By Carolyn Bahm
Laura Smith participates in a “write-in” at a local coffee shop during National Novel Writing Month.
A web of extension cords, the clattering of keyboards, and a constant stream of soft drinks and coffee are the signs that fiction writers have invaded a favorite coffee shop or restaurant for a November tradition.
The month of Thanksgiving is also known among word geeks as National Novel Writing Month – or, as the participants call it, “NaNoWriMo” or just “Nano.”
Participants (“wrimos”) each complete at least 50,000 words of a novel during the month, averaging 1,667 words per day, every day. Anyone who makes it to 50K “wins” NaNoWriMo. Even if they think their writing is gibberish at that point, they’ve completed the tough milestone of grinding out a first rough draft.
Regional groups host write-ins at local restaurants, have online word wars to compete for highest word counts, and parties at the beginning, middle and end of the month.
Currently, there are 291 active participants who call the Memphis region home, organizers said.
Laura Smith, one of the municipal liaisons guiding Memphis-area events for NaNoWriMo, said she heard about the event midway through the month her first year, but she tried to play along. The next year, she was better prepared and attended more events.
“I was very addicted to the write-ins,” she said. “I made a lot of friends.”
Today, she’s in her fifth year of participation and her third year as an ML. She’s reached the 50K mark every year for the past three years. Although she has a full-time job in Bartlett, she is also a part-time University of Memphis student and still manages to get absorbed in her Nano duties. She takes her role as ML seriously, even though it does take time.
“I do cheerlead a lot of the people because I don’t want them to ever feel lost or anything,” Smith said. “I mean, you could be sitting there writing, and if you have a problem, just take out your headphones and ask somebody, and they can help you work through the problem as you’re writing. That’s really great.”
The Memphis group also usually has a dare jar at the write-ins. Anyone who gets stuck is welcome to pull a dare (such as “Elvis dances on screen”) to inspire his or her writing.
Local participants also contributed memorable details each year to create a communal character, and all the writers are encouraged (but not required) to include the person in their books, even just as a background character.
As of Nov. 9, the Memphis Wrimos have collectively written more than 1.3 million words, and they’re just a third of the way into the month.
“One of the unofficial sayings of Nano is ‘Don’t get it right – get it written,’” said Dani Bell, now in her eighth year of Nano. The first three or four years were rocky, but she’s won Nano every year since 2009. Her husband is participating this year, too.
Bell, a Memphis resident who works the night shift at an alarm company, usually writes romances with a fantasy or science fiction background, but this year’s book is in the young adult category. She’s also serving as one of the Memphis region’s NaNoWriMo municipal liaisons, keeping local write-ins organized, posting pep talks on social media and encouraging area writers.
She writes and edits during lulls at work or at home, and she is working hard to turn her writing hobby into a full-time job. She sees the daily word-count pressure of Nano as a great tool.
“It helps me get out of my head,” Bell said. “I have tons and tons of ideas, but it’s hard for me to get them out before I start over-thinking it.”
One of the surprises that new fiction writers learn during NaNoWriMo is that no single writing style, pace or practice is the “right” way.
For example, there are plotters and there are pantsers. At the extreme, a plotter might create an entire world scenario for the novel, write elaborate character sketches, and have extensive plot outlines before November arrives. At the other extreme, a pantser will “fly by the seat of his pants” and just sit down