NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It takes place every November. The aim is to encourage writers to write, especially if they’re as yet unpublished. It’s goal is for every participant to churn out 50,000 words by the end of the month. Whether that 50,000 is an entire novel or simply the beginning to something longer doesn’t matter. Breaking it down this way amounts to 1,667 words a day.

The NaNoWriMo website estimates that 400,000 people had participated by 2013.

More than a simple creative exercise, more than 300 NaNoWriMo novels have been published since 2006. These include:

“Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen
“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern
“Persistence of Memory” by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
“Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell
“Anna and the French Kiss” by Stephanie Perkins
“The Darwin Elevator” by Jason M. Hough
“The Night We Said Yes” by Lauren Gibaldi

More than 100 others (possibly far more) have been self-published.

The story of NaNoWriMo is that of a creative movement that’s grown up right alongside the internet. NaNoWriMo first took place in 1999 in San Francisco. Back then, July was the month of choice. 21 writers participated, including the event’s creator, editor Chris Baty.

The next year, one of Baty’s friends suggested he could build a website. By this time, the month had changed to November to “more fully take advantage of the miserable weather,” as Baty puts it. The website attracted 140 participants in 2000. Baty worked to create a set of guidelines to help direct writers toward their goal. 21 of them finished the 50,000 word count. Baty and friends held the very first “Thank God It’s Over party.”

Baty expected a similar number of participants in 2001. Instead, 5,000 showed up, the as-yet-unknown power of blogs sending hopeful writers scurrying to the NaNoWriMo site. To register everyone and answer questions, Baty started working 16-hour unpaid days. The event was written up in newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times. By the time the event began, a backlog of 3,000 writers were still waiting to be registered. The original participants of NaNoWriMo, instead of taking part in all-day writing marathons, were now taking part in all-day registration marathons.

A few days in, the site was hacked. Then, their web host asked that NaNoWriMo find a new host, since NaNoWriMo was taking bandwidth from its other sites (yes, 2001 was a very different time on the Internet).

The event was a mess, but participating writers continuously stepped up to ask Baty what he needed help with, to organize regional hubs where questions could be directed and responsibilities could be delegated. Nonetheless, by the end of its third year, NaNoWriMo lacked the funds to keep on going.

Before its fourth iteration, Baty focused on making the event self-sustaining. His goal was to thread the needle of avoiding both advertising and sign-up fees. After failed attempts to ask people to donate after the event had already taken place in Year 3, Baty focused that next year on communicating to participants ahead of time what the event needed in order to continue. After being featured on NPR, CBS Evening News, and the BBC, 14,000 participants signed up for Year 4. Even with the expanded costs, NaNoWriMo was beginning to look self-sustaining.

For NaNoWriMo 5, Baty focused on creating chapters around the world, so that participants could have a liaison they might be able to meet, instead of “a disembodied voice in Oakland.” This was also the year that Tony Danza participated. Or did he? It was hard to tell, and Tony Danza has never volunteered a clear answer.

By the sixth year, 42,000 writers were participating, and Baty became aware that this number included a variety of published, professional writers. By the seventh year, NaNoWriMo finally enjoyed their first opening day without the servers crashing.

In 2006, NaNoWriMo began operations as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization under the name The Office of Letters and Light. The organization’s donations have since helped build libraries in Southeast Asia with the Room to Read program, have supported the Young Writers Program at thousands of schools around the world, and has started a loaning program for laptops so that writers who lack resources can still write.

Baty also began something new: The Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures. The forums exploded with participants who vowed to spend 2007 chasing a dream: running a marathon, going back to college, learning to paint. Baty learned Spanish. Participants used the connections NaNoWriMo provided to help cheer each other on and post updates on their progress.

In 2007, Script Frenzy started, featuring 8,000 participants who spent a month writing an original script. The very first Night of Writing Dangerously Write-a-thon, a meet-and-greet and fundraiser, took place in San Francisco. NaNoWriMo itself crossed the 100,000 participant mark. Nonetheless, the amount of charity The Office of Letters and Light had participated in had left its cash reserves low and its lines of credit somewhat strapped.

In 2008, the organization started looking ahead, and strategically planning against these pitfalls. This included backups of the website’s participant database, making a complete disk failure of their database server on October 1 a mere nuisance. The Young Writers Program had expanded to 22,000 students.

By 2010, NoNoWriMo passed the 200,000 participant mark. 2012 would see the very last Script Frenzy, an event that had peaked with 19,000 writers but had never managed to pay for itself (it turns out screenwriters are even poorer than novel writers). 341,000 novelists would participate in NaNoWriMo that year. By 2013, month-long online camps that were, essentially, smaller novel writing months, reliably had 20,000 participants.

Including young writers, NaNoWriMo itself passed the 400,000 participant mark in 2013. That’s the thing about writing. When you sit down to do it, what happens in the novel, in the word processor on the computer before you…that’s only a fraction of the creative act you’re participating in. Chris Baty sat down to write a novel in 1999. It’s not just punching out 50,000 words that make you a writer. It’s the inevitable maturation of concepts within yourself, of making new connections in your head, of processing thoughts and emotions into words that makes you a writer. You learn to make brave choices and take chances as a writer. You learn to confront yourself. You learn not just what you want to do with your life, but how you want to think about your life. You learn to be courageous about your passions, and to help others be courageous about their own. Writing helps you get there, and NaNoWriMo helps hundreds of thousands of people get there.

Go check it out.


Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo? Would you like to?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.