NaNoWriMo: Aspiring novelists hustle to write 50,000 words in 30 days

Should you find your favorite coffee shop curiously crowded lately, it’s not because legislative session started early or tourist season ended late. November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately (and cumbersomely) known as NaNoWriMo, and writers are breaking out their laptops wherever they can in a race to draft a whole novel by month’s end.


Now in its 13th year, NaNoWriMo seeks to free writers of their inner-editors -- not to mention outside lives -- by encouraging them to churn out at least 50,000 words by 11:59 p.m., Nov. 30. That’s 1,667 words a day, every day. (Some perspective: this article is about half that, and writing it took twice as long.)

Those who complete the challenge produce a 160-page manuscript — not exactly “Bonfire of the Vanities” but still a legitimate book. In fact, several NaNoWriMo novels have been published, including “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen and “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern.

“The beauty of NaNoWriMo is jumping in with both feet (and hands),” said local NaNoWriMo participant Steve Niven, 47, a state analyst now mounting his fifth attempt. He finished in 2007, 2008 and 2009, coming up 12,000 words short in 2006 —“but I wrote 38,000 more than I would have.”

Does he think it’s realistic to write a whole novel in a month?

“Of course not — that’s the fun of it!”

Niven also enjoys seeing where the work takes him, describing a process that involves letting his mind wander until “something starts to materialize; it always does.”

“I’ve had some incredible experiences writing — emotional, almost physical experiences,” he said.

As for finishing strategy, Niven plans to “front-load” by reaching the 50,000-word goal by Thanksgiving.

“What gets me is that some people hit 100,000,” he said. “Don’t these people work?! Hm, maybe they don’t.”

Despite its name, NaNoWriMo accepts entries from around the world—last year, 256,618 entrants registered, 36,843 of whom finished. Together, they tallied more than 3 billion words; at press time, collective word count for 2012 already approached 750,000,000.

An internet-based creative writing project, NaNoWriMo’s official website,, hubs the network. Not only does it validate word counts and let users post excerpts of their work in progress, the site provides online forums, pep talks, tips and links to one of 500 NaNoWriMo chapters worldwide.

Juneau boasts a robust NaNoWriMo community with many past and current participants. In fact, it has its own NaNoWriMo forum and offline Friday meet-up. Check the forum for times and locations at (View the Alaska thread at

“Writing is such an isolated activity, it’s nice to know other people are in the same boat,” said Maeghan Kearney, 27, a local NaNoWriMo organizer and participant, in addition to her day job as government publications librarian at the Alaska State Library. “We talk, we brainstorm, we commiserate — but mostly, we eat waffles.”

The Alaska State Library is also hosting a weekly lunchtime “write-in,” Tuesdays in November from noon to 2 p.m.

“A lot of people doing NaNoWriMo work downtown, so we thought we’d create a ‘noveling zone’ for them,” said outreach librarian Julie Niederhauser. Niederhauser also mentioned a “TGIO (Thank God It’s Over)” party from noon to 2 p.m. on Dec. 1 at the downtown Juneau Public Library. She welcomes questions at 465-2916.

For Peggy Barnhill, 50, a pre-school para-educator for special needs children, 2012 marks her third go-around.

“The first time [2007], I didn’t get very far at all,” she said. “In 2010, I didn’t reach 50,000 words by Nov. 30, but I got to 43,500 and kept writing. Two years later, I’m almost done revising and it stands at 82,000.”

This year, Barnhill is taking a different approach, becoming what is known as a “NaNo Rebel” by choosing to write in a form other than a novel. A regular Juneau Empire columnist, she plans to write a collection of column-length essays, one every day.

“It’s exhilarating to free up your life and your consciousness to just get words on the page,” said Barnhill, who’s also relying on motivation of a different sort.

“My sister’s doing it this year, so I’m hoping sibling rivalry pushes me along.”

Attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time is Sarah Graber, 13 (“actually, 13 and a half”), an eighth grader at Floyd Dryden Middle School.

“I’ve been writing stories since second or third grade,” she said, “but my earlier stuff isn’t as good.”

Graber eschewed the Young Writers program, which would have let her set “a reasonable, yet challenging, individual word-count goal,” for the full adult version, .

“I figured as long as I was doing it,” she said, adding NaNoWriMo to a full academic schedule, yearbook, Girl Scouts, “messing around on the Internet” and a job at the school library.

“I also just realized I’m in ‘King Island Christmas,’ and rehearsing all November.”

Already several thousand words behind, Graber remained confident she’d finish her novel, a fantasy whose plot she said involved “a girl, a mysterious exchange student and a box that does something, possibly opening alternate dimensions, some of them post-apocalyptic — it’s not nearly as dark as it sounds.”

With time off for Thanksgiving, she believes she can make up any ground she’s lost in what stands to be one epic, turkey-fueled cram session.

“I’m just going to keep writing,” Graber said. “I shouldn’t over-think it, or my brain will hurt.”


Looking for inspiration? the Juneau Public Library has scheduled an visit with Mary Doria Russell this Saturday at 7 p.m., Downtown library. Russell is the author of the highly acclaimed books “The Sparrow and “Children of God.”


  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback






Margaret Brady Fund scholarship applications now accepted

Area students pursuing artistic excellence may apply for scholarships as part of the Margaret Frans Brady Fund.

Read more