If you graphed the progress of National Novel Writing Month's hegemony, it would look like the lines epidemiologists use to illustrate the spread of dangerous viruses.
Two years ago, Chris Baty wanted to write a novel. As something of an in-joke, he dreamed up National Novel Writing Month -- or NaNoWriMo for short. Twenty-one of his friends signed on and six finished novels. Last November, 140 took the challenge and 29 finished. This year, using a cute Web site featuring two cartoon kids waving books beneath the slogan "No plot? No problem!" Baty invited the whole world to join him in dashing off 50,000 words in thirty days. Once mention of NaNoWriMo hit MetaFilter.com, an online clearinghouse for issues being discussed by "bloggers" -- people who keep online diaries known as Weblogs -- it spread like a literary Ebola.
Soon the press came calling, and Baty, an Oakland-based freelancer who writes for several publications including the Express, found himself on the other side of the tape recorder. The LA Times ran a story. The Washington Post hosted an online chat. A former Suck.com columnist turned out a piece for NPR's All Things Considered. The New Yorker commissioned a Talk of the Town item about Victoria Schlesinger, the "NaNoWriMo Ambassador" who would write her novel while driving across the country in a beat-up red hatchback. For a while, People wanted to fly a reporter and photographer to the NaNoWriMo kickoff party, but they were looking for a story about a disgruntled writer who'd started a do-it-yourself campaign after being rejected by the publishing industry.
The truth was far less adversarial. Originally Baty just wanted company, figuring he'd never finish a novel-length manuscript -- not necessarily a good novel; perhaps even a very bad one -- unless he had plenty of friends to egg him on. The event itself was simple. There would be no judges, prizes, or entrance fees; writing would be its own reward. Baty wouldn't publish or even read the finished manuscripts; he'd simply run a word count and make sure each totaled 50,000 words. Anyone who made it to the magic number "won," regardless of whether or not their novel was witty, coherent, or largely ripped off from the Nancy Drew books. Serious wordsmiths need not apply. The act of completing a monumental work of art would be rendered unscary by the insanely tight time frame, the occasional soothing e-mail from NaNoWriMo Headquarters, and the support of a community of writers.
Now Baty had his community. With each new article in a national or international newspaper, hundreds signed on. Baty was both elated and horrified the day before the October 30 sign-up deadline. "I opened the sign-up e-mail in-box and there were 950 unread messages," he said. They came from all over the United States. They were from Finland and Kuala Lumpur. They were from Pakistan, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates. By midnight, Baty had more than 5,000 participants. And the time-consuming process of sending new members welcome messages, instructing them to join NaNoWriMo's Yahoo bulletin board, and adding them to the Web site's "Team 2001" roster all had to be done by hand.
Baty hastily corralled a half-dozen friends for a marathon weekend of e-mailing and coding that later would be described by one participant as "like slave labor, with more Doritos." From his Oakland apartment, they watched in wonder as thousands of total strangers vehemently debated NaNoWriMo protocol and formed writing klatches groups on the official Yahoo site and dozens of unaffiliated ones. On MetaFilter, people posted queries such as "I wonder if it would be cheating to put together an outline before the November 1st start date?" and "Is it within the rules to use Benzedrine to fuel the fury?" There also were dissenters, who called the idea "fantastically horrible" and likely to produce "a stream-of-consciousness crapfest." "I was avidly following all of these things with my mouth agape," says Baty. "I would go to all these clubs where people were talking about NaNoWriMo and I was like, 'These people are talking about it like it's a real thing.' Then I realized, 'Oh my God, it's become a real thing.'"
No one was more surprised than Baty, who felt like a guy who accidentally started a dance craze because his hip displacement gave him a funky new move. From cyberspace, NaNoWriMo looked like a real organization, with a lively Web page and a charming soft-sell. From inside Baty's apartment, it looked like a bunch of thin people in bad sweaters, bent over their laptops, cranked up on Frito-Lay products and Red Bull energy drink. None were businessmen or tech gurus, and none were getting paid. The entire event was being financed on Baty's credit cards. "We've expanded beyond our safe foundation, and I'm just hoping that nothing dramatically bad happens," Baty said.
If Baty needed a symbol of the costs of unrestrained growth, all he had to do was look at his own friends after Day Three of the sign-up frenzy. "Their bodies are beginning to break down," he reported nervously. "Tim has laid on the couch all day with ice packs on his wrists; he's going to have to go voice recognition on his novel for the first part of the month. You look at Rolf and he looks like he's stoned but he's not, he's just glassed over from looking at the computer."
But by the time October faded and the official kickoff party rolled around, Baty's spirits were back. There was a gleam in his eye, the look of the kid about to pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes. Dozens of proto-novelists from all over Northern California assembled in an Oakland backyard. Meats were grilled and potential plotlines picked apart. People were encouraged to wear paper checklists of likely plot sources around their neck ("the police log," for example, or "right-wing talk radio"). Among the scores of people anxiously milling about were cartographer Tim Lohnes, full-time mother Teresa Corragio, about-to-be-laid-off dot-commer Brian Murphy, and UC Berkeley student Catherine Plato. All needed a little reassurance.
Baty -- a striking presence with his lanky frame, bright green eyes, and elaborately sculpted sideburns -- climbed atop a cooler and issued a proclamation. "Here is my promise to all of you: It's going to be easier than you think," he said. "You all by virtue of being humans are born storytellers and yakkers. I'm sure 50,000 words will be no problem. Just remember all of you have it in you, all of you are ready to go. Just wait until the deadline, and then we start writing."
But writing a novel, as it turned out, was about the easiest part of National Novel Writing Month. With the event's growing popularity came a host of unexpected complications: legal conundrums, technological breakdowns, unauthorized spinoff sites, unlicensed merchandise, and spiraling back-end costs -- all despite NaNoWriMo's complete lack of revenue. NaNoWriMo no longer was an in-joke; it was an institution, albeit one with an untested structure about to face an onslaught of excited users.
At exactly one minute after midnight, as the calendar ticks over into November, many participants, alternately dubbed "NaNos" or "Wrimos," depending on whom you ask, open up brand-new text files. Australian participants, who because of time-zone differences are first to see daylight, begin posting their progress on the NaNoWriMo.com word-count page. The Web site strains under the traffic, but everything holds. Novel Writing Month begins.
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