November for most people is the month for elections, football, Thanksgiving and holiday shopping.
For one group in Columbia County, it’s the month for something else. Since 1999, November has been deemed National Novel Writing Month, known as “NaNoWriMo” for short. It is what it sounds like: participants try their hand at writing a novel in a month; 50,000 words in 30 days. Novels are kept offline, but participants create a profile and keep track of their stats on an internet-based forum, nanowrimo.org. Participants can go it alone or join a regional group of writers.
In Columbia County, that regional group is world-renowned.
NaNoWriMo, St. Helens Region, which officially began in 2014, is open to anyone in Columbia County or parts of Clatsop County, according to Becky Bean, municipal liaison. The group has numbers unlike many other regions. According to Bean, St. Helens NaNoWriMo was ranked fifth in the United States for word count for 2017 and 2018. They were ranked eighth worldwide the same years.
“I think a lot of that has to do with having a really high completion rate, and we have a couple people that just really write a lot,” Bean said. “And we also have a really high rate for people who reached 30,000 [words], which is kind of the hard thing.”
One statistic quoted on the NaNoWriMo website is that participants are “three times more likely to finish a novel with a buddy!” That might be the secret to the group’s rankings, because NaNoWriMo, St. Helens Region is not short of participants.
Numbers of writers in the group vary, but Bean estimated about 30 to 50 active members each year. The participants are invited to come to the group’s “Write-Ins” which last for two hours and take place every Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the Armstrong Room of St. Helens Public Library, 375 S. 18th Street, and every Thursday at 6 p.m. at Running Dogs Brewery, 291 S. 1st Street in St. Helens. Their biggest event will happen on Friday, Nov. 15 at the St. Helens Public Library. On that day, the group will have a “Late Night Write.” Starting at 5 p.m., the library will be shut down to everyone but NaNoWriMo participants, who will write until midnight.
Bean said as few as zero and as many as 22 people have shown up for write-ins in the past.
There are certain rules writers of NaNoWriMo must follow, outlined on NaNoWriMo.org. Writers may plan and outline before writing, but only words written from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30 count toward the 50,000-word total. Writers are only allowed to write fiction, meaning that poetry and non-fiction don’t count. When participants are done, they upload their novel onto their profile on the NaNoWriMo website, which automatically counts their words. Those who complete the 50,000 words are deemed “winners” – a title that comes with bragging rights, but also potential discounts on things like writing software, Bean said.
Writers will choose different tactics to achieve the word count, and they generally fall into one of two camps, Bean said. One camp is for writers who don’t plan or plot at all, and just write spontaneously. Another camp is for writers who are “plotters,” and meticulously plot and plan out their novels before beginning writing. Bean is in the latter camp.
“This is the first year I’ve ever been a plotter,” Bean said. “I know exactly what my story is. I know exactly where I’m going to go. So all I have to do is open up a chapter and get to work on it.”
The reason Bean decided to plan this year is because of time constraints. Bean has four children, works full-time and has a farm. The only writing she can get done is in 500-word increments, she said, usually early in the morning and late at night. Every once in a while, she will skip a few days and then stay up for four hours at night to cram 3,000 words in.
To meet the 50,000-word goal, participants have to write 1,667 words per day, meaning skipping even one day can make a writer fall far behind.
There are ways to meet the word count, even with limited time. That’s what Abigail Martian, a third-year NaNoWriMo participant from Scappoose, figured out early on. Martian is working while on break from Brigham Young University – Idaho, and said even in her 15-minute breaks at work, she said she can squeeze writing in.
“I just grab out my journal, stand where I am, and sprint-write for 15 minutes before I get back to working,” Martian said. “You just take the time you have, and when given small amounts of time, use it.”
Jadyn LaRiviere, also from Scappoose, and another participant in the St. Helens NaNoWrimo group, said writers should start without expecting perfection.
“You just have to write the words,” LaRiviere said. “Don’t be worried about structure or anything. You just got to write it and see where it goes and then just get it down.”
LaRiviere works as a nanny in Portland and can sometimes squeeze in writing during downtime at work. This is her fourth year participating in NaNoWriMo. She said new writers can sometimes expect their work to be good for their first draft and be disappointed when it isn’t.
“It’s going to be bad,” LaRiviere said. “So just write. Just start.”