As the preparation gets underway for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I chatted with Lindsey Grant, their Programme Director.
Welcome to Winning Words, Lindsey! Can you start by telling us a bit about the history of NaNoWriMo and how it’s grown?
LG: Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, tells the story of NaNo’s beginning s best in his history of the first year.
To quote him,
“The very first NaNoWriMo took place in July, 1999, in the San Francisco Bay Area. That first year there were 21 of us, and our July noveling binge had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front. Nor did it reflect any hopes we had about tapping more fully into our creative selves. No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.
So sad. But so, so true.
The first year’s trials and tribulations are laid out in the introduction to No Plot? No Problem!, but the short version is that our novels, despite our questionable motives and pitiful experience, came out okay. Not great. But not horrible, either. And, more surprising than that, the writing process had been really, really fun.
Fun was something we hadn’t expected. Pain? Sure. Embarrassment? Yes. Crippling self-doubt followed by a quiet distancing of ourselves from the entire project? You bet.
But fun? Fun was a revelation. Novel-writing, we had discovered, was just like watching TV. You get a bunch of friends together, load up on caffeine and junk food, and stare at a glowing screen for a couple hours. And a story spins itself out in front of you.
I think the scene—full of smack-talk and muffin crumbs on our keyboards—would have rightly horrified professional writers. We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.
We called it noveling. And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.
Which is how the whole thing really got rolling.”
As for its growth, the increase in participantship has been astonishing. Twelve years after its start, NaNoWrimo is anticipating 200,000 writers to take on the November challenge. Interestingly, we’ve never really advertised the event. Word of mouth and unsolicited media coverage did most of the work for us all these years.
How can it help writers, both new and the more experienced?
LG: I think the common thread for writers of any background is that magical combination of suppressing the inner editor and working towards a very tight deadline. There is not time to second-guess, worry about typos, or agonize over every sentence. Instead, you’re pushed to write with abandon, trust your instincts, and get down the rough draft of your novel for later revision. The resulting productivity has proven beneficial to writers at any level of experience.
What do you say to critics, who say that the ‘quantity over quality’ approach is wrong?
This approach is not for everyone. And that is okay! The way we see it, you can’t revise something you haven’t written. NaNoWriMo provides the support and encouragement to help participants get that story out of their heads and onto paper, as it were, so that they can go on to edit and revise that story into a complete novel! There are countless other benefits of the month as well: taking the time to do something creative, for example; meeting other writers in your neighborhood and in the online writing community; and realizing that if you’re capable of writing a novel in a month, what else is possible?
Do you yourself take part? Tell us a bit about your previous NaNo success.
LG: Since coming on board in 2008, I have participated—and won!—NaNoWriMo both years and am looking very forward to writing my third NaNo-novel. The fact that everyone in the office takes part in the challenge is great fun and makes it easier to reach that 50,000-word goal. We chart our individual progress on the YWP’s Triumphant Chart of Noveling Progress, we write before work and during lunch, we visit the local write-ins, and basically spend every waking minute outside of office hours writing our own NaNo-novels.
What do you do for the other eleven months of the year?!
Believe it or not, it takes the whole year to make the one-month NaNoWriMo event happen. We have to plan and implement site enhancements; roll out new community initiatives; conceptualize and create the merchandise for our online store, donor thank yous, regional giveaway goodies, and new web badge and certificate designs for the participants; solicit pep talks from published authors; reach out to past supporters to thank them and update them on the program’s progress; and the list goes on… A lot of folks don’t realize just how labor-intensive a free 30 day event ends up being! 2010 is the first year that every employee has one job title, versus past years where we all doubled up on key roles within the organization. As a result, we are going to be able to accomplish much more, and more quickly as well!
Tell us about the success of NaNo participants – how many published novels do you know of that started out as NaNo projects?
LG: The current tally of published novels written during NaNoWriMo stands at 54. These titles include Sara Gruen’s New York Times bestselling novel Water for Elephants and her recent release Ape House. Thousands more participants have published their NaNo-novels as e-books or self-published through services like CreateSpace.
I know you also run an editing month and a script frenzy month – any plans to do anything with short stories or poetry?
LG: The editing month, NaNoEdMo, is actually not affiliated with us. It was created and is run by a NaNoWriMo participant, and we certainly encourage Wrimos to take part, but that is the extent of the connection. All credit goes to the founders of NaNoEdMo in regards to that event!
Script Frenzy, the sister event to NaNoWriMo, began in 2007 and challenges participants to write 100 pages of a novel during 30 days of April. You can check it out at scriptfrenzy.org.
The next project on OLL’s horizon will deal directly with the community aspect of our mission statement, and will challenge participants to spend a month improving an aspect of their immediate neighborhood and to write about their progress.
Thanks for stopping by at Winning Words, Lindsey. See you in November!
After Lindsey finished her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Mills College, USA, she stumbled upon the magical place that is the Office of Letters and Light. She could hardly believe that there were so many people in the world who love words as much as she does! After two great years as OLL’s Community Liaison, she is very excited to take on the post of Program Director for NaNoWriMo.