I had never heard of National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—until it started happening in my house two years ago. That’s when my daughter, Harper, a high-school freshman back then, participated for the first time.
NaNoWriMo is an internet-based phenomenon where people of all ages write a novel during the month of November. The idea is not to achieve perfection or win a contest but to set a word-count goal and meet it in 30 days. Participants register on the site and submit their work at the end of the month for verification of length. There’s a “Young Writers” division for kids under 17, and when you combine that with the main program, nearly 400,000 people participated in 2014. Many of the resulting works end up as self-published books, while some have even been released by traditional publishers.
Back to my kid. In 2013 she wound up with My Toxic Cure, an angsty teen drama that was self-published and has been read by 15 to 20 people to date. Harper is now an 11th-grader and is tackling NaNoWriMo for the third time. We recently chatted about it via email. (How else would two people who live in the same house chat?)
Mark: How long have you been interested in writing?
Harper: I can, without a doubt, say that I have been interested in storytelling my whole life. It wasn’t until I was in fifth or sixth grade that I really got into writing. By seventh grade I was self identifying as a writer. It turned out to be a fantastic avenue to express myself and tell the stories that I have been aching to tell as long as I can remember.
M: How did you hear about NaNoWriMo, and what made you want to try it?
H: I found out about NaNoWriMo at the end of October 2013, my freshman year of high school. I was reading a Writer’s Digest article that mentioned it offhandedly, and I wondered what it was, so I looked it up. I read all about it and just knew I had to do it. I had been trying for years to produce a lengthy piece of fiction without much success. NaNo seemed like the perfect remedy to that problem. Plus, I wasn’t very academically challenged my freshman year, so adding NaNo to my plate gave me a chance to stretch myself.
M: This is your third year to participate. The first year you ended up with an actual finished book. How did that feel?
H: My first year was a home run in every way. I really fell in love with my story, and that was good, because I ended up spending a lot of time with it. After finishing the initial draft in November and taking a mental break in December, I revisited my novel and worked with it until completion. My parents read over it numerous times, as did I. We then used the self-publishing website CreateSpace to format the book, and we designed the cover. By June 2014, I had a box of my books sitting in my house. It was amazing to see it come to fruition. It really proved to me that I could write a novel from start to finish. That I could go from point A to point B. It was important for me to know that I could do it.
M: The second year turned out a little different in that you didn’t finish the book. Are you unhappy about that, or is it okay?
H: Last year, in 2014, I approached NaNo very differently. I had done much more planning and was attempting a much more complex story. By the end of November I had exceeded my word count goal of 45,000 by writing 60,000. I finished the story of the novel and was very happy with it. When I came back for revisions, however, I wasn’t as pleased with it as I was in the heat of the moment. There were problems. I tried to solve them, but ultimately other projects came into my life, and Plus One was left on the shelf. I am still proud of the work I did with it and still love the story. I hope that someday I have a chance to revisit it. The time may never be right, but either way, I am at peace with things now.
M: Whenever I hear “NaNoWriMo” my mind always goes to Robin Williams as Mork from Ork. How about you?
M: Okay. Must be a generational thing. So how’s it going this year so far?
H: This year’s novel is coming along very well. I really love the story, the characters I am working with, and the organic feel of the novel. This year has been the hardest to stay on top of daily word count goals, simply because my junior year is pretty demanding. But I find time to write when I can—before school, during study halls, after school and whenever I can spare a few minutes. And the weekends help me catch up if I get behind during the week. I’m still on track to write 50,000 words and happy with what I have written so far.
M: What’s your process? You seemed to do a lot of planning ahead of time.
H: I came up with the idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo novel several months ago while I was sitting in class and have been working with the idea ever since. I started formal planning for the novel in mid-October. This novel is written in the form of a daily journal, so I made a calendar of what happens each day and what my protagonist writes about. I also spent a lot of time getting to know the characters that play a major role in the story. I did this by filling out character questionnaires and doing research on the life situations I gave them. I think this year’s planning landed in the happy medium between over and under planning. In past years I have swayed to one side or the other, but this year feels like a good balance.
M: Any tips for others participating right now, maybe folks who are struggling?
H: What gets me through the month is taking it in small increments. I never think about the fact I have to write 50,000 words. I focus on the fact that every day I need to write 1,667 words. And in that 1,667 there are 16 to 17 sets of 100 words. I can write 100 words in a snap, and more often than not, I can write upwards of 500 in one sitting during the school day. If I think about it like that, it’s not daunting. Also, don’t skip days if you can help it. The 30 days of November are your best friends. Don’t turn down the opportunity they give you.
M: Let’s zoom out for the big picture. How has participating in NaNoWriMo changed you as a person and/or writer?
H: NaNoWriMo has changed me as a person and a writer more than I ever would have thought. Now I can call myself a novelist. I have written two full-length novels and self-published one of them. It makes me feel successful. More importantly, it makes me feel like I am really taking control of my writing. I want to write novels and I want to share stories. NaNo provides a way I can do that. Not all my works will be NaNo novels. Of course not. There are still stories inside of me that are waiting to be told. But NaNo is giving me the foundation to write them. NaNo makes me happy as a writer. And when I’m happy as a writer, I’m a happy person, which in turn makes my life more valuable and my relationships deeper. NaNoWriMo gave me an avenue to holistic happiness.
M: Good luck the rest of the way. Sorry I made you take time away from your novel to answer these questions.
H: It’s alright. Thanks for asking. Now it’s back to writing I go!
Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate. Harper is a high-school junior who plans to study creative writing in college.