Ready, set, write

Amy Cooknick

On Nov. 1, Rebecca Ryan, a freshman architecture major, will put fingers to keyboard and begin the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Hundreds of thousands of wannabe authors will join Ryan at their computers for the kick-off of the 12th annual National Novel Writing Month. The competition is for anyone who believes he or she has what it takes to be the next J.K. Rowling or, God forbid, Stephanie Meyer; it is time to test that belief.

Only 13 days remain to click open Word (or sharpen those pencils, to take the old-school approach) and dust off those thinking caps.

More affectionately known by its dedicated participants as NaNoWriMo, the event is a 30-day, no-holds barred approach to novel writing.

A frustrated writer named Chris Baty started the event in 1999 with 21 of his friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. NaNoWriMo has grown tremendously from a group of friends looking for a little motivation, to an international extravaganza and competition. According to Baty’s autobiography and history of NaNoWriMo, the initial gathering was less about tapping the creative potential than it was about creating a scene and getting some name recognition.

“We wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons 20-somethings 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,” Baty said.

From that first summer, NaNoWriMo has grown quickly to an internationally recognized competition with 119,301 adult participants in 2009 and its own website to track your progress, chat with other participants and get tips for beating the dreaded writer’s block. Since its second year, NaNoWriMo has been held every November, when the typically dismal weather helps to cut down on distractions for the writers.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is straightforward: write at least 50,000 words in 30 days. This comes out to about 175 pages of one novel or several short stories, and means that anything prose goes.

Participants, who call themselves “Wrimos,” begin writing Nov. 1 and must submit their efforts to the NaNoWriMo website by midnight on Nov. 30 in order to be counted and validated as finalists. There are no trophies or rewards for reaching the big 50, and no punishments for dropping out.

Wrimos who complete the competition in time get a gold star by their name in the online standings, a printable certificate and bragging rights for a lifetime.

Nothing written before Nov. 1 can count toward the 50,000 words. This rule means that Ryan is currently busy with plot maps and character sketches, trying to get as much of her novel planned as possible before the competition begins. Although the coordinators have no way of knowing who follows the rules and who doesn’t, Ryan hates to cheat the system.

“It’s more of an honesty kind of thing,” Ryan said.

Ryan discovered NaNoWriMo through other writing sites she belonged to. Ryan has loved the idea of creating stories and enjoyed writing ones of her own since childhood. After seeing references to NaNoWriMo on the other sites she frequented, she decided to look it up and see what the hype was all about.

“I’m like, this actually sounds really cool,” Ryan recalled. “It sounds like a challenge. I could possibly do this.”

Ryan sticks to fantasy/fiction pieces, but stressed that what she writes isn’t out there. Her first year in the competition, Ryan wrote a spin-off of her favorite anime show One Piece. She created her own plot and added characters of her own invention. Ryan looks back on the story with some embarrassment, but said it was a creative outlet that got her to the 50,000-word goal.

In 2008, Ryan switched genres and wrote an original story about a female captain running an Alaskan fishing boat. The story focused on the young woman’s interaction with her crew and the challenges they faced. This story in particular stands out for Ryan because of the dedication she put into researching her topic to make the story as factual as possible.

Looking back on everything she has written for NaNoWriMo, Ryan said she doesn’t see anything she would want published, but that doesn’t mean she would not want to see her name in print one day.

“I’ve always had the dream of becoming a published author,” she said. “But I realize that that’s not gonna make me the money I need right out of college; get me a family, get me a house. It’s gonna be a sort of extra income so that I can live my life well, but when I get out of college I need to establish that life. For now (writing is) on the background, but in the future I think it’s gonna be a bigger part of my life.”

During November, Ryan makes up for the other months of the year when school and her social life make it too hard for her to sit down and write what she wants. She takes NaNoWriMo as a personal challenge that allows her to feel accomplished and forces her to set aside time for something she really loves.

Taking on a project like writing 50,000 words from nothing in 30 days is a monstrous task, which Ryan has down to an inexact science.

“The first or second week is usually the hardest,” Ryan said. “You don’t really write that much. Like, you write a bunch the first couple of days, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, I have stuff to do; I’ll catch up later.’ Towards the end, you start going, ‘Oh. Oh crap, I don’t have enough’, so you just write as furiously as possible.”

Ryan tries to write the recommended 1600 words a day, something she can do in under an hour on her best days, but admits she is a procrastinator who cannot always stick to her schedule.

Ryan sets goals on days when she finds herself staring at a blank computer screen for hours. It might be that she needs 10,000 words by the weekend in order to go out with friends, or that she needs to reach a certain word count before dinner or before bed.

To strengthen her skills of writing on the fly, Ryan times how many words she can write in a minute during the months leading up to NaNoWriMo. She blames the days when she can’t manage her word count on “motivation block” rather than writer’s block.

“I think writer’s block is sort of a delusion,” Ryan said. “It’s basically you saying ‘I don’t want to work’. It’s a crutch. It’s like laziness. ‘Cause once you sit down and you can write, you can find anything you want to write about. If you get yourself to sit down and do it, it doesn’t take any time at all.”

The official NaNoWriMo website offers a forum for writers who get stuck to vent their frustrations to other participants and fish for inspiration.

Ryan said it helps her because she can track the progress of others and look for local Wrimos to chat with.

Write-ins are organized through the website for Wrimos to meet with local participants and write together for an afternoon or simply bounce ideas. Ryan said having others to work with toward the same goal is a huge incentive to keep writing.

That’s why she is looking for other Kent students to sign up for NaNoWriMo by the Oct. 31 deadline.

“It’s not a success/failure thing,” Ryan said. “If you get anything written, then that’s great because you have a start.”

Next month, Ryan will be hard at work on a project she said was inspired by the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Ryan said she has been passing the time by finding 50 random Google images that interest her in some way. She plans to write 1,000 words for each picture as this year’s means of reaching the coveted 50,000.

She welcomes the insanity of November as a relief from the pressures of classes and encourages others to find their own creative outlet, especially if it is joining her in this challenge. “It’s about a creative project, so (the NaNoWriMo organizers) don’t want to inhibit you,” Ryan said.

Contact Amy Cooknick at [email protected].