It takes a particular creative type to want to write 50,000 words in a month. That these individuals keep doing it on an annual basis — during a month with a traditionally family-intensive holiday in the mix — hints at something downright superhuman.
Such is the power of National Novel Writing Month, more commonly known as NaNoWriMo. From its humble 1999 inception in the San Francisco Bay Area with 21 aspiring novelists, the initiative now inspires hundreds of thousands of people around the world to achieve their writing dreams each year.
Considering Asheville’s reputation as a creative hub, it’s no surprise that NaNoWriMo proves popular among local writers. As of press time, the city’s official NaNoWriMo group has 2,104 members, compared with 6,831 in Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill and 4,232 in Charlotte. More importantly, a range of resources is in place to help participants reach their ambitious goals.
Pantser vs. plotter
Among those area writers determined to finally reach the 50,000-word mark this year is Katie Craig. Though she’s done NaNoWriMo multiple times, she’s found that work, Thanksgiving and other obligations keep getting in the way.
“I’ve learned from my failed experiences that being a ‘pantser’ — one who just wings it by the seat of their pants all month long — has not served me well, even though my creative style is to just sit down and kind of wing it,” Craig says. “But if you do that, then you’re not necessarily going to hit those numbers.”
On the opposite end of the NaNoWriMo spectrum are the “plotters” — extremely organized writers who thoughtfully plan out the month and stick to their schedules. While Craig doesn’t want to wholly commit herself to a potentially rigid approach, she’s willing to meet it halfway.
“I’m going to be a ‘plantser’ this year — between a ‘plotter’ and a ‘pantser,’” she says.
To stay on track this year, Craig has created outlines for her book and is participating in write-ins — dedicated multihour blocks where writers gather to work and meet other writers. She also plans to use the Flatiron Writers Room’s coworking space throughout November as one of her work sites.
“That gives me a no-excuses place I could go 24 hours a day,” Craig says. “If I decide that I need to write at 3 a.m., then I could go there and know that I wouldn’t be bothered or interrupted.”
As Asheville’s NaNoWriMo municipal liaison, Craig will also be encouraging her fellow writers to stick with it. The position involves keeping participants informed about events and resources available to them, all of which can make a big difference during the challenge.
“Writing tends to be a solo endeavor,” she says. “Even if you do a virtual write-in for NaNoWriMo, you can have that sense of community that you’re not in it alone. And I think that that can help keep you going when you otherwise might quit on day two.”
One NaNoWriMo ally is Buncombe County Public Libraries, which has been helping writers with the event since 2019. Sara Kaglic, adult services librarian at the North Asheville Branch Library, is organizing monthlong programming across the BCPL system, culminating in a wrap party at Revolve Mercantile on Wednesday, Dec. 6.
Kaglic notes that 2023 marks the first year since 2019 where all of the write-ins will be in-person. Even without plentiful official NaNoWriMo offerings, she says local writers take advantage of public library spaces throughout November. But the dedicated write-in times prove especially motivational for certain participants.
“They love having a specific time and place set aside for them to come focus on their novels,” Kaglic says. “At my branch, I’ve seen people come over on their lunch breaks just to knock out a few pages. I even had one woman tell me during a Zoom write-in that she had hit a new personal record for number of words written in an hour.”
Though holidays and normal weekly closures limit library availability, various branches are hosting write-ins on 17 days in November. Melisa Pressley, branch manager of the Black Mountain Library, has programmed write-ins 2-4 p.m. each Wednesday. There, NaNoWriMo participants will be joined by such local writers as Michael Hettich and Clint Bowman, who have volunteered to serve as resources and talk about their processes, inspiration, successes and failures.
“I wanted to build a foundation of support for writers this year,” Pressley says. “Rather than focusing on large-scale events, I wanted to offer a quiet space for writing. Adding in the presence of a published author offers approachable access to those who may feel intimidated by the process or puzzled by the industry.”
It also helps that such library efforts are spearheaded by fellow writers. Pressley says she participates in NaNoWriMo each year and starts out strong but never quite reaches her goal. And while Kaglic has been tempted to participate for years, she’s planning on giving it a go this November.
“Not necessarily to write a novel, but just as an excuse to get back into the habit of writing,” Kaglic says. “If I have 50,000 words of anything by the end, I’ll consider it a win.”
It could happen to you
While some writers take on the challenge of NaNoWriMo for recreation and/or to feel part of a community, others use it as an opportunity to further their career goals.
Asheville-based author Stephanie Perkins’ first three published novels began as NaNoWriMo drafts. Before her first time participating in 2007, she’d only managed to write 70 pages of a novel over the course of seven years. Though the prospect of completing 50,000 words — approximately the length of J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye or William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies — in a month felt daunting, once she learned more about the true point of the challenge, partaking suddenly seemed more accessible.
“The brilliant thing about NaNoWriMo is that it’s not about writing a good book in a month. It’s about just finishing something,” Perkins says. “Most writers have really, really bad first drafts that look nothing like the final product, so it’s important not only to learn how to finish but to finish something even when you know it’s bad. You can’t make it good until you have something to work with.”
Perkins says she can’t stress enough that her NaNoWriMo draft of Anna and the French Kiss barely resembled the published version. Characters were later combined, and the central love story at a French boarding school also included the solving of an art heist at the Louvre.
“There’s absolutely none of that in the final book. But it gave me something to work with and it gave me a confidence boost,” she says. “And so, when it was time to do my next book, [Lola and the Boy Next Door,] I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it out again.’ I will always be so grateful to that organization for teaching me how to finish something.”
Perkins also credits NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s book The No Plot? No Problem! Novel-Writing Kit with helping her stay on track that first year. She says Baty breaks down the process into writing a certain number of words per day, and though hitting that daily mark proved difficult, she committed out of a sense of having nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“I basically thought, ‘OK, I’ve wasted the last seven years of my life’ — which now, looking back, it wasn’t really wasting, I was practicing and figuring it out,” she says. “But at the time it felt like ‘I’ve wasted seven years; I can waste one month with this experiment and just give it my best and see what happens.’ And then it ended up changing my life.”
With Thanksgiving looming at the end of November, Perkins notes it’s a tricky month to hit the 50,000-word mark. But with careful planning and discipline, writers can accomplish their goal and still have their proverbial pumpkin pie.
“When you’re doing the math on how many words a day to write, give yourself Thanksgiving off and whatever other days you need and subtract that so you can actually have that break and not be stressed out about not working on it,” she says.
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