Stephen King has stated that a first draft of one of his novels takes about three months to write. George R. R. Martin, however, spent six years drafting the most recent volume of his series A Song of Ice and Fire. And J.D. Salinger spent an entire decade writing The Catcher in the Rye, allegedly averaging just twenty words per day. But since 1999, hundreds of thousands of people across the world have put their skills to the test to pump out 50,000 words in just a month, in a competition called the National Novel Writing Month.
The National Novel Writing Month, colloquially referred to as NaNoWriMo, takes place annually during the month of November. In the first year, it consisted of just twenty-one aspiring writers near the San Francisco Bay area. It has grown exponentially in popularity since then, and in 2017, 306,230 writers participated. Over 34,000 of those people went on to become winners, meaning they successfully drafted at least 50,000 words of a novel by 11:59 PM on November 30th.
As the contest’s population has grown, its platform and visibility have expanded to fit. The official NaNoWriMo website provides goal trackers and personal statistics for authors to follow their novel’s progress, as well as a web of various forums and buddy systems to inspire support and connection.
So what happens on November 1st of every year? Every novelist’s story is diverse and different, but the main method of distinguishing a writer’s style is by their self-designation as a “planner” or a “pantser”. You will find planners carefully consulting their pages of notes and chapter outlines, structuring how much they aim to accomplish in that first thousand words. Pantsers, on the other hand, will sit down on Day 1 with nothing but a blank page and an open mind. And while the vast majority of writers embark on the very first words of their mission, a small percentage of competitors choose to write “anything but a brand new novel”, as the official website states, in order to gain access to the pointless yet highly desired “NaNo Rebel” badge. This initial designation is only the beginning of a journey that, contrary to the name, doesn’t confine itself to November alone.
Writing 50,000 words of a fictitious novel in just a month likely still seems like a daunting task only offered to previously accomplished writers. However, the National Novel Writing Month contest offers just one goal, and it is to put 50,000 words on a page. These words are intended to be a first draft. The following months of January and February, nicknamed the “Now What” months, are later allocated for revision and editing, and they tend to be when authors begin to transform their stories from wobbly first drafts to edited, finished manuscripts. In this way, this time is the unsung heart of the NaNoWriMo experience.
“As of November 2018, my manuscript was half-baked and pretty terrible,” a NaNoWriMo participant under the pseudonym of Eliot Carson said about his writing experience. “January and February were when I got to really perfect the writing and themes. It doesn’t end at the start of December.”
The official National Novel Writing Month season is soon drawing to a close, but the official website provides resources and support that inspire participants to keep writing year-round. In the eyes of the NaNo community, there is no failure; there is only trying and doing.