After you decipher the seemingly complex acronym, NaNoWriMo is surprisingly easy to understand. National Novel Writing Month takes place each November1 with one goal and one goal alone: for each participant to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days.
The brainchild of American Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo began in 1999 with just 140 participants. It has grown exponentially every year, and now has more than 100,000 participants spread all around the world. To win, you simply have to complete a 50,000-word novel. Despite the huge number of participants, there aren't too many 'winners'; in an average year only 18% of entrants succeed. This is hardly surprising, as in order to complete the challenge, a writer has to average 1,666 and two-thirds words each and every day on top of their normal day-to-day lives. In order to keep on schedule, some writers even have been known to chart their progress using graphs and multi-coloured spreadsheets.
Participation in the competition is free and there are no prizes. Fame and fortune does not beckon for those who win, and the novel might not even be read by anyone other than the author, so what is the point of it all? The point is to get people writing. Since there are no prizes, participants are disinclined to cheat as they would only be cheating themselves. Completed works are verified for word count by automated software2.
There have been some successes: at least 15 writers have had their NaNoWriMo creations published. No doubt they, like all of the others who have succeeded, were grinning manically for days afterwards, delighted by their literary verbosity. This particular Researcher has yet to 'win', but as Baty says, 'win or lose, you rock for even trying'. Whether you write 50,122 or 30,000 words because you have to write rather than just want to write, there's a sense of inhibition as you just put the words down on (virtual) paper, regardless of what your inner critic is saying.
Using the website run by the non-profit organisation, the Office of Letter and Light, participants can chat with others who are taking part in the competition, seek advice and encouragement if they need it and, of course, submit their work for the word count verification. It's not actually necessary to register to take part in NaNoWriMo; you can just as easily write your novel alone, but the purpose of the website and forums is to encourage a sense of community. You're all in this together, and come 30 November, the world will theoretically have 100,000 new novels to sink its teeth into.
Quantity Over Quality
NaNoWriMo champions quantity over quality. Everyone who successfully submits 50,000 words by 30 November is a winner3, no matter how dreadful the writing may be. It doesn't even have to be a novel; entries can be epic poetry, fan-fiction or 50,000 words worth of terrible rhyming couplets if the writer so chooses. The basic belief is that if you, the writer, believes it to be a novel then it is a novel; even if it lacks the most rudimentary of structures. As Baty says, 'No plot? No problem'. Your prose doesn't have to be in English, either; you can write your novel in whatever language you wish. Why not be the first to write an epic, rhyming ode to your lover in Klingon?
NaNoWriMo is not all about having fun and writing just for the sake of it. There's a serious side to it as well. As a non-profit organisation it raises money by selling themed merchandise to aid literacy projects around the world. Aside from running a laptop-lending service4 and running literacy programs in schools throughout America, the Office of Letter and Light also provides funds to build libraries throughout South-East Asia.
There are many, many spin-offs from the original NaNoWriMo, most with their own similarly-acronymed name. These include challenges to write a novel in a year, to edit the NaNoWriMo novel in a month5 and BBC Radio Scotland's Write Here Right Now challenge, to write 1,000 words a day throughout the month of February.
A h2g2 Researchers' Experience
When you start, and you're thinking '1,666 words a day? I'll never manage that', it seems almost impossible that you can make it to 50,000 and/or the end of the month.
And then when you get started, and you realise that on the first day you've done 2,500 words and you don't want to stop, you wonder how you can restrict yourself to 50,000 words.
Then after a few days, round about 12,000 words, you can't do a day for some reason and you start to get twitchy because it's like an addiction.
Then you catch up and you're ahead again for a few days and everything is fine and dandy.
Then you get writer's block, and you start to make lovely coloured spreadsheets to average out how many words a day you have to do if you miss a day... miss two days... miss three days... Then you start to dream about typing and writing, and you start to panic. Then you realise why you should never delete anything - just make parts you want to cut or edit or whatever a different colour - then you go back to your spreadsheet.
And then it all starts again, and on 30 November you post your 50,122 words with a huge grin on your face, and for a few days you're walking on air, and all your RL friends think you're mad. But your invisible (NaNo) friends are all doing the same. so you feel part of something.