This November, Hannah Archibald is writing a novel. “It’s about exiled killer librarians,” says the Burlington High School senior, who’s wearing an Elmo T-shirt. “I have about 24 characters right now; half of them are named after animals. It’s pretty sweet.”
For most writers, the first novel is a big, open-ended endeavor — and a lonely one. But Archibald knows how long her first draft will be — at least 50,000 words — and that she’ll finish it on November 30. She has plenty of company. More than 30 students at BHS are participating in National Novel Writing Month, including everyone in Archibald’s creative writing class and their teacher, Eve Berinati.
The first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) took place in 1999 in San Francisco with 21 participants. The founders gave themselves a challenge: They didn’t have to produce anything of lasting literary merit, but they did have to write 50K words in 30 days. “We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party,” recalls cofounder Chris Baty on NaNoWriMo’s website.
A classic internet success story, NaNoWriMo kept growing; in 2010, it drew 200,000 participants from around the world. They register and create user profiles on NaNo’s website, meet other local participants at “write-ins,” and update their word counts as they go. Every registrant who uploads a 50,000-word manuscript to the site by midnight on November 30 gets recognition on the NaNo Winner’s Page.
Best-sellers have emerged from the challenge: Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s recent debut The Night Circus both started as NaNo novels. For most participants, though, and especially for young writers, NaNo is not a path to fame and fortune; it’s a motivator and a community. The Bay Area-based nonprofit that runs NaNo, the Office of Letters and Light, offers a special youth version of the challenge, complete with educators’ resources, online forums and minichallenges called “dares” to keep the creative juices flowing. (Sample: “We dare you to turn one of your characters into a werewolf.”)
Archibald and her friend Mia Benson, who matches her pop-art style in a Pac-Man T-shirt, enjoy describing the dares. One of their favorites, just for writers of literary fiction, involves forcing your protagonist to meditate on a box of Kleenex ’til an existential crisis results.
The two seniors are old hands at NaNo — they’ve been “doing it since freshman year,” says Archibald, with “usernames so old they’re embarrassing.” She has “kinda” completed the challenge, she says, while Benson’s longest November manuscript so far is 30,000 words.
The idea of organizing a collective NaNo effort came from BHS English teachers Benjamin Roesch and Erika Lowe, who both write when they’re not teaching. They hadn’t tried NaNo yet, so they thought, “Why don’t we open it up to the school? We can have some kind of support group,” Lowe recalls.
The teachers held an open organizational meeting and were “surprised how many students showed up,” says Roesch. They enlisted fellow teachers Jill Kelley and Berinati, who admits that writing a novel was “nothing I ever thought I wanted to do.” But she figured it wouldn’t hurt to give NaNo a month of class time, she says.
Berinati’s senior creative writing elective is the only class incorporating NaNo into its curriculum; the other teachers offer it as an option. Lowe, who has 11 freshmen participating, gives them opportunities to work on their novels by opening her English classes with “seven-minute quick writes.”
In all, students in four BHS classes are currently busy “noveling” away, in NaNo parlance. They can join Roesch on Mondays for after-school write-ins featuring contests such as “word wars,” where they compete to generate the most words in 25 minutes.
To complete NaNo at a steady rate, students would need to produce 1667 words per day. But, as every writer knows, writing is more like sprinting (or, when you’re blocked, plodding) than walking on a treadmill. And it’s easy to procrastinate by reading the lively forums or “NaNo stalking” your classmates and teachers to see how many words they’ve written.
At a recent session of Berinati’s 18-person class, not one student raises his or her hand when asked who’s ahead of schedule. That includes Berinati, though she did get into a groove the preceding night and churned out 4000 words.
Next, the class checks Roesch’s stats and marvels at his output — about 40K words at press time.
What are all those words about? Lowe’s novel concerns a kleptomaniac who goes to work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Roesch, who usually writes literary fiction, is experimenting with a “science fiction/horror mashup.” Berinati is drawing on her own experience to tell the story of a young educator in her fifth year — the point where 65 percent of teachers quit, she notes. Her working title: No Idea.
And, she confides to her students, she’s “getting bored” of her protagonist. The young writers are quick to propose solutions: “Kill her!” one suggests. “Make her have a relationship,” another offers. “Send her to the circus!” says a third. “Make her have a relationship with a student!”
Berinati shakes her head at the more outré suggestions. “I want to show a teacher being human,” she explains.
One by one, the students sum up their NaNo novels (see sidebar). Their plots range from the wacky and surreal to the fantastical to the topical, and some aren’t technically “novels” at all. Some students mention romance, but no one cops to writing about sexy vampires. Some have a Hollywood knack for high concepts: Hai Phan, for instance, is writing a third Alice in Wonderland book “with a mob-boss twist,” he says.
Nothing is off limits during NaNoWriMo — except revision. “That’s for December,” Berinati explains. The idea is to get words on the page now and work on shaping and polishing later.
Beth Awhaitey, who’s writing short stories about “what to do with your life,” confesses that she did a spell-check on her manuscript. The class tsk-tsks.
Do the students like their novels enough to revise them into December and beyond? Most say yes, though two hope to “never again” touch their manuscripts.
Some writers might pooh-pooh the whole NaNo concept, with its emphasis on quantity over quality. But Roesch and Lowe both say the challenge is a good way to teach students persistence. “The hardest thing is to start,” Lowe says. “[NaNo is] forcing them to, when they hit that writer’s block, keep writing. I think what they’re learning is discipline.”
Roesch, who’s already written a few novels at his own pace, says he initially thought “a month is an insane time frame” for the job. He’s learned that NaNo is “as much about endurance as about creativity.”
But the creative component matters, notes Lowe, in a learning environment driven by concerns about standardized testing. Because their English education focuses on producing essays, “students don’t know how to do things like write dialogues,” she says. “This was one way for us to bring it in without compromising the curriculum we’re required to teach.”
NaNo helps students get past their self-censorship, too, Lowe suggests. “They edit themselves so much, and when they don’t, sometimes they write the most moving pieces.” The teachers are considering holding a December “read-in” for students to share their work.
For now, Berinati’s class seems to be having a blast batting around ideas, daring one another to take narratives on bizarre tangents. Whether they finish or not, they’re certainly conquering their fear of the blank computer screen.
Lowe thinks the NaNo group effort demystifies the writing process by allowing students to see their teachers struggling with the same task they are. The adult writers learn something about perseverance, too. “There’s many times when we’ve said, ‘We just want to give up,’” Lowe says.
The students keep them going. “Having the kids doing it, too,” echoes Roesch, “has inspired me to push myself a little harder.”