Nov. 17, 2005 — -- Are you convinced you have a novel in you but just don't want to spend all that time and mental effort to actually work on it?
If that's the case, you could join 60,000 other intrepid, wanna-be novelists competing in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) -- a sprint to finish a 50,000-word novel from scratch during the month of November.
Word count is what matters in this race, and those words can be "crap," says NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, a 33-year-old from Oakland, Calif. This is a contest that values enthusiasm and perseverance over craft, quantity over quality.
Baty, a freelance journalist who never had aspirations to become a fiction writer, came up with the idea for NaNoWriMo in 1999. "I had been drinking too much coffee and wanted to think of something fun to do with friends," said Baty, who has himself completed seven -- in his words -- "mediocre" manuscripts.
From its humble beginnings with 21 participants and six finishers (or "winners" in NaNoWriMo parlance) the contest has grown exponentially, to 42,000 participants and just shy of 6,000 winners last year.
NaNoWriMo's popularity is due in no small part to the Internet, where writers from all over the world can commiserate, celebrate and share ideas in Web forums. You can even get those sticky plot points worked out in one of the forum's threads. Some of the questions these would-be novelists need answered include: Could a dog accidentally hotwire a go-kart? How much does a Singapore Sling cost in Malaysia? How might a murderous beautician immobilize her clients using only hair-care products?
"It is very lighthearted," admits Baty, but he adds, "It's a month to run amok in your own imagination."
Though many don't finish the race, and the vast majority don't expect a book deal -- or in some cases, to even let anyone ever see what they've written -- seven participants have had novels that began in NaNoWriMo picked up by publishers.
Lani Diane Rich joined NaNoWriMo on Halloween night in 2002 when she was living in Anchorage, Alaska and "bored to tears." Rich had attempted to write novels before but said that each time, she got to chapter five and wanted to "drop a bomb and kill all the characters."
So Rich joined the contest and she says it "opened up this magical literary free fall." She wrote 2,000 words a day, even if they weren't that great. "And once you stop worrying about them being bad, it started being good," she said.
After a lot of editing, that first NaNoWriMo effort became "Time Off for Good Behavior," which was published in 2004 by Warner Books and won the Romance Writers of America RITA award for Best Debut Novel. Rich's 2003 NaNoWriMo effort became "Maybe Baby," published this year. This year, Rich is starting another book in the "chick lit" genre, tentatively titled "Ex and the Single Girl."
Despite her success, Rich says there's nothing easy about writing or having the discipline to do it every day. But for some writers, the goal and the community support of NaNoWriMo works. "I'm not agonizing over every little thing," she said. "It allows my brain to open up."
Janet Bowler, a 57-year-old former high school teacher in Astoria, Ore., was inspired to try her hand at NaNoWriMo by her teenage daughter, who participated the last two years.
"I didn't know what she was doing that first year," Bowler said. "I talked about getting a Spyware program to figure out what she was doing on her computer all the time."
This year, Bowler's daughter is in a student exchange program in Austria and can't participate, so Bowler is standing in as a "surrogate."" As of Nov. 9, Bowler had already hit just over 21,500 words -- almost halfway to the goal.
"Things are going much better than I anticipated," said Bowler, who writes about 2,000 words a day.
On midnight of Nov. 30, when (and if) she reaches her goal, Bowler said she plans to put her manuscript away for a few months, then revisit it for editing.
And though music is her first passion, Bowler says she's caught the writing bug through the experience. "I started it as a one-shot deal," she said. "But when you get so involved with it and the characters, it gets fun. It ends up being a mini-vacation."
And that, says Chris Baty, is exactly what he intended when he started NaNoWriMo. But does Baty's contest mock the craft and painstaking effort that goes into writing a novel?
"People might say, 'Oh just what the world needs, another mediocre novel.' But yes, that is exactly what the world needs," he said. "Making art is a visceral pleasure ... it's the joy of creation."