Writing by the Seat of Your Pants: A look at National Novel Writing Month

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Every November, thousands of writers pick up a pen or another writerly weapon of choice and begin a 50,000-word creative writing marathon. The goal is to complete a novel by 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30. This is National Novel Writing Month, a nonprofit organization that values enthusiasm, determination and deadlines. According to its website, “NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” 

For those of us who have never written anything longer than a short story or a lengthy report, the 50,000-word count can seem daunting, but it isn’t impossible. In 2016, 384,126 people around the world participated in NaNoWriMo, and over 34,000 people completed their novels. These novelists come from all walks of life: They are students, educators, mechanics, actors and administrators. For most, NaNoWriMo serves as a motivational tool to finally get their stories on paper.

“I first heard about (NaNoWriMo) a long time ago. … I was an undergrad and I had always wanted to write a novel,” said Dr. Kate Fedewa, an academic specialist and writing professor at Michigan State University. 

Fedewa has participated in NaNoWriMo for a number of years. The first novel she ever wrote during NaNoWriMo was historical fiction, but now Fedewa writes primarily science fiction and fantasy. 

“If I can get my editing done [for] the [novel] that I started last year during NaNoWriMo, I’m hoping to send it to an agent by the end of next month,” she said.

According to the organization’s website, hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been published, among them: “Water for Elephants,” by Sara Gruen, “The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern and “Cinder,” by Marissa Meyer.

NaNoWriMo writers can approach their story in a variety of ways: by writing the plot in a linear fashion or by jumping around to different scenes. This seat-of-your-pants writing frenzy means December becomes the designated month for making edits. 

“You don’t want to edit as you go in NaNo,” said Abbe Philo, an informational and statistical analyst at MSU University Advancement. Philo writes supernatural fantasy and has won NaNoWriMo four times. “Anyone can do NaNo, and I think it’s great for people who want a unique kind of motivation either to get a project out or break a creative slump.” 

Setting up a NaNoWriMo account is easy. Simply go to nanowrimo.org and sign up. Once registered, you can select your home region to connect with local writers.

In the end, National Novel Writing Month is about celebrating the act of writing and its impact on culture. 

“I think writing is an important tool in exploring ourselves. It feels a bit like a psychology experiment sometimes,” said Philo. 

Further, writing is a transformative process that can directly inform how we navigate our world. 

“We all have our own lived experiences and see the world through those experiences,” said Fedewa. “But there are some experiences that we will never be able to have firsthand. What I think is so important about fiction writing especially is the idea that by reading about the experiences of someone else, you might come to better understand perspectives outside of your own.”

So, go forth and write! As Fedewa said, “If you’re looking for a way to get motivated around writing, or to try a different approach to writing, or to prove to yourself that it’s not impossible to write a lot, NaNoWriMo is a great opportunity to do any of those things.”