A “Novel” Idea


Graphic made by author, paper source: (Paper sheet/THOMAS/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Brigham Larson, Editor of News and Features

In high schools across the country, many students have fallen in love with the English language and attempted to harness its unique powers as a means to let out the story bouncing around in their minds. They open Google Docs, they write the beginnings of their magnum opus, but many eventually abandon it. Why is this? The main reasons are lack of a deadline or specific structure for the writing process, the expectation of perfection on the first draft, the endless distraction of the Information Superhighway, or a combination of the above. To any aspiring novelist, those things are all definitely daunting. Goodness, it’s undoubtedly daunting to no small number of professional writers.

Luckily, there is a solution. In July 1999 in San Francisco, a writer named Chris Baty assembled 20 other writers for the purpose of writing a novel in that one month. Of the 21 participants, 6 of them (Baty included) finished the month with the first draft of a brand new novel. It later expanded into a large Yahoo group of 140 participants for the next competition. Each year, the amount of people participating snowballed, with 5000 aspiring novelists taking up the challenge in November of 2001. By the time November of last year rolled around, it had grown into an international phenomenon with hundreds of thousands of participants hoping to set their doubts aside, silence their inner editor and put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as it were).

In an interview with about-creativity.com, Baty is quoted as saying, “In National Novel Writing Month, I feel like every story is the right story, that there are really no wrong turns in this month-long experiment in creative writing, all books are good books, and all words are good words.” In essence, that is the mission of NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month is not a competition, not even close. It is a sprint, not a race. Everyone who passes the finish line is a winner, no matter who crossed it first, and those who weren’t able to cross the finish line are encouraged to go for it next year.

This philosophy is especially amplified by the fact that the online community for the event is uncharacteristically supportive, kind, and welcoming, especially for an Internet forum. Newbies will openly share their troubles with writing, seasoned veterans will enthusiastically offer advice on things like pacing, staying focused, and everything relating to the ultimate goal of reaching 50,000 words by the end of the month.

As most of the writers on the website would tell you, even that goal doesn’t matter. If you have something written down, that’s a definite start, and the completion or continuation of this project could lead to something great. As long as you’re writing, you’re on the right track.

The National Novel Writing Month website (nanowrimo.org) provides plenty of resources to set one on their way to getting started. They have entire sections of their website entirely devoted to preparation for the event (if the writer is a “planner,” they will typically establish the groundwork of their novel in October, known as “Preptober”), as well as a series of pep talks by established writers meant to give helpful advice and motivation. Authors who have given these pep talks include Andy Weir, Neil Gaiman, and Kate DiCamillo.

NaNoWriMo’s methods are tried and tested…in some cases. One’s success in NaNoWriMo is partially dependent on their dedication to finishing the challenge on time, which would require writing a minimum of 1,667 words per day for 30 days. According to the NaNoWriMo Wiki (Or WikiWriMo, as it’s called), there has never been a documented percentage of winners above 30 percent. There is certainly no argument to be made that NaNoWriMo requires incredibly high amounts of dedication, a larger-than-usual helping of free time, and just a smidge of luck. But one can’t argue with the results either. Some novels that came about during the challenge include Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus,” Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” and Brandon Sanderson’s “Elantris,” all widely acclaimed novels by high-profile authors. It’s an incredibly difficult task, especially in high school, where the workloads constantly pile up, but it can be incredibly rewarding to tell yourself and other people (rewards for winning NaNoWriMo do include bragging rights!) that you wrote an entire novel in one month.

To any teenage writer out in the world burdened with hundreds of unopened Google Docs, each one with ten pages of a story that simply didn’t stick, the strict deadlines of NaNoWrimo and endless positive support from the online community may be just the trick needed to actually finish a story. It’s certainly been helpful to many in the past, as statistics collected in earlier years indicate that a decent percentage of NaNoWriMo winners were teenagers.

Literary masterpieces don’t just flow from someone’s hand directly to the document. Any writer worth their salt will tell you that. But the time crunch provided by NaNoWriMo can help to speed the process along and hopefully leave you on the other side of Fall with something that, while it’s most certainly going to be a first draft (which is to say, not very good) it will mean you wrote something. Something that can be expanded upon, refined, until it is something you are proud of.