Authors write final words in month-long challenge

By Gus Bode

National Novel Writing Month proves to be difficult for some

Mariah Timms has given herself 30 days to finish a 50,000-word novel. Down to the last 48 hours of her month-long literary journey, Timms sits in her dorm room and looks over what she has already written and wonders where her story is going.

“If I knew what my novel was about, I would tell you,” she said.


Timms, a sophomore from Bensenville studying anthropology and journalism, has spent the past two Novembers challenging herself to complete a story in 30 days.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, takes place every November and encourages writers to complete a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. NaNoWriMo was launched in 1999 and has outgrown its name, gaining hundreds of regions that participate all over the world.

Timms, who said she has been writing stories since she learned how to form letters, learned about the project from a video blogger a year ago. She said she and her mother attempted the challenge for the first time in November 2010 as a fun project, but she was only able to write nine pages. Those nine pages ended up helping with the challenge this year.

“I really liked what I wrote last year,” she said. “I have no idea where it’s going, but I decided to start from there this year.”

Timms said the challenge helped her focus on trying something new because she had never attempted to write a novel before.

“I had written quite a few short stories,” she said. “I had only thought up characters that had enough behind them for a novel, but had never really tried something on the scale of a 50,000-word story.”

Sean Jordan, the municipal liaison for the southern Illinois chapter of National Novel Writing Month, said he has written five novels as a result of participating in the challenge.


“I failed miserably that first year,” he said. “But every year since, I’ve managed to finish.”

Jordan said a benefit of NaNoWriMo is that it teaches writers to be creative without evaluating their work in the process.

“Many people get stalled when they’re writing a work of fiction because they start to worry if what they’re doing is actually worth reading,” he said. “That kills creativity. But when you write with a focus on quantity instead of quality, you give yourself permission to try some new and crazy things — some of which might help you to learn more about your story, your characters or yourself.”

Timms said she also agrees that creativity is the real purpose of NaNoWriMo.

“When you’re writing it, the whole point is to keep going,” she said. “Then when you go back and read it, you can edit it and turn it into more of a real story rather than a writing exercise.”

The southern Illinois chapter of NaNoWriMo includes all of Illinois from I-70 to the bottom of the state, as well as St. Louis and as far north as Alton.

“With such a large region, we tend to split events between the Metro East and Carbondale,” Jordan said. “Our Carbondale group has been growing every year.”

Jordan said the chapter hosts several write-ins during the month where writers can share their progress and write together. The group also does writing exercises such as 15-minute writing sprints where writers try to get as many words written as possible in a short amount of time.

On the NaNoWriMo website, writers can log their novel’s development. Through charts and graphs, novelists can keep track of how many words they have written and how many they still need. They can also choose to share their work and comment on other writers’ stories.

Timms said the community aspect of the challenge is helpful in completing one’s novel.

“It becomes like a group effort,” she said. “Instead of just pushing yourself to write alone in your room, because you’re doing it with other people, you’re more likely to finish. If you tell everybody you’re doing it, you feel bad if you don’t finish it.”

John Stanford Owen, a teaching assistant in creative writing, said he views the challenge as a good exercise.

“I think it forces people to write every day and to flex that muscle,” he said. “It’s like taking a vitamin — if you want to write, you’ve got to do it every day.”

Even for people who have not written before, NaNoWriMo can offer a lot, Timms said.

“So many people are always like, ‘Oh, I could write the next great American novel,’ or they have some idea for a novel,” she said. “This is a great way to actually do it. Even if you look back and it’s horrible, it gets you to try something you’ve always dreamed about. It gets you to accomplish something.”

Timms promotes NaNoWriMo on her blog and said she supports the challenge because writing is an important skill to have.

“No matter what you’re doing with your life, just knowing how to get your thoughts on paper is really, really good,” she said. “It changes the way you think about your thoughts.”

NaNoWriMo established the Young Writers Program, a website that helps kids work on their own novels with professional advice and the ability to share their work through forums. The program also gives educators the necessary resources to facilitate NaNoWriMo activities in the classroom.

Timms said she is not confident she will complete her novel this year, but she will continue to work on it and hopes to participate in the challenge next year.

“Writing is fun, and there are so many stories in the world and they should be shared,” she said. “This is a cool way to do it.”