For the love of novels

(Serena Gelb/YH Staff)

Imagine writing a novel. Now, imagine writing it in a month. That’s how Ari Susu-Mago, SY ’13, has spent her last three Novembers. For Susu-Mago and hundreds of thousands of other aspiring novelists, Nov. 1 marks the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, called NaNoWriMo or NaNo for short.

Started in 1999 by a handful of friends in the Bay Area, the annual online project’s tagline is “thirty days and nights of literary abandon.” NaNoWriMo’s goal is simple: participants attempt to write 50,000 words of original fiction during the month of November. (For reference: that’s roughly one double-spaced, five-page paper per day for a whole month.) Over 250,000 people around the world attempted NaNo in 2011, and more than 36,000 succeeded.

The nonprofit, the Office of Letters and Light, that runs NaNo also coordinates an online forum where participants can interact with each other. At the end of the month, writers upload their documents so their word counts can be verified.

“I plan to win,” Susu-Mago told me. Winning here means finishing—reaching the magical 50,000-word mark before midnight on Nov. 30. Shortly , she’ll have finished her fourth novel.

Misery loves company, but so does insanity. Susu-Mago is president of the Yale College Novelling Club, a small group of Yalies who meet during NaNoWriMo to commiserate, eat snacks, offer encouragement, and panic. They trade tips: for instance, adding all of the papers you’ve written for class during November as a “Scholarly Appendix” can boost your word count, as can giving your characters multiple first, middle, and last names. They also challenge each other to “word wars,” competing to see who can produce the most words in 10-minute bursts of frantic typing.

This is the third NaNo for Juliet Debutts, SY ’14. She explains that there are two possible approaches: “plotting” and “pantsing.” The former means that the writer plans her novel beforehand and the latter that the writer works “by the seat of her pants.” Most NaNoers, she admits, fall somewhere in the middle. Participants are allowed to prepare and research beforehand, but all 50,000 words must be written during November. “Pantsing is terrifying,” she said, but it can work. “The most important thing is that it’s a story you really want to write.” Nat Harrington, BK ’14, wrote a NaNo novel his freshman year, but swears that he had “no idea what [he] was doing the whole time.” He began the project this year but abandoned his novel when he found schoolwork too demanding.

Is Debutts going to finish? “I bloody well intend to,” she said. In turn, she’ll get a badge for her profile on the NaNoWriMo website—and, of course, bragging rights. As of Tues. Nov. 27, she and Susu-Mago were both at roughly 38,000 words. Twelve-thousand words in four days—in the midst of finals, no less—is a formidable challenge, but both say they’re up to it.

November is a potentially miserable month of academic drudgery, depressing weather, and unpleasant interactions with relatives over the Thanksgiving table. So why tackle NaNo? “There’s something really fun about giving yourself permission to suck,” Susu-Mago said. On a campus where ambitions are high, NaNo is a low-stakes undertaking. “No one’s expecting to come out of NaNo with a publishable novel,” Harrington said.

The night the competition ends, the Novelling Club will host a “Thank God It’s Over” party. But it’s not. “Writing 50K isn’t finishing,” Susu-Mago said. Indeed, many NaNoers will return to their novels to lengthen or revise them. Though some will never show another soul, others seek publication. Indeed, Sara Gruen’s NaNo novel Water for Elephants was on the New York Times bestseller list for 12 weeks in 2006.

Debutts and Susu-Mago are not necessarily typical: though, according to Susu-Mago, 20 to 25 Yalies began the project, it’s not entirely clear how many will finish. Four of the six people contacted for this article abandoned the project partway through the month. The demands of schoolwork or the siren song of the Internet, they explain, kept them from “winning.” Sophia Szymkowiak, TD ’15, a seasoned NaNoer who won her senior year of high school, ultimately failed to finish in both 2011 and 2012. She says she has found the project useful in helping her to set goals and stick to them, but the reality is that “writing a novel at Yale is hard.” Those who fail to win, however, don’t necessarily consider themselves losers. A. Grace Steig, SM ’15, a staff writer for the Herald, found that her incomplete NaNo attempt taught her that “writing quickly, ceaselessly, is a doable thing.”

Ultimately, for many participants, the product isn’t exactly the point. It’s definitely not the reason why so many NaNoers are so enthusiastic, even evangelistic, about the project, or why they return for a second, third, or fourth time. The adrenaline of word wars and the unabashed geekery of it all might have something to do with it; the bragging rights and profile badge are also appealing. But maybe it’s simply the thrill of writing something so big in such a short period of time. Szymkowiak’s advice is simple: “Write a novel. It might change your life.”

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