Literary Abandon, Indeed… National Novel Writing Month, a Personal History

It’s October again. Here in New England, the leaves are turning colors and beginning to fall, everything comes in Pumpkin flavor, and my husband surreptitiously opens the bedroom windows in the evening so it drops to freezing temperatures by bedtime. It’s also the month where a young writer’s fancy turns to thoughts of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. (I say Na-No-REE-Mo, although lots of people say Na-No-RYE-Mo. Your prerogative.) If you’ve never heard of it, the challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That’s roughly 180 double-spaced pages, depending on your preferred font. You don’t really “win” anything, per se, except bragging rights and a completed first draft

The Nostalgia

I’ve been participating in these “30 days and nights of literary abandon” since 2001, so this will be my 12th Nano. That makes me an oldbie among oldbies. I was a senior in college back then, and my good friend Marisa said to me, “Elia, I just heard about this amazing writing thing, and you’re the only person I know crazy enough to do it with me.”

Back then, the website looked like this, and there were no forums. Participation had “exploded” from 150 participants the previous year to 5000 of us in 2001, and the servers were having a difficult time getting us all registered. We had a Yahoo group for Massachusetts that included almost every participant in the entire state, and we cheered each other on. It felt both isolating and liberating: with few fellow participants, there was no one with whom to commiserate; but abandoning hopes of quality in a first draft felt wonderful.

I’d written novels before, a couple of terrible ones and one somewhat decent one, plus I was writing another for my college capstone project, but what was one more? I came up with an idea sometime around the end of October and banged out 50,000 halfway-decent words in November. It was freeing, it was fun, and I was definitely hooked.

Marisa and I both won, and although she freely admits that she did a find-replace on all her character names on November 30th to increase her word count, she did produce an amazing 10,000 words on the last day to finish her novel Wild Women Take Over the Universe. I think her last sentence was, “Then the space cowboys showed up and tamed the wild women. Woo!” As long as you don’t take it as a commentary on feminism, that sounds like a damn fine ending to a Nanowrimo novel.

My novel Through the Brass Medallion remains one of my favorite Nano works to this day. It’s rough, filled with plot holes and some well-worn cliches, but it represents a youthful exuberance. It reads like it was written in 30 days, yes, but I haven’t had the heart to edit.

On December 1st that year, about 30 members of Nanowrimo Massachusetts, including Marisa and I, drove out to the Borders Bookstore in Framingham for our first “Thank God It’s Over” party. All the attending participants from the state fit in one room. We read excerpts from our novels. I don’t remember much except being reduced to tears of laughter by one writer, who’d written a novel about a man who started a chain of “pay to pee” bathrooms on the Florida interstate, each of which gave out free coffee. We applauded and celebrated, and then a handful of us went out to John Harvard’s Brew House around the corner to continue our carousing.

Years Pass

When Marisa first approached me about Nano back in 2001, I didn’t imagine that she’d marked a turning point in my Novembers for the foreseeable future. The following year, of course I was going to participate. Nano was bigger that year, with a new website and actual forums! I had a great idea that was going to be just awesome.

This was my first experience with the interesting Nanowrimo phenomena that the year after a milestone year is particularly difficult. Years 2 and 6 were orders of magnitude harder than years 1 and 5. Three days and 8,000 words into my second Nano novel, I scrapped the entire concept and started over. My new idea was nothing more than an image of two Kentucky twenty-something girls driving a pickup truck out to Hollywood to try and get onto a soap opera, but by the end of the month, they’d ended up being chased by the mafia. Blue Note Bandits was a cheesecloth of plot holes, but it was amazingly fun to write. Two years, two wins, and I was hooked for good.

As a teacher, I’ve included students in the entire Nanowrimo adventure many times. It used to be part of my curriculum in my previous school, and everyone set individual goals and wrote for the month. It was rarely in November, though, due to curricular constraints: I set up Nano in October, March, April, whenever it would fit, but I always did mine in November. One year, I novelled with my students in October, then did regular Nanowrimo in November. I don’t recommend that. I finished both stories, but they weren’t the peak of Nanowrimo quality… and that’s saying something, I promise.

I’ve had decent luck with technology over the years, but I did lose one entire novel years after I wrote it. I think it was my third Nano, maybe my fourth. I didn’t lose it in the middle of the month, like some unlucky participants, but it did vanish somehow in subsequent years. I went looking for it one day and it was gone, not in my folders, not under a different name, nowhere. I’d cleaned house in my Nanowrimo folders, tidying up my file structures, and somehow deleted it. I’d gotten shoddy with my backups, so it was really gone. Somewhere between changing thumb drives and upgrading computers, in the four years between writing it and discovering it missing, it had vanished. It’s one of the great mysteries of my Nanowrimo career, it wasn’t even too upsetting, because I’d written so many novels in the meantime. Just a little disappointing.


As one can expect, Nanowrimo has continued to grow each year, up to 256,000 participants in 2011. The forums are extensive. Each state has multiple region sub-groups for location-based write-ins; Massachusetts alone has twelve. It’s a far cry from the day when we all could fit upstairs in a Borders Bookstore. Intellectually, I know this is good; I love to see more people writing and fulfilling their dreams. I can’t help but miss the days of that Yahoo group, though, when we each felt adrift in our own writerly worlds, connecting mostly on dial-up, driving hours to meet each other on December 1st.

Then I shake myself out of that reverie to appreciate the sleek, efficient site that doesn’t crash (often), the wealth of available crowd-sourced information, and the familiar little green word count bar. It may not be perfect. But each November, it’s home.

3 thoughts on “Literary Abandon, Indeed… National Novel Writing Month, a Personal History

  1. I’d like the record to show that not only will the wild women never be truly tamed, but also I was clearly anticipating Firefly by a short time, which makes that story even awesome-r. Now that’s some nanowrimo logic, right there!

  2. Ten years of Nano is an accomplishment indeed. This is only year two for me and as you can see, here I am procrastinating instead of writing. I only wish I had known about Nano back in the early days. I forget exactly how I finally came across it last year, but when I did I was super-excited. I sent the link to my mom, who also writes, and suggested we both do it. To my great surprise she was not only already signed-up, but she had been doing it for years and had written – and independently published – three novels already! Turns out she had a whole secret life as an author that she had neglected to mention. I think she was a little irritated that her secret was out, but since now not only I, but two of her grandchildren are also doing it, it has become something of a family affair. I hope we, too, will someday celebrate a ten year nanniversary.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Kelly. What a great story about your mom. I always wondered why people would keep their writing lives secret, but since I began writing erotic romance, I figured it out. I love the idea of Nano being a family affair. My husband’s role is mostly to good-naturedly grumble about my keyboard tapping from the couch, but I ask him for character names and plot brainstorming now and then, and he’s always happy to oblige.

      Congratulations on another year of Nano!

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