” he says. NaNoWriMo provides role models—a diverse slate of writers who offer online “pep talks” throughout the month—along with the spur of a daily deadline. NaNoWriMo also supports writers year-round with webcasts and podcasts; forums where writers publicly post their progress; a novel-writing prep course available through the online learning platform Coursera; “Camp NaNoWriMo” for writers who want to complete a project in April or July; and a Young Writers Program, with free workbooks and Common Core–aligned curricula, that reaches a hundred thousand kids a year.

The most common reason people cite for resisting NaNoWriMo’s November challenge is “I don’t have time.” Faulkner’s response: How many hours do you squander each day scrolling through Snapchat or watching Netflix? Others protest, “I’m not creative. I’m not a writer.” And to that Faulkner circles back to the project’s mission. “Everyone has a story to tell,” he says. “Stories are the way we make meaning in the world. The way to be a creative type is to create.”

According to family lore, Carter began reading at age four and writing at eight; she has a clear memory of her mother bent over a book, cigarette in one hand, coffee cup in the other. She always imagined writing a book, but life intervened—first, children, then a job at the University of Pennsylvania, which enabled her to complete her bachelor’s degree. 

Carter tried NaNoWriMo eight years ago, while finishing her coursework in English and working full-time. She neared the twenty-thousand-word mark before ditching the project. “It was too ambitious. I hadn’t thought about what it would take to start and complete a novel. I didn’t have a writing routine that actually made any sense.” 

She tried again the next year, with the kernel of an idea about an African American family, a Gothic tale involving voodoo, witches, and a swamp. She never finished that project, either, but gave NaNoWriMo one more go in 2013. That time she kept an unforgiving schedule, writing before work, at lunchtime, and in the evening. “I was a complete basket case by the end,” Carter says. “I was getting up at 5 AM, eating at my desk. I was determined.” She finished the month with a complete draft of “The Covington Witches,” had the book swiftly edited in December, and self-published it via Smashwords in January 2014.

The book didn’t exactly go viral; it’s cleared a scant $100 in sales from both e-book and print copies. But the publishing experience whetted Carter’s appetite for more. The story of the Covingtons wasn’t finished—or rather, it wasn’t entirely begun. Carter imagined a prequel set in ancient Egypt, during the reign of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. The protagonists would be seventeen-year-old twin girls, sold into servitude to redeem their father’s debt. There would be love and betrayal and goddess worship and magic—the age-old roots of the Covington witches’ supernatural powers. 

For months before last year’s NaNoWriMo, Carter plunged into research: She listened to an audio course on ancient Egypt, read books on magic and demonology, and watched Cleopatra dozens of times. By November 1, she had a four-act structure, a scene-by-scene outline, even a working title, “Sekhmet’s Magic” (which she didn’t love). The rest would involve diligence, along with something indescribable. “When the characters are fleshed out in my head, it makes it easier for them to write their own story. And I just put it down,” she says. “That sounds a little mystical, but there’s no other real way to say it.”

In one of Head’s earliest memories—she might have been five or six—her father taught her to play Dungeons & Dragons. “I was a unicorn out in the woods or something,” she says. Later she became a devoted online gamer, an archaeologist…and a person who believed she had a book in her, just waiting to be realized. Like fiction, Head says, group gaming calls for character development and smart pacing—for instance, ending each session with a cliffhanger to entice participants to return the following week. Those games—whether played tabletop or online—were “an extension of make-believe,” Head says. “You can create a character. You have a curiosity about something, and you can work through that curiosity.” 

Head first attempted NaNoWriMo in 2007. “I got to fifty thousand words, but it was gibberish,” she says. “The themes jumped around. It wasn’t a story, just a monthlong brainstorming session.” Head tried NaNoWriMo every year since, schooling herself—with the help of the project’s resources and other novel-writing guides—in the craft of fiction: dialogue, setting, pacing, character development.

As November rolled around, she was ready. From a six-paragraph sketch of a science fiction horror story involving aliens, a haunted intergalactic cruise ship, and malevolent shadows, she had created a detailed outline, along with backstories for her primary characters. “I needed to develop a ‘why’—why is this happening? Who are the bad guys? Why are they trying to eat everyone on the ship?” Using a software program called Inspiration, Head made graphic organizers and mind-maps to answer those questions and expand her story’s background. She had a title, “Shadows That Hunger,” and a first sentence: “The ship moved through space as it always did on nights like this, plotting its own course as it saw fit.” Most important, Head approached NaNoWriMo 2018 with new resolve. What if, this time, she aimed not only to finish, but to make a story she’d be proud to share with the world?

Long is accustomed to writing short: flash fiction, chapter-length stories, at most a novella. NaNoWriMo challenged him to scale up, to unspool a larger, unrulier tale about a town called Harbor and its denizens: a young woman grieving the loss of her father and brother and contemplating her own gender transition; a man who lives in the woods above the town; a group of immigrants who may have crossed centuries as well as continents. There would be floods and identity crises and the rumble of a faraway war.

For Long, NaNoWriMo also called for a different approach to writing: less precious, more playful. “It’s easy to get too serious about it,” he says. “I remember when I wrote a novel for grad school, I worked so much on the first page. Here, it’s like: Move forward, move forward. Don’t see it as a little jewel.”

He tried NaNoWriMo seven years ago and found the daily slog punishing; this time, he planned to “cheat” by writing two thousand words on each of twenty-five days, so he could take five days off. He drew other lessons from that first attempt: to seek the elusive balance between planning and allowing the story to unfold. “I learned to have a lot of ideas and think it out in advance, but also…to relax into the voice, to let the voice drive things.”

He adds, “The one bit of advice I gave myself was: I can write a terrible novel. I can waste a month of my life on what might be totally trash. I knew I would get something out of it, just writing differently than I usually write.”

Does constraint foster experimentation? Does progress, at least at the drafting stage, matter more than perfection? And can the monthlong effort to write a novel, in the virtual or actual company of other creative types, really result in an altered sense of self?

Faulkner offers an emphatic yes. “There’s something about that pressure of moving forward that really motivates you to take different creative paths. A lot of people never finish their rough draft because they’re removing a hyphen and then putting it back.” He argues that NaNoWriMo isn’t just a creative experiment. “It’s also a way to explore your behavior and what you make possible or impossible,” he says. “Once a person becomes a creator, not just a consumer, I think they are empowered to do things not only on the page, but beyond the page. I think they tend to become bolder as people, to honor their imaginations, to value their voices.”

Nearly five hundred traditionally published books had their genesis during NaNoWriMo; the best known include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (Algonquin Books, 2006), Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (Feiwel & Friends, 2012). But most NaNoWriMo writers hit the wordsmith’s equivalent of a marathoner’s twenty-two-mile slump. Of the 301,256 participants in 2018, nearly 12 percent—35,410—made the fifty-thousand-word mark.

NaNoWriMo reveals writers’ vulnerabilities, their doubts, their quirks. Carter wrote at home in the morning before work and at a local coffee shop some evenings, always with a crunchy snack, pretzels or popcorn, nearby. Long treated NaNoWriMo like a job: Wake up, feed the dog, settle by the bay window with his Dell laptop. In the afternoons, he’d walk in the Wissahickon woods and think about the book: How should he handle a sexual encounter between two trans characters? What was the difference—in pacing, in voice—between a stand-alone story and a scene in a longer work?

Head, a night owl, often began writing at 6 PM, squeezing her NaNoWriMo project around coursework for her master’s degree in cultural resource management and relying on groceries delivered from a meal-prep service. She had her rituals: soundtracks of background noise—café chatter or the light tick of rain—and a cup of chocolate chai. Sometimes she lay in bed at night and thumbed another three hundred words on her phone. “My biggest fear,” she says, “is that if I’m bored writing it, are my readers going to be bored reading it? And if everybody’s bored with it, why am I writing?”

At Big Blue Marble’s Sunday write-ins, she became the self-declared referee of word sprints: twenty-minute bursts with the goal of writing as many words as possible. Two weeks into November, her characters—all aliens with varying gender identities—had made it to the haunted ship and were trying to turn the power on. 

Carter lagged slightly behind the midmonth goal—she had 22,463 words—but found that her novel’s voices, especially those of twins Kiya and Tetisheri, dogged her consciousness. “When you’re immersed like this, it’s self-perpetuating. The story’s always with you.” She resisted the impulse to do more research and instead left placeholders when she didn’t know a historical detail, such as what her characters might eat for breakfast or how the palace would be laid out.

For Long, each scene he drafted stirred up more questions: How speculative could he make this novel? Did humor humanize his characters or make them seem silly? As a white man, could he write about nonwhite refugees with integrity and respect? He knew he was lucky to be on sabbatical. Still, life intruded: a leak in the radiator, a dog that needed walking, five pies to bake for his family’s Thanksgiving. During the holiday he tried explaining the novel to his sisters. One said, “Does the main character find love?” The other asked, “But what’s the plot? What happens?”

By November 29, Long had rethought the book’s opening. No longer a two-page preface about the town of Harbor, it now began in the protagonist’s voice: “…as I breathed deep the clear salty breeze blowing in from the harbor, I realized my room no longer smelled of the dead man.” Even the title had morphed, from “Harbor” to “Little Harbor,” a change that, to Long, conveyed the idea of “scant” as well as “small.”

“Any novel is never the exact replica of the vision one has,” he says. “It’s like sailing to a distant shore with primitive navigation. If you keep sailing, or rowing, you’re bound to reach another shore…and there are also nice surprises along the way.”

More than fifty thousand works of fiction, including novels, novellas, and short story collections, are published annually—via traditional routes and self-publishing—in the United States, according to Bowker, the publisher of the Books in Print database and the official agency for assigning ISBNs in the United States. How many more books linger, half-realized, in computer files and desk drawers? How many lie in restive writers’ minds, never to reach the page? NaNoWriMo tries to remedy the obstacles we place in our own creative paths, the ways that fear—of exposure, of inadequacy, of failure—can stifle imagination.

For Carter, Head, and Long, NaNoWriMo ended not with a bang but with a patter. All three reached the target word count. No one actually finished. Because the truth is, you cannot complete a novel in a month. What you can do—with strict time management, sufficient snacks, and indulgent family members—is knock out something that lands in the vast chasm between brainstorm and best-seller.

By late January, Long had found a writing partner, the only person to whom he had confided how “Little Harbor” would end. He was flipping some scenes, cutting others, and revising sections, ten thousand words at a time. By late summer he had polished three excerpts of the novel and sent them to journals. His aim: a complete manuscript, ready to workshop with readers he trusts, by the time the school year began. Then he’d start shopping the book, either to potential agents or directly to a short list of literary small presses. 

Carter, meanwhile, was tugged into an ancillary project: a TV series based on The Covington Witches, for which she wrote the screenplay, advertised for local actors and crew members, and self-financed on-location shooting in Philadelphia, where the book is set. (The first two episodes are available on Amazon; a third is in the works.) The book’s prequel—“Sekhmet’s Magic,” or whatever it would eventually be called—would have to wait. 

Head spent the early spring sharing portions of her draft with two readers, struggling to integrate backstory while still hastening the plot along. She had tweaked the novel’s opening to lead with the main character rather than the haunted ship: “Cayrd choked back the acidic-tasting beer, then slammed the glass down on the badly abused bar.” She was starting to investigate self-publishing options.

Their work will continue for months—maybe for years. Still, fifty thousand words is something to shout about. NaNoWriMo isn’t meant to forge finished manuscripts. It’s about writing as equal parts strict discipline and wild experiment. It’s about making something big, one increment at a time, plugging along with faith that, in the very long run, something meaningful will come of the effort. “I don’t necessarily need to see the book on a shelf,” Head says. “I just want it to be out there. If one person reads it, I’ll have done my job.” 

 

Anndee Hochman is a journalist, essayist, and teaching artist. Her column, “The Parent Trip,” appears weekly in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and her work has also been published in O, the Oprah Magazine; Redbook; Cooking Light; and the Journal of the American Medical Association. She is the author of Anatomies: A Novella and Stories (Picador, 2000) and Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community, and Home (Eighth Mountain Press, 1994).