NaNoWriMo: The Office of Letters and Light

A WordsDay Special

Week Two usually takes a heavy toll on the writers participating in National Novel Writing Month, but for Lindsey Grant, the week has offered a little bit of a reprieve. NaNoWriMo’s program director has been fighting off a cold—a gift everyone in the office has been passing back and forth for days.

“Usually everyone’s sick in December, once we all crash from the adrenaline of this month,” Grant says. “This year, I guess it just came a little early.”

During Week One, she lost her voice and had to offer to do interviews by e-mail. But by the middle of Week Two, the 28-year-old Grant was back up to speed. “I’m surrounded by soup and tissues,” she laughs.

Grant is one of five full-time employees, assisted by another two part-time tech supporters and a team of contractors and interns, who run The Office of Letters and Light (OLL), the nonprofit organization in charge of NaNoWriMo. The event also depends on some 590 volunteers who act as liaisons in more than 528 different regions around the world; an additional 350 volunteers assist in various other capacities.

“We eat, sleep, breath this,” Grant says. “We really have to be an inseparable team in October, November, and December. We’re going to events together. We’re writing together. We share an open office space, so we’re always sharing ideas together. We sound things out with each other and run things by each other.”

The environment is “very collaborative, very accessible,” Grant says. “It’s really lovely.” Three skylights fill the main room with sunlight—the light to complement the OLL’s letters.

“On top of that, we’re all writing,” Grant says. “We have a responsibility to see if it’s truly feasible. We felt like we really couldn’t get an idea of what it’s like for writers unless we were doing it with them.”

A lot of NaNoWriMo participants use the staff as a barometer. If people see founder Chris Baty behind on his word count, it can actually be reassuring. It’s just one more way, Grant says, to remind participants that “we’re all in this together.”

Baty started NaNoWriMo in 2000 when he and some of his friends decided to crank out 50,000-word novels in thirty days. “Of the twenty-one people who participated,” Baty writes in his book No Plot? No Problem!, “only six of us made it across the 50,000-word finish line that first year, with the rest falling short by anywhere from 500 to 49,000 words.”

By 2009, the number of participants had leapt from twenty-one to 167,000. That year, 32,000 of them “won”—the NaNoWriMo term for successfully reaching 50K. “The growth has been astronomical,” Grant says.

“Interestingly, as we’ve seen the number of participants increase, we’ve seen the percentage of winners increase, too,” Grant adds. Last year about 19% of the participants won, compared to about 18% the year before. The trend, says Grant, has held true for several years. “We’re waiting for it to finally level off. I mean, it has to eventually, right?”

But Grant speculates that the climbing success rate might relate to NaNoWriMo’s learning curve. As writers return to the event year after year, they come equipped with a better sense of what it takes to tackle a 50K-novel.

At the start of NaNoWriMo this year, some 172,000 writers had registered. By the end of day three, that number had jumped to 185,587. In all, Grant estimates there are somewhere around 210,000 NaNoWriMo writers tapping away at their keyboards.

“A lot of people delay logging in at the beginning,” she says, explaining that people sometimes don’t like to make the commitment to the event until they know they’re committed to their novel. “We’ll see a big spike toward the end,” she says, predicting “thousands more people who’ll register when it’s time to validate their word count.”

A small population of NaNoWriMo participants have been pushing for custom word counts. “There’s a trend among some of them who think 50,000 words is too easy,” Grant says. “Some people want to try for 100,000 or even 150,000.” She laughs. “Most people find 50,000 plenty challenging.”

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Grant joined the Office of Letters and Light in 2008 as the nonprofit’s third employee. She had just graduated with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Mills College in Oakland. “My parents couldn’t believe the job posting when I showed it to them,” she laughed. “It could not have been more perfect.”

She had wanted to work at a nonprofit that called on her personal and educational background, and the OLL offered a perfect fit. “We were all so on the same page,” Grant says.

As NaNoWriMo’s program director, Grant spends her off months prepping for the madness of November. She solicits pep talks from published authors, for instance, which she’ll send out during November. This month, writers have heard from fantasy author Mercedes Lackey, Aimee Bender (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt), and John Green (Looking for Alaska). Later this month, Dave Eggars (McSweeney’s), Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles), and Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Incidents) will offer advice.

The pep talks are archived on NaNoWriMo’s website, as are pep talks that she writes and sends out during the month. The site’s blog posts, which she also writes, get written as breaking news each day or two.

The website also includes a collection of writing resources, as well as curricular support for schools through NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. Last year, more than 35,000 kids K-12 in more than 1,200 classrooms participated in the program. College students, too, can participate through NaNoUniversity.

“November is a busy time for students and teachers,” Grant admits, which is one reason she’s developing a “tear-down” version of the event called Camp NaNoWriMo, which people can use any month of the year as their schedules might allow. Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! offers similar guidance.

NaNoWriMo staffers coordinate write-in programs with libraries and independent bookstores, and they attend in-person events in the San Francisco Bay area. On the afternoon I talk with Grant, for instance, Baty is sitting in on a class at Stanford University, writing with the students.

In 2007, OLL launched a companion writing project called Script Frenzy, which takes place in April. Playwrights and screenwriters have thirty days to write 100 pages of a play, movie, TV show, or graphic novel. “We ramp up [for NaNoWriMo] then wind down, then we’re ramping up again,” Grant says.

All of OLL’s programming—the write-ins, the pep talks, the website, the writing resources, the curriculum support, the Script Frenzy—is all free.

“The fact that it’s free is so important because it allows so many people to participate,” Grant says. “We hope that people who get something out of it then come back to us and make a donation. From five to fifty dollars—it doesn’t matter. We’re funded through many, many small donations.” OLL enjoys 501(c)(3) status, so donations are tax-deductible.

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NaNoWriMo certainly has its critics. “It’s not a project for skeptics,” Grant admits. “Writing a novel in a month is kind of crazy. It’s a crazy thing to do.”

But critics who focus on that, she says, typically fail to acknowledge the demands of the project and the hard work that goes into it.

Critics also focus on NaNoWriMo’s quantity-over-quality approach, but there again, says Grant, they miss the point. “Any first draft is going to need an intense amount of revision,” Grant says. The point of NaNoWriMo is to get that first draft down so that then “the real work of honing and reshaping” can begin—in December.

“You can’t revise a blank page,” Grant says.

But if NaNo’s naysayers don’t get it, enthusiasts do, and Grant hears from them frequently and loudly. “I absolutely love hearing from people who say they got something out of participating,” she says.

Of course, participants get a manuscript out of it. And some participants have gotten published, the most notable being New York Times #1 bestseller Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

But Grant says there’s more to it than that. “We get letters from people who say, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a novel but never thought I could.’ I love the confidence it gives them. It makes them ask, ‘What else can I do?’”

Writing a novel sometimes leads to other projects, too. “It can be a gateway to other creative endeavors,” Grant says.

“There’s an immense feeling of satisfaction that comes with [finishing a novel] that’s wonderful,” Grant says. “For me, that makes it all worthwhile.”

As a NaNoWriMo participant herself, Grant loves creative power and energy that comes during November. Now, near the end of Week Two, she admits she’s running a few thousand words behind pace, but she’s not worried. She still anticipates her third win. In each of her two previous outings, she’s gone right down to the wire and expects to follow tradition this year.

Her story, a romantic comedy, focuses on a couple that’s been together for years. When they each begin poking around on Internet dating sites, craziness ensues. “The whole idea is that the person you end up with is the person you choose,” she explains. “It doesn’t come down to fate. It comes down to choice.”

And that, perhaps, can serve as the perfect metaphor for NaNoWriMo: Sometimes, you can’t wait for the Muses to tap you on the shoulder; sometimes, you have to make it happen. You can’t just be inspired to write, you have to choose to. You have to sit down and pound out 1,667 words a day for thirty days and see what happens.

“Why is it so hard?” Grant asks. “Does it have to be so hard? I think it does. You have to fight for your novel. It has to be worth fighting for.”

And so, for Lindsey Grant and the Office of Letters and Light and the 220,000 novelists pounding away during NoNaWriMo—the fight goes on.

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