National Novel Writing Month at Swarthmore

Take a moment and imagine your all-time best hand at Misery Poker – the twenty-page lab report, the twenty-hour problem set, the botched pass and lost match, the breakup and the breakdowns – and add 1,667 words.

Now multiply by 30.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, affectionately, may seem like a form of self-imposed masochism, but for fiction lovers on campus, the challenge to produce 50,000 words in the month of November offers valuable incentive to plunge past writer’s block and into the heart of compositional chaos. Now in its eleventh year, the international write-a-thon draws hundreds of thousands of participants from all walks of life.

Among the critics, attitudes vary as to whether producing 1,667 words a day for 30 days a novelist makes. “Salon” co-founder Laura Miller, former author of the New York Times book review column “The Last Word,” published a piece in 2010 titled “Better Yet, DON’T Write That Novel” that criticizes the hype surrounding NaNoWriMo when “the last thing the world needs is more bad books.”

The rumored moans and groans of publishers notwithstanding, many feel the exercise is valuable for aspiring novelists. The event has now spurred the publication of over 100 novels submitted by participants, including “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen, which has since been turned into a feature film. It’s also generated spin-off projects like Camp NaNoWriMo (a summer challenge for those whose November schedules are inflexible) and the Youth Writers Program (a modified word count for 17-and-under participants).

Swarthmore students aren’t the only undergraduates intrigued by the project. In 2009, Stanford University added “Topics in Intermediate Fiction Writing: NaNoWriMo” to the English Department’s course offerings. The course’s syllabus, which reassured potential participants that their novel needn’t be “good at all,” nonetheless emphasized the skills to be acquired through the month-long marathon.

“In the trenches of this creation you will gain a much greater sense of large fictive structure,” course Professors Tom Kealey and Scott Hutchins wrote. “ You’ll also sharpen your skills at the aspects of fiction writing less seen in short stories, but more common to novels: plot, props, secondary “flat” characters, position change, dynamic scening, one-way doorways, summary, exposition, and fluid movement through time… Our creative process together will tend to be a wacky, crazy free-for-all.  ”

For four-time NaNoWriMo participant Ben Schwartz ’13, there is no trepidition to bestow the title “novelist” on the winners of NaNoWriMo. “I believe anyone can write a novel,” he said with conviction. “Not everyone can write a good novel. But if you write 50,000 words, you are a novelist, and that’s really pretty cool.”

Success rates are slim. Of last year’s 256,618 registered national participants, only 36,848 met the 50,000-word goal by the end of the month. Swarthmore’s standard – as in most other areas – is slightly higher: in Schwartz’s experience, roughly five to six writers succeed in meeting 50,000 words by the end of the month, out of a starting group that typically ranges from 10 to 15 students.

Sarah Geselowitz ’16, a two-time NaNoWriMo champion, met the word count for the first time five years ago – as an eighth grader. “I just saw it on the internet and thought it sounded fun,” she said nonchalantly.

“Winners” registered through NaNoWriMo must submit their manuscripts for evaluation before receiving certificates to prove their success, in the instance that the novel itself doesn’t do the job. Beyond verifying word count, the organization determines that cheating strategies – repeating a word fifty-seven times to meet the word count, for example – have not been employed to meet the challenge.

Schwartz’s first year as a NaNoWriMo participant fell far short of the benchmark word count. A collection of short stories set in Chicago with magical undertones rung in at 22,000 words when he decided to surrender the challenge in 2008. However, his success the past three years places him securely in the ranks of November’s literary elite. He produced 64,000 words in 2009 in a project that compiled a series of role-playing adventures from an online game he created (think Dungeons and Dragons, only freeform and virtually-based), and in 2010 and 2011 he completed parts one and two of what is now a 90,000-word novel on a thirteen-year-old girl’s appropriation as a super-weapon by a government at war. This November’s double theses requirements necessitated Schwartz’s withdrawal from the competition.

Geselowitz’s current endeavor takes the form of a frame novel, in which characters create layers by lapsing into stories of their own.

“So far, the furthest I’ve gotten is five layers deep,” Geselowitz said. “It’s really fun, because it means that whenever I get bored, I can go up or down a level. I don’t have a responsibility to continue with a story.”

The range of generic influences is, in Schwartz’s opinion, characteristic of NaNoWriMo writers and their work. “The thing about [NaNoWriMo] is that it’s about getting you to write,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you write. There are many NaNo rebels who aren’t quite doing a novel.  Maybe it’s a 50,000-word autobiography, or a 50,000-word graphic novel, or a project you’ve already started – the goal is just getting you to write.”

While Schwartz edited and polished the novels he produced for the past three challenges, he noted that writers who don’t choose to salvage the whole project nonetheless often retain certain characters or scenes as they move onto future literary endeavors. Citing a quote commonly attributed to Ray Bradbury, author of “Fahrenheit 451,” he emphasized that the take-away from the challenge isn’t necessarily the writing produced, but the act of producing written work.

“In order to write your first great novel, you have to write a million shitty words first,” he said.

To bulldoze through a 200th of those million shitty words every fall, Schwartz and Geselowitz strategically employ personal reward systems to drive their writing through the dog days of November, although to different ends. Schwartz annually replaces the notorious freshmen fifteen with a November nine-to-ten pound weight gain, fueled by his insatiable love of chocolate (one cookie per 500 words). Geselowitz considers novel-writing to be its own reward after completing her course assignments.

Both writers spend between one and two hours writing every day, splitting the project up into manageable blocks of time to maximize efficiency and minimize burnout.

Schwartz’s involvement in NaNoWriMo extends beyond his past projects. As a summer intern for the nonprofit Young Writers Program of the NaNoWriMo Office for Letters and Light, he worked to develop free curriculum plans for educators looking to incorporate the month’s mission into after-school programs or classroom enterprises.

The Young Writers Program allows participants younger than 17 to set their own word count challenge while exploring the writing process. Included on the website are “pep talks” to encourage participants and resources for educators. Last year, the program saw 1,800 classrooms participate.

Schwartz sees the value for young participants resting in the challenge’s expansion of educational and social awareness. “The most important part [of the program] is that you’re not just understanding the writing process, you’re understanding the act of storytelling, and how and why stories are made. You get a deeper understanding of what a story is. That can’t be learned by observation – you have to learn by writing your own. Understanding narratives gives [you] a deepened awareness of classical literature, but also the movies and the T.V. shows you watch, a depended awareness of the media-scape… you become aware of [the] tricks of trade, and how and why stories affect us.”

The same benefits apply to college-aged writers. For those who have considered the event and written it off due to a busy schedule, Schwartz suggests that November is the time to jump in.

“My advice would be if you want to write, write,” Schwartz said. “I know so many people at Swarthmore, and friends from other schools… who say, ‘yeah, I want to be a writer, I have some great ideas that I just have to sit down and outline.’ Do it – sit down and write it. That’s the difference between a writer and everyone else – a writer puts the stories in his head down on the page.”

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