San Francisco, July 1999. Twenty-one friends gather at a coffee shop and accidentally create something that will change their lives and the literary world.
Don’t worry, this is not an episode about the genesis of a social network. Well…not really.
At the invitation of their ringleader Chris Baty, each member of the group pulls out a laptop or an old-fashioned notepad and a pen, and they get to work. They weren’t setting out to change the world, but to invent new worlds.
With books. They were writing books.
But this wasn’t your typical writers’ group. They weren’t critiquing each other’s work, lamenting the red tape of the agent-querying process, or even thinking about publication at all. They were just writing for the fun of it. They invented games and challenged each other — first person to hit 500 words gets a latte, that kind of thing — and at the end of an admittedly tiring month, they had the first drafts of 21 novels.
The project was so much fun that they did it again the next year and invited more friends to join them. And boy, did they! When the group swelled to about 150 members, Baty thought for sure that it had topped out. But, you know how it goes, the fun was just beginning.
If you’ve been on the literary internet for even one full year, chances are good you’ve heard of National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo, for short. But just in case, here’s the quick and dirty.
Taking place every November (it was moved from July a few years in because people found it easier to participate in the winter), NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge in which you commit to writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Participants track their word counts using interactive tools on the NaNoWriMo website, and at the end of the month, they upload their full text in order to prove they hit the 50k mark and claim their win. Along the way, they have the option to earn badges (NaNoWriMo has been gamified since before it was a buzzword), join online communities, and even attend local in-person meetups with fellow NaNo participants to find encouragement and community.
“Writing doesn’t have to be solitary. It also doesn’t have to be full of anguish, although it inherently is, there’s ways to get beyond that anguish,” explained Grant Faulkner, executive director of NaNoWriMo. Fun, connection, and creative exploration have been at the heart of the event since day one.
“Christ Baty literally kinda woke up one day and said, ‘I want to write a novel.’ And, you know, he was an avid reader and he was into punk rock music, so he had that kind of DIY mindset and he’s very community focused and socially focused and so, he invited 20 of his friends to join him to write a novel.”
As the group met up after work and on the weekends, they became invested in each other’s success.
“So if somebody didn’t show up they might get a phone call and say, “Hey, you’re still doing it, you know? Like, why don’t you come back tomorrow night? You can still do it. You can still reach your word count goals,” said Grant.
It’s worth noting here that in NaNoWriMo terms, participants who finish the 50,000-word challenge are called winners, but those who don’t are not losers.
50,000 words is what the startup world would call a Big Hairy Goal. It’s so big, in fact, that only about 15% of participants each year win NaNoWriMo. But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so compelling, and writers wouldn’t need a month-long challenge to try it.
“[T]his framework of setting a huge ambitious goal and having a deadline, we say a golden deadline is a creative midwife and that’s always been the kind of empowering foundation at NaNoWriMo. We think of ourselves as an empowerment organization as much as we are a creative writing organization,” said Grant.
So you’ve got a challenging but not impossible goal, a built-in sense of community and accountability, and no downside, since even if you don’t win, you’ve still spent a month focusing on a creative pursuit and maybe making some friends along the way.
A lot of friends! About half a million people participated in NaNoWriMo programming in 2018. A lot has happened in the decades since Chris Baty and 20 of his friends first started novelling, as they called it, in that San Francisco coffee shop.
As NaNoWriMo entered its third year in November 2001, Baty was looking for a way to get organized. Anticipating the same 150ish participants from the previous year, he created a small website for people to sign up and track their progress.
If you build it, they will come. And if you build it on the internet in the early days of blogging, 5,000 of them will come. And they’ll crash your brand new website repeatedly.
Which is exactly what happened. NaNoWriMo’s 750% growth between the first and second years, which is HUGE growth, let’s remember that, looked like small potatoes compared to the more than 3000% increase between years two and three.
From 20 people in year one to 150 people in year two to 5,000 people in year three, and more than 500,000 last year, in year 19. NaNoWriMo is, if not exactly viral, an undeniable sensation.
And all this growth? It didn’t come from advertising. They earned it the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.
“So when I was thinking about writing a book, I signed up for a writing class, a children’s book writing class. And so, during that class, national novel writing month was sort of mentioned by my teacher,” said best-selling middle grade author Karina Yan Glaser, who first participated in NaNoWriMo in 2013. “And she said, you know this is great thing to do, you can try it. And I was taking the class in the fall and NaNoWriMo starts in November, November first. So, I was researching it and then I signed up and then I told my husband and he thought I was totally nuts.”
Her husband’s response was perhaps more common than you’d expect…even from NaNo participants themselves.
Jasmine Guillory wrote the first draft of her best-selling novel The Wedding Date during a NaNo event.
“I’ve actually known about NaNoRiMo for years just through internet osmosis. I think that I had never really seriously considered doing it. I think partly because it seemed wild. Like it seemed too much. How could any person do that?,” she said.
Seriously. Fifty thousand words in 30 days is 1,667 words per day. How do people do it?
Well, there’s a solid history of famous writers who did basically the same thing.
Grant explained, “by setting an ambitious goal and a deadline and not only that, like many writers in history have written in this way. Like, Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. William Faulkner wrote 3,000 words a day, John Updike set a target of 1,200 words a day. You know, I mean, Hemingway counted his words. There’s just a rich history of writers nee- needing to set a goal and a deadline or to meet, you know, in order to write a novel because a novel is such an arduous task.”
Coffee and pressure don’t hurt, either.
For Karina, routine was key. At the time of her first NaNoWriMo, her daughters were in kindergarten and preschool, attending three days a week for a couple hours. It didn’t make sense to drop them off and go all the way home on the subway, just to turn back around and pick them up.
“So, I would drop her off and then I would run to this Coffee Bean that was a few blocks away and in the basement there was always seats down in the basement. And, which is really difficult in NYC, where every coffee shop is just filled with people.”
She continued, “Down in the basement it was really hot and had this weird smell. So I think that’s why no one sat down there. But I could always get a seat. I would run to that Coffee Bean, go downstairs, sit down, and then just write during that time.”
For two hours, she’d write as fast as she could, and if she didn’t make the word count, she would return to it in the evening after the kids went to bed.
Jasmine’s approach was a bit less structured, but no less effective.
“You know, it, it, thinking back on it, I don’t really understand how I did. Because that was actually a very busy time in my life. I was working two jobs, like one full time job and one part time job. Um, but then I just sort of like, committed myself to doing it and so I did it. So I would bring my laptop to work. At lunchtime I would go to the Starbucks across the street and write for like, 30 to 45 minutes,” she said.
There were days she hit the word count, days she didn’t, and days she played catch-up, writing several thousand words on a Saturday.
And therein lies some of the beauty of NaNoWriMo: it tells you what you’re supposed to do — write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days — but it doesn’t tell you how. The mix of structure and flexibility is intentional, and it’s integral to the NaNoWriMo philosophy.
“It’s all about the act of doing it and I think too many people put obstacles in between themselves and their goals and — and writing a novel, for instance, people, you know, obviously there — there’s a lot of obstacles in terms of your own self perception and confidence and doubt that you’re working through, but there’s also that thing where people think, ‘Oh, I need to sign up for a course in order to learn to write a novel,’ or, ‘I need to buy a — a how to write a novel book’,” explained Grant. “I still think the best way to learn to write a novel is through the experience of writing it.”
You know, just do it. And don’t discount the power of momentum.
Here’s Jasmine again:
“It’s not a thing that’s going to work for everyone. But I really learned that it’s something that worked for me a lot. When I’m working on a first draft, I try very hard to work on it every day. Not because, you know, I’ve heard people say like, ‘To be a real writer, you have to write every day.’ I don’t believe in that. But, it’s important to me for me to write every day because it helps keep that momentum going.”
In the quest for 50,000 words, NaNoWriMo encourages participants to focus on output and not delete anything. Don’t overthink it. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t give yourself any reason to not do the thing. Just keep swimming.
But that doesn’t mean that, as a surprising number of internet naysayers would have you believe, they think your first 50,000 words will be publishable.
“We’re not prescriptive about our creative process. We very strenuously recommend that people, uh, revise their novels and take time with their novels to finish them and polish them and we have programs that support that as well,” said Grant.
Whether you use NaNoWriMo’s revision tools or roll your own, our authors agree it’s a key part of the process.
“I visit a lot of schools these days and talk to kids. And they always ask me what I would suggest that they do if they’re trying to write a book. And I think that’s, what I generally always say, is talk to them about writing a fast first draft and then committing yourself to revisions. So even through I wrote that first book really quickly, it took me about two years of revision and sending it to agents before it got acquired by an agent and then acquired by an editor.”
And while Jasmine won her first NaNo meeting the 50,000-word goal, The Wedding Date wasn’t yet complete. She still had to finish the draft. Then revise it, find an agent, revise it again with the agent, get a book deal, and, of course, revise again with the editor.
If that sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. The good news is, you don’t have to want to be published to participate in NaNoWriMo.
“We are speaking to people who don’t necessarily professionalize the writing experience,” explained Grant. “It’s a great thing if people want to get together with their friends and write novels together just for the fun of it. I always say that we don’t go up to knitters and say, ‘Oh, you’re knitting a sweater, are you gonna open up a sweater store?’ You know? Oh, you’re taking a — a ballroom dancing class, are you going to go in the professional ballroom dancing circuit? You know?”
NaNoWriMo’s focus has always been on creativity for creativity’s sake. Life is busy, and we don’t take enough time to play, to have fun, to explore ideas, to make stuff just because it feels good to make stuff.
Trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days probably won’t help with the busyness problem, but it’s busyness with a lot of benefits.
“We think that when people are creative and see themselves as creative as creators, they’re- they’re gonna do more good in the world, they’re gonna put their voice in the world in a number of different ways,” said Grant.
More creativity in the world is a good thing for the world. More people developing the confidence to explore and share their ideas is a good thing for all people. But sometimes, the benefits of creative work are more individual and more internal.
Book Riot’s own Annika Barranti Klein spoke about a recent NaNo experience.
“My personal reason was very specific. My dad had died two weeks before Camp NaNoWriMo started, and I didn’t want to work on anything that I had been working on when he died,” she said.
Before you get all excited that there’s a NaNoWriMo camp you can attend, we should tell you that 50k in 30 days in November isn’t the only way to NaNo. Camp NaNoWriMo is a virtual writing retreat that takes place twice a year, in April and July, and offers more flexibility.
In Camp NaNoWriMo, you can set any word-count or page-count goal. You don’t have to write a novel — you can write short stories or poetry or, well, anything.
“I don’t like following rules and so NaNoWriMo didn’t work for me,” said Annika. “But I wanted something to do other than be sad. For me, that thing is usually writing, so I talked to my writing group, one of whom was thinking about participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, and they were like, go for it. It’s not like there’s, you know, a consequence if you don’t meet your goal.”
So in April of 2019, as she grieved her father’s death, Annika signed up and set a goal of 10,000 words. And she got to work.
“I really allowed myself to do nothing but write. Like — I fed my children, barely. I fed myself like really barely,” she said, laughing. “Otherwise all I did was work on this novel, be sad, and my part-time day job.”
For that month, she lived in a web browser with two tabs open: one for her manuscript, and one for her Camp NaNo word count. It was just the right amount of structure, and it helped her give herself permission to do what she needed to do during a really difficult time of life.
“I think for a lot of people NaNoWriMo provides the opportunity to say, I’m doing this thing for myself.”
That’s useful whether you’re grieving or just dealing with the stresses and pressures of everyday life.
“It gives them an external goal, so that it’s not just a thing they want to do some day. It’s a thing that they have to do right now,” Annika said.
Writing a novel is the kind of thing that, if you’ve never done it before, it can be hard to imagine ever doing it. But people want to do it, and NaNoWriMo helps them turn that dream into a practice.
“People are just trying to get words on a page and get a start,” said Jasmine.
Karina added, “if you’re not forcing yourself to get words on the page, then you really have nothing to work with at all.”
There’s an alchemy to the NaNoWriMo process. You take an ambitious goal, add in a sense of urgency, a supportive community, and fun-to-use tracking and motivational tools, and whether you win or not, you end up with not just words on a previously blank page, but maybe a new understanding of yourself.
“Just the intention to be creative for a month is a huge achievement, because most of our, you know, most of our lives we end up doing what we should do, you know?” said Grant. “Our lives revolve our to-do lists, and usually those to-do lists don’t include creativity, or creativity falls lower and lower on the list until it’s barely there at all. And so, NaNoWriMo is this opportunity to be creative and highly creative, uh, for one month of the year. No one loses, because you’ve not only decided to immerse yourself in creativity, you’re developing those people who are writing five or 10,000 words a month, they’re developing the skills, the time management skills, the knowledge of what it takes.”
And you get the knowledge that you can keep doing it, because you’ve already done it. From that angle, everybody wins.
“I think that there’s this perception that people are doing it because they think that they will actually have a finished novel at the end of it,” said Annika. “And what people are actually doing is looking for a way to have anything finished. Just words on paper. You know?”
It’s as simple and complicated as that.
The above piece comes from our former Annotated podcast series, and it originally aired in November 2019.