On the first of November 2008, I came across an article in the literature section of the Saturday Age that caught my attention. The article stated that today was the beginning of the tenth year running of National Novel Writing Month, and it set out the simply irresistible challenge that is NaNoWriMo: to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch by the end of November.
As I read about the project, I realised it was up to me to take the plunge and sign up, it was up to me to fit NaNoWriMo into my life, and it was up to me whether I fell into a rhythm of writing the ideal 1,667 words a day, but the beauty of NaNo is that it was not all up to me to keep myself motivated and make sure I completed the challenge.
You see, if you have internet access and an email address, the NaNo crew can do the motivating for you. Pep talks are sent to your email inbox by authors such as Peter Carey and Jasper Fforde along with seasoned Nanowrimos. If the pep talks aren’t enough and you’re in need of inspiration, the website includes countless forums perfectly designed for relaxation, motivation and unashamed procrastination.
Reading this introduction to NaNoland, I thought to myself, ‘This is exactly what I need.’ I needed to get myself into a routine of writing, to get my creative juices flowing, and to see if I could actually write a novel, because at the time I’d never done that before.
I felt very irresponsible getting involved in NaNo when I had three law exams in November, but I wasn’t the only one. There are dedicated forums on the website on how to survive NaNo while working full-time, while looking after infants and toddlers, while preparing for and sitting exams… ‘If there are other people crazy enough to do it,’ I thought, ‘then I have no excuse. This may be the only way I ever manage to write a novel.’
Unprepared as I was for it, I couldn’t resist the challenge, and I went to my writing folder and pulled out two jotted ideas which I decided I wanted to turn into a novel. The uncertainty of the NaNo experience loomed before me.
As you can imagine, it was not an easy month. My inspiration waxed and waned. Nanowrimos go through lulls of wading through ordinary writing only to look back and realise that they’ve written some decent prose. Sometimes you move at a snail’s pace and think you’ll never make it, and typing or handwriting the next page feels like trying to squeeze words out of a stone; and by the end you’ve learnt a valuable lesson about ploughing on.
As a result of all my commitments, I ended up writing 10,000 words in the final weekend of NaNo. It was only during that last weekend that I started desperately throwing in random chunks of prose. I knew it was most likely that I would go back and delete these portions but I was bound out of necessity to the number one NaNo rule: never delete during November.
When I finally skipped over 50,000 words a few hours short of the deadline, I was exhausted. Yet I had proven to myself that I can write a novel, and my NaNo novel was far better than I ever expected. Spontaneous creations are not to be undervalued, and I found that there were few parts of that manuscript that I would change.
The unique thing about NaNo is that you are working to a crazy deadline, but not in the usual solitary way of a writer: with NaNo, we’re all in it together, one big community striving and pushing towards a shared goal, and encouragement is always there when you need it, often in the words of a complete stranger who knows what you’re going through. It’s this communal atmosphere that helps drive away your self-doubt and the temptation to give up—which is why the NaNo challenge can easily be adopted by writing groups (even if nobody in the group has access to the internet). All you need is a deadline and collective (if not individual) courage.
Above all, NaNo brings home the essential lesson a novelist must learn and practise: just write. As I once read on a NaNo blog about overcoming procrastination: reading is not writing, researching is not writing, planning is not writing. Just do it: write. Don’t think about what can go wrong because you can always fix it later (whereas you can’t fix your novel if you haven’t written it yet).
NaNoWriMo is administered by the Office of Letters and Light, a US-based non-profit organisation that assists and encourages writers of all ages. Now’s the time to plan your novel (but no writing until 1 November!) and now’s the time to sign up at nanowrimo.org.
The original version of this article was published in The Australian Writer issue 369 (September–November 2010).
Julia Maurus successfully completed National Novel Writing Month in 2008 and 2011.