While a 2,000-word paper may be a daunting task for some students, others take on a greater and even more creatively stimulating challenge—writing 50,000 words to draft an entire novel over the course of November. Besides being known as the month when exams start to loom, it also hosts National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an international challenge for aspiring and established writers alike to complete the first draft of a novel within the month.
NaNoWriMo began in 1999 as a straightforward challenge: Write 50,000 words in 30 days. Over 20 years later, the challenge is still going strong, boasting over 400,000 participants in 2021. To put it in perspective, 50,000 words is about the length of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (47,094 words) or Chuck Palahnuik’s Fight Club (49,962 words). NaNoWriMo is responsible for the publication of several bestsellers, including The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen—the latter of which was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Robert Pattinson.
While “winning” (in that someone reaches the 50,000-word count) is the advertised objective, the beauty of NaNoWriMo is that participants can use the program’s resources to support their individual goals. The website is available year-round, allowing writers to create at their own pace. Simply put, NaNoWriMo merely encourages people to write.
To reach the goal in November alone, one would need to write an average of 1,667 words per day. In an interview with The McGill Tribune, current NaNoWriMo coach and published author Shameez Patel Papathanasiou explained how this goal is surprisingly motivating for aspiring NaNo winners.
“Almost every writer has one thing in common, and that is the powerful skill of procrastination,” Papathanasiou said. “NaNoWriMo is, for me, such a great way to turn off the perfectionist part of my brain. Because of the time pressure, I force myself to write [….] There’s no way to get stuck if you don’t know what terrible nonsense words you wrote the previous day.”
NaNoWriMo additionally fosters a growing community of writers to support each other along the journey. The organization uses its portal for authors to announce and track individual projects, and connect with fellow ‘WriMos’—other NaNo participants. The company additionally gathers published authors to coach new and experienced WriMos to the finish line through blog posts and Twitter takeovers. Papathanasiou—who drafted and edited her debut novel The Last Feather through NaNoWriMo’s programs—gushed about connecting with her local WriMos in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Joining NaNoWriMo was the first time I’d met, actually linked up, with other Cape Town authors. I didn’t know that this group even existed,” Papathanasiou said. “Once I linked up with my writing community, they were active throughout the year [….] They become your beta readers, your critique partners, sometimes they’re your cheerleaders.”
Local businesses welcome and support regional authors in their NaNo challenges. In Montreal, WriMos meet up to participate in writing sprints at cafés like Second Cup or Thésaurus Thérrarium, a tea shop near the De L’Église stop on the green line. This year, Thésaurus Thérrarium is an official ‘Come Write In’ location and has provided goodie bags and tea, as well as kindly offering to stay open until 9 p.m. on Fridays in November in support.
Of course, those participating in NaNoWriMo have work and social commitments to contend with outside of the challenge. WriMos in university have found success and obstacles in participating while balancing full-time studying and part-time work. Two Montreal WriMos wrote to The McGill Tribune about their experiences balancing these commitments. Discord user Reine_Margaux won NaNoWriMo in all four years of undergrad at L’Université de Montréal in the early 2000s.
“[Winning NaNoWriMo in university] was way easier than it is now. I only had about 3.5 [hours] of classes a day and I was only working part-time,” Reine_Margaux said. “My part-time job was very menial, so [I had] lots of mental space for plotting. I also sometimes wrote in class when I was bored. I can make word count in an hour when motivated, so that helps.”
Time management is obviously a vital aspect of winning NaNoWriMo. As university students, WriMos may have more flexible schedules to sneak in writing time, but are also burdened with their employment and a heavy workload of exams and projects to juggle as finals approach. Ophelie, from Bishop’s University, said that this year’s NaNo is her third attempt at 50,000 words, after being unsuccessful in previous years due to heavy workloads.
“I struggle to manage between school and NaNo,” Ophelie said. “At first, I was trying to hit the 50k goal since I was in my reading week [but] now I have too much going on to write every day.”
Ophelie is a great example that not every WriMo sets out to win, representing what is known as a NaNoWriMo rebel, someone who deviates from the traditional NaNo objective. She expressed that her main objective for participating in NaNoWriMo is to set herself up for a career in editing. She said she wants to publish a novel herself before publishing others’ books and get a feel for what writers look for in an editor.
Although it is formidable that Reine_Margaux was able to win her NaNo challenge each year, it’s not feasible for every participant, given that everyone writes differently. Thirty days is not a lot of time to write a draft, and for those who finish, not all WriMos are lucky enough nor have the insider information or connections to publish bestsellers. This idealized conception of ‘finishing’ a novel within strict time limits and potentially inaccessible writing conditions is why Sarah Wolfson, a McGill creative writing lecturer, takes issue with the program. Wolfson specifically feels concerned over NaNoWriMo as a timed challenge, a sentiment she expressed in an email to The McGill Tribune.
“On the one hand, I support systems that motivate people to embark on a writing practice and to shape meaningful stories,” Wolfson wrote. “On the other, I’m allergic to speed as a guiding principle in writing literature. I think most novels take time, simple as that.”
Ultimately, winning NaNoWriMo is not attainable for everyone, and maybe that’s okay. Some people write to publish and others to practice. It doesn’t matter if someone wins or “loses” because really, who loses if they’re making progress? Participating in NaNoWriMo is a success for the published author, the aspiring writer, and the rebels forging their own literary path.