Each November, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenges writers—often referred to as "wrimos"—to finish a 50,000-word novel, and each Sunday this past November, a group of people who accepted the challenge met at the library to write, support, and share their experiences with one another. For most, it was their first time. I was excited to join them on this journey as a fellow writer, but I was also there as an observer, hoping to learn more about how other writers were tackling this monumental challenge. One writer was working on a middle grade fiction novel, another was crafting a fantasy story. My work in progress is a horror story about a woman who is led back to her hometown later in life.
As disparate as our writing projects were, we were all embarking on an ambitious NaNoWriMo journey. From the very first November write-in session through the last, I felt like I belonged; I found a community of writers I could share with and learn from. Working on our stories—usually a solitary activity—felt like teamwork as the group convened every Sunday for these sessions.
This year’s NaNoWriMo write-ins drew a steady attendance of about a dozen wrimos each week, said Caitlyn Hannon, Fiction and Media Program Coordinator. Caitlyn moderated all four sessions, leading word sprints (timed sessions for wrimos to just write as much as they can) and introducing writing prompts (topics such as a piece of furniture or bad weather) to help make the storytelling process a bit more interesting. I’ve found the writing prompts to be particularly helpful especially when I felt stuck creating interesting dialogue and plot lines.
Earlier in the month, Kate Hall, Library Director and fellow wrimo who’s writing a middle grade fiction novel, encouraged everyone to simply keep writing regardless of word count: “Even if you don’t hit 50,000 words by the end of the month, you can still work toward it after the month...If you have written words, you’re a writer.”
By the end of the month, a few had met and even exceeded the 50,000 word count. But most writers, including Ann Kruckmeyer and I, will continue working on their novels into the winter season. “I’ve been encouraged and inspired to continue writing through the holidays,” said Ann. “This is a really good time to get inspired.”
Although the goal is to produce a novel in a month, NaNoWriMo is also a special opportunity for participants like Nick Jirsa, who plans to go into grad school, to develop stronger writing habits.
“It ended up to be quite an introspective experience, but nowhere near 50,000 words," she said of her first NaNoWriMo experience. That perfectly sums up my experience as well. Merrill did end up achieving 50,000 words the third time. She credits having a topic prepared ahead of time for the success. So, for next time, I'll follow her lead and have a story outline sorted in advance!
Writers work differently. Some can dedicate an hour of writing and spit out a thousand words or more. In my case, I tend to self-edit my sentences. For NaNoWriMo, that tendency slows you down as you're constantly trimming the word count. There's no right or wrong way of writing your story as long as it's getting done. Every writer know what works best for them. But eventually I learned to let go and write more freely. It may look shoddy, but at least I was moving along. Hardcore revisions come later.
Mike Pickard, of Highland Park, has written seven novels, “but only two I would recommend to people,” he joked, and says the process and practice gets easier as one keeps writing. “I believe my writing is getting better every time,” he said. “I try my best to just keep writing and not be tempted to edit. I don’t call it writing I call it dumping, dumping out my head. No one’s going to write perfect words the first time.”
This whole month long activity was humbling and thrilling and I'm glad I participated. The more I wrote, the less intimidated I felt with the whole novel-writing process. That said, it was daunting. Within the first week with 5,000 words, I learned writing fiction can be very time-consuming and take up a lot of mental energy. On busy days, I did my best to put down a few lines of dialogue or exposition in a small notebook I carried around. When I didn't meet the daily 1,500-word count minimum, I told myself I'd catch up on the weekends. By the time the weekends came, "catching up" became a stressful deadline-driven task that sometimes made me wonder why I thought I this was a good idea. Luckily, I had the write-ins at the library to look forward to. There, I realized I was hardly alone. These supportive gatherings helped all of us stay focused on our novels and bolster the resolve to write at our own pace.
‘Humanity of Writing’
On the last NaNoWriMo write-in session on November 25, writers shared some insightful takeaways about the month long experience and what they’ve gained in the process.
For Merrill, the “words came so much easily” her fourth time as a NaNoWriMo participant. Just the consistent practice of writing is effective, she said. Beyond that, she’s become a better reader: “I think I’ve become a better reader, a critical reader, especially when reading more modern novels, looking at different styles and approaches authors take. I feel like I’ve gotten to be a more conscientious reader.”
Elyse Malamud is in the eighth grade and this was her third NaNoWriMo challenge. She says participating in NaNoWriMo has been an “eye-opening experience” for her. “Whether you finish or not, [this experience] gives you an insight into what it'si like to write,” said Elyse, of Northbrook. “It seems easier to write a book than it really is. You see such an abundance of books in your day-to-day life, yet a lot of us tend to sit there not knowing what to write. It can be a challenge just to get six pages through. I realized that you need to allocate a lot of time dedication.”
Iris Iglarsh, a first-time NaNoWriMo participant, added: “For some people, it takes 10, 20 years [to write a novel]. My experience is it’s revision after revision after revision. Usually, I’m sitting alone clicking and clacking, by myself. This was my first first time writing with other writers. It was a neat experience. Encouraging and inspiring."
Likewise, Mike appreciated being a part of a community of writers. Even as a published author, Mike says writing with a group of dedicated writers makes the long journey more enjoyable.
“These kinds of write-in sessions adds to the humanity of writing that I had been missing. [Before] I could pound the words out, but it was very lonesome. When I started coming here last year, there was a spark. I saw other people in the same situation and didn’t feel as alone climbing this mountain of 50,000 words.”
Takeaways on the process of writing:
Unless you write novels for a living, it's not often most people get to indulge in fictional worlds we create. These weekly write-in sessions with this dedicated group of writers has been a rewarding experience. Writers were generous with one another, sharing helpful insights and suggestions.
Last year, Merrill learned how to save time and work smart by using the microphone feature on her chromebook to "write" out loud directly into a document, even inserting punctuations (such as period, comma, question mark), all while sitting on her sofa to finish up one of my crochet projects.
“It's pretty accurate, although I do have to go over the document and proofread, but I would do that anyway. This technique really helps to prevent self-censoring; I just speak, train-of-thought, without editing as I go. It's much easier to hit my word goal for the day this way,” she said.
To help break up the monotony and conquer writer’s block, Shannon Walasinski took part in a NaNoWriMo word crawl, or themed writing challenges. “I really like it. They’re mini-challenges and you write for 15 minutes,” Shannon said. “It’s really helped me write a lot, to break it up in smaller parts.”
For Izabelle Alexander, writing as much as she can in whatever format helps keep her in the groove. “What helps me as a writer is journaling, doing a lot of [word] sprints, writing poems, a start of a short story...It gets you in the writing mode again,” she said.
–Jane Huh, Content Specialist at Northbrook Public Library