Four-hour nights, worn-out keyboards, and excessive amounts of coffee are only part of the story. Add on missed showers, deactivating Facebook, and studying between classes, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for insanity. If this sounds like exam week condensed into one day, you’re pretty close. It’s actually more like exam week condensed into one day, for thirty days in a row.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an international writing marathon that runs for the whole of November. The challenge is to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. This averages out to 1666.67 words per day, on top of the usual schoolwork and studying.
Why would anyone want to experience such perpetual stress? Justin Li and Yaning Tan, executives of Marc Garneau’s NaNoWriMo Club and winners of NaNoWriMo 2011, are here to share their experiences.
“The whole point of NaNoWriMo,” Justin says, “is to force people to start writing, and to write substantial amounts. A lot of people—myself included—procrastinate writing by telling themselves there’s just no time for it. Or they’ll spend forever trying to find the perfect first sentence and get nowhere further. Well NaNoWriMo throws you off a cliff and forces you into it.”
“A lot of people think it’s a stupid idea,” Yaning adds, “to rush through and put garbage on the paper. But really, it doesn’t matter how awful the first draft is. That’s what editing is for. A common analogy is sculpting. A sculptor starts with a shapeless mass of clay and models it into something meaningful. You can’t make a sculpture if you don’t have any clay to begin with.”
“Everyone has their own reaction when you tell them you’re doing this,” Justin says. “Most people are speechless. And then they divide into the cynical group and the respectful group. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, even after the first few days. October was brutal in terms of homework, so I set my personal goal at thirty thousand. I ended up just over fifty-one thousand. It’s kind of funny because October was so packed, and then all of a sudden in November the workload dropped. Literally right after the end of the month, another huge wave of tests and presentations came around. I was so lucky for that break; otherwise, I wouldn’t have finished.”
Yaning headed into November with the opposite mindset. “I thought to myself, ‘Only a thousand five hundred per day? That’s not that bad.’ At the beginning, I even tried writing some at school and on the bus, and then typing it all up and editing it when I came home. Let me tell you right now, that kind of luxury ends by the third day. The worst part is resisting the temptation to edit. On their website, they keep stressing the suppression of the ‘inner editor.’ And it’s true: if you don’t keep writing, you’ll never finish.”
“For me it was the pessimism,” Justin says. “You really have to let go and accept that what you’re writing is terrible, but now is not the time to make it better. And the whole process really does improve your writing because you stop filtering yourself. Ideas sound very different on paper than in your head, and something that seemed silly might turn out to fit right in. This isn’t just with fiction, either. NaNoWriMo improved my academic writing as well. I don’t sound like I’m writing at gunpoint anymore when I’m doing an essay. The words flow more naturally. In other words, it gives you confidence. Confidence in your writing and confidence in your ideas. Of course, it also forces you to manage your time well, and to find ways to squeeze more hours out of your day. A lot of my writing was done on the bus and in the hallways at lunch.”
“The thing I really like about NaNoWriMo,” Yaning says, “is the sense of community. I admit I spent hours procrastinating on the forums, and there are regular writing sessions at cafes and libraries all over the city. Most of these are pretty far, though, or they aren’t so convenient with school times, and that’s why we started NaNoWriMo Club. We had one last year, but it was pretty small and informal. Now every Monday at lunch, in room 217, students can gather and share stories about their writing experience or ask for opinions on how their plot is coming along. We really hope people will come out and try this, even if they don’t expect to write the whole fifty thousand.”
More information can be found on the NaNoWriMo website.