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Cashing in on the Speed Writing Craze

To the chagrin of the literati, National Novel Writing Month and its ilk can indeed spark great work.

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Every November, thousands of people around the country stop everything they’re doing, sit down with a notepad or some kind of keyboard, and start furiously writing. Racing to pump out a 50,000-word story within the month (about 1,667 words a day), these manic typists aren’t doing this for cash or any kind of direct compensation. They’re doing it because November is National Novel Writing Month, a competition urging would-be writers to overcome their doubts and fears and just write a whole book. Some in the literary world see the competition, which originally put no emphasis on editing, as a scourge, regularly churning out self-indulgent pulp. In truth, quite a few successful books have come out of NaNoWriMo (as it’s often shortened). More importantly it encourages people to actually do what they love and brings literature back to a popular, accessible, and relatable level for all of us.

NaNoWriMo started out in 1999 as a motivational tool for a group of writer friends. Some say they drew inspiration from the similar 24-Hour Comic Day, which was established in 1990. Whatever the source, by the end of the month, six of the 21 friends had completed the challenge. The group decided to switch the competition from July to November to utilize the house-binding effects of bad weather and create a website, which began to draw media attention in 2002. Along with these developments came thousands of new contestants.

A postcard calendar for NaNoWriMo 2012, by Monda@NoTelling via Flickr

Although an attempt to create a sister event for scriptwriters crashed and burned, NaNoWriMo itself took off within the following decade. By 2009, a decade after the two-dozen friends sat down to write, they had amassed 120,000 participants and 21,683 winners. Reestablished as a non-profit organization (The Office of Letters and Light) in 2005, the original organizers set up forums for writers to advise and assist each other throughout the year, developed young writers’ events and writing camps, put up goal-tracking tools, and started issuing certificates to winners. As of 2014, organizers estimated that about half a million writers participated.

Not everyone is hyped about those rising numbers. Many in the literary world say that not only are the books too short to be considered novels (which run 80,000 to 100,000 words these days), but the work is of poor quality. And the books often get foisted unedited— despite the Office of Letters and Light’s recommendation that people rework their drafts after NaNoWriMo— upon literary agents’ desks in droves. Rather than waste everyone’s time with a gimmick that trivializes writing, these naysayers think we should focus on supporting the writers who weren’t daunted by the craft’s time commitments—the ones who they say were going to create good books anyway.

No Plot, No Problem Writing Kit, available from Chronicle Books

NaNoWriMo critics are also suspicious of the organizers’ motives and the event’s supporters, who they say have spawned an industry based on advising the novice writers of NaNoWriMo. Event founder Chris Baty, for instance, now bills himself as a motivator and has found success with his book No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. And writing services like Scrivener have gotten in on the competition as sponsors, offering trial versions and discounts to NaNoWriMo participants, indicating that they’ve found some (potentially) lucrative market in would-be writers.

Yet despite all this negativity, a whole litany of traditionally published novels have come out of NaNoWriMo (after the authors went back and edited their works). And more than 100 authors have self-published their works, some of which have found a good deal of success.

A short list of those successes includes: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill, Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress by Marissa Meyer, The Compound by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough, Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trimble, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, The God Patent by Randsom Stephens, The Hungry Season by T. Greenwood, Livie Owen Lived Here by Sarah Dooley, Losing Faith by Denise Jaden, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart, Persistence of Memory by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Take the Reins by Jessicca Burkhart, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and Wool by Hugh Howey.

Even if it didn’t pump out books, NaNoWriMo (and the writer’s-aid industry that surrounds it) has merit. Despite accusations that non-writers just aren’t dedicated, not everyone has the privilege to drop everything and scribble away on a whim. NaNoWriMo gives them the structure, incentive, and support to take a big jump. Even if these writers don’t become full-fledged authors, the competition brings literature into the popular sphere, making it more accessible as craft and media to those who might feel daunted by the aura that surrounds haute, experimental, or dense fiction. Sure, in the process, the competition will spin out a few narcissistic nuts who insist that their time should be rewarded and their book should be published no matter what state it’s in. But if NaNoWriMo can drive even a handful of talented people to pursue seemingly inaccessible dreams, produce great works, or even just come to a deeper love of literature and the craft behind it, then surely putting up with a few crazies and a little amateurism is worth it.

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