Warm up your laptops, and sharpen your pencils. The next Great American Novel could be brewing in El Paso in November thanks to a kick in the pants for writers called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).
What started as a literary challenge in July 1999 with 21 people in the San Francisco Bay Area has grown into a huge online cult phenomenon involving more than 500,000 people across the country this year – including 500 hearty and hopeful El Pasoans.
“I write for fun, for the love of the month,” says Sara Polk, 25, an Illinois native pursuing a master’s in social work at UTEP. A four-time participant, she’s this year’s regional “municipal liaison.” She will coordinate area events and help motivate local writers, even as she writes her own NaNoWriMo novel.
The NaNoWriMo premise is that if you give a motivated writer a goal (write 50,000 words in 30 days) and a nurturing support structure (an industrial-strength website with serious writing tools, plus a friendly local network of fellow writers), that person can write a novel. That breaks down to an average of 1,667 words a day. It’s okay if it’s a stream-of-consciousness rough draft, mind you, but what an accomplishment!
“Once you write 50,000 words, you feel like you can write anything,” Polk says. The number of local participants who finished their novels last year is unknown, but they certainly wrote a lot. According to the November 2012 online calculations, Polk says that El Paso writers wrote two million words.
Who takes part?
“People with totally different backgrounds, from teenagers and college students to military spouses and retirees,” Polk says. She estimates that most are under 30 years of age and notes that one excellent local writer started when she was 11. The preteen read a portion of her work at a local “write-in” (see box) last year and people were impressed.
One of the 40 to 50 El Pasoans who attended last year’s write-ins and met his word goal was Richard Holt, 47, a California native who has lived up and down the East Coast and Hawaii. “Initially it seems like you’re making a sacrifice during the month – missing sports on television and skipping other things, but it’s worth it,” Holt says. “At the end of the month, you have a tangible product. You can take it and edit it later and you could end up publishing it.”
More than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been published over the years, including the bestselling novel “Water for Elephants,” which ended up on the big screen, too.
“For busy people who work and have children to take care of, it never seems like a good time to set aside a month to devote to writing,” Holt says. “But last year I said, ‘Why not?’ and decided to make writing a priority.”
He wrote a supernatural adventure set in El Paso and Chihuahua, which he called his “love letter to Mexico;” this year he is writing a sequel to that book.
Elisa Dobler, 34, had heard of NaNoWriMo, but the former El Dorado High School English teacher wasn’t going to take part until she met Sara Polk in her MSW program at UTEP.
“I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” she says. “I’m a little nervous about whether I’ll finish, but you never know what stories you have to tell until you try it.”
Polk and Holt have their plots and characters outlined in their minds, but Dobler says she doesn’t have a concrete plan. “One rule is to write what you know,” she says. “So my story could be set in contemporary times in this area.”
This reporter is making the attempt. I’m with Dobler. I’m nervous, I’m trying it for the first time, and I have no idea what I’ll write about. I haven’t written a poem or short story since grad school and I have no clue yet when, where, who or why. Or how – how in the world I’m going to make it to 50,000 words.
Interestingly, about half of each year’s participants fall into what one NaNoWriMo blogger calls “pantsers” – people who write by the seat of their pants, beginning at 12:01 a.m., November 1.
I guess I’d better buy that helpful little guide by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty. It’s called “No Plot? No Problem!”
NaNoWriMo Events in El Paso
Saturday, Oct. 26, 5-5:45 p.m.:
Pre-November Introductory Meeting, Memorial Park Library, 3200 Copper Avenue
Saturday, Nov. 2, 6:30-9 p.m.:
Write-in, Potbelly’s Sandwich Shop, 1373 George Dieter Drive (East side)
Sunday, Nov. 3, 2-5 p.m.:
Write-in, Corner Bakery, 655 Sunland Park (West side)
Tuesday, Nov. 5, noon-6 p.m.:
Write-in, Freedom Crossing Food Court, 1611 Haan Road (Fort Bliss)
Wednesday, Nov. 6, 3:30-6:30 p.m.:
Write-in, The Pizza Joint, 2900 North Mesa Street (Downtown/UTEP)
Remember “sit-ins” from the ’60s when protesters would gather in restaurants or campus buildings? “Write-ins” are a different kind of gathering for kindred spirits to sit down and write. They also talk about their plots, characters and the challenges slowing them down in their quest toward 50,000 words. All meetings are free and open to anyone. Visit www.nanowrimo.org and click on “Local Events” and then “Home Region” to find the rest of the El Paso events.