For some people, the thing that signals falltime is the falling of leaves. For others it's the appearance of Halloween candy in grocery store aisles. For me, at least for the last couple of years, that signal has been a gnawing, excited, nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach— "Oh, God, am I gonna try NaNo this year?"
For those who don't know, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is a month-long event run by an international nonprofit. (For more information on their foundation, go here.) Basically, the goal is this: for anyone who’s ever wanted to write a novel, or is always working on the perfect plot in the back of their mind, but never seems to “find the time” to start—on November 1st, just sit down and do it. Do it! Write 1,667 words. On November 2nd, write another 1,667. Keep going until you hit November 30th and you’ve got 50,000 words. By NaNoWriMo’s standards, you’ll have done it! You’re a novelist!
NaNoWriMo began in 1999 with a handful of friends, and since then it’s grown into an event with over 400,000 annual participants worldwide. Will your book make the New York Times Bestsellers List? No, probably not (though some have). The first time I tried and completed NaNoWriMo, I was 13, and my book was about a group of teens that took over a high school during a zombie apocalypse. The final product isn’t the always the point. The point is more that you sit down and actually do the writing.
I’m still flabbergasted that 13-year-old-me even knew 50,000 words. Afterwards, though I completed it once more and halfheartedly tried NaNo a few more times, as I aged and got busier with school and friends, I shrugged and determined that I just didn’t have time. That doubled when I got to college and was met by a whole new definition of “busy.”
But last year, for the first time in four years, I cracked my knuckles, sat down, and did the thing. (With minimal crying throughout.) And whether this is your first time hearing about NaNoWriMo, or you’ve always wanted to participate, I have a list of reasons why you should really give it a try while you’re in college.
“Finding the Time” Doesn’t Exist
Face it, you’re never going to just find yourself with a free afternoon one day and begin the Great American Novel. People will tell you over and over again that writing takes discipline, writing takes commitment, and time, and determination. Writing takes, above all, actually writing, not just daydreaming and sketching out half-formed plots that will never come to fruition. Part of what works about NaNo is that it forces you to meet a goal every day, to put away all thoughts of revision for December and January, and to just write.
One thing I’ve found since starting college is that for the most part, when school is in session, I will be doing no writing outside of what is required of me in class, and I will be doing no reading that is not on my professor-assigned syllabus. This might be most applicable to English majors, but I think it applies to all college students—no matter what people might think, we are actually busy! Very busy! Extremely busy! So busy that our schoolwork and various extracurricular commitments can pull all focus and drive away from anything we might otherwise consider “fun” and “personally fulfilling.”
The immediacy of NaNoWriMo can help cut through some of that focus-suck, the feeling like you have nothing else to give, mentally or physically. NaNo has motivation baked right in, and having a goal in sight, as well as a community of other writers there to help you, can help rearrange your priorities (at least for the month of November). Maaaaybe you’ll find that there’s an hour or two of Netflix that can be spared for the sake of writing…
The rush that comes with actually completing NaNoWriMo (or even just getting as far as you possibly can!) is something that I find carries over into the rest of the year. Having a successful NaNo venture (no matter how you define success) can recommit you to your creative pursuits, give you confidence in your ability to actually meet a goal and finish a project, and can spark new ideas that will follow you far past November 30th.
Experience and Material
As you’re writing, and then even moreso during revision, you’re going to discover all of your writing quirks and faults—the tropes you depend on too much, the weak spots in your dialogue-writing, or maybe you just really really like em-dashes (I’ve counted up four in this article already and I know I’ll have to go back and edit some out). No matter if you “win” or “lose,” you’re still going to have the experience of all that writing under your belt. No one comes out of that experience without learning something about themselves as a writer, or without improving.
Another simpler fact is that having 50,000 words of original material on-hand (even if it might be cliché-ridden zombie nonsense right now) is always going to be an advantage. If you’re pursuing a passion in creative writing, there’s going to come a time when you’ll need to demonstrate that you can write—whether that’s submitting a fiction piece for a writing contest, or demonstrating depth in your portfolio. You can’t build up a stockpile of material on your hard drive until you actually write the material.
Giving Yourself Leeway to Break the Rules (Or Fail!)
I have a confession to make: last year, I was what you’d call a rebel. There’s a whole community for them on the NaNoWriMo forum. These are people who break what are the technical rules of NaNo—they want to work on something they’ve already started, they want to write a memoir or something nonfiction, they want to collaborate on a book, they want to write a book of poetry. For me, I decided that the best way to tackle NaNo while in college was to work on multiple projects at once. Having the freedom to flit from short story to short story, to longer project to…yeah, fanfiction, gave me the energy to actually want to sit back down and write another thousand words every day. Remember: in the end, NaNoWriMo is a creative exercise! All of the “rules” are really more like guidelines, and the whole thing can be whatever you make of it.
November 1st is fast approaching. I’m probably going to be a dirty rebel yet again, but I’m gearing myself up to buckle down and start meeting word counts. Whether you decide to join me for the 2016 NaNoWriMo, or you decide to keep it in mind for next year, I hope I helped persuade you a little more towards joining in on one of the most fun and invigorating writing ventures out there.
Before you go, some resources to get you started:
Add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo site!