Somerset Maugham supposedly gave this answer to the question of whether he writes on a schedule or only when he is struck by inspiration:
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
November is here, and for many writers, that means the enticing challenge of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo markets itself as a “wildly ambitious writing event,” and it is. To complete the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, you have to have guts, energy and a strong, enduring supply of motivation. The organizers behind NaNoWriMo make one thing clear: The goal is not to complete a polished novel. It’s to hammer out a first draft.
The difference between a first draft and a final draft is huge. NaNoWriMo is meant to be the flurry of creativity, the skeleton set-up of a long-term project. You take an idea and run with it. You write with abandon. NaNoWriMo will probably not turn you into the next bestselling author (though it does for a very select few). But that was never its intention, anyway. This national movement started 20+ years ago as a simple challenge among 21 writers in the San Francisco Bay area: Start and finish a novel in 30 days. It was the quantity, not the quality, of words that mattered.
Plenty of naysayers caution writers against embarking on this month-long challenge each year. Lack of focus on strong writing is one reason. Some agents and editors have come to dread NaNoWriMo submissions, because the work they receive is unpolished and therefore wastes their time.
But if you want to buck the excuses, chisel out a writing routine and cement a discipline of writing into your daily grind once and for all, NaNoWriMo could be your best friend.
To me, NaNoWriMo is not about a finished product; it’s about implementing a sustainable writing routine and showing up for that routine every day.
Here are 9 fun facts about National Novel Writing Month:
- To complete a 50,000-word work-in-progress within 30 days, you should plan to write an average of 1,667 words per day.
- Since its founding in 1999, NaNoWriMo has become a nationally recognized nonprofit that supports writing fluency and education.
- -More than 900 volunteers across the world coordinate writing sessions in libraries, coffee shops and elsewhere.
- You set your own writing schedule. When you sign up (it’s free), you can download the complete NaNo Prep 101 Handbook. The handbook includes lessons for how to develop a story idea, how to create complex characters, how to organize your life for writing, finding and managing time to write and more. You can even take the “What’s the best writing schedule for you?” quiz.
- If you’re participating, you’re a “Wrimo.”
- Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, a New York Times bestseller in 2006 and 2007, started as a NaNoWriMo project.
- In its first year, 1999, NaNoWriMo had 21 participants. Twenty years later, participants number over 300,000.
- In 2004, NaNoWriMo launched a young writers program. This program encourages kids from Kindergarten through 12th grade to write a pre-determined number of words in 30 days, as set by their teachers. The program includes lesson plans, writing ideas and resources. During its first year, 4,000 students in 150 classrooms participated. By 2017, more than 100,000 students in 9,000+ classrooms took on the challenge.
- You “win” if you finish. That means you upload your entire work-in-progress to Nano’s word counter platform in the final days of November. If the word counter detects 50,000 words or more, you are declared a winner. Here’s a look at the finishers over the past two decades:
1999: 21 participants, 6 winners
2000: 140 participants, 29 winners
2001: 5,000 participants, 700 winners
2002: 13,500 participants, 2100 winners
2010: 200,500 participants, 37,500 winners
2015: 431,626 participants, 40,000+ winners
2018: 287,327 participants, 35,387 winners
Today, NaNoWriMo boasts 798,162 “active novelists” and 367,913 novels completed.
One of the keystones to NaNoWriMo’s success is its focus on community.
“… somehow lowering our expectations and transforming novel-writing into a group activity — most of us got together after work to write — ended up doing good things to our brains and books,” Baty told the Huffington Post. “If you want to get more writing done, try working in the same room with other writers.”
This year, NaNoWriMo launched a new hashtag, #StayHomeWriMo, with writing prompts geared toward physical and mental wellbeing. One silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic: National Novel Writing Month is a perfect activity for those who shelter in place.
Have you ever attempted this wildly ambitious November quest? Have you always wanted to, but hesitated on that edge of driven-by-creativity-but-not-brave-enough? I would love to hear from you!