Sitnews - Stories In The News - Ketchikan, Alaska - News, Features, Opinions...


Literary marathon takes creative fun and runs with it
Scripps Howard News Service


November 22, 2005

Encountering a whole new world of people intensely engaged in some activity I've never given much thought to, and getting to tell readers about it, is one of the nicest benefits of writing a column. When they are people helping each other meet the challenge of realizing a long-held ambition, so much the better.

I am therefore very pleased to tell those of you who don't already know that November is National Novel Writing Month. It's a Web-based effort ( for people who have always longed to write a novel. Participants sign up by pledging to write a complete novel, of at least 50,000 words, between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30.

This has been going on for a while - it started in 1999 in Oakland, Calif., with 21 writers and six winners who passed the 50,000-word finish line - but I hadn't heard about it, probably because I don't aspire to write fiction.

Chris Baty, in his history of NaNo, says they hadn't expected it to be so much fun. "Fun was a revelation," he says. "Novel-writing, we had discovered, was just like watching TV. You get a bunch of friends together, load up on caffeine and junk food, and stare at a glowing screen for a couple hours. And a story spins itself out in front of you."

More than that, "We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party."

Marathon, indeed. Last year, 42,000 people signed up for NaNo, and nearly 6,000 of them finished their books.

The first marathon, the news carried by Pheidippides of the Greek victory over the Persians at the battle of the same name, passed into legend. Well, actually the myth was probably cobbled together several centuries later from a few randomly assorted facts, but never mind; we have remembered it for nearly 2,500 years, even if we have remembered it wrong.

Now, running marathons is recreation for the masses, so much so that thousands of people compete for spaces in some of the largest and most celebrated races.

Pheidippides, if he ever existed, would be amazed.

A few people have actually sold their NaNo novels to real publishers, just as somebody actually wins the Boston Marathon. But for most runners it is finishing the marathon that changes their lives. NaNo writers "started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists," NaNo says.

I heard about NaNo from my daughter-in-law, Jesse. He (Jesse is transgendered and prefers masculine pronouns, just so you know there's no need to write and tell me that I'm getting them wrong) started a novel called "Summerlands" in October. So it doesn't qualify for NaNo, but as a gesture of solidarity he's keeping track of words in November, almost 15,000 in three posts (index post, for all 12 parts as of Friday, is

If you wonder whether anything written so fast can be readable, oh, yes indeed. I love "Summerlands," even though it's not one of my usual genres and I looked at the first couple of episodes only out of curiosity.

Quantity over quality, as a deliberate tactic, lets writers try things they wouldn't otherwise risk.

"If I were trying to do it /well/," Jesse wrote me in an e-mail, "I'd absolutely freeze up and never get anywhere."

Summerlands is an alternative world, relationship to Earth left unexplained, where humans are a subordinate species, mostly enslaved and scarcely better than livestock. Truebloods, the dominant race, who cannot tolerate iron in any form, call them Children of Iron.

A rebel Trueblood prince named Ynyr is captured and exiled to Winterlands - that would be St. Paul, Minn. - where he is rescued from the cold by James Carver, an engineering student and an aspiring guitarist who has just been thrown out of his rock band by his boyfriend, the drummer, and is thus in a very bad mood. Finding himself caring for a sick green elf with pointy ears is the last complication he needed in his life.

Well, of course elves have pointy ears; humans on Earth know that because from time to time the elves have been seen, that's why.

But Ynyr and James get to know each other, in ways the writer himself discovers only as they happen. If there are matters unresolved, and there are, just leave them be. "I'm resisting the urge to tie up every loose end;" Jesse said in his comments to one post, "that's part of what this exercise is to teach me."

Then they end up in Summerlands having adventures. No more spoilies.

Readers enjoy exchanging comments with the author as his novel happens, and this social aspect is a big part of NaNo's success, too. It has local in-person meetings, participant forums, radio broadcasts, projects to build children's libraries in Laos, and a host of other community-building events.

Oh, and as of Friday morning 382,447,591 total collective words written and filed. Now there's mass media for you.


(Contact Linda Seebach at Rocky Mountain News,

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska