They have overdosed on coffee, written on layovers in Canada, traveled from the Netherlands, put pen to pad on a packed tram headed to Roosevelt Island, and made time for writing even after dealing with a parent’s heart attack.
They’re New York City’s NaNoWriMo participants, and no, they didn’t do it for kicks.
The global writing initiative, also known as National Novel Writing Month, challenges participants to write a novel of at least 50,000 words during the month of November every year. Now that December is here, participants have collectively exhaled and some are even plotting to have their novels published–much to the dismay of critics.
“I think there’s something of a stigma about NaNoWriMo being something for writers that aren’t taking it seriously,” said Erin O’Brien, a Municipal Liaison (“ML”) for the New York NaNoWriMo group.
“People think of writers banging away at their keyboards only to churn out some crazy novel and it’s all crap…There’s a mix of people.”
During an interview at Madame X, the sultry, red velvet lounge in GreenwichVillage where NaNoWriMo participants gathered during the final hours of November, O’Brien challenged this belief, noting that published writers participate every year.
O’Brien cited Sarah Gruen’s New York Times best-seller Water for Elephants an example of a published writer achieving success through NaNoWriMo. A film adaptation of the historical novel featuring Reese Witherspoon debuted this year.
The Brooklyn resident and professional production editor said people see the writing initiative as a motivator. “The point of it is a sort of an incentive. It’s a challenge. If you want to write a novel, here’s your opportunity,” O’Brien said.
Criticism of NaNoWriMo is common. Some call it an endeavor that leaves editors banging their heads on their desks every December when when participants send off botched manuscripts in hopes of becoming published writers. Of course, when the competition first began in 1999, it was far more popular for aspiring published writers to take the traditional route by submitting manuscripts to editors. These days writers are using tools like Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct Publishing service to release books on their own terms.
This year, O’Brien worked on a 82,000-word novel that she describes as a “contemporary romance novel with fantasy elements.” She’s a published author of four novels and a novella, all of which are published under a pseudonym.
O’Brien said she used NaNoWriMo to turn out a first draft of her latest novel. She first attempted the challenge in 2003 and she says participating has helped her learn the technique of writing swiftly and coming up with plan for drafting.
To some, O’Brien might represent the typical participant one would expect: she’s a professional writer and editor who works in publishing. But in reality, NaNoWriMo’s writers come from all walks of life, work in an array of fields, and having different writing goals and motives.
The group ranges in age, from fifth grade level to grandparent-aged adults. This year, someone even traveled from overseas. (A child psychologist from the Netherlands visited New York City for three weeks and participated in several of New York group’s events, which included “write-in’s” held in public spaces citywide).
Jeremy Kerr, a Brooklyn-based actor and marionette puppeteer; and David Nierenberg, a professional pilot who works for a small charter aircraft company, exhibit some of the group’s diversity.
With the help of a comfortable chair and plenty of caffeine, Kerr reached his NaNoWriMo goal shortly before Thanksgiving after churning out about 5,000-6,000 words daily in the beginning stages. Kerr, native of Shelby, N.C., always considered himself a writer since the second grade, but writing a novel initially intimidated him.
“Until this year I considered writing a novel to be beyond my ability,” Kerr said. “NaNoWriMo showed me I could do it.”
Kerr would like to have his work published, but not necessarily by a well-known publishing house. He’s considering self-publishing a revised and completed version of his Sci-Fi/Futuristic novel through a service like Barnes and Noble’s PubIt!
“It’s not for fame or fortune. As an actor and playwright there’s a slight level of narcissism–I want other people to know my name, even if it’s not a lot of people,” Kerr said. “It’s another level of being on stage. It kind of comes with who I am.”
Nierenberg, the pilot, decided to complete his goal this year with a kick. For 2011, he wrote on as many forms of transportation as possible. He started writing as a passenger on a flight to Arizona. (He never writes while operating an aircraft, of course). He also wrote on the Staten Island Ferry, on an overcrowded tram to Roosevelt Island, the subway, and on a bus, until he became carsick . He also wrote during layovers in Toronto and in Virginia. He challenged himself to write on different forms of transportation because he loves traveling, public transit, and urban planning, he said.
Nierenberg, who said he has no real aspirations to be a writer or to be published– participated because he values reading and writing.
“The whole literary level of the country is on the decline,” Nierenberg said. “It’s the exercise of writing that’s helpful. It’s just as important to learn what doesn’t work than what does.”
He’s participated in NaNoWriMo every year since 2005, except for 2006, and like his peers, he’s become irritated by criticism that he says missing the point of what NaNoWriMo is about. He cited an article by The Economist, which stated NaNoWriMo tricks people into thinking everyone can become writers, that they all have a story to tell and that it dilutes the pool of talent from which editors and publishers can select manuscripts.
“It missed the point,” he said. “I didn’t do this to write a good novel. I’m doing it to [write] on a time table. I knew it wasn’t going to be good when I wrote it.”
Alexis Daria, another ML for the New York NaNoWriMo group who works in an array of fields including computer graphics and merchandising, said was attracted to the community aspect of NaNoWriMo.
“If you do it with this kind of support network, it’s a lot easier,” Daria said. “It’s a sense of community for other writers. Writing can be such a solitary thing, and some people are fans of that and think that you should just write by yourself.” [Throughout the night in Madame X, I hear claps and cheers for participants who reach the coveted 50,000 word goal.]
The New York native says she experienced a 50 percent success rate since she began participating in 2004, and this year, she managed to reach her writing goal on a teen vampire novel by November 28, even after her father suffered a heart attack halfway through the month. She didn’t write for 1 ½ weeks, but she made the time, anyway.
“That’s how life is. If you want to be creative person you can’t just say ‘Well, I’m only going to be creative at the time when there’s nothing else that’s going to take me away from it,’ ” she said.
“NaNoWriMo teaches you to make the time to be creative instead of finding the time or taking the time,” Daria said. “If you’re finding the time, you never really are going to find it. If you make the time, that’s something that you’re giving to yourself.”