NaNo NaNo

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Okay, so this year it'll be a dystopian tale set in Pittsburgh after an alien invasion.

No, cancel that. A gentle coming of age story. 1950s, small town America.

Wait, what about a man who wakes up, looks in the mirror, and - he's turned into a German shepherd.

November 1st means one thing. The official start of NaNo. So what will you write?

NaNo is shorthand for National Novel Writing Month (sometimes called NaNoWriMo), an online challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. Yep, 50,000 words in 30 days. Chris Baty, a freelance writer, started NaNo in 1999 almost as a joke - wouldn't it be crazy if a bunch of us try to write a novel in a month? 21 people gave it a shot the first year.

NaNo has grown. Over 300,000 people participated in 2014. Different ages, countries, genres - why? Because people like to tell stories.

Are we talking quality? Well... not exactly. For the month of November, the emphasis is on quantity. The goal isn't to write Moby Dick in 30 days. There are no judges in NaNo. At the end of the month, you submit your document online, and if you've reached 50,000, you're awarded a winner's bar under your profile picture. You don't get an agent. Or a publishing deal.

But, you know what? You feel pretty damn good.

Well, I do. This will be my 10th NaNo. 9 years ago a friend told me about NaNo and even though neither of us had any idea of what we'd write about, we dove in.

There are NaNo rules. You can write in just about any genre, including fanfiction. You can use an outline, but not text you've already written. You could type, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over, and assuming you don't go insane and try to kill your wife and son, you'd get a winner's bar, but you'd be a cheater person and you'd have to live with that, shame, shame on you.

I'm lucky because I've written TV and film for 20-plus years. The blank page is no stranger. Neither are deadlines. But writing 50,000 words in 30 days is almost head-exploding. There's a graph on your NaNo profile page that tracks your progress. You can follow other people's word counts under their profiles and sometimes you freak - somebody wrote 150,000 words in three days when I wrote 4,022? I'm screwed.

But one of the best parts of NaNo is turning off your inner editor. Because you're writing so fast, you don't have time to go back and edit and fuss.

Her skin was the color of cocoa.

Her skin was the color of a vanilla latte.

Her skin was the color of a cinnamon dolce light Frappuccino.

You get the idea. Writing in November, you're a runaway train. In December when I look at what I've done, I'm surprised. Some of it is pretty good. Some of it is horrible. Anne Lamott talks about "the shitty first draft" in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. You can't get to a second draft without a first draft, duh. That's the joy of NaNo - a chance to be fearless.

And it's not as if you're done at the end of November. In December many people keep writing. Then they edit. And edit some more. That's what I do.

In 9 years of NaNo what have I accomplished? My first attempt was a series of interconnected short stories. Since then I've done original novels and a few novelizations of old screenplays.

One NaNo project, Expecting, was published by Sourcebooks last summer. Several examples of traditionally published NaNo books include Water for Elephants and The Night Circus. And other books have been published by smaller publishers or are self-published.

Every year someone writes a column making fun of NaNo. "People are pretending to be novelists and writing is craft, not speed." They sneer at fanfiction. And, "Oh, pity the poor agents who receive these dreadful NaNo manuscripts in December. Stupid delusional NaNo writers."

Bunk. You don't have to be a professional. Why not try writing? Why pooh pooh creativity? Creativity is wonderful, an adventure. It's good for your brain. I've met some great writers on NaNo. I've read genres I don't usually read, for example, an erotic fiction piece, Out of the Shadows, written by a woman I met through NaNo, a novel a thousand times better than Fifty Shades of Grey.

On the NaNo website there are forums where you can meet other writers and become "buddies." Reference sites and writing tips and pep talks from published novelists. Regional groups where you can meet in person at "write-ins." My favorite forum is "NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul," created for "writers in distress." Computer crashes, my plot SUCKS, carpal tunnel. Most of us have been there.

You can share your work and let people comment on it. Or not. So what if you never publish your NaNo project or the only people who read your work are your parents or you read your book out loud to your cat? You've written something. And it's yours.

Yeah, NaNo is a little nuts. But take a chance, check it out. And if you need a writing buddy, drop me a line.