When we think of writing groups, we think of the long-term ones, meeting regularly, “same time, same place.” A permanent presence. But sometimes we need more. Maybe we have a time-specific need, or a particular concern — something that’s temporary. That’s when it’s time for an ad hoc group, and I’d like to introduce you to one known with affection as NaNoWriMo.

To appreciate NaNoWriMo fully you should be a writer of prose, and it helps if you are either a new/aspiring writer, or a writer looking for a jump-start to a large project. Because NaNoWriMo will help you answer three tough questions you’re facing:

  1. How (and when) will I begin?
  2. How will I sustain my energy and purpose through the project?
  3. How long will it take to finish?

And NaNoWriMo replies, in order:

  1. November 1.
  2. 1,667.
  3. 30 days.

Okay, maybe that was too brief, so: NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words from November 1-30, which is an average of 1,667 words/day for 30 days. Officially the goal is to begin and finish an original novel, but since the “reward” is a pat on (your own) back, it’s an accepted “rebellion” to write something else, such as narrative nonfiction or memoir, or to finish a previously-begun, longer work.

In 2000, the second year of NaNoWriMo, 140 people participated, with 29 “winning.” In 2011, 257,000 people participated, and 37,000 won. I have been among them twice, and I will be again this November. If you are a writer of prose—of any genre, fiction or nonfiction—and are contemplating a 50,000+ word project, I recommend that you join us.

And I say “us” because NaNoWriMo can be a group experience, if you choose. You have the option to track and—even better—to share your progress online with designated “writing buddies,” and to join any of what are usually at least two meetups of local participants: come to the selected location (usually a bookstore) with your writing tools, take a seat among a group of other “Wrimos” (also called “Nanos”), and have a paradoxically social writing experience.

What Writing Problems NaNoWriMo Can Solve

I’ve just alluded to one problem NaNoWriMo can solve: the intense isolation of writing. Writing is always solitary, a sometimes tense collaboration between you and your muse. If you’re writing as part of NaNoWriMo, however, you get an almost palpable sense of writing energy coursing through the ether. Even better, you can tap into that energy using the NaNoWriMo website and/or your fellow local Wrimos.

The other tangible benefit is the silencing of your other constant writing companion: your internal editor. Whether that nitpicking, negative editor has the voice of the eighth-grade English teacher who pockmarked your essays with red marker, or of the older brother who thought it was funny to read your journal out loud to his friends, that voice is always the voice of doubt, of hesitation, and of what-else-you-should-be-doing.

However, in writing 1,667 words a day, day after day, you’ll notice that editor’s voice begin to falter, and then to fade away altogether. That negative internal editor, you’ll realize, is actually kind of lazy. S/he can’t keep up with the amount of energy you’re pouring into your writing. Wait—did that editor just try to speak again? Well, head over to one of the NaNoWriMo Facebook groups and hop into one of the continual short (5- or 15-minute) writing challenges, where the point is just the point of NaNoWriMo: put down the words. Always be composing.

You will also learn to improvise. No matter how well planned your endeavor, you will find yourself off the path you’d expected. Fifty thousand words is a long journey, and every long journey has detours and digressions, and often these are the reason we travel. We begin to see where we are when we end.

What You’ll Get from NaNoWriMo

On November 30, if you’ve made a real effort, you’ll probably be tired, and maybe even spent. Maybe you’ve reached 50,000 words, maybe not. What you will have done, though, is to have seen yourself writing every day, improvising when you depart from your plans, following the needs of your characters rather than of yourself, discovering the unexpected because some things appear only when you’re in the middle of them.

You will, in other words, have been, for at least this month, a writer. If you’re new, you’ve seen that you can do it. If you’re experienced—well, you’ve done the hardest part of your next project: getting it underway.

How to Get Involved with NaNoWriMo

To join, just go to the NaNoWriMo website and create an account for yourself. It’s free (NaNoWriMo is run by the nonprofit Office of Letters and Light; think about making a donation). Now you’re “official.”

Next, join up with your fellow local Wrimos. If you’re in the Traverse City area, we don’t yet have our own region, but you can find a local forum thread to find the news and join the discussion. (This group also has a Facebook private group; send the thread’s creator, James, a message, and he’ll send you a Facebook invite to join. All are welcome!)

The first in-person event is Sunday, November 4, at Brilliant Books on Front Street in TC. Here is a link to the Facebook event.

NaNoWriMo is a good thing. Even if you can’t do the whole 50,000 words, you’ll get more out of this than you put in. Give it a try.

Daniel Stewart is an historian, print and book designer, radio producer, and memoirist. He has lived in Leelanau County, Michigan, since 2004, and most of what he does is related to the telling of good and true stories. He joined the board of Michigan Writers in 2012 as part of that mission. Dan would love to hear from you; you can send him a note at [email protected].

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