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Writers stretch their fingers in ‘NaNoWriMo’ challenge

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November is a month of gratitude, scarves and turkey. But for me, and for hundreds of thousands of other writers around the world, November means much more: National Novel Writing Month.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a challenge to anyone who’s ever thought about writing a novel but always been “too busy.” The goal is simple: write a 50,000-word piece of fiction in 30 days. Avoid watching TV, decline a few social invitations, stop mindlessly scrolling though Facebook and use that time to write the novel that’s always been in the back of your mind.

Because I know you’re thinking it, no, you can’t write a good novel in a month. No one can write a good novel in a month. But no one can write a good novel in a first draft no matter how long it takes to write, so why not get it out there as quickly as possible? That is the argument of NaNoWriMo, and it has inspired not only amateur writers but also professional ones. Bestselling books such as Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” and Sarah Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” had their humble beginnings as NaNoWriMo first drafts.

For most, though, publication and fame are not the aims of the month. The aim is simply to write — not to talk about writing, think about writing, or plan to write, but to sit down and put words on the page. NaNoWriMo makes the unusual argument for quantity over quality. Editing is what December is for.
Last year, more than 250,000 writers participated in NaNoWriMo, and more than 36,000 entered December as winners and novelists. The number of participants has grown every year since the contest’s inception in 1999 with only 21 participants.

NaNoWriMo’s website turns the usually solitary activity of writing into a sort of community sport. The forums offer a place to rejoice when writing is going well and vent frustration when it is not, as well as ask for tips and advice to make it through the month in one piece. Participants can also add each other as “writing buddies” to keep tabs on each other’s progress and imbue a sense of competition among writers.

The writing community is not simply online, however. Participants can sign up for a home region, where municipal liaisons organize kick-off parties on Nov. 1, write-ins throughout the month and the always long-awaited “TGIO” (Thank God It’s Over) party on Dec. 1. More than 3,700 writers are signed up in the St. Louis region.

The most tangible outcome of participating in NaNoWriMo, of course, is a completed manuscript. However, in my three years of participating, I’ve found that the most rewarding result of the month-long literary adventure isn’t the novel itself but the rediscovery of the joys of writing. NaNoWriMo is difficult, sometimes painful and almost always inconvenient. Social time, homework and (most of all) sleep are sacrificed in the name of writing. I face self-doubt, lack of inspiration and emotional breakdowns on an almost daily basis.

Through it all, somehow the most accurate word I can use to describe the experience is fun. Committing myself to writing a novel in a month is a terrifying risk, but it is worth it, because I never feel more alive than I do while writing. National Novel Writing Month is a yearly reminder of that.

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