Celebrating 20 years of NaNoWriMo

In its two decades of existence, National Novel Writing Month has inspired millions of writers to finally put their stories on paper, resulting in thousands of published novels over the years.

NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo started in July, 1999 (yes, July, not November), when founder Chris Baty invited 20 of his friends to join him on an audacious creative venture: to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month.

Since then, those 20 friends have grown into a global community of writers who write together in various ways throughout the year, and they’ve put up some big numbers:                                                     

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  • More than 3 million people have signed up to write.
  • Writers have come from more than 200 countries and written on all seven continents (yes, including Antarctica).
  • 24,806,635,218 words have been recorded on the NaNoWriMo website (though many novels go unrecorded). Just to give you an idea of that volume: To count from 1 to 24,806,635,218 would take you about 1,589 years.
  • Thousands of novels have been published, both traditionally and self-published.

We’re toasting 20 years of novel-writing chutzpah, motivation, and derring-do by going down NaNoWriMo’s memory lane.

1999

NaNoWriMo's shield logo
NaNoWriMo’s shield logo. Courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Chris Baty decided he wanted to write a novel and estimated that the most slender novels on his bookshelf – think The Great Gatsby – are approximately 50,000 words. He challenged 20 friends to write a novel with him that July, and they gathered together in coffeeshops each night to write together.

“After the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew anyone could do it.” —Chris Baty

2000

NaNoWriMo’s original 21 participants swelled to 140 participants who learn this simple groundbreaking formula: a goal + a deadline = a creative midwife. They also decided to write in November, not July, causing thousands of people to ask over the years, ( And there’s no one real answer. But if you can write a novel in November, you can write a novel in any month of the year.)

“A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form. It’s a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path. This is especially true when it comes to creative pursuits.” —Chris Baty

2001

In year three, participation exceeded the expected 150 participants: After creating a rudimentary website, 5,000 people volunteered to participate – and a novel-writing phenomenon was born

“In its third year, NaNoWriMo had become a new kind of writing group, one where it was OK to laugh at yourself and, more importantly, laugh at your shortcomings as a writer. With everyone aiming for completion rather than perfection, energy levels soared to new heights.” —Chris Baty

2002

NaNoWriMo created the position of “Municipal Liaison,” the title for the volunteer NaNoWriMo chapter-heads in towns across the nation – and beyond. Municipal Liaisons, with their dedication, their smarts, and their tough-love tactics, help thousands of participants by hosting in-person writing gatherings in their communities.

Today, nearly 1,000 municipal liaisons organize writing events in locations around the world.

“What’s nice about NaNoWriMo is that you are traveling with a posse of thousands, all of you making your way over the mountains, through the valleys, across the creeks. You are fighting off the beasties.” —Maureen Johnson

2003

Tony Danza
Tony Danza. Photo by DFree/Shutterstock

Rumors spread that Tony Danza signed up to write. Was it the Tony Danza? (NaNoWriMo is still seeking confirmation.)

More importantly, the first known major NaNoWriMo book deal occurs: Time Off for Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich.

“NaNoWriMo makes you work at such a pace that you outrun that inner critic giving you crap about your craft, and you start to just revel in the magic.” —Lani Diane Rich

2004

Room to ReadNaNoWriMo partners with Room to Read, the international children’s literacy program, raising over $7,000 – enough to establish and outfit children’s libraries in three Cambodian villages.

No Plot? No Problem!, the NaNoWriMo “Bible” written by founder Chris Baty, is published by Chronicle Books.

“All of us harbor secret hopes that a magnificent novel will tumble out of the sky and appear on our screens, but almost universally, writing is hard, slow, and totally unglamorous. So why finish what you’ve started? Because in two weeks, when you are done, you will be grateful for the experience. Also, you will have learned a lot about writing and humanness and the inestimable value of tilting at windmills.” —John Green

2005

The Night CircusNaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program is born. Each year, more than 100,000 kids and teens participate, and NaNoWriMo supports approximately 10,000 classrooms with free novel-writing resources, workbooks, and curriculum aligned to the Common Core.

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NaNoWriMo trivia: Erin Morgenstern’s beloved bestselling novel The Night Circus begins as a surprise tangent to Morgenstern’s 2005 NaNoWriMo novel, and then is “sprawlingly drafted” during NaNoWriMo 2006 and 2007.

“I like to think of NaNo-ing as excavating. You uncover different things at the 30K mark than you do at 10K. Things that felt like desperate, random nonsense on page 72 (the abandoned broken pocket watch, a partially obscured tattoo, that taxidermied marmot on the mantelpiece) are suddenly important and meaningful on page 187. Everything could hinge on the fate of that marmot. Or the marmot may be a red herring. Or perhaps the marmot is just a marmot. You have to keep writing to find out.” —Erin Morgenstern

2006

Water for ElephantsNaNoWriMo officially becomes a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Sara Gruen’s NaNoWriMo novel Water for Elephants is published.

“I can do this. WE can do this. However far behind you are, take comfort in knowing that there is somebody else out there in the same boat, and look for that next fun scene. And then the next. And if that doesn’t work, set someone on fire. In your book, of course.” —Sara Gruen

2007

More than 100,000 writers sign up for NaNoWriMo for the first time.

“You write on the good days, and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.” —Neil Gaiman, NaNoWriMo pep talk, 2007

2008

NaNoWriMo had 21,683 winners in 2008 – an 18.2% “win rate” of writers who wrote 50,000 words, the highest percentage since 1999.

“When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her, and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life, we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.” —Janet Fitch, 2008 NaNoWriMo pep talk.

2009

Come Write In, NaNoWriMo’s program to support writing groups in libraries, is born. Now, more than 1,200 libraries and community spaces take part each year.

NaNoWriMo launches 30 Covers, 30 Days, an annual challenge that features a professional book cover design for a randomly chosen NaNoWriMo work-in-progress every day in November.

The NaNo Rebels forum is formed in 2009 as a space for participants who were bending (and breaking) the rules of NaNoWriMo by writing nonfiction, revising, or who knows what.

“Forget the book you think you need to write to get recognition, respectability, or praise. These things – if they happen at all – don’t come if you look for them. I want to encourage you to seek answers to your big, specific, personal questions in the form of fiction. If you want to write about finances, being brokenhearted, or simple loneliness – things you aren’t sure are important topics – let me give you permission to go ahead.” —Min Jin

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2010

NaNoWriMo crosses the 200,000-participant line: 200,530 participants write 2,872,682,109 words, with 37,479 winners blowing through the 50,000-word goal.

“And that’s why I love NaNoWriMo. It gets you started. It gives you the impetus to finally start and/or finally finish. Knowing there are thousands of others out there trying to do the same, who are using this ridiculous deadline as cattle-prod and shame deterrent, means goddamnit, you better do it now because you know how to write, and you have fingers, and you have this one life, and during this one life, you should put your words down and make your voice heard, and then let others hear your voice.” —Dave Eggers, 2010 pep talk

2011

Camp NaNoWriMo
Designed by Nancy Smith

Camp NaNoWriMo, a virtual writing retreat for those who can’t write in November, launches. In the ensuing years, it grows to 75,000 participants, with sessions in both April and July, and writers write any format, revise, and measure their goals by words, pages, or time.

NaNoWriMo’s novel-writing workbook, Ready, Set, Novel, is published.

Hugh Howey’s NaNoWriMo novel Wool is published.

“The festival of carpal tunnel that is NaNoWriMo has been the greatest thing to happen to me as a writer. Gentle pressure applied constantly is an incredible force. If you work on your writing every single day, you can accomplish great things. It’s like climbing a mountain one step at a time; the key is never to stop.” —Hugh Howey

2012

CinderMarissa Meyer’s NaNoWriMo novel Cinder is published. 

“Anyone who has ever written ‘The End’ on a manuscript knows that, sometimes, inspiration eludes us. No one looks forward to those lulls in the writing process, but they are natural, and they can be overcome. These are the times when we must proceed on willpower and caffeine and the unflappable confidence that each word we write is one word closer to a finished novel. I can promise that, tough as those times may be, they often lead to some of our most proud and beautiful writing moments.” —Marissa Meyer

2013

FangirlRainbow Rowell’s NaNoWriMo novel Fangirl is published.

Elizabeth Acevedo writes a rough draft of With the Fire on High, which is published in 2019 to great acclaim.

NaNoWriMo launches its revision and publishing initiative – “I wrote a novel, now what?” –

to help people with the revising and publishing stages of the novel-writing journey.

“When you reach the place on Manuscript Mountain that makes you consider admitting defeat, and the tools you have used to get as far as you have are no longer working for you, consider using someone else’s tools. Pantser? Try plotting. Plotter? Try literally burning your outline (safely! In a trash can or something!). Perfectionist? Try writing the worst scene you can possibly muster. Strict beginning-to-end-er? Write whatever scene is burning a hole in your brain and fill in the gap later. Whatever you do, don’t hold so tightly to whatever writer identity you have formed for yourself that you can’t innovate, change, and grow.” —Veronica Roth

2014

More than 300,000 people sign up for NaNoWriMo for the first time.

“You could be writing the book that changes your life. You could have already submitted it or self-published it. The spark could be starting a fire for you as well. You don’t know, and you can’t know. That is the thrill of being an artist, of working for yourself, and of telling the stories you want to tell.” —Brandon Sanderson, 2014 NaNoWriMo pep talk

2015

NaNoWriMo appears as a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle.

AfterworldsAfterworlds by Scott Westerfeld is published. The novel within the novel in Afterworlds was written by main character Darcy Patel during a writing event that challenged writers to write a novel in 30 days. It’s the first known published NaNoWriMo novel by a fictional character.

“When you write a novel, you’re not just working on the novel itself. You’re also working on the novel-building factory: your life. You have to create a life that is conducive to writing. That means scheduling regular time to write. Weekly is OK, daily is better. Writing must become a habit. If something gets in the way of your writing habit, seriously consider cutting it out of your life. You have to write even when you don’t feel like it simply because it’s what the factory does.” —Gene Luen Yang, NaNoWriMo pep talk

2016

Traveling Shovel of DeathDo you know which character may be responsible for the most individual fictional deaths in the history of the world? It’s known as the “Traveling Shovel of Death.” After Al Stegall used a shovel to kill a character in his 2005 NaNoWriMo novel, he posted about it in the NaNoWriMo forums, and the shovel went viral, traveling from novel to novel around the globe. The Traveling Shovel of Death has brought death to countless millions – entire universes, even – across time and dimensions, says Al.

“What makes a writer a writer? Writing. A lot of people would say ‘talent’, but talent is really just the ability to do something well that most people have to work hard at. If you don’t think you have ‘talent’, just work hard instead – the talent often comes with a cost, anyway: a lack of good work habits. The talented ones often never had to learn to work hard; so many of them don’t finish their work because they never had to – it was enough to be talented, to offer people a glimpse of what you could be. So don’t be that person – don’t be the person that everyone believes could have done something. Be the person who tried.” —Alexander Chee, 2016 NaNoWriMo pep talk

2017

More than 400,000 writers sign on to participate – the highest number of participants yet.

 In order to write your novel, you must get rid of this sadist. Do whatever it takes to shut him up. Chloroform him; drag him by his white Reebox [sic] behind the dugout; bury his shrill, censorious whistle. Then return to your green, blank, mercifully silent playing field, and write.”  —Karen Russell, NaNoWriMo pep talk

2018

An Absolutely Remarkable ThingHank Green’s novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, which he wrote in NaNoWriMo 2015, is published. And…it mentions NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo writers record 2,791,454,312 words in November – more than three times as many words as the average person speaks in their lifetime.

“This is what makes you a writer … the sick feeling in your stomach, the weariness you feel, the utter conviction that you are the Worst and your novel is the Worst and everything is awful. This is how writers feel sometimes. (This is how everyone feels sometimes.) But writers do not let this feeling overwhelm them.” —N.K. Jemisin, NaNoWriMo pep talk

2019

NaNoWriMo 20th Anniversary Poster
Designed by Lizzy Dee Studio

Brave the PageNaNoWriMo’s mantra? Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone’s story matters. Consider writing your story with us this November.

NaNoWriMo’s writing guide for teens, Brave the Page, is published.

“Storytelling is a powerful act. Stories have the mysterious power to widen hearts and change minds. The human psyche is never quite the same after receiving a story.” —Mitali Perkins, NaNoWriMo pep talk

 

Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He’s published two books on writing: Brave the Page and Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He’s also published Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories, and Nothing Short of 100: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin HouseThe Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, as well as in anthologies such as Best Small Fictions and Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York TimesThe Writer, Poets & Writers, and Writer’s Digest. He also co-hosts Write-minded, a weekly podcast on writing and publishing.