Like many authors, I have a “vanity shelf” in my home, with copies of all the books I’ve written (or contributed to). Well, at least it contains copies of all the printed books I’ve written—most of what I’ve produced in recent years has taken the form of ebooks and magazine articles. Among the titles currently on that shelf are books about Mac software and preparing Thanksgiving dinner, a bound copy of my Master’s thesis, and even—no kidding—a copy of Arnold and Sam, the Two Dragons, which I wrote in October 1974 at age seven. This 12-page book was my first work of fiction, and it was as bad as you might imagine, but I was understandably proud of it at the time. My mother typed it up, my father photocopied it, and my elementary school library even kept a copy on its shelves, with cover art hand-drawn by the author. By the time I left that school a few years later, it had been checked out nine times, only a few of which were by me.
In November 2005, I made my second attempt at writing fiction. I participated in National Novel Writing Month, which has been held annually since 1999. Along with more than 59,000 other aspiring novelists that year, I attempted to write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1 and November 30. I was one of almost 10,000 participants who reached that goal. However, what I wrote during that month is not sitting on my vanity shelf. I’ve declined requests to read it even by close friends and family members, who will love me regardless of how bad my writing is. In fact, I haven’t even looked at it myself since then. It’s so bad that it makes Arnold and Sam look like literary genius. And I don’t merely mean that it needs a few rewrites and a thorough going-over by a good editor. It is profoundly, utterly, and irredeemably awful. Humanity will be better off if no one, including me, ever sets eyes on that manuscript again.
And yet, say the organizers of of National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo, as it is known among its participants—I did exactly the right thing: I sacrificed quality for quantity. If you’re going to write a novel in 30 days, something has to give. But even if your novel is terrible, you can call yourself a novelist. The following year, you can breezily mention that you’re working on your second novel. And you can hold your head up high as you hobnob with other novelists, having accomplished a truly remarkable task—even if you accomplished it rather poorly. After all, so did most everyone else. The important thing is that you got it done, proving to yourself that you can make it through a process that has stymied and frustrated countless authors in the past.
NaNoWriMo began in the summer of 1999 when Chris Baty, a freelance writer living in Oakland, California, decided for no particular reason that he needed to write a novel in a month and invited a group of friends to do so too. That July, 21 people set out to write novels, and six, including Baty, finished. By “finish,” I mean they wrote 50,000 words of fiction. Baty had decided on that figure after picking up the shortest novel on his shelf—Brave New World—and doing a rough word count. Most novels, to be sure, are considerably longer, but 50,000 words, or about 175 pages, seemed to be just long enough while being achievable for the average writer in 30 days.
The following year, the event moved to November and, thanks to word of mouth, attracted 140 participants. In 2001, after newspaper articles and bloggers started covering NaNoWriMo, participation ballooned to 5,000. The number of novelists has continued to rise each year; by 2017, the number was well above 400,000. People from all over the world write novels, in a variety of languages, each November. The experience is oddly addictive, too; a sizable majority of participants from any given year repeat the undertaking again and again.
NaNoWriMo is about much more than simply sitting at your computer in a quiet corner somewhere and typing 50,000 words; it’s about being part of a huge number of people doing something challenging. In order to connect all the participants to each other, keep track of how many people are writing, and confirm reaching that magical word count, every novelist is asked to sign up (at no cost) on the NaNoWriMo website. In hundreds of cities around the globe, novelists schedule regular write-ins at cafés and bars to encourage each other as they write. In addition, online forums are abuzz all during the month as the writers seek and give advice, brag or complain about their progress, and try to maintain enough collective enthusiasm to get everyone through the month. There are also numerous kick-off (and “Thank God It’s Over”) parties, and in some places, even weekend novel-writing retreats. Writers are encouraged, but not required, to post their current word counts regularly. You can earn achievement badges as you go, for various forms of progress and participation.
When you’re finished with your novel, you can upload your text to the NaNoWriMo servers for a single purpose: to use its automated word count validator. This doesn’t publicize the text in any way, and no one on the NaNoWriMo staff actually reads your work. (In fact, they go to great lengths to assure your privacy.) But it does confer on you the official status of a NaNoWriMo “winner.”
At the end of the month, what you do with your novel is up to you. Needless to say, even highly experienced writers are unlikely to churn out anything more than a first draft in a month; further work on the novels, at one’s own leisure, is encouraged. In past years, December was the unofficial National Novel Finishing Month, or NaNoFiMo March, while March was designated National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo. But now NaNoWriMo devotes January and February to supporting the work of finishing and publishing novels. In one way or another, a number of NaNoWriMo participants have gone on to hone their works and get them published; many, however, have no aspirations to be professional novelists and do the writing just for the experience of it.
Given the hundreds of thousands of annual participants, National Novel Writing Month has evolved from an informal project managed by a few friends in their spare time to a full-blown nonprofit corporation (formerly called The Office of Letters and Light), complete with a paid staff and an actual office. The organization is funded through voluntary donations and merchandise sales, and the money raised supports projects for aspiring authors such as a Young Writers Program, the one-month Camp NaNoWriMo, and the Come Write In program held at libraries, bookstores, and other community locations.
Chris Baty’s motivational book about novel-writing, No Plot? No Problem!, is popular among NaNoWriMo participants, stressing as it does the importance of getting through the process without worrying about whether the writing is any good. Speaking for myself, not having any notion of a plot my first time around actually was a huge problem. Not only did it mean I ended up with something that—let me repeat—must never again be read by anyone, but it meant that as I was writing, I found it hard to generate much enthusiasm; I simply didn’t care enough about the story I was writing for it to be an interesting process for me. However, that experience also taught me some valuable lessons, and I fully expect that, armed with a clearer notion of what kind of story I want to tell, I’ll participate again. And if, some day in the distant future, I’m better known as a novelist than as a technical writer, I’ll have NaNoWriMo to thank for it.
If you’re planning to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo, get a good night’s sleep, load up on leftover Halloween candy and caffeine for fuel, and start the month off right by writing at least 1,667 words (one day’s average quota) on day one. Many, many people say that an app called Scrivener makes the writing process simpler and more enjoyable—and it includes lots of organizational tools for those who find them helpful. I like Scrivener a lot, and in fact my company has published a book about it: Take Control of Scrivener 3, written by my colleague Kirk McElhearn. The book helps you make the most of the app, but remember: if you’re going to write 50,000 words in one month, you’re better off just using Scrivener’s basic and obvious features, and then taking the time to learn about all the bells and whistles later, once you have a bit more free time. Good luck!
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 27, 2006.