National Novel Writing Month sparks creativity among aspiring Columbia novelists

200 local participants hope to complete the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.

A handful of novelists are pecking at laptop keyboards in Coffee Zone downtown with only 30 hours of November left. The only sounds to be heard are the music from the coffee shop/Greek restaurant hybrid’s speakers and the consistent click of typing. The writers are staring at their computer screens nonstop, only taking a break to take a drink or a bite of food. These writers are down to the wire to finish their novels, before Dec. 1 hits.

November may just be about food and pumpkin spice lattes for some, but these writers know it as National Novel Writing Month. The worldwide event, commonly known as NaNoWriMo began in 1999 as a pact between 21 friends.. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s not an easy task; it would mean writing about 1,667 words a day. Well-known novels that fall just beneath this word count include The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

Participants create profiles on the event’s official website, which is the headquarters for the NaNoWriMo experience: It connects participants to writers both in their area and around the world, sends “pep talks” throughout the month and provides resources for inspiration. When their novel is finished, they submit it into a word-counter that validates whether it is over 50,000 words, and if so, declaring the participant a “winner.” The submitted novels aren’t reviewed by a panel of judges or kept on the website in any way; it just makes sure the participants have reached the goal.

Art Smith, who worked for the University of Missouri Vet School for 17 years and now works for the Division of IT, is writing his sixth consecutive NaNoWriMo novel. This is his fifth year as the Columbia Municipal Liaison, a volunteer position that creates and leads local events, including “write-ins” like the one at Coffee Zone. He also sends weekly emails to Columbia participants and answers their questions.

According to Smith, there are about 200 active participants in Columbia this year. Last year, when there was a similar amount of novelists, almost one out of every 800 words written worldwide came from Columbia.

These words come to form a variety of genres — for example, Smith’s novel this year is a recasting of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute in a fantasy setting.

Amanda Smith, Art’s wife, is working on a novel idea that she acquired after reading an article on Alaskan tree frogs. “It’s a mystery story in a science-fiction setting about sentient amphibians,” she said.

“[NaNoWriMo] helps me use my mind in a way that I’m not used to,” said Amanda, who works in a tech-related career.

For others, NaNoWriMo gets their creativity flowing. This is the case for Clint Fogle, who was at the Coffee Zone write-in.

“It gives me motivation to write,” Fogle said. “You have to get the words out.”

This is their eighth year participating, and this time they are creating fanfiction about the characters in the video game Overwatch. They plan to finish their piece even after November is over, edit, and then post it on popular fanfiction website Archive of Our Own.

Some NaNoWriMo participants, like Fogle, continue working on their stories after the month is over; other participants leave the novel writing until the next November rolls around.

“Of course what you have after this wild ride of a month is a rough draft – the pace pretty much guarantees that you are doing no editing, just getting words down,” Art said. “The rest of the year is for editing, revising, rewriting… and planning the next novel. It’s up to each writer whether they do any of that.”

Even famous authors use NaNoWriMo as a way to exercise their writing skills. Some of these projects even go on to be best sellers, like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

“Speaking just for myself, NaNoWriMo is a tremendous writing exercise,” Art said. “It forces you to turn off your inner editor and just write, getting past a lot of the roadblocks that prevent people from ever writing their story.”

Edited by Katherine White |

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