The Format Project

Research on thriving formats of collaboration

Country of origin
San Francisco, Bay Area
People affected
310,000 participants (2013)
Founded in
1999
Founder(s)
Chris Baty

NaNoWriMo

“If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.”

How would you describe NaNoWriMo in one sentence?

A global creative writing marathon.

Can you tell about how NaNoWriMo started? What was your motivation to start the first one in 1999?

The very first NaNoWriMo took place in July 1999, in the San Francisco Bay Area. That first year there were 21 of us, and we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twenty-somethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.  [1]

How does NaNoWriMo work? What are the rules of it?

You have to write a novel that's at least 50,000 words long, from scratch, in the month of November. You can write in any genre, and it can be about anything you like. Outlines, notes, character sketches can be done ahead of time, but previously written prose is forbidden. You start at midnight, local time, on November 1 and need to to upload your 50,000-word (or longer) manuscript to our site for official word-count verification by 11:59 PM on December 30.

Those are the official rules. But not everyone follows them. As the event has grown, a growing number of folks have signed up for NaNoWriMo to help them get work done on everything from memoirs to PhD dissertation to epic poems. We created a participant category called “NaNoWriMo Rebels” so these folks could connect with each other on the website.

What are the key ingredients of NaNoWriMo's success? How do they contribute to it?

1) The 30-day deadline. A month is an ideal length of time to tackle large creative projects. It's big enough that you can really lose yourself in the endeavor and get a lot accomplished, but it's short enough that your life isn't in complete shambles when the month ends.

2) The 50,000 word goal. Having a specific, shared word-count does great things for first drafts. Too often, we have unrealistic expectations for our novel's first drafts, and tend to get discouraged when the quality is anything less than spectacular. When your goal is “write 50,000 words” instead of “write a great book” you're much more likely to forgive the inevitable awkward parts and have fun with the process (which in turns tends to help you write a better book). It also helps you take this dauntingly large project and break it down into daily chunks. Writing a novel in a month sounds impossible, but writing 1,667 words per day is doable.

3) The huge participant pool. There's a can-do energy generated by 300,000 people doing anything at the same time. Even if you're not connected to those other writers, just knowing they're out there makes the journey less lonely. There's a great aphorism in English that goes: “A burden shared is a burden halved.”

4) The local chapters. NaNoWriMo has volunteer-run chapters in about 500 cities and towns around the world. These groups organize NaNoWriMo kick-of parties and public “write-ins” in cafes, libraries, bars, subway trains, and museums throughout November. These are incredibly helpful because once you've met a few people in your post code who are also taking part in this crazy challenge, you're much more likely to see it through. (These novel-writing gatherings also a great place for book lovers to find other bibliophiles socialize with, one of the reasons NaNoWriMo has been accused of being a stealth dating site for book nerds.)

5) The lack of prizes. In traditional writing contests, there are a only a handful of winners, and a lot of people vying for the top prize. This creates an atmosphere where you can only win if other people lose. Because everyone who writes 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo is a winner (and because the only real prize is the manuscript itself), the event has an encouraging, supportive spirit. It also has a sense of humor about itself, which is nice.

Why do you think it works?

I think it works because the high-speed nature of NaNoWriMo helps muzzle the self-critical voices we all have in our heads that make creative tasks so miserable. The timeframe and ambitious word-count goal also helps friends and family get excited about the endeavor, which gives writers a much-needed psychological boost.

What change in the concept, in the format or in other objectives would make it not work?

Making the event longer than a month or lowering the word-count requirement to 25,000 words would cause the success rate to plummet. Humans are born procrastinators, and when we have too much time to do something it often sabotages our efforts to get it done. One of the nice thing about NaNoWriMo is that you really have to dive in right away, and work steadily throughout the month or it will steamroll you. Which means you end up building these daily creative schedules and habits that help you get it done (and serve you well after the month ends).

NaNoGlossary

Wrimo: A participant in National Novel Writing Month 

Winner: Those participants who finish a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel in a month. 

Write-In: An in person writing event attended by a local group of writers.

What motivates people to join NaNoWriMo? What makes them engaged and involved? How does it help participants to get their novels written? What value does NaNoWriMo bring to the life of its participants?

It's such a good question! I think people get different things out of NaNoWriMo, depending on why they signed up. Frequently, the motivation just comes from watching a friend have fun tackling it and deciding they want to give it a shot as well. Other groups of participants include:

1) Book-lovers who don't see themselves as fiction-writers, but who are deeply curious about what it feels like to write a novel. (This was me.) I feel like one of NaNoWriMo's great side-effects is that it helps you engage with the books you read on a much deeper level.

2) People who used to do a lot of creative writing, but who have seen their writing hours devoured by the demands of daily life. For them, NaNoWriMo is great, efficient way to reconnect with a creative part of themselves.

3) People who once loved writing, but whose perfectionist tendencies eventually sapped all the joy out of it. For them, NaNoWriMo is a chance to kennel that inner editor and make some beautiful messes.

4) Folks who have a particular story---often having to do with something that they or their family experienced---they want to share with the world.

5) Professional novelists who are already under book contract, and find NaNoWriMo a helpful way to make progress on a book they owe their publishers.

6) People who want to become professional novelists, and who sign up for NaNoWriMo as the first step down a new career path.

7) People who simply love big challenges.

In terms of keeping writers engaged, I think NaNoWriMo's in-person write-ins (see above) and online message boards are key. The message boards function like this vast, encouraging city for writers. Whether you need tips on easy-to-cook meals, need a partner for an online writing sprint, or are looking for advice on fixing an ailing plot, you'll find it on the message boards.

It's also a great way to do painless novel research. Can a Grizzly bear outrun a golf cart? What would someone eat if they were lost in a Polish forest? Post any question, and another novelist will have a great, thorough answer within the hour. The only problem with the message boards is that they're so interesting that they can make it hard to get any writing done.

NaNoWriMo's MLs (Municipal Liaisons) are volunteers who organize events in their hometowns and who also serve as local evangelists. How and why does someone become an ML? What is the relation of NaNoWriMo’s HQ to them? What is their role in managing a global community of Wrimos?

Since I'm not a part of the day-to-day operations of NaNoWriMo, I can't speak to the current requirements of becoming an ML. I can say, though, that over the majority of the event's life, the requirements to be an ML were that you had to be at least 18 years old and have taken part in NaNoWriMo at least once. Most regions have two MLs, and the bigger cities may have even more.

NaNo HQ sends every chapter a carepackage that typically contains NaNoWriMo stickers to give away to their local writers, and NaNoWriMo postcards to help spread the word. NaNo HQ also provides PDF templates for NaNoWriMo flyers and signs. I think one of the most useful things MLs receive is access to a private message board on the NaNoWriMo site where they can connect with MLs from around the world and get tips about keeping local novelists inspired and on-track.

Being an ML is a lot of work. You organize a kick-off party in October and a Thank God It's Over party in December. You organize weekly (or nightly) write-ins throughout November and facilitate participants holding their own write-ins. You maintain your town's Regional Lounge on the NaNoWriMo site, which includes a Google Calendar with all the local events on it. Some MLs send out weekly pep talk emails to participants, and many MLs organize fundraisers to benefit NaNoWriMo and the Young Writers Program.

Without MLs, the number of NaNoWriMo winners would be much lower than it is every year. They're total heroes. I think a lot of MLs sign up for the job because they, like me, fell in love with the experience, and they want to share that “eureka!” moment with others. Being a NaNoWriMo volunteer is also a great way to give yourself some healthy pressure to finish your own NaNoWriMo novel. When you spend all month telling writers that they can be busy and still find time to write, you're not really allowed to abandon your own novel halfway through November.

Another reason I think MLs come back and do it year after year is because they've built up this great group of friends in their area, some of whom they only see in November. NaNoWriMo is an opportunity to reconvene the old gang for another adventure. It's kind of like camp for adults.

What is your experience of working with such a large community of volunteers? Do you know any example when the network of MLs was utilized in any unexpected way or outside of NaNoWriMo’s domain?

It's pretty wonderful. We've just been very, very lucky with the folks who have stepped up to be MLs. I'm particularly gratified by how many of these local NaNoWriMo chapters are morphing into year-round endeavors. When November ends, they keep getting together to talk about revisions, go to book events, or just get a beer and talk about life. I visited the NaNoWriMo London group last year, and they've grown into this really tight-knit crew that share flats, help each other find jobs, and generally look after each other.

MLs have also been key movers in launching other worldwide writing initiatives like National Novel Editing Month (nanoedmo.net).

I came across several concepts―AcBoWriMo, AcWriMo and SciWriMo―which adopted NaNoWriMo’s concept to other fields like academic paper writing. What do you think of derivative concepts and copycats of NaNoWriMo?

I love all of them. The formula of “ridiculous deadline + supportive community” helps all of us achieve things we never would on our own.

When did you first look at NaNoWriMo's concept, format or method as something that can be adopted to other contexts? Is there a field where you would be especially happy to see being applied to? (You can think of anything, not just writing.)

After the second NaNoWriMo, I started wondering if the formula could work in similar endeavors. I'd always loved movies, so I organized a film festival where everyone had a month to make and edit a three-minute video. We rented a warehouse in Oakland and threw a black-tie gala where we screened over 20 films. It was fantastic.

I've kicked around the idea of launching a month-long escapade where participants would agree to do one good thing for another person, or tackle a project that would make their neighborhood a better, happier, or more interesting place.

For those of us who live in bigger cities, it's kind of shocking how little connection we have to our neighbors. I'd love to create a web-based event that could be a catalyst for tens of thousands of projects like  Caine's Arcade.

After running the events for years from your home and coffee shops, you formed a non-profit organization (The Office of Letters and Light) in 2005. What is the financial model behind NaNoWriMo? Have you ever considered to turn it into a for-profit business? What were the main reasons for not doing so? What were, if any, the pro-arguments?

NaNoWriMo's organizers should definitely weigh in on the current funding model, but I can say that all our programs are free, and our financial model is built on the hope that the people who get something out of our programs will give something back to keep them going.

In terms of turning NaNoWriMo into a profit-oriented venture, I never wanted to make money off of it. To me it was always about spreading joy and encouragement.

By the sixth year, though, the program had hit this make-or-break point in its growth where I was trying to do too much with too few resources. The costs of putting it on had soared, the staffing complexities were daunting, we had a Young Writers Program that was spreading to schools across the US, and we had a hundred volunteer-run chapters to support.

The organization needed to evolve, or the whole thing was going to collapse. And it was important for me that it evolved in a way that ensured NaNoWriMo and the Young Writers Program would continue to exist for decades to come.

Creating the Office of Letters and Light with the founding board of directors and donating all of NaNoWriMo's assets to it was a little scary. Because at that point, I became an employee who could theoretically be fired at any time. But it also brought this incredibly smart, hard-working group of people into NaNoWriMo's orbit, and gave us this stable infrastructure that allowed us to raise more money, hire great staff, improve the existing events, and launch new ones.

NaNoWriMo started as an annual event running every November. Later it broadened its activity by running script writing challenges in April (Script Frenzy, run until 2012) and to summers (Camp NaNoWriMo). NaNoWriMo team experimented with WriMoRadio podcasts, NaNoVideo, the 30 Covers, 30 Days book cover design challenges etc. What was your team’s motivation behind experimenting with so many different things? What worked out and what didn't?

For the podcasts and videos, I was always saddened by the huge number of people who started NaNoWriMo, fell behind, got discouraged, and abandoned their books before they really found their stride or story. The podcast and videos were efforts to spread the message that feeling discouraged about your book is just part of the writing process, and reminding everyone in a fun way that they weren't alone, and that good things would happen if they just kept writing.

For Camp NaNoWriMo, sometimes November is just a horrible time for folks to write, and we wanted to make sure those people still had opportunities for creative adventures. It's been great seeing that some writers actually do both Camp NaNoWriMo and the November event, bashing out three books in a single year.

We launched Script Frenzy to introduce the magic of scriptwriting to folks who hadn't tried writing a movie or play before, and give experienced scriptwriters some structure and encouragement to get new works written. Writing screenplays made my novels much, much better, and I love that creative cross-pollination.

What were the main obstacles you faced in the past years?

Since I haven't been a part of the day-to-day operations lately, I should probably let the folks running NaNoWriMo speak to those challenges.

What insight did you learn from running NaNoWriMo write-a-thons for over 10 years?

Oh wow. NaNoWriMo taught me so many priceless lessons about writing, creativity, and running an organization. I wrote about a bunch of  the organizational lessons I learned on the NaNoWriMo blog.

But I think the single most important lesson I learned, is that we all have so much more in us than we realize. And that the thing separating us from our dreams is often not a lack of talent. It's the lack of a deadline.

What was your best experience in founding and running NaNoWriMo?

There have been so many incredible moments over the years. Last week, I got to travel back to my hometown (Kansas City) and give a talk about NaNoWriMo at the same library where I first fell in love with books and reading. The next day, I met with the NaNoWriMo club at my high school. Totally amazing.

In 2009 you turned from NaNoWriMo Program Director into OLL's Executive Director, and stepped down in January 2012. What was your motivation to do so? How are you doing since then?

After running the organization for 13 years, I had accumulated a frightening number of unfinished novels and screenplays. I really wanted to take some time to finish a few of them, and also have a little room in my life for other pursuits.

My official title now is NaNoWriMo Board Member Emeritus. In that role, I still get to do a bunch of the things I loved doing as Executive Director. I travel around and meet NaNoWriMo participants and Municipal Liaisons, and spreading the high-velocity noveling gospel through talks and events. It's a really nice life, and I'm so grateful for the huge role that NaNoWriMo continues to play in it. 

[1] http://nanowrimo.org/history/#year-one

What is NaNoWriMo?

How it works

Participants of NaNoWriMo set up to their goal to write a 50,000-word (if not longer) novel, between November 1 and November 30. They are free to choose any topic but are expected to start from scratch. During the months they receive cheering pep talks from organizers and other authors. On the last day, they submit their novels for a word-count validation on the website. There are no prizes handed out - the satisfaction of being part of the writers’ community and possibly finishing the challenge is the reward.

As founder Chris Baty explained “having a set of unbendable rules and a merciless deadline was absolutely essential in giving writers the mental focus and shared sense of toil necessary to tackle daunting projects.” At NaNoWriMo everyone aims for completion rather than perfection. As Sara Gruen put it, “the wonderful thing about NaNoWriMo is that it gives you something to edit. Because the only thing you can’t edit is a blank page”.

How it started

The very first NaNoWriMo took place in July, 1999, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chris Baty and 20 of his friends started writing novels “for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.”

During the first NaNoWriMo they recognized that they really enjoyed the writing process and some of them even finished their novels which “came out okay. Not great. But not horrible, either.” Suddenly they felt the empowerment of being able to write passable novels in a month. Hence they decided to repeat the event next year. But they moved it to November to “more fully take advantage of the miserable weather”.

How it spread

The success of the first event in 1999 called for an encore next year. Half of the 140 participants, some of them international, who signed up for the second event were people not known by the organizers.

With the help of a friend, Chris Baty set up a website for the event but the signup process was still managed manually. This turned out to be a painful problem next year when five thousand participants showed up. From this year on, continuous improvement and stability of the website was a major concern of the organizers as well as the financial resources supporting it.

The number of participants grew exponentially ever since, peaking in 2012 with 341,375 participants and 38,438 winners in over 50 countries around the world.

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