Ready, Set, Write

Nine students sit around a Harper classroom table, laptops open. They don't talk much, and instead stare intently at the screen, typing furiously. They all have one goal: 1,667 words by the end of the night.

No, it isn't a midterm or a Humanities paper gone terribly wrong. The nine are participants in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short), a writing contest sponsored by Oakland, CA-based nonprofit The Office of Letters and Light. The rules are simple: Between Nov. 1 and midnight on Nov. 30, participants must write a 50,000 word novel. In 2008, 119,301 people participated and 21,683 participants—"wrimos," as they are sometimes called—successfully completed a novel, according to NaNoWriMo's official website.

Work In Progress, a campus creative writing group, sponsors these weekly "write-ins." Usually, Work In Progress uses its meetings to workshop its members' stories, according to second-year Madeleine Weisman, the club's assistant director. But they are devoting the entire month of November to NaNoWriMo.

No one expects their first drafts will be masterpieces, second-year Jordan Reece explained. Reece has finished three novels for NaNoWriMo, and is at work on her fourth. ("Yeah, she's a rock star," said second-year Emma Cueto.) "We know it's going to be of really bad quality, and that doesn't matter," Reece said. Quantity is the aim.

It's not surprising, then, that all the assembled wrimos seemed obsessed with their word counts. "Guys, I only have 127 words," lamented Raisa Priebe Kreek (AB'09). Reece said she and Cueto have a friendly competition going. "We're really close in our word count," she said. "We've been going back and forth within 200 words of each other."

To motivate the group, Weisman brought in a bag of fun-size candy bars. One piece of candy per 200 words, she told them. "But you get five pieces of candy if you beat Emily to 200 words," she joked, explaining that third-year Emily Jacob "is about three times faster than anyone else."

On a typical day, Reece said, she aims to write about 1,600 words. This can take between one and three hours. "It depends on what I'm writing," she said. "If I'm writing dialogue, I tend to hit it pretty quickly...If it's exposition, it can be up to two or three hours." She forgoes naps between classes, and focuses on writing instead. On weekends, she said, she goes to coffee shops on the North side and sometimes writes all day.

It might sound like an impossible goal, but Reece said the communal atmosphere of NaNoWriMo keeps her focused. At the Work In Progress write-ins, "you can hear everyone else writing, you can see them focusing, and it motivates you to do that as well," she said. "To have that community of people writing together is really nice."

For Reece, it helps that her housemate Cueto is also participating. The two help one another through the rough patches. "We talk the plot out, and [talk about] our characters," Reece said. "She's been talking to me about what her plot is...and then we can point out ways she could go. So you get a different perspective on it."

When December rolls around, Reece said she always enjoys having more free time. But she also finds the adjustment difficult. "I get back to the point where I'm only writing one hour a day," she said. "I feel like I have nothing to do...Especially at the beginning of December, that's really strange."

Reece hopes December won't be the end of the road for her novel. In past years, she has gone back and revised what she wrote for NaNoWriMo, and she hopes to do the same this year.

But for now, she's concentrating on finishing her novel—and defending her sanity. Her friends are impressed, she said, but "they think [I'm] crazy."