National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo – begins this weekend, spurring all those would-be authors willing to put themselves on the line to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s an excellent initiative, and has now become grown into a global event. For those of you who are considering joining in, or have heard about NaNoWriMo and thought ‘that sounds kinda’ cool, I really should look into that’, here’s the what and the why of how it works.
NaNoWriMo started in 1999 in San Francisco with 21 participants. It was originally held in July, but moved to November because the weather in the US is worse then, inspiring more people to stay indoors and write. The event was started (‘accidentally’) by freelance writer Chris Baty, who organised the event up till 2011, when he quit to write full-time, largely based on the works and contacts he’d made through his work with NaNoWriMo (Baty now teaches at Stanford University, amongst his various creative pursuits). The ethos of the event was not only to inspire those who’d always wanted to write a novel, but to also build communities of like-minded folk, to get writers to connect with one another.
The event has grown year-on-year and is now a truly international event. In 2013, 400, 000 people participated in NaNoWriMo – including 4, 400 from Australia. The collective word count from those 400k writers was close to 3 billion, a massive achievement. Many of these stories would’ve never seen the light of day, but they’re now out there, being worked on, being discussed and connecting people in a discussion about the written word.
The rules of NaNoWriMo are as follows:
- Starting at 12:00 am on November 1st, novels must reach a minimum of 50,000 words before 11:59:59 pm on November 30th, local time.
- Planning and extensive notes are permitted, but no earlier written material can go into the body of the novel, nor is one allowed to start early and then finish 30 days from that start point.
- Participants write either a complete novel of 50,000 words, or simply the first 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later.
To ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, participants need to write an average of approximately 1,667 words per day. Organizers say the aim of the event is simply to get people writing, using the deadline as an incentive to get the story going and to put words to paper. There is no fee to participate in NaNoWriMo, registration is only required for novel verification.
No official prizes are awarded – anyone who reaches the 50,000 word mark is declared a winner.
Do any of these books get published?
Yeah, they do. More than 100 NaNoWriMo novels have been published since 2006, including the New York Times Best Seller ‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen, which was later adapted into a Hollywood film. Many established novelists have used NaNoWriMo as an impetus to get their novels done, along with the thousands of first timers – just having it set aside as a time to write has kept many writers going.
How do you get involved?
You can visit the official NaNoWriMo website to register and put down details of your project and aim for the month. There are a heap of resources on the site, worth checking them out and reading through the various notes on inspirations and ideas. From the site, you can connect to the home for your region, where you can find info on events happening in your city and ways to connect with other NaNoWriMo folk – the Melbourne community page is here.
There are a heap of resources and posts online documenting people’s experiences and inspirations for NaNoWriMo, if you’re not sure about participating, have a look and you’ll be able to get a better idea of whether it’s for you.
Almost everyone has thought about writing a novel at some stage. Everyone has an idea in mind, a story they’d love to get down but they never have the time to actually do it. NaNoWriMo is a great initiative to help give people that push, that impetus they need to get it down – and it’s only for a month, you only have to make the commitment to write for 30 days. The bottom line is that a writer writes. That’s what you do – if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. NaNoWriMo could be the first step towards getting your story together, to making something from nothing, creating a whole world of characters and happenings, right there on your screen. It all starts with you and the blank page.
If you’ve ever thought about it, maybe this year’s the one that you actually sign up.
There’s one certainty in writing, or in doing anything creative for that matter – not everyone is going to like your stuff. In fact, there’s always going to be people who hate what you do. It’s just not their thing, they’re not going to like it no matter how you go about it. You can’t expect everyone to be supportive or positive about your work, because it won’t happen. Same as you, people like some things, don’t like others, that’s going to be the case with editors, publishers, judges – sometimes your stuff just won’t be their thing. You can’t take it personal.
The best way to combat this is to know who you are and what you want. I was listening to a podcast by artist David Choe once, where he was talking about his life and how he became an artist. Choe was basically a juvenile delinquent, vandalising whatever he could. He talked about how he grew up doing stupid drawings of G.I. Joe figures and his early drawings that you can find online are just that, scribbles no better than anything you could do (Choe notes this himself in one of his books). But he stuck with it, and over time he developed his own personal style. His work (in my opinion) is amazing, but as impressive is his persistence and dedication to his art. It wasn’t created for anyone else, it wasn’t designed with a commercial strategy in mind – Choe has said his options were become an artist or end up in prison (he ended up doing both, but that’s another story).
What David Choe’s story highlighted to me was that you need to do your art for you. You need to know what you want and be happy with what you’re doing. And to a large degree it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, you stick with what you want to create, what you feel passionately about doing, and you can create something that will be wholly fulfilling. Anything can be art, any means of communication you choose for what you want to create can work, can come together, you just need to be true to yourself and be able to envision want from your work. It doesn’t matter what anyone else wants, you put your heart into something and that is something that cannot be replicated. You are putting your individuality into your work, no one else can do that. As long as you can feel happy with what you’ve created, feel that it is all it can be, then it’s right.
And that’s an important note to keep in mind – that it’s all it can be. Most times you’ll know when something’s done right, it will feel complete. You’ll also know when it’s not complete, when you haven’t given it your all. If you put out work that you know isn’t complete, that’s likely to come across, that’s the feedback you’ll get, and you have to be honest with yourself. If someone criticises something you’ve done, you have to think ‘is this the best I could do?’ Sometimes you need to be confronted with tough feedback to get the best out of your work – it’s not a stop sign, not a signal for you to give up. You need to take feedback on and use it. Keep in mind what it is you want to achieve.
My approach with my writing is that I will listen to any and all feedback from readers who want to give it to me, good or bad. If one person says they didn’t like a section, I won’t necessarily go back and re-do it (it would depend on their reasons for disliking it). But if that same section is highlighted by more than one reader, I will definitely go back and re-read it and make sure it’s communicating the story I want to tell. If I can read my work back and feel happy with it, especially if I’m reading it back months after first writing it, then I know it has something. It may need more work to polish it, but I know there’s something there and I’ll stick with it.
You, as a writer, as an artist, should never be afraid of criticism or feedback. You need to get your work out there. But you need to know your work is, at it’s core, the best it can be from your perspective. New perspectives will help you enhance it, but you need to be the one who feels confident – it’s your work. It needs to be you, not what you think someone else might want. You’re going to get rejected and criticised, but that’s how it is. All writers get rejected. All of them. Don’t let rejection get in the way of what you want. If you know that you have done all you can, that your work is the best it can be, in alignment with what you want to achieve, then you should stick with it. Keep working, keep developing your own style. You only fail as an artist when you give up.