In today’s literary market, a novel is considered to be at least 50,000 words in length. Sounds like a lot of words to craft, right?

Exactly how long does it take to write a novel? Amazingly, some writers can hammer out their great tome in a relatively short amount of time. Supposedly, Stephen King takes three months to finish a first draft. Others can spend a lifetime crafting their work of art. Tolstoy finished a draft of War and Peace in 1863 and reportedly finished the final rewrite of the book in 1869. Of course, War and Peace is approximately 560,000 words.

So what would you say to the challenge of writing 50,000 words in just a few short weeks? Doable?

For several Writers’ Program students, it has been. In fact, people all around the world have been able to rise up to this challenge through NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month.

The concept of writing a novel in a month was started by writer Chris Baty in 1999, although its origin was a little different from what this “event” has become. (It started off with Chris and several friends who thought that as novelists, they would have an easier time… getting dates.)

Since then, the National Novel Writing Month has grown into an international phenomenon. Basically, the goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Through the NaNoWriMo website, aspiring novelists are able to track their word count and publicly share their experiences with friends, family, and other writers around the globe.

This fall, Writers’ Program students have the chance to complete their great American Novel in a mere four weeks through a guided workshop—or “writeshop”—as instructor Ian Randall Wilson refers to it.

Ian makes the process of writing a novel in a month seem less daunting. He says, “What I observed is that the goal is doable. Through a variety of motivational techniques, positive and negative, (students) can get there, one word at a time. It’s only 30 days of their lives. Even then, it’s only about 60 hours of work. Give up TV for a month and replace it with writing and you’ll finish.”

The course runs for 8 weeks, which allows for prep time and re-cap time, and of course the month in between to write, write, write.

Before the month of November, students learn various tips and strategies to help best prepare for 4 weeks of intense writing, including learning various writing exercises and prompts. After November–and hopefully after crossing the 50k finish line–students discuss the experience and learn tools to help them with the “what next.” For most this will include finishing or rewriting their draft, or else finding little gems that they might expand into a more solid novel draft or other works such as short stories. These tools are also invaluable not only to writing novels, but for seeing any sort of writing project through to completion.

In 2007, there were over 100,000 participants who “formally” participated through the NaNoWriMo website, with more than 15,000 writers completing the 50k word goal by the midnight deadline, book in hand. Or at least, first draft in hand.

The Writers’ Program course itself has been offered since 2006 and has since drawn a variety of students, from a woman who flew all the way out from Florida just to take the course to a well-known actor (though I can’t divulge his identity). In 2006, the Writers’ Program rate of completion was 73%. In 2007, it jumped to 82%. The international average completion rate of NaNoWriMo participants over the 10 years the organization has been running the event is 16%. With a course, it’s easier to be motivated to complete your draft and obviously, it helps to have the guidance of an experienced instructor and a published writer.

Writers’ Program student Kristin Van Dyke took the course in 2006, and said, “The most challenging thing was to get through the entire rough draft without letting my ‘inner editor’ jump out and try to fix the bad parts before I finished. The best part? I wrote a BOOK! It feels so good.”

What else do students take away from the process outside of an actual novel draft?

Ian looks back on past workshops and sums it up:

“Some said that eliminating their inner editor for the month was liberating. Others found discipline in having to get to a word count on a daily basis. Still, others understood that they actually are writers, they’ve actually written a novel, no small feat. I think they come away beginning to understand that writing is a process, a cumulative one. It’s also a practice.”

Write your Great American Novel this fall quarter! For more details on the upcoming NaNoWriMo course, click here.


Mae Respicio is the Program Representative in Creative Writing, Onsite and Online.

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