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A fifth grade teacher gets home from school. She brings in her purse and the witch’s hat she wore for her classroom’s Halloween party. Later she makes herself some dinner - chicken, mashed potatoes, and broccoli -, grades the spelling test her class took yesterday, and flips through the TV channels, watching some reality/survival show. Trick-or-treaters come every so often, interrupting the show. She greets them in that witch‘s hat, hands them some chocolate candy, listens to their song or joke, and goes back to her show. After a few hours, she’s watched more than enough TV and the candy stash has disappeared, so she flips off her porch light, and makes her way to the desk in the corner of her bedroom. She clears the top of any clutter, twirls around on her office chair, and begins to wait.
A college student heads back into his dorm after a three hour engineering lab. He sighs as he drops three textbooks on his desk. After a glance in the mirror, he heads out for a date. A few hours later, he kisses his girlfriend goodbye, goes back inside, sits at his desk, and studies for an upcoming exam. As midnight approaches, he glances at the clock on his laptop.
After coming home from a game of golf, a retired man heads outside. His wife is sitting on the back porch, as his grandchildren play tag in the yard. He breathes in the air, and after visiting with his daughter, who is picking up her kids for some trick-or-treating, he heads upstairs for a nap. He’s going to need the rest if he’s going to be up at midnight.
A high school freshman gets home from school. She tells her mom about her good grade on her biology test and heads to her room. She drops her backpack on the floor and picks up her phone. A few hours later, she eats dinner with her parents, changes into a hippie costume, and goes trick-or-treating with some of her friends. When they head back to her house, they all come inside, watch a Halloween special, and eat some candy. They leave eventually, but she keeps herself awake watching more TV. At eleven fifty, she leaves the living room.
So, can you picture it? A fifth grade teacher, a future engineer, a grandfather, a high school freshman. (Maybe even one of the teacher’s fifth grade students.)
Now, picture July, 1999, the San Francisco Bay Area. Twenty of freelance writer Chris Baty’s friends got together, swearing to write 50,000 word novels that month, for no reason other than the fact that they could. They were bored, and they wanted to do something, so twenty-one of them sat down to write novels, and six of them actually did.
The next year, this crazy plan didn’t stop. Baty continued, moving the competition to November, this time with a website made by a friend, and one hundred and forty writers who signed up to participate. Twenty nine winners.
Baty had dubbed the competition National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo for short, but in that second year, they had already gone international, with Canadian writers joining in.
Each year, the number of participants increased exponentially, as did the winners. The website became fancier, the participants were from all over, and the online challenge developed merchandise - from T-shirts to a how-to-novel book written by Chris Baty, titled No Plot? No Problem!, the site’s slogan.
I, myself, didn’t hear of this competition until its tenth anniversary, in 2008. I read over the site with a rather incredulous smile, the one parents give their children when they say they want to be the next president when they’re all grown up.
Write 50,000 words of a new novel during the month of November. Don’t focus on quality, focus on quantity. Ignore your inner editor. Write just to write. Worry about perfection later. Come the last day of November, to win you have submitted your story to the website, where the computer performs a word count. 50,000 words, and you’re a winner of a certificate, a purple winner bar on your profile page, and a completed novel.
It seemed a bit crazy, but I, along with 119,301 other participants signed up to write a novel, approximately 175 pages long. That November, embracing the spirit, I began typing enthusiastically the second my computer calendar said November had begun. Every day, I tried to write about 1,667 words a day, so I wouldn’t fall behind.
I signed up for a lot of reasons, but mainly I signed up because of the nonchalant attitude. I’d always loved writing, but for this, I didn’t have to be the next J.K. Rowling. I could be me, the high school freshman, who had been wanting to be a writer since the third grade.
NaNoWriMo understands that there’s a writer in all of us, a once-upon-a-timer wanting to write their story down, and this challenge encourages doing whatever you have to, to write, because once you have that first draft, anything’s possible. It encourages sloppiness and cringe-worthy dialogue. It encourages writing at 2 am. It encourages laughing at yourself. By providing a website and a deadline, it encourages the one-day-maybe-I’ll-write-a-novel dreamers to write that novel today.
I wrote every day, and I rarely fell behind. Words flowed out of me, and eventually, it seemed like my characters knew themselves better than I did, as they did things I had certainly hadn’t planned. And before the end of November, I hit the save button, and called to my parents in the other room, “I DID IT!”
21,683 writers submitted their novels to the website that year, were proclaimed winners, and either wrote The End or swore to finish up the rest later. Some were teachers, soldiers, businesses men, family men, mothers, students. Some were even younger than middle school age, participating in the Young Writer’s Program - the classroom/children’s version of this event.
Some were happy with their novels in the end, editing, writing sequels, and pursuing publication. Some will probably never write again.
As for me, I spent the next six months rewriting my novel every so often, laughing at the purely awful grammar and sometimes over-the-top narration. By the time I finished draft two, I like to think my novel was less laughable.
This November, over 100,000 more writers will begin another journey - into science fiction worlds, romantic first loves, tragic home lives, happy fairy tales. I’ll be one of them, because if there’s anything participating in National Novel Writing Month has taught me, it’s that the little girl who said she wanted to be a real writer, well, she wasn‘t all that crazy.
As you go to the website (nanowrimo.org) out of curiosity, picture me, a third grader telling her mommy and daddy that she wants to be a writer. They smile at their president/firefighter/rock star. Seven years later, that same girl tells her mom she’s going to write her first novel in November. She’s not so sure how confident she sounds, as she awkwardly writes on her profile’s bio section, that she’ll just try to make it to ten thousand words.
Thirty days later, she can’t quite picture that insecure would-be-novelist she was, and ten months later, in the corner of her word processor’s screen, as she writes an essay about her experience, her novel’s file stares at her from the documents pane.
The End has come for that story. Next November, I’ll become that self-conscious girl again for a little while, until I start to write. Who’s going to join me?
This challenge is a bit crazy, but if you can dream about your name on a novel in the window of your favorite book store, you can certainly picture yourself doing this.