If anyone is thinking of doing NaNoWriMo, do it. Even if you don’t ‘win,’ that’s 30,000 words that you didn’t have at the beginning. —Donna Weaver
Every November since 1999, writers around the world have been gathering together online and in person to each write a novel with a goal length of 50,000 words.
The event is called National Novel Writing Month, informally known as "NaNoWriMo." More than 7,000 registered participants were from Utah in 2014, according to the official website.
NaNoWriMo participants' objective of writing 50,000 words is often achieved by meeting a daily 1,666 word count. Once a participant hits the 50,000-word mark, he or she is considered a "winner" regardless of whether the story is finished.
Many writers who complete the challenge aren’t yet published authors. But some, including Donna Weaver of Orem, have seen their NaNoWriMo novels published. Others, like Annette Lyon of American Fork, are already published authors and use the month to get out of a creative rut.
Weaver, author of the Safe Harbors series, said she originally participated in NaNoWriMo when she became serious about writing her personal history, a low-key memoir with personal meaning that would supplement genealogical information.
“When I was younger, I messed around with short stories and always had stories going on in my mind,” she said. “I wanted to write (my personal history) in a way that it wouldn’t be a cure for insomnia for my descendants.”
She wanted her personal history to be an account of “what it was like to grow up as an Army brat living in a lot of countries” as well as a way to capture her mother, who died when Weaver was 14.
“Names and dates don’t give the heart of the stories,” said Weaver, explaining that she wanted to write something in the vein of “Little House on the Prairie,” which she said is a “beautiful example of placing you in that time period.”
When Weaver first heard of NaNoWriMo, she was too late to participate. So she “did her own thing in January” and wrote her first book, clocking in at 80,000 words by the end of the month.
Since then, she has participated during three Novembers, including this year, and twice during Camp NaNoWriMo, a more flexible version of the November event with sessions during the spring and summer.
Weaver said there are pros and cons to participating at the different times.
“Camp NaNoWriMo is not nearly as focused because less people are participating,” she said. “There is a creative synergy in November. But in August, you have an extra day (to hit your word count).”
Weaver said years of participating and writing fiction have changed her approach.
“(Writers) can spend years editing the first couple chapters of a book,” she said. “NaNoWriMo gives you the opportunity to set aside the internal editor and crank it out.”
Lyon, author of the Temple series, was already published when she first heard of NaNoWriMo. Even though she already had her own writing habits, she participated and found it a “useful tool.”
“It was a way to do something fun and totally different to get out of a slump,” she said.
This year, Lyon opted to work on revisions of a NaNoWriMo novel she had written in a previous year instead of participating in writing something new.
In the two years she participated, Lyon said, it wasn’t hard for her to meet her daily word-count goal, but the deadline of writing the entire story in a month “kicked it into high gear.”
Lyon said it's easy to get sidetracked by other projects, such as editing jobs or working on one of her regular 15,000-word anthology contributions, instead of making it a priority to finish a novel.
“(NaNoWriMo) is about maintaining momentum and focus,” she said.
Jessica Guernsey from Lindon recently finished her 10th year of completing NaNoWriMo. And for the first time, she worked as a municipal liaison, an official local volunteer over a specific region.
Municipal liaisons help participants with any problems they may have and coordinate with businesses and libraries for donations and Come Write In programs, she said.
Come Write In programs are events where NaNoWriMo participants gather together in local libraries and bookstores.
“We don’t do a lot of talking — we just write,” Guernsey said.
Before she was a municipal liaison, Guernsey said, she had set up informal Come Write Ins at The Chocolate, a dessert cafe in Orem.
Weaver, who had attended one of the previous year’s informal Come Write Ins at The Chocolate, said everyone was able to get some writing done, but it was more entertaining to listen to the Friday date-night conversations.
“It was great material for romance writers,” she said.
Over her 10 years of participating in NaNoWriMo, Guernsey has been a student, wife and mother, with difficulties through every stage.
“Finding the time to write is almost as difficult as finding something to write,” she said. “I started because it seemed fun. Now it’s an obsession. It’s the process of getting the book out of your head and onto the page.”
One year, she said, she only had the use of one hand because of a surgery, so she used a speech-to-text program to “write” her 50,000 words. That novel will be ready for submission after she gets it critiqued in February at Life, the Universe and Everything, a science fiction and fantasy conference in Provo.
Guernsey said other liaison responsibilities include fundraising, although the non-profit organization is “more participant-focused” and also receives funds through merchandising and sponsors.
To keep herself going, she buys a NaNoWriMo T-shirt every year.
“I’ve been known to wear my T-shirt to church the next day because I won the night before,” Guernsey said. “It’s under a nice blazer, but I know it’s there.”
The NaNoWriMo community offers support in the form of online forums and inspirational emails or “pep talks” sent by authors such as Brandon Sanderson and Veronica Roth.
“The emails tell you it’s OK to take this risk and it’s OK that it’s not going to be perfect,” Weaver said.
Lyon said she wasn’t aware of the forums the first time she participated, but last year she “dug into the website.” The interactions provided her with peer pressure “in a good way.”
“When you get together with other writers and everyone pops in their earbuds, the fact that other people are writing with you keeps you from checking Facebook,” she said.
Guernsey said the forums are also a place to ask research questions. One of her friends asked a question about a particular street, and someone who worked there sent her reference photos. Another time, Guernsey was able to answer questions about standards in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from another writer who had written an LDS minor character.
“It’s quite a network of ideas and support,” Guernsey said.
In addition to using online tools, Lyon said, pre-writing helped her accomplish her goals.
“Use October to prepare and think about what you’re writing,” Lyon said. “I’m not a huge outliner, but I know where I’m starting and ending and several landmarks.”
She said knowing her characters and the main conflict in the story and having “even just a line with a couple words about scene description” for what she would write the next day helped her from going in blind.
“You don’t have time to waste,” she said. “When I’m not at the keyboard, I think about what I’m going to write when I sit down.”
The practice of thinking ahead while driving and doing dishes or laundry was a habit she formed when she had “to pound out 15,000 words in 45 minutes while my daughter was in the dance studio,” Lyon said.
All three women said writing a novel in a month was a positive experience.
“If anyone is thinking of doing NaNoWriMo, do it,” Weaver said. “Even if you don’t ‘win,’ that’s 30,000 words that you didn’t have at the beginning.”
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