Ever try to write 50,000 words in 30 days?

November 1, 2007

Reaching a 5000-word minimum may seem unfathomable at 2 a.m. when all you’ve got is a couple of paragraphs and the paper is due in your 9 a.m. class. But somehow—somehow—it always gets done. In fact, if you’re an upperclassman, you probably suffer a moment of panic around 2:15, take a coffee break, come back and breeze through the remaining few pages with enough time for a nap before breakfast. Recently, a senior Editor at the Voice made a telling comment to me as I was complaining about a paper due the next morning which I hadn’t yet begun.

“A thousand words?” He scoffed. “That’ll take, like, an hour.”

He was right—but that’s not the point. Writing the paper was arduous and downright boring. Writing for NaNoWriMo would have been a lot more fun, and might have allowed me to keep up with the Voice editor’s pace.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. During NaNo, as insiders call it, participants challenge themselves to pen a 50,000 word novel in the thirty days of November. Winners are novelists. Losers, well—nothing ventured, nothing gained. Strict rules apply, of course. Absolutely no beginning before the official start date of midnight on November 1 (although you may use an outline.) No co-writing. No nonfiction, epic poetry, or screenplays—novels only. All manuscripts must be electronically submitted to the NaNoWriMo website by midnight on November 31st for the official word court. Break these rules, NaNo founder Chris Baty warns wryly on Nanowrimo.org, and your novel “will be dismissed by the global governing council that oversees internet-based novel-writing events.” Beyond these rules, though, anything goes.

NaNo is already popular among college students. According to Chris Baty, founder of NaNo, some colleges even run NaNo workshops in their fall semesters, and professors “are flabbergasted by how much the students take to it.” Baty has his own theory about why college students like NaNo so much: “NaNo appeals to people who are at big transition points in their lives, and I think college is the first of those. There’s so much noveling material, and people feel like they have a lot of stories to tell.”

Not to mention that, as he puts it, “the combination of over-caffeination and lots of free time is a creative writing miracle!” The completion rate reflects this enthusiasm—normally, about 18 percent of NaNo participants make it to 50,000 words, but in college workshops the rate is between 85 and 95 percent.

Baty launched NaNo in 1996. The event consisted of consisted of 21 friends in the Bay Area armed with laptops and a month’s worth of junk food. Four of them completed novels. The next year there were 140 participants from throughout the West Coast and Canada. By 2003, there were more than 25,000 participants from more than ten countries around the world. On the eve of this year’s NaNo, Bays is “comfortable anticipating 100,000 adults.”

Eight years into NaNo, Baty seems awed by its following. “We’re the worst writing contest ever. We have no prizes and no one reads your book!” Winners—those few, nearly 13,000 last year, who hit the 50,000 word mark—must make do with a gold star attached to their NaNoWriMo avatar and the enormous satisfaction of having written a novel (or so I hear, never having won the damn thing.) But in reality the tangible benefits of NaNo do extend beyond the several thousand 175-page manuscripts littering living rooms across the world on December. In 2004, Baty began asking participants for donations to cover technology and coordination costs, and NaNo eventually donated $7,000 to Room to Read to build three children’s libraries in Cambodia. In 2005, NaNo participants raised $14,000 for seven libraries in Laos; in 2006, $22,000 and twelve libraries in Vietnam.

You can do it without leaving the comfort of your dorm room. It’s physically less demanding than the Marine Corps Marathon And as Baty says candidly, “the ONLY thing that matters in NaNo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality.” When else in your college career will you be given free license—and a gold star!— to write as much BS as you can in the space of month?

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