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Writers embrace challenge to complete novel in a month

Karla Hailer, wearing a tiara, took part in a National Novel Writing Month “write-in” at the Public Library of Brookline.Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff

It's 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, and "wrimos" buzz into the Public Library of Brookline, industrious bees into their hive. After a hello from the two volunteer "Municipal Liaisons," or "MLs" Travis Kelley and Anna Draves, they sit at tables in a private room on the second floor, flip open their laptops, and quietly type.

And type and type and type.

No, these two-dozen dazed keyboard tappers and their leaders aren't in some twisted futuristic cult out of a Margaret Atwood book. It is mid-November, and they are at a regional "write-in" for National Novel Writing Month, awkwardly known as NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit created to help ambitious souls wage war against writer's block and produce 50,000 words apiece — the length of a short novel, about 200 pages — in 30 days. Quick division: That's 1,666.6667 words per day, including Thanksgiving. Some 304,000 people – 9,400 of them in Boston, 22,004 in Massachusetts – are taking the NaNoWriMo challenge this year.

The Internet is coursing with criticisms of the program, mostly for its emphasis on speed and volume over practice and quality. And the program does bear the trappings of a race or a reality show; NaNoWriMo calls all of the 15-20 percent of wrimos who put down 50,000 words in November "winners."


Some 100 novels written during NaNoWriMo have been released by traditional publishing houses; hundreds more have been self-published. The most famous NaNoWriMo titles include Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants" and "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern, both bestsellers. Although they represent a fraction of the novels produced during the 14 years of NaNoWriMo, these books have become icons to wrimos.

As for speed hobbling quality — plenty of classics have been produced within a month's time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet"; Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," and, perhaps most famously, Jack Kerouac's first draft of "On the Road."


The ghost of Kerouac seems to hover over NaNoWriMo.

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of the organization, which has eight full-time employees, and he sees the Beat Generation connection: "You're opening yourself up to a more unbridled kind of storytelling. You're really letting your imagination loose."

"One big premise of NaNoWriMo is that the way to learn to write a novel is you have to write a novel," Faulkner says.

"We hear so many people say, 'I want to write a novel someday.' And we help them write that novel today."

As Faulkner digs deeper into his perspective on NaNoWriMo, he could be talking about a self-help program. He describes a communications exercise the staff did in which they chose one word to explain NaNoWriMo. The word? "Empowerment."

"We see this so often, that once someone writes a novel in a month, it really opens up their creative channels in other parts of their lives," he says. "I think that's a really valuable thing to add to the world, to make other people creators."

NaNoWriMo, which also hosts an annual writing program for kids, is no longer only national; "We're in at least 100 different countries," Faulkner says, with a "huge contingent" of people who come back year after year. "There's definitely a good culty quality to it," he says, laughing.

"I totally hate it," says Caroline Leavitt, author of nine novels including "Is This Tomorrow." Every November, Leavitt, who also teaches in the UCLA Writers Program and for Stanford University, wants to let out a scream, she says. "I think it's absolutely the wrong way to write."


Leavitt is one of many who frown upon what she calls, "NaNoWrongMo."

"It demeans the whole craft of writing," Leavitt says. "It's not that I think that everyone shouldn't try to write. The more the merrier. But don't do it in a way that cheapens it. Writing is really hard and it's really a skill."

"I'd rather see all these people take a class. Or read and study a novel for a month."

Leavitt likens NaNoWriMo to a get-rich-quick scheme, in that many participants believe it will make them a novelist overnight. It is for people who want to say they've written a novel, she says, and not for real writers.

Hugh Howey would beg to differ. Howey is the author of the postapocalyptic thriller "Wool," which he self-published in 2011. He sold more than half a million e-books through his website, then released an edition to stores in an unusual print-only deal with Simon & Schuster. He also sold the film rights to blockbuster producer and director Ridley Scott. Howey wrote "Wool," as well as three other novels, during NaNoWriMo.

"The hardest part of writing a novel is forcing yourself to sit down and do it," he says. "It takes that sort of force of will, and NaNoWriMo teaches that, inspires that in people."


Howey is in his fifth round of NaNoWriMo. "The quicker I write, the better I write," he says. Writing is much easier and results in far better prose if you dive into your story, live with your characters every moment of the day, and write your fool head off."

At the Thursday evening gathering, Travis Kelley, a warm extrovert with a thick beard, greets the wrimos at the Brookline library with a hug and words of cheer. Aspirants gather for "noveling" at regional write-ins, and at smaller, unofficial "satellite" get-togethers at local spots such as the Belvidere Arcade in the Prudential Center mall. Enrollment has come a long way since the 21 hopefuls involved in the first event in 1999. Kelley has done NaNoWriMo 10 times, and he has served, with Anna Draves, as an ML for eight of those years.

"The idea is to sit and write together," Kelley says. "Someone might throw out a question like 'What's a good diner waitress name?' The answer to that was Ruby, by the way."

Kelley points the incoming wrimos toward a wall chart on which they project their night's word count, as well as toward a "donation station," where they can leave cash or buy T-shirts and buttons. If his region raises $2,000 this month for the NaNoWriMo organization, which is based in the San Francisco Bay area, he says he will publicly shave his beard at the annual "Thank God It's Over Party" in early December.


He loves the community aspect of NaNoWriMo, he says, and he feels that Boston-area wrimos are "exceedingly intelligent and well-read."

Most of the month, though, wrimos are flying solo, racing to meet their word quotas on the NaNoWriMo website and taking in the site's forums and pep talks from literary stars, including missives from Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Sue Grafton, Tom Robbins, and Nick Hornby.

Mega-bestselling novelist James Patterson recently sent an encouraging note to wrimos: "It's a pretty fantastic feeling to have written a book."

Kelley says he treats his regional write-ins like parties. "I'm the host," he says, "so I make sure I say hello to everybody."

He is in love with the process, and says he's not concerned that none of his 10 years as a wrimo has yielded a finished novel.

"This is going to sound peculiar," he says, "but I have no particular literary ambition. If I were going to be an author, I would want to sell my book and have it published by a traditional publisher."

He doesn't care what those in professional writing circles might think of NaNoWriMo. "I view it the same way I view putting on socks. Some people put on the sock and the other sock, then shoe, the other shoe. Some people go sock, shoe, sock shoe. Honestly, I don't know how they write and I don't really care how they write. I just don't give it a lot of thought."

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.