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July 2, 2019
By Matia Burnett
NaNoWriMo continues to motivate indie writers each November.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has long served as an impetus for indie authors to quit procrastinating and write their first books. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit writing project that began in 1999 in the San Francisco area. Commencing each November, participating writers of all skill levels set out to craft 50,000-word novels in one month's time. Through the NaNoWriMo website, writers can track their individual progress and set goals for themselves, while finding encouragement through a community of fellow writers.

Kids and teens, too, will be writing novels this November through NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. The program (launched in 2005 by then-director Ellen Martin) emerged from the collective enthusiasm of teachers who had themselves taken part in NaNoWriMo, says Grant Faulkner, author and current executive director of the nonprofit. The goal of the program is the same as it is for adult participants, though kids tend to take part alongside their peers in classroom settings. According to Marya Brennan, director of YWP, “different kids and teens take different things away from the program. It’s like a novel itself that way. Some young people come to the program feeling like they hate English, hate writing, hate books even, and they walk away feeling empowered.” Brennan believes that kids particularly respond to the program because it allows them the freedom to write the stories that they want to tell. “For some young people, it’s the first time in school where they actually get to let their imaginations run wild,” Brennan says.

For Faulkner, imagination isn’t only about creating stories—it’s also about seeing possibilities in the world: “Creating on the page can lead to creating in other realms, whether it’s the business world or the laboratorY... Writing is a powerful imaginative tool and perhaps our best tool for critical thinking, because to write is to explore the nuances and counterpoints of thought...To be a writer is to be an engaged member of the community."

Educators whose students take part in the program have witnessed transformations first-hand. Teachers frequently tell Faulkner that students’ investment in their own novels results in them developing a more meaningful understanding of figurative language, grammar, word choice, and other aspects of the mechanics of writing. Gaining a sense of audience also broadens students’ awareness of the world. “Beyond the page, kids learn crucial writing and life skills, such as time management, grit, and resilience,” said Faulkner, quoting a teacher. Many educators have observed an uncommon phenomenon. “Teachers tell me that they hear kids talking about their novels during recess, asking about each other’s word-count progress and story,” Faulkner says.

Once the Dec. 1 deadline arrives, writers may breathe a sigh of relief, and may feel more than a little proud. But as any indie writer knows, a first draft is only the beginning. For those asking "now what?", there is ongoing support available. The NaNoWriMo site includes advice on editing, revision, finding beta readers, forming writing groups, and navigating the world of indie publishing. The Young Writers Program, too, invites participants to print their books and even formally self-publish them. Even if a first attempt at a novel might not guarantee a place on bookstore shelves, the program invites writers to return year after year.

Faulkner feels that NaNoWriMo has always been a natural fit for indie authors looking to dive right in. “So many of our participants self-publish because they have a DIY mindset (hence their inclination to learn to write a novel by writing a novel),” Faulkner says.

Aspiring authors can find inspiration from established indie authors who self-published the books they wrote during NaNoWriMo. According to Faulkner, authors whose careers got a jump start in November include Hugh Howey (the Silo series), Sarra Cannon (Beautiful Demons), CJ Lyons (the Angels of Mercy Medical Suspense series), and Denise Grover Swank (Rose Gardner Investigations series).

A New Page

NaNoWriMo continues to broaden its community outreach efforts. The Come Write In program supports 1200 libraries as they host NaNoWriMo writing gatherings for indie authors. NaNoWriMo is also forming a partnership with PEN's prison program, which provides writing resources and mentorships for incarcerated individuals. Additionally, NaNoWriMo is in talks with Macmillan’s Swoon Reads imprint to offer a writing scholarship to a writer of color each year.

And as student writers get the chance to see their own words in print, the NaNoWriMo Young Writing program itself has expanded from classrooms to bookstore shelves. Brave the Page, to be published by Viking in late August, is the first guide to NaNoWriMo’s style of writing for young people. According to Rebecca Stern, the book’s lead author, “the program proves that when young people are given tools and resources along with permission to be themselves, they fall in love with writing and write more than they've ever written before—which in turn makes them more confident and strengthens their writing skills.” The book includes writing tips from an illustrious roster of YA authors, including John Green, Marissa Meyer, Danielle Paige, Daniel José Older, Scott Westerfeld, Jennifer Niven, and Celia C. Pérez.  All of the proceeds from sales of the book will in turn support additional NaNoWriMo programming. That’s more kids being given the freedom to take ownership over a creative project, to share it with their community, and to form connections through words and stories. “With Brave the Page, we'll broaden our reach, allowing more kids to see themselves as authors, and further support our mission of helping everyone tell the stories that are important to them,” Stern said.

Parents often offer the most powerful testaments to the impact of NaNoWriMo on their children’s academic and emotional growth. As one parent shared about his son, a previously reluctant writer, “My son wrote 15,000 words in less than two weeks. He is a changed student. He always had great ideas, just sometimes couldn't convince others of it. Now he has the power of the pen, for the rest of his life.” 

According to Faulkner, “Kids just need to escape sometimes, to find a different kind of shelter, a different kind of home, in the words on the page. There’s a solace to be found in stories that can’t be found anywhere else.” And with 300,000 aspiring adult writers participating in NaNoWriMo each November—it’s clear that the need for stories persists long past childhood.