Deadline Frenzy: Writing a Novel in 30 Days

If you invite Dan Scholes to a party this month, he's probably going to decline.

He's cleared his calendar of all obligations except his job as a groundskeeper at the University of Florida. He will spend his November writing.

Scholes, 44, is one of about 200,000 writers participating in National Novel Writing Month, frequently abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, or simply NaNo, a writing project taken on by professionals and amateurs alike.

The project challenges participants to write a 50,000-word novel, the equivalent of 175 pages, in 30 days. That breaks down to about 1,667 words per day.

Scholes has written podcasts and short stories for the past two years but has never attempted to craft a full-length book.

"I've had an idea for a novel for a long, long time," Scholes said. "NaNo is the push I need to get those ideas out of my head and onto paper."

The first National Novel Writing Month was held in July 1999. Chris Baty, a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, recruited 20 friends for the project. He was curious to see if a strict deadline would motivate writers. Six reached the 50,000-word goal.

In 2000, the month was moved to November, when the distraction of sunny summer days does not tempt writers into procrastination.

Today the Office of Letters and Light, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, oversees NaNoWriMo as well as Script Frenzy, where writers attempt to complete a stage or screenplay in 30 days. Baty is executive director.

Lindsey Grant, program director for NaNoWriMo and a writer herself, said about 18 percent of participants will write 50,000 words by the end of the month. Grant said the project is designed to encourage everyone, from the seasoned novelist to the amateur writer, to write on a daily basis.

"The title of 'author' is this much sought after but very rare thing," said Lindsey Grant. "We're trying to make writing a little more accessible to people."

For some, the task seems daunting.

"Absolutely Crazy"

"I thought it was absolutely crazy when I first heard about it," said Denise Jaden, of Abbotsford, Canada. "My friend told me I should do it, and I looked at her like she was insane."

But in 2007, Jaden accepted the challenge. She'd written three novels before, each taking months to complete, but had no success in getting them published. She hoped NaNoWriMo would relieve the frustrations she felt after so much writing and no publication.

She finished the first draft of a novel she called "Losing Faith," a book for young adults, just 21 days into November. After a year of revisions, it only took six weeks for a publisher to make her an offer. The novel was released in September by the Simon & Schuster imprint Simon Pulse.

Jaden said the novel she wrote during National Novel Writing Month was more focused than books she had worked on before. With such a tight deadline, she was forced to outline and plan before she attempted to write, making the "writing tighter and the quality better," she said.

Lisa Daily, of Sarasota, Fla., said the short deadline is a motivating factor in her writing.

"There's something about this insane deadline," she said. "You don't have time to be worried. You only have time to keep cranking out that word count."

Daily first participated in 2006. Previously a non-fiction writer, it was her first time ever writing fiction. While she only wrote 10,000 words during the month of November, she considered the project a success.

"It was a good kick in the pants for me," she said. "It got me in the habit of writing."

Today, Daily has published four books, three with Plume and one with Sourcebooks Casablanca, two of which she drafted as NaNoWriMo projects.

While the challenging deadline motivates some, it's the support system that attracts others to the project.

Teryl Cartwright, a part-time writer from Hanover, Pa., said the community NaNoWriMo provides makes the task of writing a novel in a month a little easier.

Online Community of Support

The project has developed online forums where writers can exchange ideas and get to know each other throughout the year. Local chapters of the project also arrange "write ins," where writers gather in libraries or coffee houses to work on their novels together.

"You're not alone," Cartwright said. "You have people who understand."

The community also inspires a sense of friendly competition, she said. Writers can track their progress on NaNoWriMo's website, logging the number of words they have completed. Participants can also see how much their peers have written.

"If you go online and see that your friends are way ahead of you, it inspires you to keep up," Cartwright said.

Daily agreed that NaNoWriMo is a great way for writers to interact with each other.

"Writing is sort of a lonely business," she said. "NaNo makes it a little less isolated."

By midnight on Nov. 30, participants must upload their novels onto the NaNoWriMo website.

There, the word count is verified, and those writers who have reached the 50,000-word target are emailed a PDF certificate of completion.

Novels are never judged and no material prizes are awarded. Winners must even fill in their own names on their certificates.

"In a way, we're kind of the worst contest in the world," Grant said. "But the true prize in all of this is the experience."

But Susan Shapiro, visiting professor at The New School, in New York City and author of seven books, warns writers that a novel will not be complete in a month's time.

"You can write a great essay in a month," she said. "You can write a brilliant sitcom pilot in a month, too. But getting out a great novel in just 30 days isn't going to happen."

However, she said the exercise of writing 50,000 words in just 30 days is a great experience for anyone interested in writing. The project forces participants to write so much, that they cannot dwell on mistakes or individual parts for too long, she said.

"A Very Cool Thing"

"There's something so liberating about writing something fast," she said. "Trying to be perfect is a great way to never get anything written."

Robert Dunn, a self-published author of four novels who teaches fiction writing at The New School, agrees that the project is a positive tool for writers.

"The only way to learn to write a novel is to try to write a novel," he said. "The whole idea of this is kind of ridiculous, but it gives people a framework to make writing more manageable."

He said the month is a great way for novice writers to practice their craft, but he also believes that a great quality novel cannot be completed in just 30 days.

"In a social way, it's a very cool thing," he said. "In terms of art, it's not the way I would tell people to proceed."

However, Dunn said the month can serve as a "jumping-off point" for writers. That is, a draft could be completed in a month, then rewritten over the next months or even years into a great piece of fiction.

"It's a way to get people started," he said. "And if one can write this seriously for a month, there is no reason one cannot keep writing throughout the year." contributor Meg Wagner is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Gainesville, Fla.