“30 Days and Nights of Literary Abandon”

The first question almost everyone asks when they learn I’ve written a novel is, “Do you plot everything out in advance, or do you figure it out as you go?” The answer is “Both.” I have a general idea of where I will end up, and I point the plot in that direction, but the route is unclear until I get there. Thousands of people—many of whom have never written a book before—are discovering their fictional paths this month.

We are reaching the middle of National Novel Writing Month (awkwardly abbreviated NaNoWriMo). Participating authors from countries around the world already report they have set down some 1.2 billion words. Skimming the long list of NaNoWriMo participants whose books drafted during this annual literary frenzy were ultimately published, I found Hugh Howey’s Wool, Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Indie Book of the Year. I happen to be listening to Wool on my iPod. I’ll bet there are authors in the list whom you know, too.

NaNoWriMo encourages participants to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days. In its first year, 21 writers participated, and six reached the finish line. (I use that term loosely, since completing the first draft of a novel is pretty darn far from anything resembling a “finish.”) Last year, the 14-year-old program had 256, 618 participants, 14 percent of whom reached the goal. Though they undoubtedly will have further work to do, this is a tremendous accomplishment.

The whole idea of NaNoWriMo appeals to me as a helpful boot camp for writers, aspiring or accomplished. It stresses the importance of writing every day—sustained effort—and shows writers they are capable of actually finishing something. Too many of us have promising, half-complete manuscripts languishing in drawers and Word files,  awaiting the return of a Muse who has apparently decamped to Brazil. NaNoWriMo’s fixed and tight deadline requires writers to power through at a blistering 1700-words-a-day pace, barely leaving time to roast the Thanksgiving turkey.

NaNoWriMo offers moral support and coaching through regional support groups. It took my breath away to learn that my region (Central New Jersey) has almost 3500 NaNoWriMo participants! The “shared experience” this encourages is based on the founder’s first experiment with the concept in July 1999. “We called it noveling,” he says. “And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed.”

A wistful look comes over people’s faces when they find out I’ve written a novel and published short stories. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” they say. If they do, there will be a rocky road ahead, but what I tell them about is the joy in traveling it. In future, I’ll also tell them about National Novel Writing Month.

As the NaNoWriMo folks say, “Win or lose, you rock for even trying.”