If you graphed the progress of National Novel Writing Month’s hegemony, it would look like the lines epidemiologists use to illustrate the spread of dangerous viruses.
Two years ago, Chris Baty wanted to write a novel. As something of an in-joke, he dreamed up National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo for short. Twenty-one of his friends signed on and six finished novels. Last November, 140 took the challenge and 29 finished. This year, using a cute Web site featuring two cartoon kids waving books beneath the slogan “No plot? No problem!” Baty invited the whole world to join him in dashing off 50,000 words in thirty days. Once mention of NaNoWriMo hit MetaFilter.com, an online clearinghouse for issues being discussed by “bloggers” — people who keep online diaries known as Weblogs — it spread like a literary Ebola.
Soon the press came calling, and Baty, an Oakland-based freelancer who writes for several publications including the Express, found himself on the other side of the tape recorder. The LA Times ran a story. The Washington Post hosted an online chat. A former Suck.com columnist turned out a piece for NPR’s All Things Considered. The New Yorker commissioned a Talk of the Town item about Victoria Schlesinger, the “NaNoWriMo Ambassador” who would write her novel while driving across the country in a beat-up red hatchback. For a while, People wanted to fly a reporter and photographer to the NaNoWriMo kickoff party, but they were looking for a story about a disgruntled writer who’d started a do-it-yourself campaign after being rejected by the publishing industry.
The truth was far less adversarial. Originally Baty just wanted company, figuring he’d never finish a novel-length manuscript — not necessarily a good novel; perhaps even a very bad one — unless he had plenty of friends to egg him on. The event itself was simple. There would be no judges, prizes, or entrance fees; writing would be its own reward. Baty wouldn’t publish or even read the finished manuscripts; he’d simply run a word count and make sure each totaled 50,000 words. Anyone who made it to the magic number “won,” regardless of whether or not their novel was witty, coherent, or largely ripped off from the Nancy Drew books. Serious wordsmiths need not apply. The act of completing a monumental work of art would be rendered unscary by the insanely tight time frame, the occasional soothing e-mail from NaNoWriMo Headquarters, and the support of a community of writers.
Now Baty had his community. With each new article in a national or international newspaper, hundreds signed on. Baty was both elated and horrified the day before the October 30 sign-up deadline. “I opened the sign-up e-mail in-box and there were 950 unread messages,” he said. They came from all over the United States. They were from Finland and Kuala Lumpur. They were from Pakistan, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates. By midnight, Baty had more than 5,000 participants. And the time-consuming process of sending new members welcome messages, instructing them to join NaNoWriMo’s Yahoo bulletin board, and adding them to the Web site’s “Team 2001” roster all had to be done by hand.
Baty hastily corralled a half-dozen friends for a marathon weekend of e-mailing and coding that later would be described by one participant as “like slave labor, with more Doritos.” From his Oakland apartment, they watched in wonder as thousands of total strangers vehemently debated NaNoWriMo protocol and formed writing klatches groups on the official Yahoo site and dozens of unaffiliated ones. On MetaFilter, people posted queries such as “I wonder if it would be cheating to put together an outline before the November 1st start date?” and “Is it within the rules to use Benzedrine to fuel the fury?” There also were dissenters, who called the idea “fantastically horrible” and likely to produce “a stream-of-consciousness crapfest.” “I was avidly following all of these things with my mouth agape,” says Baty. “I would go to all these clubs where people were talking about NaNoWriMo and I was like, ‘These people are talking about it like it’s a real thing.’ Then I realized, ‘Oh my God, it’s become a real thing.'”
No one was more surprised than Baty, who felt like a guy who accidentally started a dance craze because his hip displacement gave him a funky new move. From cyberspace, NaNoWriMo looked like a real organization, with a lively Web page and a charming soft-sell. From inside Baty’s apartment, it looked like a bunch of thin people in bad sweaters, bent over their laptops, cranked up on Frito-Lay products and Red Bull energy drink. None were businessmen or tech gurus, and none were getting paid. The entire event was being financed on Baty’s credit cards. “We’ve expanded beyond our safe foundation, and I’m just hoping that nothing dramatically bad happens,” Baty said.
If Baty needed a symbol of the costs of unrestrained growth, all he had to do was look at his own friends after Day Three of the sign-up frenzy. “Their bodies are beginning to break down,” he reported nervously. “Tim has laid on the couch all day with ice packs on his wrists; he’s going to have to go voice recognition on his novel for the first part of the month. You look at Rolf and he looks like he’s stoned but he’s not, he’s just glassed over from looking at the computer.”
But by the time October faded and the official kickoff party rolled around, Baty’s spirits were back. There was a gleam in his eye, the look of the kid about to pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes. Dozens of proto-novelists from all over Northern California assembled in an Oakland backyard. Meats were grilled and potential plotlines picked apart. People were encouraged to wear paper checklists of likely plot sources around their neck (“the police log,” for example, or “right-wing talk radio”). Among the scores of people anxiously milling about were cartographer Tim Lohnes, full-time mother Teresa Corragio, about-to-be-laid-off dot-commer Brian Murphy, and UC Berkeley student Catherine Plato. All needed a little reassurance.
Baty — a striking presence with his lanky frame, bright green eyes, and elaborately sculpted sideburns — climbed atop a cooler and issued a proclamation. “Here is my promise to all of you: It’s going to be easier than you think,” he said. “You all by virtue of being humans are born storytellers and yakkers. I’m sure 50,000 words will be no problem. Just remember all of you have it in you, all of you are ready to go. Just wait until the deadline, and then we start writing.”
But writing a novel, as it turned out, was about the easiest part of National Novel Writing Month. With the event’s growing popularity came a host of unexpected complications: legal conundrums, technological breakdowns, unauthorized spinoff sites, unlicensed merchandise, and spiraling back-end costs — all despite NaNoWriMo’s complete lack of revenue. NaNoWriMo no longer was an in-joke; it was an institution, albeit one with an untested structure about to face an onslaught of excited users.
At exactly one minute after midnight, as the calendar ticks over into November, many participants, alternately dubbed “NaNos” or “Wrimos,” depending on whom you ask, open up brand-new text files. Australian participants, who because of time-zone differences are first to see daylight, begin posting their progress on the NaNoWriMo.com word-count page. The Web site strains under the traffic, but everything holds. Novel Writing Month begins.
Among the first sentences posted for group admiration:
“It’s not easy being Pope, you know.”
“Cops hate finding charred bodies on park benches at six o’clock in the morning.”
And, without apparent irony, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
People also find an encouraging message from Baty in their in-boxes. “So this is how it starts,” he writes. “The question is now whether or not you have a novel in you. You have dozens. The question is whether or not you’ll stop beating yourself up long enough to let one of those novels transcribe itself on your computer. The question is whether you’ll stop trying to be perfect, and start letting yourself be messy. November is not an oil painting. November is a charcoal sketch, a breathless, dashed-off line drawing. It’s imperfect, but that’s the point.”
NaNoWriMo’s own imperfections are starting to emerge. Most of the publicity rolled out just days before Baty planned to close the sign-up list, and pleas for late entries to the now-closed list are pouring in. Baty stands his ground; the site just isn’t prepared to accommodate thousands of visitors a day. He encourages latecomers to write a novel anyway, but he knows most won’t. “It’s like The Wizard of Oz — there’s nothing that I’m offering,” he sighs. “You can still write the novel on your own.”
Some people choose to apply their energies another way. Overnight, the NaNoWriMo Web site is hacked, and users are treated to the sight of what Baty calls some “very shocking ladies’ backsides” and a message reading “You suck!” when they try to update their word counts. A participant from Chicago volunteers his programming help and within a day the security leak is plugged.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Schlesinger is receiving creepy e-mail from cybergoons; Baty realizes that putting an attractive woman’s picture on the site next to her travel itinerary was not a good idea. Schlesinger’s picture is replaced with a slightly less hot one of her car. Baty is shocked by the hostility directed at such an innocuous Web site. “I thought we were invisible,” he says. “We’re just a bunch of smiley dopes who are trying to write a bad novel in the month.”
Far from invisible, the Web has given NaNoWriMo more presence than ever. By now, participants have created two dozen regional and international spin-off sites offering chat rooms and places for people to link to their novels-in-progress. There are specialized online groups for the College NaNos, the Over Forty NaNos, the Tech Writer NaNos, the blogger NaNos, and the NaNoidlings, or those under age 21. One Wrimo starts an enthusiastically hailed “experts” page, on which volunteers answer their fellow novelists’ questions on topics like beekeeping, taxi driving, orbital mechanics, and duck farming. There also are the Rebel NaNos, people who were turned away after the cutoff date but are writing novels anyway, whose Web page looks remarkably like the official site except that the cartoon kids are now waving portraits of Che Guevara.
Still, Baty could not be happier with the proliferation of satellite sites. “It’s like the field of dreams,” he says, “where I’ve built the baseball diamond and all the players come out, but then there are also people who show up to sell hot dogs and set up the porta-potties and sell pennants and souvenir baseball bats, and I just get to sit on my porch now and kind of watch the game.”
For team NaNoWriMo, the bases are loading quickly. Thousands of messages make the boards in the first several days, as Wrimos trade names for protagonists, doughnut shops, and gangster rappers; console those afflicted by hard-drive crashes, repetitive stress injuries, or unsympathetic spouses; and bashfully share excerpts, then wax poetic over one another’s literary prowess.
Perhaps because blogger culture has a strong affinity for science fiction and fantasy, many of the novels in progress are in the sword-and-sorcerer vein. But there are exceptions. A fifth-grade class from Florida is collectively writing a novel about a pack of mutant monkeys on motorcycles who attack a group of kids on a field trip, complete with such timeless dialogue as “Ahh! We’re all going to die! I am never going to be a teenager!” But there’s really no prototypical novel-in-progress, and many Wrimos focus on topics close to home: “I survived the summer the way that all collegiate English majors survive their summer jobs … by promising myself that someday I’d write scathing essays about the horrors of K-Mart that would cause nationwide consumer uproar which would lead to the downfall of Martha Stewart’s wicked empire.”
The overall tenor is perhaps best summed up by the guy who simply posts: “Please allow me this euphoric moment: I’m writing a freakin’ novel!”
No movement truly has arrived until it has a T-shirt. Now NaNoWriMo not only has shirts, but hats, teddy bears, beer steins, and mousepads. The problem is that Baty had nothing to do with it — a Wrimo in Maryland has simply set up shop by downloading the “No plot? No problem!” logo and sending it to online merchant CafePress, which will graft it onto just about anything. Almost simultaneously, a Wrimo in Hawaii launches another line of unauthorized merchandise using a logo he’s created.
Baty is torn. On the one hand, he assumes the merchandising is intended as a gesture of goodwill and group pride, not to make money. But his desire to retain control wins out. Baty sends both participants polite notes asking them to take their sites down and promising that NaNoWriMo will print an official T-shirt at the end of the month. Much to his relief, they comply. “Ultimately, it doesn’t hurt anything to have them selling these T-shirts, but at the same time I spent almost three years working on this project and essentially what they would be selling is the NaNoWriMo name,” he muses. “And then I hear those thoughts in my head and I think, ‘Oh my God, I sound like somebody from Coca-Cola.’ I don’t want to have to be thinking about these things.”
But he is, at least subconsciously. Baty has begun to have literal nightmares about copyright law, server crashes, and hackers. In one, people had accessed the server and were setting up accounts for themselves. Baty had gotten out of bed, still asleep, turned on the lights and was on his way to the laptop in his living room before he realized that, as they say in crummy novels, it was all a bad dream.
One week in, real life is producing nightmares of its own for some Wrimos. Due to academic pressure and family emergencies, Catherine Plato drops out. Tim Lohnes, a veteran of two previous NaNoWriMos and a friend of Baty’s, had craftily planned to build up a surplus of words by exiling himself to a hotel room for a weekend of nonstop writing. But Lohnes, who also volunteered his data-entry skills during the sign-up frenzy, almost immediately had a flare-up of chronic repetitive stress problem with his wrists. He hasn’t written anything for days.
Teresa Corragio, whose fairy-tale-esque novel is tracking the romantic adventures of a three-legged spider, is having better luck. Unlike the majority of Wrimos, childless twenty- and-thirtysomethings, Corragio has three daughters. Consequently, most of her writing is happening on the bench during the kids’ gymnastics lessons, at the muffin shop by the ballet studio, and on teachers’ couches during music lessons. What does her family think of having a NaNoWriMom? “A self-imposed deadline is a tricky thing to explain to a nine-year-old,” she says.
Brian Murphy has every reason to quit; only five days into November, he and his boyfriend of seven years broke up. But Murphy, who dropped out of NaNoWriMo last year at 2,300 words, presses on, and he writes his breakup right into his novel. “It would be easy for this month to be kind of a big crazy blur of emotions, but every single day I’ve been writing,” he says. “This has been probably the biggest month of my life since my relationship started seven years ago — that was the last time things seemed so magical and exciting and wild — and I’m going to have a 50,000-word document of this really momentous point in my life.” Like hundreds of other Wrimos, Murphy also is taking advantage of the slumping economy. His employer, [email protected], is in bankruptcy procedures, and he expects his job to vanish any day. In the meantime, he’s working from home, where there’s not much to do and his laptop is tantalizingly nearby. “If I end up getting laid off,” he says, “I can’t wait to tell them that I spent the last month writing a novel.”
The T-shirt makers were one thing. The corporations are another. Baty’s been getting increasingly urgent e-mails from online vanity press iUniverse and laptop word processor maker AlphaSmart, businesses for whom a captive audience of 5,000 amateur novelists looks mighty tasty. Both are very eager to do business with Wrimos by giving them discounts. AlphaSmart also has offered to donate a laptop and give NaNoWriMo $10 for every unit sold through the site; iUniverse offered to publish the winner’s manuscript for free, until Baty carefully explained that NaNoWriMo potentially has thousands of “winners.”
Baty’s cautious about the idea of business partnerships; he’s protective of his organization and a little queasy about the idea of kickbacks. He also feels unprepared for the legal maneuvering involved in arranging a contract. “I never thought in my whole life I would say this sentence: ‘People are wanting to partner with my Web site.'” He shakes his head. “I feel like I’m just growing up so fast, like I’m having to wear the dad’s trousers and pretend I have some plan for this.”
Amid the growing complexity of the proceedings, the first NaNo novel is complete. Sure, the author with the online nom de plume “goodgeck” quoted The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in their entireties. But Wrimos are a forgiving group, and a speed record is established.
Baty has dubbed week #2 “The Week of Fatigue.” The novelty has faded and word counts are beginning to lag. Sustaining dramatic action is hard work, even if your credo is “No plot? No problem!” The Yahoo boards resonate with the wails of people who are days behind, people who set out to write autobiographies but now find their own lives totally banal, people who have become so frustrated that they’ve scrapped their first draft and started over. People post inspirational quotations, rail at the gods, reacquire old smoking habits. Fred Roemer, teacher of the fifth-grade class in Florida, posts a message with his prescription for beating writer’s block: extra recess.
Baty pens a sympathetic missive. “You’ve wrapped up the exposition and introduced all the characters,” he writes. “Now something book-like has to happen. Someone needs to fall in love. Or get amnesia. Or go on a road trip. But who? And how? And whatever happened to that soft and luscious thing called sleep? We remember sleep. Sleep was our friend.”
Sleep may once have been Baty’s friend, but lately he’s confining himself to a sleeping bag to cut down on the sleepwalking. He is in the disturbing position of man whose nightmares are seeping into his waking life: He worries that he’s losing control of NaNoWriMo.
While at first Baty appreciated the spin-off sites, now he worries about them. Wrimos have frankly discussed their dissatisfaction with the Yahoo club and its numerous technical glitches. Many Internet-savvy participants have moved their discussion groups elsewhere. After yet another good-natured Wrimo proposes to set up an auxiliary site with features Baty can’t yet promise — automatically-generated e-mail invitations to NaNo club functions, for example — Baty forks over the money to register NaNoWriMo.org, just to prevent anyone else from taking it. “What if they do make a chat room and I don’t know how it works, and I don’t know how to post to it, and suddenly all those baseball players and concession-stand operators and stuff have moved into the cornfield down the way and I’m still sitting on my porch and I can’t see the game anymore?” he says. “What if somebody else has better computer smarts or is funnier or is more engaging or is able to respond to more e-mails, what if they offer people money or they get an Amazon.com sponsorship? What do I do then?”
Although Baty has registered National Novel Writing Month as a business in Oakland, he still doesn’t have a trademark on NaNoWriMo. He worries that the big online bookstores might appropriate the novel-in-a-month idea, turning it into an actual contest with prizes and literary-hipster judges. “I’ve been going through these scenarios in my head where I’m hiring a legal team and filing trademark papers,” he says. “And then I just think, ‘What the hell?’ I don’t want to have a little TM next to NaNoWriMo. I don’t want to have a patent pending. I just want it to be fun.”
Wrimos are easy to spot in cafes. They’re the ones with laptops but no accompanying books and papers, who type madly and never look up. But they seem to be having fun, at least on this blustery night. Three of them are gathered in the back room of Espresso Roma in Berkeley: freelance writer Carol Kirschenbaum, CNET managing editor C.C. Holland, and between-gigs management consultant Pete Mummert. Holland, in journalistic fashion, edits Mummert’s job description for him.
“Repeat after me,” she jokes. “I am a full-time novelist.”
It’s midway through the month, which means everyone’s wrestling with plot holes and internal inconsistencies. Mummert, who is writing a 1940s noir crime novel, discovers that his culprit died before the crime was committed, so he has to go back and fix that. Kirschenbaum, who is writing something she calls a “romance suspense,” can’t figure out why her divorced protagonist would allow her only son to go live with his father, and yet the plot can’t progress unless he does. Holland, who is writing a contemporary thriller, discovers that one of her characters was having an affair. But all three are fully committed to NaNoWriMo core values — speed and verbosity — and there’s no way they’re letting plot holes stop them now. And all agree that meeting as a group helps them crank the words out faster.
“Doing fiction this way with the word count and the deadline eliminates all that agonizing, the sentence-by-sentence decisions, the who-should-say-what-now,” says Kirschenbaum. “It really lets it flow.”
“Every time I think of stopping, I see they’re still writing, so I’d better keep going,” adds Mummert. “That’s my best motivator: peer pressure and shame.”
“25,004!” cries Holland, who has been industriously typing, throwing her arms in the air. “I’m four words over halfway!”
Mummert looks over at her admiringly. “Can I borrow 5,000?” he asks.
By now, Baty could use a loan of his own, but his needs are far more serious: money and a full-time staff. The $5,000 he’s sunk into the project is too much for his credit cards. The workload is too much for one person. He has started referring to himself on official correspondence as NaNoWriMo’s “Director and Administrative Assistant,” and his recycling bin is full of discarded Red Bull cans.
Earlier in the year, Baty applied for several grants, and now the rejections are coming in. As an Internet project, NaNoWriMo is too amorphously boundaried to qualify for state grants. And as an organization led by amateurs rather than renowned scholars, it isn’t fundable by humanities councils. Meanwhile, Baty’s bills pile up: charges for registering and hosting the Web site, for getting a business license, renting a P.O. box, making party preparations, and printing the official T-shirts. He’s decided to ask the Wrimos for donations at the end of the month, which he hopes will cover his expenses and then some. He’s hoping that with donations, T-shirt sales, and a cover charge at the month-end party, he can raise about $10,000, enough to start paying for a lawyer, a Web designer to retool the site, and a programmer to automate the sign-up process for next year. “Volunteer help is great, but if you really want to get things done you need to pay people,” he says. “It allows them to make it their priority and it allows me to be kind of demanding.”
And while Baty’s still wary of accepting advertising, he has been reveling in a hazy sponsorship fantasy, in which a kindly corporation gives NaNoWriMo a half million dollars with no promotional strings attached. With that, he says, he could afford everything he wants: a year-round staff, laptops for participants who lack computers, programs to get schoolchildren to participate, and, his personal dream, a bus that drives around spreading the NaNo gospel. “Five hundred thousand dollars to a significant corporate entity is nothing,” he muses. “What are they going to do, produce more widgets with it?”
If Baty’s impulses were more typically entrepreneurial, his fund-raising fantasy might sound less like one plucked from an episode of the Partridge Family. After all, he’s got what most dot-coms lusted after — 100 percent of a booming market, in what a business plan might call “the Web-enabled-amateur-novel-writing space.” NaNoWriMo is an easily recognizable brand name, even though not everyone can pronounce it. His press coverage has been positive, his customer base eager to proselytize, and his cross-promotional possibilities nearly limitless. And while NaNoWriMo had scalability problems during this year’s sign-ups, there’s no reason why a better-designed site couldn’t accommodate the 178,571 participants he will get next year if the event expands at this year’s 3,571 percent growth rate.
Baty would have plenty of models to follow if he were more commercially inclined. He could collect the better submissions and reprint them in magazine form like the journals McSweeneys or Granta. He could let Web users download novels the way they can download the work of musicians at MP3.com and EMusic. He could pay a group of critics to filter out the crummy novels and highlight the best, as Listen.com once did with online music files. Or he could turn it all into a much more standard enterprise: a contest, with prize money or book contracts for the winners, much in the manner that GarageBand.com awards $250,000 recording contracts to unrecorded bands selected by visitors to the site.
But Baty is reluctant to grab this particular brass ring. To him, NaNoWriMo is mostly an offline adventure that takes place in coffee shops, libraries, and people’s apartments; it’s definitely not e-commerce. Baty frequently compares his creation with Burning Man, a real-world cultural festival that owes a great deal of its popularity to the Internet and word-of-mouth. Even though Burning Man’s attendance is now massive, it still is defined by a communal, anti-commercial, and vaguely clandestine ethos. What would happen if Baty slapped a bunch of banner ads on the NaNoWriMo site in an effort to, in Webspeak, “monetize” his traffic? He doesn’t want to know.
One thing is certain, NaNoWriMo’s traffic is creating a troublesome problem for Baty. NaNoWriMo’s Internet service provider, Laughing Squid Web Hosting, has politely encouraged Baty to move elsewhere. Laughing Squid normally hosts low-traffic sites for nonprofits; now the NaNoWriMo site is taking up five times its allotted bandwidth. Alarmed at the prospect of having to change service providers mid-month, Baty decides to trim back site usage. His biggest worry is the traffic he expects next week, when hundreds, maybe thousands, of novelists will e-mail their manuscripts for word-count verification.
Baty’s promise that he would verify participants’ word counts had always been somewhat ambiguous. In the back of his mind, he’d been hoping that a tech-savvy participant would step forward with a solution before the end of the month, perhaps a process that would count everyone’s words automatically. Otherwise, he’d have to do it by hand; everyone would e-mail him a Word document, he’d open it and run the word-count feature, then send back an e-mail congratulating the writer.
But following the warning from Laughing Squid, the latter no longer is possible. And since a technological solution never materialized, Baty posts a message saying that word-count verification is canceled. People who complete 50,000 words will simply post their name and their novel’s title to a “winners’ page.” “We ask you to rely on your own crafty means of verifying your novel, if having someone else sign off on your work is important to you,” he writes. “E-mail it to a coworker or other impartial judge. Take it to a local coffee shop and make the cute barista look at it. Allow your own inventive self to shine. Find a path that gives you closure.”
The news goes over like a ton of bricks in some quarters. “I am so disappointed,” one disgruntled Wrimo writes Baty. “I was past 30,000 and, yes, looking for the completion of crossing a recognized finish line. I am frustrated that you did not have the foresight to plan for the many people that have started this project only to have the plug pulled halfway through.” Others complain on the message board. “The honor system thing is taking the wind out of my sails,” one writes. “I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does.”
Wrimos begin inventing nonofficial methods of verifying each other’s novels. The Bay Area NaNo group sets up a database so that each Wrimo can have his or her word count checked by two other participants. A Wrimo who runs a message board for bloggers offers to create tiny, personalized logos that can be pasted on the Web sites of those who “absolutely, positively must prove to someone that they wrote 50,000 words in thirty days!”
Baty is puzzled by all the fuss. “On the one hand, I can sympathize,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to send the damn thing off somewhere. But on the other hand, for God’s sake, what are these people doing it for? The goal is just kind of to pit yourself against yourself and really see what sort of huge realms of creativity you have untapped.”
But online, the verification debate rages.
Meanwhile, NaNoWriMo moves into the home stretch. In the chat rooms, Wrimos swap wordcounts like war veterans comparing scars. There are stories of 8,000, 10,000, and 12,000-word days, of writers just about to give up hope when something clicks. “This morning, as I was negotiating the snow and freezing rain on the way to work, suddenly all this inspiration strikes me like a bolt of lightning,” writes Wrimo Kevin McGrath. Carefully crafted plotlines are falling by the wayside. “Mine started out as an evil-people-take-over-the-world thing,” writes another participant, “and is now essentially a marching-band story.” Body counts are high, since it’s easier to kill off half-baked characters than figure out what to do with them. Word counts are pumped up thanks to the addition of dream sequences, musical interludes, and characters who embark upon lengthy internal soliloquies.
Lohnes is stuck at 21,000 words, his wrists aching. But Murphy has almost finished his novel, and he’s proud of the progress he’s made. “The scariest thing about the novel was the fear that I might not have anything to say,” he says. “While I didn’t discover that I have an incredible novel in me, I definitely do have stuff to say and things I care about.” Corragio’s spider story unfolds beautifully once she manages to send her entire family away for the Thanksgiving holiday, giving her 104 uninterrupted hours for the first time in nine years. “I’m writing like a woman possessed,” she says. “It feels like I’m going halfway out to meet this novel, by putting fingers to keyboard, and it’s coming halfway back to meet me. It makes me wonder where all the ideas go that nobody goes out to meet.”
All of this writing-as-if-possessed is paying off for the wave of novelists posting their names on the winners page. “At this point there are some really amazed and astounded new novelists out there,” says Baty as he sits in Berkeley’s Caffe Strada, pecking at a loaner laptop from AlphaSmart. “I’m starting to get e-mails from the woman who’s a celebrity at the senior center, and the man who has wanted to write a novel his whole life and is finally able to do it.”
But the success rate is plunging. In its first two years, NaNoWriMo had about a 33 percent completion rate; this year it will probably be closer to twenty percent. Roemer’s fifth-grade class drops out at about 15,000 words after their school’s week-long Thanksgiving break threw their schedule off. “By now, we knew we would never be able to finish the novel in time,” one of the students posted to the class’ own Web page. “But that didn’t matter. … Our novel will soon be finished and it will most probably be good.” Many college students give up as finals season approaches. And the chat boards are full of messages from Wrimos who won’t make the deadline, but swear they’ll finish in December. Or maybe January. “When the month ends I can’t just give up on this and resume my life as it was,” writes Jesse Heindl, a Boston Wrimo. “I’ve got three Jamaican zombies, a cat, a werewolf, an accountant with multiple-personality disorder, and an evil megacorporation who demand that I go on!”
Baty’s disappointed with the burn rate, although he realizes that many of the people who signed on in the wake of the media blitz probably hadn’t fully committed themselves to the NaNoWriMo workload. “I look at an eighty percent failure rate and I want to go in everybody’s apartment and slap them upside the head and tell them to get back to work,” he says, “because when you break past that 35,000-word point and the end is in sight, and the book finally has a plot – probably a pretty meager one but there’s a story to it – just nothing feels better. You’re sitting down and you’re writing and it’s coming out fluidly and you know you’re going to make it. That feeling is just one of the best in the world.”
At least until the depression sets in.
San Francisco Wrimo Ed Chang has coined a phrase that quickly spreads across the chat boards – Post-NaNoWriMo Depression Syndrome. Even those who haven’t finished yet are feeling the pang, and devising ways to ensure that NaNoWriMo community doesn’t dissolve quite yet. Someone has set up a new Yahoo club for December called NaNoEdMo – National Novel Editing Month. Others propose that Baty save February for the speed-writing of screenplays.
For the Wrimos who have touched down on the other side of 50,000, it’s been an emotional journey. “It was a winding path to 61,700 words, and when I got to ‘The End,’ I was sobbing hysterically,” one writes. “This has been one of the best times of my whole life.” Writes another: “Writing is not a lonely word. Not any more. The antisocial art is like a tennis club thanks to NaNoWriMo.”
And for the first time in a very stressful month, when Baty reads the message boards, he breaks into tears, relieved that a happy ending appears to be in sight. “After all of the stress and the worry, I feel like, ‘Ahh, yes.’ This is why it’s all worth it.”
Five hours before November officially ends, Ambassador Victoria Schlesinger crosses the finish line, the front door of the Pacific Coast Brewing Company in downtown Oakland. She has driven from Washington, DC, in a cross-country zigzag, stopping along the way to visit local NaNo writing groups. For the last time, Schlesinger sets up a small NaNoWriMo placard she has carried with her to coffee shops across the country; a signal for Wrimos to pull up a chair and write with her. Baty and a handful of Bay Area Wrimos are there to cheer her arrival, as is Lohnes, exuberant, having somehow churned out his final 30,000 words in just five days. “Since I was at 37,000 I’ve been nonstop giddy,” he says. He flexes his wrists to show that they still work.
Baty looks tired. Yesterday, he received a rejection letter from the last of his grant sources. And donations are not exactly pouring in. All told, he’ll raise about $3,500, which means he’ll still lose about $1,500 on the project. In a worst-case scenario, he assumed that even if each of this year’s finishing novelists only sent in a ten-dollar check and he lost about a third of that money to taxes, he’d have enough to set aside seed money for next year. But NaNoWriMo, like many great novelists, is broke.
And while Baty plans to charge next year’s participants a nominal enrollment fee, he needs that money well before next fall to avoid the pitfalls he encountered this season. He wants a redesigned Web site with automated enrollment and its own chat room, so participants won’t be forced to rely on Yahoo. “I’m kind of stuck,” admits Baty. “If we don’t improve the site, we won’t be able to handle next year’s traffic. But we won’t have the money to pay for the improvements until the traffic arrives.”
“It’s a weird way to end it, to be flooded with these positive, amazing letters from people and then to look in the bank account and be like, ‘Oh shit, I did something wrong here.’ We were supposed to have a surplus, it was supposed to happen effortlessly.”
Baty does take a timid step toward partnering with other businesses. He adds a page to the site called “I Wrote a Novel: Now What?” that includes an unpaid link to iUniverse and a code that will give Wrimos a twenty percent discount with them, but Baty includes text pointing out that it’s not an endorsement and that he’s never tried iUniverse’s services. A deal with AlphaSmart, if it’s going to happen, will have to wait another year. And while putting advertising on the site is the most obvious route toward generating income quickly, it’s a line he still won’t cross. “I feel like NaNoWriMo shouldn’t be trying to sell anybody anything other than the ephemeral experience of writing a novel in a month. And T-shirts.”
On December 1, the count is final. There are seven hundred NaNoWriMo “winners”; together they have produced a minimum of 35 million words. They have given their novels titles like The Undeleted Email of Joan of Arc, A Conflicted Activist at the Folies-Berg-re and How to Make Grilled Cheese in Prison. Some of them have posted excerpts on the Web for the public to read; some have made a ceremonial trip to Kinko’s to have their manuscripts spiral bound. Some have sworn off fiction forever; some have promised to start their next novel tomorrow. Some are looking for agents, some for matches.
As a chilly winter rain pours down on the evening of December 1, more than two hundred Wrimos and their loved ones arrive at a warehouse in San Francisco, where they are given gold paper crowns at the door and invited to hang a page of their work from clotheslines strung across the walls. Novelists had been instructed to come dressed as their characters, and since his protagonist works crime scene clean-ups, Baty is roving about in a pale blue jumpsuit. Corragio is there, two eldest daughters in tow, resplendent as diva spider Madame Paloma. Schlesinger is sporting a blue-and-white-and-orange striped jacket that looks like it came from the Aerosmith collection, which she swears is the sort of thing her character wears. Murphy, defying orders that those who had written autobiographical novels must come dressed as their mothers, looks remarkably like his usual self, as does Lohnes. The room is packed with people clothed as priests, doppelgangers, seismologists, and mid-level hotel managers. People’s crowns have disintegrated in the torrential rain, but nobody will remove them. They have been earned.
Murphy is in high spirits for someone whose job is now officially gone. He rushes up, transfixed. One of his main characters had just walked through the door. Or rather, the distant acquaintance upon whom the character was based had just walked through the door. Can it get any more surreal than finding out that a character in your NaNoWriMo novel has just finished writing his own NaNoWriMo novel?
At midnight, Wrimos pass glasses of champagne to one another and Baty takes the floor. “I knew how ugly things were getting about five days ago when I was still way short of 50,000 words and this poor man Wayne was struck with a computer virus which emptied the entire contents of his hard drive into my e-mail inbox,” he says. The crowd groans appreciatively. “I had everything on Wayne,” continues Baty. “I had Wayne’s résumé, I had some of Wayne’s recipes. I had approximately 46 614K files waiting for me, all from Wayne. But I knew things were getting sick because when I looked at these files, I didn’t think ‘Oh Wayne, man, that’s really embarrassing, because I’m probably not the only one who got these.’ I thought ‘Mmm … words.'”
An appreciative roar from the crowd.
“I had kind of planned this speech that NaNoWriMo can be everyday, but I think you guys can fill in the blanks,” he continues. “It really doesn’t have to end here and it doesn’t have to be about novels.” He glances around at the crowd, such a different group of people than they were thirty days ago.
“So when you wake up tomorrow, do something weird,” he says. “Put on a strange outfit that doesn’t look so good on you. But just make stuff, because all of our lives depend on it.” The crowd raises a glass and drinks to making weird stuff. Baty’s friends present him with a congratulatory trophy and vast quantities of Red Bull. And then, as the costumed crowd surges onto the dancefloor, with Baty, blue coverall hanging from his waist, leading them in a strange jig that could be the funky moves of someone with a displaced hip but might also be a new dance craze, it becomes hard to separate the storytellers from the stories they created. National Novel Writing Month had created its own plot twists and dramatic tension; it had produced both genius and dreck.
It had been almost stranger than fiction.