It took J.K. Rowling six years to do it. Stephen King can do it in four months. Stephanie Meyers did it for her first time in just three months.
Sure. But try writing a novel in 30 days.
That's the gauntlet thrown down for writers in November, aka National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For the last 11 years, this brainchild of a group of San Francisco scribes and fiction-lovers has been challenging would-be novelists to stop procrastinating and crank out a fresh 50,000-word novel between Nov. 1 and midnight on Nov. 30.
It's an admittedly ridiculous deadline. But right at this moment, more than 200,000 people around the world are furiously taking pen to paper and fingers to keyboard to give it a shot. Last year, an estimated 30,000 of them hit that magic word-count goal. And what did they win? Absolutely nothing but the satisfaction of having finally accomplished a life-long dream. Well, that, and a rough draft of a 175-page novel, which is probably a hell of a lot more than you're going to accomplish this month, buddy.
"It's just fun," says Jess Jacob, who heads Asheville Novel Writing Month (AsheNoWriMo), a local NaNoWriMo group that she started last year. "If you think you want to be a writer and you're just starting out, it's a good way to jump in and get your feet wet."
All this month Jacobs will be hosting a series of write-ins at Waking Life Espresso and other locations around town. These write-ins, which are open to any local writer crazy enough to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge — you can sign up for free on the national website — are kind of like a support group. Huddled around tables overflowing with laptops and endless cups of coffee, the aspiring wordsmiths talk shop, cheer each other on and offer helpful advice to anyone stuck in a writing block.
"It turns writing into a fun social event," says Jacobs. "When you're just struggling through, and you feel like giving up, and your story starts to feel stupid and you just think your characters are dumb, talking with other people and hearing about their stories can really recharge your batteries."
To have the best chance at winning, participants need to write a minimum of 1,667 words a day. Not that all those words are going to be good. Far from it, actually, but that's the point. No one is expecting a literary masterpiece. The idea is just to get writers to stop agonizing over every little word and just write.
"You're kind of embarrassed at how bad some of it is," she says, laughing. "But nobody is going to think your writing is crap. Of course your writing is going to be crap, because you're just getting your ideas on the page. You have the rest of the year to finish and revise it."
It's something Jacobs has learned from years of NaNoWriMo experience. She first heard about the challenge while she was off studying at the College of Charleston. Like a lot of people, Jacobs always thought that someday she'd write a book, but she never really could get around to sitting down and actually doing it. NaNoWriMo was just the catalyst she needed. Thanks to tons of coffee and sheer determination, she managed to hit the 50K word line her very first try. ("As far as studying went, I actually chose NaNo over school," she admits.) She's been hooked ever since.
"The first time you do it you come out and you just want to collapse on the couch," she says. "It's like running a marathon. It's fun, but at the end you really enjoy your break."
So what can newbies expect if they give it a try this year?
"The first week is a blast," she says, "because it's just started, and you're like, 'Yeah, I can do this.' After that, it becomes more like work. That's when you really start to appreciate professional writers — the people who do it for a living, who every day their job is to get up and get a certain amount of words or pages done."
But the last few days make all the pain worth it. By then, Jacobs and her AsheNoWriMo battle-mates are holding daily write-ins, scrambling feverishly for that final push over the 50K mark.
"Everyone will be shouting things like, 'I only have 5,000 more words to go!' and congratulating people who win," she says. "It's so much fun. And it's really exciting to be there when somebody validates their word count on the NaNoWriMo website and you see 'Congratulations, you're a winner!' It's like little parties happening all the time."
And it's never to late to join the party. Because really, isn't it about time you started on that novel of yours?
— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.