Students turn will to words during National Writing Month

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Beatnik poets in the 1950s, “Doctor Who”-inspired time travel and journeys into forgotten memories – in these worlds some Brown students spent this past month as they wrote stories for National Novel Writing Month. Affectionately known as NaNoWriMo – pronounce it as you like – these students are trying to hit the 50,000-word mark by Friday, amidst midterms, research, social lives and much-needed sleep. 

Participants started writing at 12 a.m. Nov. 1 and are expected to reach the 50,000 word count before 11:59 p.m. Nov. 30. One can either write a complete novel in 50,000 words, or write the first 50,000 words of a longer piece of fiction.

Aimee Lucido ’13 participated in the event last year and worked on a science fiction piece that she had started earlier as a summer project. “I started writing around July 1,” she said, “500 words a day until November, so 500 times 120,” she paused briefly over the figures, “which is 60,000 words before November.” 

Lucido, a literary arts and computer science concentrator described how she has dabbled in cave writing and electronic writing, though she said she likes to keep her two concentrations separate. 

She found the inspiration for her novel, which is about time travel, in an episode of the long-running British television series “Doctor Who.” Science fiction has its own particular difficulties such as maintaining its internal logic and timeline and moving beyond mere plot points to “(make) the prose,” she said. 

To finish her story, she set herself a personal goal of 35,000 words for the month of November, slightly below the official word count. She also took advantage of the fiction class she was taking at Brown to work on her novel. But she said it was a time-consuming endeavor. “I had to do it every day. I would finish my work for the day, and before going to sleep, I’d write.” 

Rigina Louise Gallagher ‘15.5, a literary arts and biophysics concentrator, is currently taking a semester off, working on a genetics research project at an institution near her home in Long Island. Gallagher began working on her piece before November, having started it during her senior year of high school. “I got 50 pages into it,” she said earlier this month, “and because of school and everything, it didn’t really work.” She expected to get more time to work on it during her gap semester, but soon realized the challenge of writing a novel while working full time. 

“Some days I have to really push myself,” she said. “Some days I can only write 200 (words).” 

Gallagher refers to her work as primarily literary fiction, but with historical elements as the novel takes place in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. She said she took inspiration from writers and artists like Flannery O’Connor and Bob Dylan and is experimenting with writing that is more internal and stream-of-consciousness style.

She explored the use of voice while writing, asking herself how best to form sentences and use words in an organic way, she said. 

She said the NaNoWriMo website has been incredibly motivational. “I always update my word count,” she said, “and I feel so empowered.” 

NaNoWriMo also sends motivational letters called “NaNoMail” from writers and organizes meet-ups for its participants. Gallagher said she hopes to attend such a meet-up one day, “even if it’s just a bunch of dorky old people,” because it would be helpful to know other participants pursuing the project along with her. 

Emily Wu ’16 is playing more by the official rules. On Nov. 1, she had just started her novel with a word count of only 1,000 words. She had participated in the event as a freshman and sophomore in high school, and lately, she said she felt upset about how little she was writing, and decided to “throw (her)self at it.” Despite the practice she had from before, she said she is still slow, and it takes her about three hours to write the 1,666 words a day that is required. 

“I thought that I would be taking my free time out and writing instead of spending time with my friends,” Wu said. “But I spend the same amount of time studying and hanging out with my friends, and writing comes out of my sleep. It’s terrible, but that’s the way it is.” As motivation, she used to keep a word count on her door, she said, “but I keep getting behind so now it’s a word deficit!”

Her story is about a man named Jason who asks a stranger called Sam for a favor, and must then go through the stranger’s memories when Sam disappears. It “started off as science fiction, but it’s becoming something else,” she said. “I think it’s going to start becoming trippy, a bit psychological, and there might be some horror elements.” 

National Novel Writing Month was founded by freelance writer Chris Baty in July 1999 as a small group of 21 people in the San Francisco Bay area. According to the NaNoWriMo website, they came together to write because they wanted to “make noise” – and because they thought it would be easier to get dates as novelists. They began an annual tradition that has been going strong for 13 years. With some help from blogs and major media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio, the number of participants has multiplied to more than 200,000 since NaNoWriMo’s inception, and the once-local project has gone international. The month of the event also moved from July to November “to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather,” according to the website. 

The 50,000-word length requirement makes the end product a small novel, as works under 40,000 words are generally categorized as novellas. The work can be any genre of fiction, ranging from epic poems to fanfiction. Since this event is not a competition and the winner’s prize is self-fulfillment – and a downloadable certificate – these rules are more like guidelines. 

The three participants agreed the month was less about winning the downloadable certificate and more about the process of writing itself and the ability to end with a product to call their own. 

“I wanted to do something that I didn’t think I could do,” Wu said. 

“It’s challenging to express what I would feel,” Gallagher said.”If someone gave you $50,000 and you could touch it … each of these (bills) is mine. That’s how I’m going to feel. I’m going to look at the 50,000 words and feel these are my words.”