Writing a novel is a daunting challenge for every writer, from the most experienced to the most novice. Writing a novel in one month sounds downright foolhardy. But that is exactly what National Novel Writing Month (affectionately abbreviated as NaNoWriMo) challenges people to do each November. The writing program has attracted an avid following, including Sujin Headrick, who has been participating every year for the past twelve years.
In 2002, when Sujin was a sophomore in high school, she decided to give NaNoWriMo a try and wrote her first novel. It was a semiautobiographical story about a teenaged girl striving for perfection. There were pages devoted to coffee shop hangouts and the attentions of a certain high school drop out.
“I always loved to write,” says Sujin. “I kept and still keep a paper journal. And, in 2002, blogs were just starting to become popular and you could basically keep a diary on the Internet.”
Founded in 1999 by Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo gives writers like Sujin an online platform to tell their stories and challenges them to do so with at least 50,000 words in 30 days or less. Participants create an online profile and gain access to a variety of support networks during the months leading up to the challenge, from chat forums, to encouraging videos from staff and published authors, to regional writing groups. Each November, participants buckle down and tackle an original story. Anyone who reaches the impressive 50,000-word-count goal is considered a winner in the eyes of the NaNoWriMo verifying team.
Since its first contest, NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially. The first November challenge had a mere twenty contestants and just six winners. By 2001, there were 5,000 people. In 2002, the year that Sujin joined, there were 13,500 participants and 2,100 winners. This year’s challenge already has more than 680,000 registered writers. Many participants return year after year and some have published their novels at prestigious publishing houses, including well-known NaNoWriMo novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which was a New York Times bestseller and adapted into a movie.
Sujin has written at least one novel every November for the past twelve years and has been named a winner every year. Her favorite novel to date is The Shuttershock World, written during the 2011 challenge. This novel explores the idea of alternate universes following a cast of characters who take photos of themselves only to find that their photographic images exist in another world. Of course, those worlds eventually collide and, as Sujin explains, “all hell breaks loose!” Written before the term “selfie” existed, this story has even more significance to Sujin.
And, if you think 50,000 words in one month is nothing to joke about, try packing it all into one day. Three years ago, Sujin’s friend challenged her to write 50,000 words in 24 hours. Starting promptly at midnight, Sujin attacked the challenge head on, experiencing unfathomable fatigue at about 6:00 a.m., but ultimately completing the challenge. And how does she get through it? “I’m a very fast typist,” Sujin says. “I can type as fast as I think, which is really helpful.” But also, a ceaselessly creative mind and love of writing is ultimately what propelled Sujin through the day.
For those considering a similarly taxing challenge, she recommends taking intermittent breaks because “People are not meant to sit at a desk for an entire day just writing!” Health risks aside, Sujin proceeded to tackle this 24-hour challenge three years in a row. This year, she has decided to take a break.
Even without the 24-hour challenge, Sujin plans to write more than one novel during the month of November. With so many years of writing under her belt and the enviable aforementioned typing skills, Sujin says she can easily finish two or three novels in 30 days.
While she has not published a novel yet, Sujin spends much of her free time editing, revising, and preparing her work for possible publication. “I have quite a few unfinished NaNoWriMo novels and I know I’m not the only one!” Sujin says, laughing.
Throughout the writing process, Sujin has found the NaNoWriMo community to be welcoming and supportive. With numerous online forums and more than 600 regional writing groups that regularly meet at coffee shops or libraries, the program often fosters lifelong friendships among participants.
“Everyone I know is from NaNoWriMo,” says Sujin. “We are all united around this common goal and have an understanding of the creative process.”
And, with her successful track record, Sujin has lots of advice for first time NaNoWriMo writers. First, it all comes down to attitude. She says, “You need an attitude that says: ‘Yes, I can do this!’”
Sujin also recommends setting achievable goals during the challenge to make the writing more manageable. “I like small goals, like writing for five minutes. We can all handle five minutes! And chances are that you’ll keep going.”
Once November is over, a huge amount of relief and accomplishment washes over the NaNoWriMo winners. Picking up the pen–or the keyboard–again might be the last thing you want to do. Sujin says it is okay to take a few months off before going back to your draft. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder and the same is true of your first draft. You will need a break from it!” she says.
The month of November can feel like a roller coaster for participants trying to juggle life, jobs, families, holidays, and 50,000-word-count goals. No doubt many of the writers are dreaming of what they will do with all their extra free time in the following month. As Sujin says: “Things to do on December first: Sleep!”
Feature photo: Sujin Headrick at Writing Dangerously event.
Erin Simpson is a frequent contributor to Books Make a Difference. When she is not writing, reading, or climbing the corporate ladder at her publishing job, you can find her scouring her Brooklyn neighborhood for good food and unique finds.