Three and a half hours to go.
Keri Smith and Becky Frank sit side by side at the end of a long and loud table in an otherwise sparse Steak ‘n Shake on Clark Lane. It’s 8:30 p.m., and the Halloween night crowd is composed mostly of small groups in costume, likely headed to parties. Smith, Frank and nine others, however, are here for the long haul, and their visit has nothing to do with All Hallows Eve. November is a mere 210 minutes away.
At midnight, when the calendar flips to the eleventh month, they and tens of thousands of others across the world will begin a 30-day challenge to wear out keyboards and notebooks as they attempt to write a novel of at least 50,000 words. National Novel Writing Month, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, or just NaNo, was started in 1999 by Chris Baty and a group of friends and is based on the premise that anyone can write a novel.
Smith and Frank have been here before. In fact, they met at last year’s NaNo kickoff event. “We were all very awkward,” Frank says, remembering what it was like to meet the other writers for the first time.
It’s safe to say the group has since clicked, based on the torrent of interaction, sometimes raunchy, taking place on this Halloween night. Indeed, Smith and Frank, who are now in a relationship, are only two of the five people present who met their current partners at NaNo events.
During NaNo, what is usually a solitary process becomes the basis for social interaction. Many of the participants say that not a lot of writing happens at the write-ins, but the atmosphere makes the experience worth it. The group is tightly knit yet approachable, insular but not exclusive. The evening is filled with tangential conversations that careen wildly from topic to topic. The barbed banter belies a deeper bond.
Chapter 1: The formation
Christian Young, who has attempted the novel-in-a-month challenge most years since 2000, formalized the group aspect of Columbia’s NaNo contingent. He knew the encouragement and competition among peers would help people to stick with it for the duration.
“It’s really easy to feel kind of beat down around the middle of the month,” he said. With the group, however, some of the weight is removed. “It’s not this onerous task anymore — it’s something to complain about with your friends.”
Despite the inherently solo nature of writing, Young thinks it just made sense to add the social element. He explained the mind-set behind his decision to organize: “I’m doing this, you’re doing this ... why don’t we do this at the same coffee shop?”
For Abe Ott, a second-year participant, the support network is the reason last year’s novel exists.
“It’s motivation to actually do it,” Ott said. “It’s something I’d wanted to do, but I never really got around to it or whatever.”
He said that most of what little writing did happen would be during “Word Wars,” challenges among the group members such as a race to 500 words or a contest to see who could write the most words in 15 minutes.
Not every word that makes it on to the page is one that a writer expects, though. Last year, when Ott took smoking breaks — which meant he left his laptop unattended — he frequently returned to find smut written into his novel. He has since stopped smoking and put password protections in place.
Viki Hagan, a four-time participant but first-time write-in attendee, said the write-ins provide a diversion.
“We need something to do to waste our time,” Hagan said. “It’s moral support.”
Reese Groshong doesn’t think he’ll be able to make the goal this year because he’s juggling a full-time job and graduate school. He likes the atmosphere of the write-ins, though.
“It’s like-minded people attempting to do the same stupid thing,” Groshong said. “Real life gets in the way, that’s the problem.”
Hagan and Groshong began riffing on the possibilities.
“This character has to write this paper,” Hagan suggested.
”Maybe he’ll be an accounting professor,” Groshong said.
Ott said the write-ins have several components that make them a useful part of a participant’s toolkit.
“Part of it is just the, well, you don’t want to look like, ‘Oh, 5,000 words? You had a month,’” Ott said. “Part of it is bragging rights, but a lot of it is being with a group of people that have that same goal, that same desire, which you don’t necessarily meet every day.”
Ott said he needs a quiet space without distractions like instant messenger for him to be most productive. Last year, he wrote 10,000 words on the last day of the contest, pushing him over the 50,000-word hurdle. He said he considers the work created in that last stretch to be some of his best.
“The pressure of writing that much in that sort of time actually turns on the creative tap, for lack of a better term,” Ott said. “You stop editing yourself because you have to bang out that word count. Once you start rolling on it, it just starts flowing.”
Chapter 2: The clock starts
The night passes quickly; the snacks, the games, the witty repartee make the wait seem as quick as a keystroke.
For some, not much changes immediately after midnight. Noah Medling, who is Columbia’s NaNo organizer and, unrelated, a Web administrator for the Missourian, said his approach is more like, “Oh crap, I don’t know what to write, and a total of about five words get written.”
November and novel writing are mere minutes away. As the clock hits 11:59:50, the countdown begins, a lackadaisical chorus of numbers out of sync and off tempo. Midnight is greeted with cheers and banter and laughter; seconds into Nov. 1, Groshong announces he’s behind already.
In this way it’s much like the rest of the night.
Gradually the chatter subsides, or at least lessens considerably. People break off from the group and spread out to different tables, focused on the screen or paper in front of them.
Less than nine minutes in, Smith’s already up to 200 words. It’s a start, but only barely. “Only forty-nine thousand, nine hundred ...” she says, before trailing off.
Smith, like everyone else, must juggle her novel writing with “real life” — she has a test the next day to worry about as well. No one seems particularly clear on how they manage to find the time for NaNo amidst the insanity of life, but for whatever reason, it’s worth it.