The letters shine brightly, white on black, from an open laptop placed prominently in the window of an Irish sports bar facing Madison Square Garden: NaNoWriMo. Inside, a crowd of perhaps 40 people, young women and men in casual dress, are drinking beer and conversing loudly. The discussion, predictably, is dominated by issues of plot, character and writer’s block, for this is the first New York City social of 2013′s National Novel Writing Month.
NaNoWriMo – even the acronym suggests writing in a hurry, and no wonder: the objective of those taking part is to complete a novel of at least 50,000 words in the course of November. What is written seems of less concern than how much; after all, as one of the project’s gurus puts it: ”The path to quality is quantity.” Participants are encouraged to download specially designed word-count widgets to create graphic displays of their progress. Completed manuscripts can be submitted to the organisation, which, to forestall any anxiety (or perhaps hope) that they might be read, jumbles the words automatically before counting them. A certificate is sent to those who hit the quota in the allotted time.
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Anything resembling artistic pretension is confidently eschewed by NaNoWriMo. The organisation’s logo comprises a heraldic shield featuring quatrains with bold drawings of crossed pens, a laptop, a sheaf of paper, and a steaming cup of coffee, all topped, incongruously, by a Viking helmet. The prevalent aesthetic – particularly when displayed on the range of sweatshirts and hoodies it offers for sale – is more sports club than literary salon.
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“If you want to hit the word target,” he explains to me, “you have to lock away your inner editor.” I say I can see that, and marvel openly at the speed at which participants must write: “What is it?” I hesitate, trying to do the maths, “2,000 words a day?” “1,667,” Andy corrects me. “But some people can produce much more. Quite a few write two novels in the month; one guy even turned in 500,000 words.” I whistle incredulously at the vastness of this accomplishment; Andy honours it with a nod and a deep draft of Anchor Steam. “I can’t compete with that,” he shrugs, placing his beer back on the table and holding up both hands with fingers bent to form crooked claws: “T-rex typist.”
Andy brings over Claire, who tells me she works from home as a freelance content manager for an educational website. I ask what her novel is about. “It’s sort of a sci-fi story, set in a post-economic collapse.” She looks past me as she speaks. “But there’s mystery and fantasy elements, as well,” she adds quickly, in a way that suggests she believes the range of genres may add value to the project. This isn’t her first shot at NaNoWriMo. Last year she wrote a “zombie apocalypse” novel and she’s written others, too, not just in November. I ask if she has ever attempted to get them published. “No, not yet,” she smiles tersely. “I’m following the advice of Kristine Kathryn Rusch” – an Oregon-based writer who has published dozens of books under various pseudonyms. “She says you need to write a million words of crap before you can produce anything original. I’m still making my way through the crap.”
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[T]his short article has taken me several hours to write. Please don’t mention that to NaNoWriMo.