It was a dark and stormy month... 

From cyberspace, National Novel Writing Month looked like a real organization. From inside Chris 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.

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And for the first time in a very stressful month, when Baty reads the message boards, he breaks into tears, relieved that a happy ending appears to be in sight. "After all of the stress and the worry, I feel like, 'Ahh, yes.' This is why it's all worth it."

November 30
Five hours before November officially ends, Ambassador Victoria Schlesinger crosses the finish line, the front door of the Pacific Coast Brewing Company in downtown Oakland. She has driven from Washington, DC, in a cross-country zigzag, stopping along the way to visit local NaNo writing groups. For the last time, Schlesinger sets up a small NaNoWriMo placard she has carried with her to coffee shops across the country; a signal for Wrimos to pull up a chair and write with her. Baty and a handful of Bay Area Wrimos are there to cheer her arrival, as is Lohnes, exuberant, having somehow churned out his final 30,000 words in just five days. "Since I was at 37,000 I've been nonstop giddy," he says. He flexes his wrists to show that they still work.

Baty looks tired. Yesterday, he received a rejection letter from the last of his grant sources. And donations are not exactly pouring in. All told, he'll raise about $3,500, which means he'll still lose about $1,500 on the project. In a worst-case scenario, he assumed that even if each of this year's finishing novelists only sent in a ten-dollar check and he lost about a third of that money to taxes, he'd have enough to set aside seed money for next year. But NaNoWriMo, like many great novelists, is broke.

And while Baty plans to charge next year's participants a nominal enrollment fee, he needs that money well before next fall to avoid the pitfalls he encountered this season. He wants a redesigned Web site with automated enrollment and its own chat room, so participants won't be forced to rely on Yahoo. "I'm kind of stuck," admits Baty. "If we don't improve the site, we won't be able to handle next year's traffic. But we won't have the money to pay for the improvements until the traffic arrives."

"It's a weird way to end it, to be flooded with these positive, amazing letters from people and then to look in the bank account and be like, 'Oh shit, I did something wrong here.' We were supposed to have a surplus, it was supposed to happen effortlessly."

Baty does take a timid step toward partnering with other businesses. He adds a page to the site called "I Wrote a Novel: Now What?" that includes an unpaid link to iUniverse and a code that will give Wrimos a twenty percent discount with them, but Baty includes text pointing out that it's not an endorsement and that he's never tried iUniverse's services. A deal with AlphaSmart, if it's going to happen, will have to wait another year. And while putting advertising on the site is the most obvious route toward generating income quickly, it's a line he still won't cross. "I feel like NaNoWriMo shouldn't be trying to sell anybody anything other than the ephemeral experience of writing a novel in a month. And T-shirts."

On December 1, the count is final. There are seven hundred NaNoWriMo "winners"; together they have produced a minimum of 35 million words. They have given their novels titles like The Undeleted Email of Joan of Arc, A Conflicted Activist at the Folies-Berg-re and How to Make Grilled Cheese in Prison. Some of them have posted excerpts on the Web for the public to read; some have made a ceremonial trip to Kinko's to have their manuscripts spiral bound. Some have sworn off fiction forever; some have promised to start their next novel tomorrow. Some are looking for agents, some for matches.

As a chilly winter rain pours down on the evening of December 1, more than two hundred Wrimos and their loved ones arrive at a warehouse in San Francisco, where they are given gold paper crowns at the door and invited to hang a page of their work from clotheslines strung across the walls. Novelists had been instructed to come dressed as their characters, and since his protagonist works crime scene clean-ups, Baty is roving about in a pale blue jumpsuit. Corragio is there, two eldest daughters in tow, resplendent as diva spider Madame Paloma. Schlesinger is sporting a blue-and-white-and-orange striped jacket that looks like it came from the Aerosmith collection, which she swears is the sort of thing her character wears. Murphy, defying orders that those who had written autobiographical novels must come dressed as their mothers, looks remarkably like his usual self, as does Lohnes. The room is packed with people clothed as priests, doppelgangers, seismologists, and mid-level hotel managers. People's crowns have disintegrated in the torrential rain, but nobody will remove them. They have been earned.

Murphy is in high spirits for someone whose job is now officially gone. He rushes up, transfixed. One of his main characters had just walked through the door. Or rather, the distant acquaintance upon whom the character was based had just walked through the door. Can it get any more surreal than finding out that a character in your NaNoWriMo novel has just finished writing his own NaNoWriMo novel?

At midnight, Wrimos pass glasses of champagne to one another and Baty takes the floor. "I knew how ugly things were getting about five days ago when I was still way short of 50,000 words and this poor man Wayne was struck with a computer virus which emptied the entire contents of his hard drive into my e-mail inbox," he says. The crowd groans appreciatively. "I had everything on Wayne," continues Baty. "I had Wayne's résumé, I had some of Wayne's recipes. I had approximately 46 614K files waiting for me, all from Wayne. But I knew things were getting sick because when I looked at these files, I didn't think 'Oh Wayne, man, that's really embarrassing, because I'm probably not the only one who got these.' I thought 'Mmm ... words.'"

An appreciative roar from the crowd.

"I had kind of planned this speech that NaNoWriMo can be everyday, but I think you guys can fill in the blanks," he continues. "It really doesn't have to end here and it doesn't have to be about novels." He glances around at the crowd, such a different group of people than they were thirty days ago.

"So when you wake up tomorrow, do something weird," he says. "Put on a strange outfit that doesn't look so good on you. But just make stuff, because all of our lives depend on it." The crowd raises a glass and drinks to making weird stuff. Baty's friends present him with a congratulatory trophy and vast quantities of Red Bull. And then, as the costumed crowd surges onto the dancefloor, with Baty, blue coverall hanging from his waist, leading them in a strange jig that could be the funky moves of someone with a displaced hip but might also be a new dance craze, it becomes hard to separate the storytellers from the stories they created. National Novel Writing Month had created its own plot twists and dramatic tension; it had produced both genius and dreck.

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