National Novel Writing Month and the fight for 50,000 words

For many people, the month of November is all about turkey, stuffing, pie and the great deals one can score during Black Friday and Cyber Monday. For a small group of others, the month of November is all about a specific word count toward what many would see as a lengthy goal.

For many literary-minded individuals, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a 30-day roller coaster where many writers of various ages and locations come together in some way to accomplish what many believe to be impossible: write a complete 50,000 word novel in a month. Sound like a challenge? Taylor Harwood ’15 is someone who accepted that challenge in 2013.

“I love NaNoWriMo because it encouraged me to write and help me set writing goals,” Harwood said. “One of the best aspects of NaNoWriMo is that you become part of a community of writers. Suddenly, that girl in your class becomes someone who finished her novel, and that’s incredibly inspiring.”

The NaNoWriMo writing challenge spans the entire month of November, with novels beginning at sunrise on November first. NaNoWriMo first began in July of 1999 by author Chris Baty in the San Francisco Bay Area as a writing activity for 140 people. In 2000, the event was moved to the month of November as a means of combating the dreary weather in the area; that year, 5,000 people registered on Baty’s website with the intention of writing a novel. However, due to technical difficulties, writers were asked to post the final word count as part of an honor system, of which 700 participants did.

The exercise has been growing in popularity ever since.

“The biggest part of my writing routine for NaNoWriMo was picking a time and a space that I would write in each day,” Harwood said. “Last year, I blocked off my schedule from about 9-11 pm every day, and I wrote beside other NaNoWriMo participants. It gave me a reason to sit down and write each day, and it motivated me to write further in a story than I ever have before. This year, although I didn’t do NaNoWriMo, I have been writing for my honors project. I’ve been using what I learned during last year’s NaNoWriMo to develop writing routines, like making time in my schedule and going to TeaSourse and Expresso Royale to write with other writers.”

The rules for NaNoWriMo are simple: a writer can write for any genre of fiction, metafiction or Fanfiction, as long as the writing is part of an original work done between the hours of midnight on Nov. first and 12:59:59 on Nov. 30. The work in question must be at least 50,000 words in length and must be published to the site in order to be validated. Planning and extensive notes are encouraged, but participants aren’t allowed to start early.

“I enjoyed being able to see where my friends were with their novels,” said Abigayl Fincel ’15. “I tried to give myself an hour a day to work on my novel. I didn’t worry much about grammar or coherence since it was just a first draft. I also did a lot of freewriting to get through multiple run-ins with writer’s block. One of the best things about [NaNoWriMo] was that it got me started on actually writing the novel, whereas my tendency is to outline and outline and never actually get to writing the novel. Even if the end-product isn’t quite what you’re shooting for, chances are it’s a solid start!”

But 50,000 words, you ask? There’s no such novel with that word count! Many stories written in the last century have something close to that amount, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A more recent NaNoWriMo novel is the bestselling novel Water for Elephants, penned by Sara Gruen; it has also been made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

“I absolutely encourage everyone to try NaNoWriMo,” Harwood said. “It’s such a fun, challenging experience and you become part of a community of writers. If you don’t make the 50,000 word goal, there’s always next year!”

For more information on the NaNoWriMo phenomenon, or to register for next year’s novel-writing marathon, go to

2 thoughts on “National Novel Writing Month and the fight for 50,000 words

  1. Heather, I love your Emerson quote, Every artist was first an atumear. A friend, who also attended the conference, and I were just talking about that subject. In any creative endeavor, periods of verbal self-flagellation are inevitable. When I was painting, we called it the Uglies. That term still works in my writing. I force myself to work through it. Writing everyday (with occasional exceptions) is a rule. I put pen to paper, or fingertips to keys for at least an hour. That usually turns into two or four. My mantra is Just do it. (By the way, I used that term before Niki!)