Pause for a moment and reflect on your image of a writer.
Did you think of a writer sitting alone with wadded-up paper strewn around a wastebasket? A writer conjuring a story while taking a pensive walk? Or a writer banging away at a keyboard in the throes of inspiration?
We tend to view writers as solitary figures, dreamy or anguished creatures immersed in their work or questing for the necessary peace to write—searching for “a room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf put it. “Writer” and “solitary” practically go together like “rock” and “group.”
This guest post is by Grant Faulkner. Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of the literary journal 100 Word Story. He has published stories & essays in dozens of publications.
Follow on Twitter @grantfaulkner.
Also, order the guide written by NaNoWriMo founder Cris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.
Solitude no doubt plays an important part in writing a novel, but in my experience as executive director of the nonprofit National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I’ve come to believe it takes a veritable village to write a book. And though NaNoWriMo.org brings together hundreds of thousands of writers from all over the world to share in a novel-writing challenge every November, this truth is far from new to the Internet era. Virginia Woolf’s singular aesthetic was nurtured during nights of conversation with her spirited Bloomsbury crowd. Hemingway fed off of the creative energy of Paris in the 1920s, not to mention the writing advice of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs and the rest of the Beats tumbled, bounded and danced through their words as if they were an improv group riffing through a scene.
And then there’s the story of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who were just two men with a “writing hobby” when they first met. They bonded over their interest in Nordic myths and epics and began sharing their writing with each other. That led to the formation of the Inklings, a group of writers with “vague or half-formed intimations and ideas,” as Tolkien put it. The themes that would later appear in each writer’s books first emerged during the Inklings’ weekly discussions. Although Tolkien didn’t outright credit Lewis for influencing his work, he referred to Lewis’ “sheer encouragement” as an “unpayable debt.”
“He was for long my only audience,” Tolkien said. “Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”
If you set out with the ambitious goal of writing a whole book of your own “stuff” in a month, you could certainly do it on your own schedule, any month of the year, alone in a room with your phone turned off, your meals delivered to your door, and an automated “away” message responding to your email. You might rationalize that without distractions you can get more words onto the page. Why spend even a second of your precious writing time logging onto a discussion forum, tuning in to a pep talk or driving yourself to a coffee shop where other writers are writing?
It may seem counterintuitive, but time and again I’ve seen that the writers who embrace the collaborative spirit of NaNoWriMo are those who are best equipped to meet their goals—and enjoy themselves more along the way. Read on to learn what the NaNoWriMo community can do for you.
Teaming Up to Climb Mt. Novel
Novelists need a supportive, stimulating community for myriad reasons, but perhaps principally because completing such an arduous task is just plain easier with others rooting you on. Consider why it’s difficult to beat the home team in sports: They have an extra teammate—the crowd.
Writing a novel in a month is particularly formidable, if not downright Herculean. NaNoWriMo is an extreme sport—one part sprint, one part marathon, one part mountain climbing, and one part wrestling match (with some rollicking festivity thrown in)—as participants suit up in their virtual Wrimo uniforms and play to “win” by completing a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days. That’s 1,667 words every day, in the pursuit of which all sorts of writing demons are likely to attack you: a snarling inner editor telling you you’re a bad writer, a plot that falls into a sinkhole, a house crying to be cleaned, or friends and family who innocently ask, “Why are you doing such an absurd thing?” It’s important not only to hear some cheers, but to know that you’re not alone.
“There’s power in numbers,” New Jersey Wrimo Hillary DePiano says. “Having that global community at your back is so very important because it legitimizes what you’re doing and gives those who are afraid to face the blank page the confidence that can only come from thousands of other voices saying in unison, ‘We’re all in this together.’”
Nearly half a million people around the world sign up each year at NaNoWriMo.org, including 100,000 kids and teens in NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. Throughout the month of November, you can hear the buzz of novel writing through the wide-ranging conversations in NaNoWriMo’s online forums, motivational pep talks from famous authors, galvanizing round-the-clock “word sprints” on Twitter, and live write-ins organized by NaNo’s 651 Municipal Liaisons in communities around the globe.
“Being surrounded by fellow creators, all struggling together toward the same distant and seemingly unlikely goal, made me feel like I was part of something big,” says Wrimo Clarice Meadows of New York City.
There’s a reason runners don’t run marathons alone. You might not know the people running alongside you, but they help you keep going because they’re headed to the same finish line. As Bill Patterson, a Wrimo from New Jersey, likes to say, “Writing is a solitary activity best done in groups.”
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Joining Sparks to Build a Fire
Hemingway wrote in cafes for a reason. Studies have shown that being surrounded by industrious strangers can increase focus and spur creativity.
That’s the purpose behind the write-ins organized by NaNo’s Municipal Liaisons. Write-ins are gatherings where people write together, trade tips and divulge war stories. The spirit is encouragement. The goal is empowerment.
“Other Wrimos are some of the most welcoming, enthusiastic people ever,” says Rebecca Leach, a writer from Austin, Texas. “Even if you’d rather not talk to anyone, you can still sit and write while surrounded by people who have the same crazy deadline and goal as you. Just being near other writers can provide a huge boost in motivation.”
If you can’t make it to a write-in, you can join thousands of people in NaNoWriMo’s online forums. Participants posted nearly a million comments last year on every imaginable writing topic. You can talk characterization in the Character Cafe, work out plot conundrums in the Plot Doctoring forum, chat with folks writing in your genre, or even swap favorite writing tunes via NaNo Soundtracks.
“What job would best suit a fairy looking to pay her way through college?” Your fellow Wrimos will answer your calls no matter what they are.
Forbes columnist and Wrimo George Anders describes the feeling as that of a “legitimate writers’ colony,” saying that “by having access to so many peers … [people] emerge from this process with better stories—and better ability to navigate past writing snags—than they would have enjoyed otherwise.”
Psychological studies back that up. Research shows that creations tend to emerge from a sequence of small sparks lit by others—as opposed to the common notion of a light bulb of inspiration occurring in isolation. An initial idea grows through the interchange of ideas, with one sparking another—and then the light bulb glows. Think of a jazz group, where individual musicians riff on a melodic theme. They don’t necessarily know where the song is going; the group has the ideas, not the individual musicians. As a result, unexpected insights emerge.
“Collaboration makes the mind more creative because working with others gives you new and unexpected concepts and makes it more likely that your mind will engage in the most creative types of conceptual creativity—combining distant concepts, elaborating concepts by modifying their core features, and creating new concepts,” writes psychologist Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius.
Meeting to write with others is important not just for your creativity; it also keeps you accountable. Think about it: Are you more likely to stop writing when your plot plays dead while alone at home or in a room full of other writers? “There is a sense of accountability in every NaNo write-in, even if it’s just one person asking, ‘So, what are you working on?’” New Jersey writer Richenda Gould says. “In [completing the NaNoWriMo challenge] the last two years I’ve seen individuals grow. Projects got finished because people made the time to join others and work on them.”
The age-old maxim is that writing a novel is 89 percent perspiration, 10 percent caffeine, and only 1 percent inspiration. But sometimes even when your butt is in the chair, your fingers don’t want to move on the keyboard. If that’s the case, then you can go mano-a-NaNo with other writers during NaNo’s “word sprints”—timed writing dashes with writing prompts sprinkled in. Word sprints are regular parts of write-ins, and they’re also hosted by @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter 24 hours a day throughout November.
“When I first started NaNoWrimo, I tried the old BICHOK method (butt in chair, hands on keyboard), but I would struggle,” says Mary Egan, a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. “I would sit down every night at 7 p.m. and try. I might get 500 words by 10 p.m. But once our area started doing word sprints at write-ins, my word count exploded.”
Writing 50,000 words in a month is all about forward movement. Hit delete sparingly.
“NaNoWriMo participants become cheerleaders for one another, congratulating others on amazing word counts and word sprint speeds, and reminding the slower Wrimos that every word they write counts, getting them closer to the goal,” Bahamas–based Wrimo Alicia Wallace says.
Celebrating at the Summit
Even with the writer’s high of pushing your word count closer and closer to 50,000, NaNoWriMo can be a gnarly, snaggle-toothed beast. Only your fellow writers can understand why you haven’t showered, or why you’re more concerned about a character lost in the space-time continuum than your own lack of sleep.
“The NaNoWriMo community is full of people who understand that sometimes characters talk to you at inopportune times,” wrote Gennifer Albin, author of Crewel, in a NaNo pep talk. “They understand what it’s like to live with a foot in two worlds. They know that reality and fiction blur, and they’re one hell of a support group.”
Support group and bon vivant celebrants. When you hit 50,000 words, you want to hear people banging pots and hooting and hollering.
When the writer “Mithgariel” (her NaNo screen name) told people about finishing her novel, she wrote on a NaNo forum that most responded with a “meh.” “Even my best friend could not understand. And I really, really need some heavy patting on the back and other forms of adoration right now.”
Scads of fellow Wrimos chimed in. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around other people’s goals and accomplishments when it’s not on their list of important things to do or acknowledge, or they have no idea what kind of effort/skill/time it takes,” one writer reassured her. “This is a great place to have your very own winning party.”
Recognizing milestones along the way is critical to success in any grand endeavor. NaNoWriMo writers proudly shout out when they’ve hit 5,000 words or 50,000 words, whether it’s on Twitter, at a write-in, or in the forums. Municipal Liaisons host “Thank God It’s Over” Parties in December to toast all of the new novels spawned (and allow writers to commiserate about their sore hands).
“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to,” Orson Scott Card wrote in Speaker for the Dead.
I’ll go one step further. Every novel is defined by the community of writers it belongs to. A novel isn’t written solely by its author, after all; it’s also a work of the people surrounding it—and supporting it.
“From the friendly ML whose late-night email pep talk kept you from quitting to the inspiring veteran who cranks out 50,000 words every month, NaNoWriMo is the only way I know of to be welcomed into the arms of a community of writers even before you’ve written a single word,” DePiano says.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.