It’s that time of year again when literally thousands of wannabe authors tackle the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in one month during an event known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short.

The official logo of NaNoWriMo includes coffee, an essential for many writers to produce 50,000 words in 30 days. (Courtesy of The Office of  Letters and Light)

It’s hard to explain the program – and even tougher to describe why anyone would sign up to create 1,667 words a day (that’s the pace you need to maintain to finish on time) – and yet it’s become phenomenally popular, with an estimated 300,000 writers from around the world participating this year.

“It’s actually kind of like a season of the year for me now,” Alex Zoubine told me. He’s a graduate of the University of Kansas serving as a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer in the Peace Corps in Benin. “It’s something I look forward to from the beginning of September and something I’m usually excited about until halfway through December.”

This is his ninth time doing NaNoWriMo; he succeeded the first two years while he was still a high school student. (We actually met because I wrote a profile on his writing activity for the Kansas City Star.)

NaNoWriMo began in 1991, the brainchild of freelance writer Chris Baty, with “20 other overcaffeinated yahoos,” in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands,” Baty writes on the event’s Web site. “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.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to 50,000 words. They discovered the writing process was fun, something they hadn’t expected. It was like watching TV. “You get a bunch of friends together, load up on caffeine and junk food, and stare at a glowing screen for a couple of hours,” Baty writes. “And a story spins itself out in front of you.”

The next year, a friend created a web site, and 140 people participated, with 29 winners – as those who complete the 50,000 words by the Nov. 30 deadline are called. Since then, Baty’s turned the project over to the nonprofit Oakland-based Office of Letters and Light (supported by donations and corporate sponsors) and NaNoWriMo has grown to more than 500 official chapters around the world. Last year 256,618 people participated, with 36,843 winners.

Kids can get involved, too. More than 100 schools participated in the Young Writers Program in 2005, increasing to 2,000 last year.

Perhaps the most impressive number of all? The number of words officially logged during last year’s event: 3,074,068,446. (If you haven’t guessed yet, the Office of Letters and Light loves statistics and you can find all sorts of numbers on the web site.)

Another impressive number – although it’s listed only as “many” – are the NaNoWriMo winners who go on to publish novels. One of the most successful is Sara Gruen, author of the bestselling “Water for Elephants.”

Once you’ve registered on the Web site, you’re privy to all kinds of encouragement (and distraction, if you’re not disciplined). You can join a local group of writers, attend writing events (known as “write-ins”) and discuss your novel on various forums with writers from around the world.

Why would any sane person sign up for this? “I started writing a novel last year, sometime around January, in fits and starts, but hadn’t picked it up since probably Mary or June,” says Philadelphia freelance writer Barbara Alden Wilson. “NaNo is a good ‘fire’ to light under me to truly work on it.”

That’s what I found, the years I committed myself to doing NaNoWriMo. It frees you from your inner editor. You’re not trying to create great literature, you’re striving to produce 50,000 words in 30 days. You see words appearing on the pages. And sometimes that’s the best accomplishment of all.

I almost didn’t finish my first year. I’d only made it to 18,000 words by Wednesday, Nov. 28. My best friend told me not to worry about it. “You’ve got kids, you’ve got other stuff to do,” she said. “Everyone will understand if you can’t finish it.”


That was the challenge I needed, and I wrote 32,000 more words to reach 50,000 by 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30.

I’d like to try NaNoWriMo again this year. I’ve even thought of a plot and characters:

A Senate race in a Midwestern state between a moderate Democratic woman and an extremely conservative Republican male who makes a comment about a woman not being able to get pregnant when she’s raped … then keeps putting his foot in his mouth … nah, no one would believe it.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.