Spotlight on NaNoWriMo.org

SPOTLIGHT: NANOWRIMO.org [National Novel Writing Month]

Year founded: 1999
Member stats: 2008: 119,301participants and 21,683 winners. 2009 (projected): 140,000 participants and 25,000 winners.
Mission: To help people bash out a 50,000-word novel in November. And have a great time doing it.
How to sign up: Just head to NaNoWriMo.org and click the "sign up now" box. You can sign up anytime for the November event. We don’t charge an entry fee, but we’re a nonprofit, and do ask that ably-financed participants donate something to help cover costs. If you are 17-and-under, we encourage you to take part in NaNoWriMo through our awesome Young Writers Program, located at ywp.nanowrimo.org.
About the founder: Chris Baty (who fielded these questions) is the founder of NaNoWriMo and the author of No Plot? No Problem!

Describe the writer who can most benefit from involvement in NaNoWriMo.

I think there are two types of people who will benefit most from taking part in NaNoWriMo:
1) The first-time novelist.
2) The more experienced writer who can’t find time to write.
For first-time novelists, it’s easy to get discouraged by novel writing. A lot of that frustration comes from the fact that we’ve read so many great novels by the time we try to write one of our own. So our expectations tend to be very, very high. When our first drafts fall short of those aspirations, we assume something is wrong with our story (wrong idea, wrong main character, wrong point-of-view, etc.) or something is wrong with us (no-talent, tin ear for dialogue, horrible breath, bad dancer, etc.) It’s demoralizing, and makes novel-writing such a slog that people abandon their books after a couple chapters.

The tragedy, of course, is that the books that made us want to write in the first place likely started out as dreadful first drafts. Most novels are born as ugly, confused creatures, and they only become the surefooted masterworks we love through a series of revisions and helpful interventions from friends, agents and editors.

With this in mind, first-time novelists should really be shooting for completion rather than perfection. They need to put aside all those dreams of elegant prose and snappy dialogue and just focus on getting an entire first draft down on paper. Then they can see where the juicy, beating heart of their story lies, and start building their second draft around that heart.

This is where huge community of writers can work wonders. There’s so much camaraderie and encouragement on the NaNoWriMo site, and 99 percent of is focused on simply keeping writers moving forward. At any hour of the day in November, you can come to the site and find tips for writer’s block, get recipes for mojo-boosting snacks, join an online word sprint, or find out where local Wrimos are meeting to write that week. Cumulatively, it creates a wave of can-do energy that helps keep novice writers committed to their books from start to finish.

The other group of authors who benefit most from NaNoWriMo are experienced writers who have been struggling to make time to write. NaNoWriMo is a little like a thirty-day writing retreat, but one that’s plunked down in the middle of your everyday life. To make it work, you have to cut out a lot of procrastinatory pursuits, get creative about chore swapping and childcare duties, and adjust sleep schedules. But once you do, it’s amazing how much you can get done in a month. Through that process, you realize that writing can happen even in the midst of a hectic schedule. And once you get into the rhythm of bagging those 1,667 words each day, it’s easier to maintain a consistent writing schedule for the rest of the year.


Aside from the challenge in November (and now Script Frenzy in April), members are active on your site year-round. How did the community begin holding this level of involvement? What do you think makes it thrive?

NaNoWriMo is a lot like a literary marathon. Folks from all walks of life come together and dedicate a substantial part of their year to doing something wonderful, tiring and a little bit stupid. And like running a marathon, writing a book in a month ends up being a surprisingly emotional, transformative experience. When it’s over, you don’t quite want to let go of the glow. So a lot of us just keep the message board conversations that began in October and November going year-round. In the off-season, NaNoWriMo forums also tend to be a lively place for novel-swapping, manuscript critiques and conversations about revision.

Every January, we also organize the Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures. For YBFSA, we challenge NaNoWriMo participants to pick something they’ve long wanted to do but have always been a little intimidated by, post that thing in the forums, and then spend the next year pursuing it. Participants come back throughout the year to give updates on their progress. It’s a lot like a new year’s resolution, but with a cheering section and winner’s certificates, and it keeps conversations going year-round on the site.

I think the final thing we have going for our community is an exceptionally kind group of participants and a fantastically competent team of moderators. In any given year, we’ll see 900,000 posts from participants on the NaNoWriMo site, and every single day staff and volunteers are in the forums, making sure questions get answered, moving misplaced posts, clipping spam and calming online spats before they escalate. It takes a village to run a good online community, and we’re blessed with really wonderful group of villagers.

Most online writing communities seem to take on a distinctive personality of their own. How would you describe yours?

Humorous. Neighborly. Excitable. I think the fact that we don’t have a single winner or any valuable prizes helps keep everyone focused on the fact that the point of writing isn’t to be the best or fastest. The point is just to have a great time discovering one of the many books we all have within us. This creates a loose, friendly atmosphere of mutual encouragement that helps everyone write more than they thought possible. In 2008, NaNoWriMo had 22,000 winners, and our combined output was 1.6 billion words. The reason those numbers were so high was because the NaNoWriMo community always goes out of its way to make sure everyone gets a pat on the back or a kick in the pants when they need it.

What are the unique ways you’ve seen writers benefit by being active on your site? What can they do to get the most out of it?

From the first year of NaNoWriMo onward, I was amazed by the increased writerly commitment (and decreased writerly misery) that occurs when novel-writing becomes a group activity. One of the unique things about NaNoWriMo is that we’re an online event with a lot of real-world components. Thanks to the hard work of our volunteer chapterheads called Municipal Liaisons, participants in over 30 countries can attend NaNoWriMo writing events in their post codes.

I’d really encourage anyone who signs up for NaNoWriMo to join their local region on the site, and then head out to as many in-person "write-ins" as possible. Write-ins are fiendishly productive noveling sessions where people bring their laptops and notebooks and just sit together and write. They’re a great way to lessen the loneliness of writing, and meet other book lovers who know exactly what you’re going through.

Aside from the overall mission, what services/functions make NaNoWriMo.org especially valuable to writers?

Everyone who signs up for NaNoWriMo gets an author profile, and a lot of the profile is pretty standard. But there are a few bits of pure magic tucked in there as well. One of those things is the NaNo stats area. As you update your word count on the site in November, you get a blue progress bar that grows, and an accompanying bar graph that charts your progress day by day. Those two things are strangely powerful writing motivators. Some participants update their word counts on the site every five minutes just because it’s so satisfying to see that progress bar get longer.

The other great thing about the profiles are the writing buddy lists. These work just like buddy lists on other social networking sites, but they display the word counts and progress bars of your NaNo friends. There’s something deeply inspiring about being able to see the standing of everyone you know at a glance. (The writing buddy lists are also the place where you get the bad news that your mother has now written twice as much as you have).

In the message boards, we have a really popular Character and Plot Realism Q&A forum where participants can circumvent novel research by posting questions like "My character is lost in the woods in Poland—what kind of things might she eat?" Or: "Could an angry bear outrun a golf cart?" Inevitably a Polish golfer who majored in forestry will answer both questions, and then post his own question about the annual salary of a mariachi band in San Diego. Tapping into the huge knowledge bank of the community is a great, fast way to get just enough information to keep you writing.

Other highlights include round-the-clock "Word Wars"—online writing sprints organized by participants—and our frequent email pep talks. Some of these emails are written by me, but most are handled by professional authors such as Sue Grafton, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Tom Robbins, Katherine Patterson and others. Getting an e-mail from one of your favorite authors encouraging you to keep going can do wonders for bookish morale.

For writers gearing up for this November’s event, when do you recommend they sign up, and how can they start getting involved to best prepare for the challenge?

It’s good to sign up at least a week before the event starts. That way you have time to read through all the tips and advice in the forums, cajole a few friends into taking part with you, join a region, fill out your NaNoWriMo author profile and start thinking about the kind of novel you’d like to write. In the forums you can also find free, downloadable character worksheets and word-count Excel spreadsheets that do all sorts of fancy things. For folks looking for a more comprehensive guide to the high-velocity novel, there’s also my how-to book No Plot? No Problem! and a whole bunch of strategy guides written by other people. I also recommend tracking down Lynda Barry’s fantastic comic "Two Questions," which is one of the most insightful, inspiring looks at creative expression I’ve ever read.


What percentage of your participants are returning participants, and what do you think keeps them coming back?

At this point, about 60 percent of our participants have done NaNoWriMo before. I think they come back for the community, but also because it’s just really nice to have one month out of the year of creative "me time." Making big, messy art is a fun, reviving experience, and once you’ve done it once, you tend to want to do it every year.

To be blunt: Why should writers participate in your online community, rather than another one?

There are a lot of great writing communities out there dedicated to discussing, critiquing and celebrating existing writing. And there are also a lot of great sites centered around getting your book published and marketed. Our mission is to help people create new work.

Why do you think it’s important for writers to be active in the online writing community at large?

Despite our best intentions, writing almost always drifts to the bottom of our to-do lists. Thousands of great books go unwritten every year because writing—like music and art—takes a backseat to other, more pressing life matters. But the process of making stuff does so many good things for us. It makes us happier, more fulfilled people. It changes the way we see ourselves, and helps bring a little magic back into our lives. By making the conscious choice to be part of an online writing community, we’re keeping the door open to the creative parts of ourselves. I think that’s so important.

How have you personally grown as a writer through NaNoWriMo? What have you learned?

I’ve learned so much! Before starting NaNoWriMo, I thought that novelists were a different species of human, born with mysteriously overdeveloped parts of their brain that allowed them to forge intricate plots, create nuanced characters and stand behind podiums at bookstores. Through NaNoWriMo, I’ve learned that novels are not written by novelists. Novels are written by everyday people who give themselves permission to write novels. Once I realized that, nothing was really the same anymore for me.

But more than anything else, I’ve learned that we can all do amazing, impossible things when given a deadline, a supportive community and unlimited access to chocolate and caffeine.

Do you have any notable member success stories to share?

At this point, about 30 NaNoWriMo manuscripts have found homes with traditional publishers. In 2007, we had our first New York Times No. 1 bestseller, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. That was Sara’s second NaNoWriMo manuscript to be published. I also love the story of Lani Diane Rich, a first-time novelist who stumbled on the NaNoWriMo site back in 2003 and thought "Why not?" and ended up writing a manuscript that landed her an agent. The agent then sold that novel to Warner Books in a two-book deal. She’s since published two more NaNo manuscripts and writes novels for a living.

Some of our biggest success stories, though, aren’t publishing-related. I read through the NaNoWriMo forums at the end of the event every year, and always get weepy at the posts where people say: "I just did this thing I never thought I could do. I found a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. And now I’m wondering what else is in there." The NaNoWriMo experience tends to open some interesting doors for people, and those doors will stay open for the rest of their lives. I love that.

For basic information and in-depth interviews with other online communities’ founders, click on each writing community below:


Authonomy.com
Writing.com
Backspace [bksp.org]

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