NaNoWriMo Celebrates 20 Years

By the time this edition comes out, it will be November, which means it will also be National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo): an annual, online creative-writing project. Starting on Nov. 1, thousands of people will pull out their writing pens or sit down at their computers to take on the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in one month.

That’s right: 50,000 words in one month.

When freelance writer Chris Baty established the challenge in July 1999, it had 21 participants. The next year it moved to November to “more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.” Soon, bloggers were spreading the challenge throughout the internet, and its participant numbers grew. In 2005, Baty registered NaNoWriMo as a nonprofit organization that supports writing fluency and education and serves as an important social network for writers, similar to LinkedIn for professionals and DeviantArt for artists.

NaNoWriMo has been a starting place for many writers’ careers. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, Hugh Howey’s Wool and others all started as NaNoWriMo drafts.

This year, NaNoWriMo staff members are encouraging writers to celebrate the initiative’s 20 years by including one of these eight writing prompts in their story: Put 20-somethings in your next scene; write a memory from when you were 20 or a dream you have for yourself when you turn 20; or write a flashback 20 years in the past, or flash forward 20 years. Others include writing a scene or story that is based on an anniversary, includes the line “Hindsight is 20/20,” involves someone slowly counting to 20, is 20 words long, or uses the word “china” or “platinum,” which both represent 20-year anniversaries.

I first participated in NaNoWriMo during my freshman year at Lawrence University as part of the Creative Writing Club. In November, our meetings focused on write-ins, plot and world-building, and – during one gloomy weekend – we headed up to Björklunden for a weekend of writing, speed-writing games and drinking lots – lots – of coffee.

Although I have participated in five NaNoWriMos so far, I have yet to actually get anywhere near the 50,000-word mark. November at Lawrence was tough because we were all preparing for our finals, and that left little time for writing. Now that I’m out of college, I find my time consumed by work.

Maybe these are all excuses for my lack of motivation, but I’ll stick by them. However, as November is now upon me, I find myself wanting to take another shot at it.

Although some of us tend to do best when flying by the seat of our pants, a fruitful month of NaNoWriMo writing begins best when it includes a good amount of preparation. Prep time is technically over now that it’s November, but you can still do some things during the first few days of the month to set yourself up for success.

Here are a few recommendations for a successful writing month, based on my experience as a (failed) NaNoWriMo participant.

1. Reuse stories

My first few attempts at writing a novel were done on the basis that my writing had to be completely new and from scratch. What I didn’t realize is that lots of people revisit stories they wrote when they were younger and reworked them. Last year I started to rework a story I wrote for a middle school English class and enjoyed every minute of it.

2. Find a good writing spot

During previous years, I tried different types of places to write. At my desk: I gave that up because it was too uncomfortable, and I got distracted by the need to clean up and reorganize my room. On the couch: Obviously, that did not go well because I either got too sleepy or became distracted by whatever my mom was watching on TV. For me, the perfect writing spot has comfortable furniture, but it’s a place where I can get up and walk around from time to time because I get jittery after sitting still for a while. 

3. Choose your tool: pencil or computer

Although this seems obvious, decide on your mode of writing before you start. Some people do actually write all 50,000 words by hand by perfecting their word size and knowing exactly how many words they can fit per line. Normally I like to write things by hand first because it sparks my creativity more than typing on a computer, but 50,000 words by hand is way too daunting for me. This might also determine your writing space because some places might lack power plug-ins, WiFi and other computer-friendly amenities.


I encourage you to use baby-name generators when trying to come up with character names. I can sit for hours trying to find the best name for a character. Typically, the name I pick is nothing I have ever heard of, and I discovered it only because of an online name generator. There are even websites dedicated to specific book-genre names, which can help you tune in to the correct vibe for your genre.

5. NaNoWriMo resources

The first few times I participated, I did so independently, but don’t go it alone: Use the resources on the NaNoWriMo website. Once I tried that, I realized there were so many resources available through the organization, which is big on the social aspect of the program. You can connect with participants in your area, run your ideas by others and – my favorite – adopt “plot bunnies” from other writers! Sometimes you want to participate but just can’t come up with an idea. Then there are plenty of other people who have plot ideas galore that they have never pursued and who post them for others to use. Just go to the forum, find a plot and leave a comment that you’re adopting it. Even if you don’t adopt any, there are lots of fun and interesting ideas to consider.

To help you start and keep you motivated, the Door County Library will offer a writers workshop with Judy DuCharme on Nov. 5, 6:30-8 pm; and a nanofiction discussion with Jerod Santek on Nov. 16, 10:30-11:30 am. To learn more about National Novel Writing Month and see which regional activities you can join, visit