Writing a Novel in One Month: All About NaNoWriMo


Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo.

Abby Pursh, Writer

The time of year has rolled around again, when  the most avid writers from around the world take on a seemingly impossible challenge: drafting a story of 50,000 words in just 30 days. AKA: the equivalent of writing a novel in a month. 

But this worldwide word-count undertaking is not just a simple motivator created by a few particularly dedicated writers. According to its website, NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month) is actually a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization that “provides tools, structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds — on and off the page.” What this means is that NaNoWriMo is about more than just pushing people to finish their writing goals. They aim to strengthen and inspire, allowing participants to change the world in both real and fictional realms. 

The idea for the 50,000-word challenge started in 1991 with freelance writer Chris Baty, according to an article published in the Washington Post in 2012. Why begin such an ambitious story-crafting project? He says it was a slew of reasons similar to why young people start bands: “Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.” 

But as Baty and his friends began writing, they found the process to be unexpectedly fun. And in 1992, a friend created a website for their goal. That year 140 people participated with 29 of them completing the challenge. The project was then turned over to the Office of Letters and Light, a nonprofit, allowing it to grow into a global phenomenon. NaNoWriMo officially became a nonprofit in 2006. 

Today, hundreds of thousands of writers around the world begin writing on November 1st every year. The website itself serves as a form of social media for author profiles, including authors’ profiles and libraries for personal projects, and can track word count. NaNoWriMo also has writing events in cities nationwide, assisted by volunteers, libraries, and community centers. 

But just how big is NaNoWriMo? According to the organization’s website, 552,335 writers participated in their programs in 2020 alone, and Volunteer Municipal Liaisons guided 671 regions on six continents. The Young Writers Program, which helps K-12 students write a novel in 30 days as well as provides educators with curricula, had 97,439 participants last year. Additionally, 448 libraries, community centers, and bookstores were a part of the Come Write In writing event. 

Come Write In has even presented itself locally. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh released an exciting message in 2018: “NaNoWriMo: Come Write In at CLP!” They offered spaces “providing meeting spaces, snacks, coffee and encouragement” all across the city during the month of November as part of the program from NaNoWriMo. Similar messages were also released in 2017 and 2016, though it is unknown whether the library will participate in 2021. 

On their Twitter profile, @NaNoWriMo, the organization posts updates, programs, events, links, resources, and other information and opportunities for novel-writing enthusiasts. NaNoWriMo can also be found on Facebook, Instagram , and YouTube

This 50,000-word challenge has led a multitude of authors to not only drafting, but publishing their work as well. Famous novels drafted through NaNoWriMo include Cinder by Marissa Meyer, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. 

But, it’s important to remember that National Novel Writing Month is extremely self-driven. “There are no prizes or league tables,” writes novelist David Barnett in a November 2nd article published in The Guardian, on participating in NaNoWriMo. “Just the satisfaction of taking part–and the potential creation of something publishable.” 

Further into the article, Barnett discusses how the month can, at the very least, allow aspiring novelists to begin drafting. He quotes Erin Morgenstern, the aforementioned author of The Night Circus: “I always liked it for quickly getting words down for rough drafts without overthinking everything. It’s what got me writing seriously in the first place, because I used to write a few pages and hate them so I’d stop.” 

Barnett also offers tips for those participating: write at least 1,667 words a day, get the story down without worrying over quality, decide whether to work as either a linear or modular writer, allow the characters to move the story forward, and finally– don’t give up. “If you can push on through the bad days,” Barnett writes, “Welcome to the world of writing.” 

On the blog Jane Friedman, editor, author, and book coach Julie Artz published an article back in September with some advice: “Want to Win NaNoWriMo? The Secret Is Preparation.” Artz failed at 20,000 words after first attempting NaNoWriMo, but then tried again the following year with a new approach. She advises to make achievable goals, and allow your surroundings to facilitate success– for example, hang a sign outside the door while writing. Being a part of #plantober (planning in October for NaNoWriMo) can also help. This can include anything from reading common tropes in your genre, to making a five-line outline, to exploring your story with “total abandon.” 

Also noteworthy is that NaNoWriMo “does not always conform to the rules that characterise established, professional literary, academic and publishing communities,” says an article from The Conversation published in September 2013. Still, “traditional publishers… are now also turning to initiatives such as NaNo for models on how to interact with their readers, and to reach potential and existing authors.” 

So no, a NaNoWriMo novel probably won’t be the next literary masterpiece of the 21st century. It might not even be published. But it might allow the author to connect with a publisher, or begin to understand how that whole process works. 

The Conversation article goes on to say that the initiative allows writers to connect via sites and forums. It provides a “supportive, interactive community,” through which ideas, technique and craft can be discussed and debated. Writers can also go it alone, if they choose. 

Still, the question of whether NaNoWriMo is a good thing remains a conundrum in the literary community. Some people love it, some don’t, and some are in between– and that shows, considering the number of writer blogs online that have something to say about squeezing 50,000 words into a single month. 

“It’s important to know why you’re going into NaNoWriMo and be realistic about the end result,” concedes Amber, a reader, writer, and author of the blog The Literary Phoenix in an October article written last year. She calls herself a “big, big fan” of National Write a Novel Month. “But I think it’s important to know that NaNoWriMo is not the event where writers go to die. In fact, many people use it as a tool, and some NaNo books even get published (after serious revising).”  

Famous authors who have participated– whether they have liked it or not– include John Green, Emily X.R. Pan, Susan Dennard, and Stephanie Perkins, Amber writes. 

Indeed, the challenge should be taken with caution. The blog Men With Pens released a post beginning with the simple line, “I am a proud NaNoWriMo failure.” In the article, an anonymous author describes their tumultuous NaNoWriMo journey, from panic to crying to questioning their own writing ability while trying to push through the 50,000 word goal. So, they allowed themself to take a break. 

“I felt the push and the whip and the sense of frantic get it done no matter what,” they write. “And that’s dangerous.” They go on to say that novels can take a long time to write and edit. Even so, the excitement of NaNoWriMo and its community can still be fun and beneficial. They advise to begin writing only when you have confidence and a good support network. 

“If you find yourself writing because you have to write or you will fail, you’re doing it wrong,” they conclude. “[But] If you’re writing because you love writing, because writing fuels you, because writing is what you want to do – well, you’re already a success.” 

Laura Highcove, a fantasy writer, wrote an article back in 2017 about the pros and cons of participating in NaNoWriMo. Her pros include the community it builds; the fact that it sets time aside to write; and the idea of a challenge that allows someone to learn more about themself as a writer. Her cons include the rules holding back writers, and the fact that it doesn’t work well for every writer. 

Highcove advises potential NaNoWriMo participants to try it if they never have before. And if they have done it, she offers them to reflect to see if it worked out well for them. “On the path to becoming a better writer, you’re going to find just as many (if not more) ways of writing that don’t work for you as do,” she says, on the question of whether or not someone should be a part of NaNoWriMo. “The way you reach mastery in anything is to continually challenge yourself and then evaluate how it worked and how it didn’t.” 

Signing up is very easy, and can be done on the NaNoWriMo website. Enter an email, password, and username to create an account. 

NaNoWriMo can also be found on social media. On their Twitter profile, @NaNoWriMo, the organization posts updates, programs, events, links, resources, and other information and opportunities for novel-writing enthusiasts. They can also be found on Facebook, Instagram , and YouTube

So, what can we conclude about National Novel Writing Month? “It frees you from your inner editor,” writes journalist Diana Reese in the aforementioned Washington Post article, on NaNoWriMo. She wrote over 32,000 words in the span of two days in a race to finish the challenge by November 30th. “You’re not trying to create great literature, you’re striving to produce 50,000 words in 30 days. You see words appearing on the pages. And sometimes that’s the best accomplishment of all.”