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Nonprofit inspires hundreds of thousands to try writing the Great American Novel

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 13 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Last year, a nonprofit organization rallied 341,375 people to write a novel in the month of November.

Anna Berkut, Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s November, and that means that the National Novel Writing Month is well underway. Now in its 15th year, a nonprofit group has a mission of encouraging as many people as possible, young and old, to write their own novel in 30 days.

That’s 30 days, or one month, to write 50,000 words, which is what NaNoWriMo — as the group calls itself — defines as a novel-length work. Think of it as nurturing the Great American Novel in about the same time as it takes to grow the average radish.

Last year, the nonprofit organization rallied 341,375 NaNoWriMos to join in the challenge. But one integral part of the challenge are the support groups enabled by the collective enterprise. With an intricate web of online forums, writers can and do connect online. But they also host write-ins and meet-ups in which novelists can gather, discuss, bond and — most importantly — write.

First-time novelist

Ellen Lloyd has always had good intentions to write her 50,000 word novel in previous Novembers. Last year she talked a lot about her planned novel but never actually wrote a single word.

This year, however, things are different for Lloyd because of the community support from fellow first-time novelists.

"I had never participated in the meet-ups or write-ins before this year,” she said. “I honestly feel that getting more involved in the NaNo community is what has helped me to follow through, whether it's through the meet-ups or the online forums."

Lloyd headed to a write-in at a Christian Youth Center near her California home with 18 other writers. The group pounded away on their laptops, in which their invented characters built mythical worlds. Her group even had "word wars," or 30-minute bursts of writing where they competed with each other to receive a prize for the highest word count.

"Being able to go to a local coffee shop and meet with people who understand writing a novel in 30 days and all of the stresses and joys that come with it can be quite comforting," Lloyd said. "You meet with people and instantly have something to talk about, and passionately, because NaNo just brings that out of you."

"My novel is not turning out as great as it seemed it would in my head," Lloyd said. But she is pressing forward. "I am still writing my novel and planning to finish it to prove that I can."

Writing with kids

Erica Bayless has tackled the task of coaching 80 fourth-graders in their quest to write a kid-sized “novel” during the month of November. NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program, for kids up to age 17, encourages writers to set challenging word-count goals — although considerably shy of the organization’s 50,000 word benchmark for a novel.

"Our fourth-graders just have a thousand words," said Bayless, who teaches at Noah Webster Academy in Orem, Utah. "When they're in fifth grade it goes up, and when they're in sixth grade it goes up again. It's one of the biggest assignments they have all year long — but they seem to love it."

Every year she anticipates groans and complaints about such a large project. The result is just the opposite.

"They are super-excited to talk to me in the halls about what they're writing and who their main character is and what their villain is going to do," Bayless said. "And they'll tell me, 'I have 313 words already.’ ”

The kids talk about their stories at recess, forming little groups to discuss plot twists and character development, she said. They love the creativity they're afforded while participating in the Young Writers Program — and Bayless provides a big incentive to finish.

"When they do win the contest, they'll get five free copies of their [bound] book," Bayless said. "So that's really what motivates them so they also want to make their story as amazing as possible."

Beyond discussing it with their teachers and peers, students also have to communicate to their parents about their work. Stories must be typed to be entered into NaNoWriMo’s website, and many families are helping their fourth-graders in this way.

Last year, NaNoWriMo says, more than 80,000 students participated in the Young Writers Program.

Creating career novelists

One successful novelist, Bryan Young, started his National Novel Writing Month journey at the suggestion of a friend and fellow writer. After years of participating, he has bonded with many in his Salt Lake City community who share a passion for writing. They have found lots in common, from comic books to novel-writing.

"There's a lot of crossover from the geek community into the National Novel Writing thing," said Young. "The moderator for the local group here [and I] talk online via Twitter about the new superhero movies and things like that."

Young is actually an accomplished novelist. His last published work, "Operation Montauk," was started during a 50,000-word event in November. One of his favorite elements of the NaNo community is the friendly competition spurred on by the 30-day deadline.

"I really enjoy seeing my daily word goal,” said Young. “I love seeing it ahead of everyone else's. I want to be that guy at the top of the heap." Young relishes the opportunity provided by a huge community of creative people — all focused on writing to talk through plot ideas and get suggestions and tips for finishing his stories.

"I had a booth where I was selling books and signing books at Salt Lake Comic Con," he said. “We sat there and chatted about writing in the midst of Comic Con, because we'd made that connection through National Novel Writing Month."

Cal Armistead's first novel, “Being Henry David,” was another product of NaNoWriMo. Published this year, it follows a young boy who loses his memory, with a painful journey to discover who he is. The Boston-based author loves being with good company during the month of November.

"I’ve tried doing self-driven versions of NaNoWriMo at other times of the year, but I’ve never been successful," Armistead said. "There’s something powerful about the vibe during November, when like-minded people are stirring up all that creative energy in the universe!"

Email: ataylor@deseretnews.com

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