What if you’ve always known you had a story to tell—that it’s been in there all along waiting for the moment you felt ready to tell it? Or maybe your situation is different; maybe you’ve already started a novel but can’t quite get the momentum to make much progress.
What if you had the opportunity to finally make it happen? But here’s the catch (and the best part, really): you only get one month.
That’s the bare outline of the idea behind NaNoWriMo—short for National Novel Writing Month—an interactive writing challenge built around a supportive online (and increasingly in-person) community. The goal? That in the month of November each participant will power through a minimum of 50,000 words and complete a novel (or at least get an incredible running start).
But there’s much more to this event than just word count, as you’ll read below in the transcript of the chat I recently had with Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, Co-founder of the lit journal 100 Word Story, and a member of the Oakland Book Festival’s Literary Council.
Grant offered up some theories about why this event regularly draws half a million participants each year, while also giving us a preview of the upcoming NaNoWriMo Pep Rally: The Power of Writing with Abandon, taking place October 29 at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in Los Angeles (and streaming on Facebook Live):
SS: Why do you think NaNoWriMo appeals to so many people? What’s the psychology behind it?
GF: I think people have a burning need to make creativity a priority in their lives. Especially as we get older, our creative desires tend to fall further and further down our to-do lists. The practicalities of living unfortunately overwhelm the space for creativity. Fortunately, NaNoWriMo provides a very focused opportunity to make creativity a priority for just one month.
We’re all creators. We all went to pre-school and fingerpainted and sang songs and told stories and acted them out, so I think NaNoWriMo reconnects people with the original playfulness of creativity.
We believe that everyone has a story to tell, and everyone’s story matters. The proof of that is that 500,000 people will show up this November to write their stories. So I think this innate need to create combined with the stories in all of our hearts drive the popularity of NaNoWriMo.
And I’ll add one more: With a lot of creative pursuits, and especially writing, there’s an emphasis on it being a solitary activity, and NaNoWriMo breaks down that mythology. We are fundamentally a writing community, so a lot of people participate in NaNoWriMo just because they want to be creative with other people. Having a community with other writers is very enticing and nourishing.
SS: What kind of experience can writers expect? What kind of support and community is behind the event?
GF: It really runs the gamut. The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I did it alone, writing in a Word doc—and you can do that, and that’s great. But one of the real revelations for me has been participating in the NaNoWriMo community in all its forms. Our website is the main hub. People connect online, “friend” each other, and discuss literally every writing topic under the sun. Last November, people posted more than a million posts in our forums.
But the community actually goes way beyond the website. Most people find out about NaNoWriMo via social media. Our writers are very active online, and most people tend to find out about NaNoWriMo when a friend does it and posts about it on Facebook or Twitter. We’re usually trending on Twitter every day of November, and last year Facebook even added NaNoWriMo to their activity status icons.
I don’t know of any other event that brings people together online the way NaNoWriMo does. You can be online with someone halfway around the world and tweeting about your novel together. We’ve had people meet and become best friends or get married, just from those fledgling online relationships.
We also have nearly 1,000 volunteers around the world, called Municipal Liasons, who host writing events in their communities. And again, going back to breaking down that myth of the solitary writer—when people gather to write together, whether in libraries or coffee shops or bookstores, they enhance each others’ creativity and ensure greater accountability.. If you tell people you’re writing a novel, they’re going to ask you how your novel is going, and that’s huge. You want to be able to tell people you wrote 1,000 words or 2,000 words today.
Beyond that, we have a program called Come Write In, which supports nearly 1,000 libraries and community spaces to host writing events across the country. Many Municipal Liaisons and Come Write In libraries host writing groups beyond November, and we’re working really hard as an organization to make sure these connections last. We don’t shut off the lights on our website on December 1. We have a variety of programs to help writers keep that creative momentum and inspiration flowing year-round.
SS: I do hear you discussing creativity a lot, so does that mean that things like editing and revision kind of take a backseat for the month, or are those part of the process?
GF: We encourage revision, but NaNoWriMo is all about banishing your inner-editor and writing your novel and not getting hung up by any obstacles that have been preventing that. So making progress, moving your novel forward each day, is our emphasis. You can’t revise a blank page, so our main goal is to help people write that crucial first draft by showing up to write 1,677 words a day.
We also have a program called “I Wrote a Novel, Now What?” that we run in January and February where we provide support and resources around revision and publishing topics. Sometimes we’re mistakenly characterized as an event where people can write and publish in a month. We don’t say that. There are many stages to a novel and revision is a part—a key part—of the creative journey of a novel.
SS: Do most participants tend to finish their novel? Even if it’s not in November, do you hear from them in December, in January where they say “I did it!” Or is that not even a focus?
GF: Both! We have a lot of people who finish in a month, and then we have other people who will finish their novels in Camp NaNoWriMo, which takes place in April and July. I just heard from a novelist who is publishing the NaNo novel she started in 2006, so finishing, and especially publishing, can take a while.
That said, for many people, publishing is not necessarily a priority. Just as someone might go out on a Friday night and go dancing just for the joy of dancing, that doesn’t mean they want to join a ballet troupe. A lot of people just show up to write a novel with their friends with no end publishing goal in sight. And I think that’s a beautiful thing! You can write just for the fun of it.
We’ve had many bestselling books and thousands of published novels come out of NaNoWriMo, but there’s also something wonderful about just embracing the joy of writing unto itself. I’ve had professional writers tell me that’s why they’ve done NaNoWriMo—to reconnect with that original joy and meaning of writing.
SS: Do you find it resonates with writers of certain genres more than others? Is it a good fit for some more than others?
GF: I think every genre of writer can benefit from participating in NaNoWriMo—whether as a way to get through that often torturous first draft or as an experiment in your creative process. That said, most of the people who sign up write in a specific genre, but it’s really varied. Science fiction, fantasy, YA, and romance are very popular, but we also have literary fiction and fan fiction writers, as well, so a lot of different kinds of writers participate.
SS: What about non-fiction writers. Do they ever participate?
GF: They do! We call them NaNo Rebels, and we welcome them..Memoir obviously lends itself to NaNoWriMo. I personally think that everything is a story and whether you write fiction or non-fiction, we just want to encourage people to tell their stories, to write. So if people want to write their memoir or other non-fiction, I think it’s a great place for them. We’ve had people write grad school dissertations—we’ve had every kind of writing done during the month of November.
The reason NaNoWriMo can help any type of writing is that every writer has those moments when you open up the laptop and writing just feels like absolute punishment. Like it’s the last thing you want to do. Even after a lifetime of writing, I sometimes feel this way. But now that I’ve done NaNoWriMo, I pinch myself and tell myself to just churn it out and get my 2,000 words down. And then tomorrow when I wake up, I’ll have these 2,000 words waiting for me to revise or move the story forward.
SS: You have momentum.
GF: Yeah, everytime I experience procrastination or dread now, I just remind myself of the NaNoWriMo method and tell myself to just get it down. Get something down. That lesson helps with every sort of writing project—or every kind of project in general. Accomplishing big things happens in incremental steps, but you have to show up every day to move things forward.
SS: It’s like working a muscle
GF: Yes, and the writing almost always goes better than you expected once you get started. When I review what I wrote later, I’m almost always surprised that what I thought was crap really isn’t so bad.
SS: What can people expect from the pep rally, whether they’re at the conference or they’re watching it on Facebook Live?
GF: I just started planning it with the fantastic and funny Ron Warren, who is a Municipal Liaison from Bakersfield. Ron is an improvisational actor, and naturally, improv is a component of NaNoWriMo because in some ways NaNoWriMo is an improvisational writing exercise.
We’re going to talk about the creative benefits of NaNoWriMo, and then we’re going to some really fun hands-on writing exercises and games so that people can get a taste of the November experience in the pep rally. People will come out ready to write a novel in November, guaranteed.
SS: So it really will be kind of like improv?
GF: Yeah, a lot like improv! One of the thigs that’s huge with NaNoWriMo are the word sprints. We have a word sprint account on Twitter that operates 24 hours a day. We give prompts, have people write with abandon for 5 or 10 minutes, and then people report back the number of words they wrote, or a great sentence they’re proud of, or a blooper. We’ll do similar things in the pep rally because we want to give people a glimpse into the experience of NaNoWriMo.