Lawrence writers tackle National Novel Writing Month


This November, the Journal-World will follow four of these novelists through their 30-day writing adventures: Two veterans and two first-timers.

As their writing unfolds, so will this story. Visit to meet the writers and observe how they evolve, and find out what NaNoWriMo is all about.

I have too much work. I’m really tired from Halloween. I have to do laundry. I could never do it. There’s an infinite list of excuses for avoiding National Novel Writing Month. But on Nov. 1, all excuses dissipate and the fervor of deadline-driven typing fills the air as writers begin weaving their stories.

National Novel Writing Month (nicknamed NaNoWriMo or NaNo) puts forth a challenge: Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. That breaks down to about 1,667 words a day. The question here is: How could anyone do that?

Quite simply, it’s about writing words.

Reaching the word count

Jason Arnett is currently working on a science fiction novel, part of which will be his contribution to the National Novel Writing Month competition.

“The first NaNoWriMo experience was waking up every morning and ‘OK, how am I gonna write 1,600 words today? OK and we’ll just start typing,’ ” said six-time NaNoWriMo writer Jason Arnett, supervisor of catering services at Johnson County Community College. “And one of the things you learn early on is to not delete anything. Because everything you write, as much garbage as you spew out, it counts toward your word count.”

And the word count is the key to NaNoWriMo. The project emphasizes the action of writing a story, whether the words make sense or not. It doesn’t have to result in a cohesive novel, especially not on the first try. Some writers choose to rewrite or edit previous stories.

“The first draft is actually what we call a zero draft,” Arnett said. “You’re not worried about how good it is, the perfect sentence or how many adverbs you use or anything like that. It’s just really about blasting the story out as fast as you can.”

It’s overwhelming. The word “novel” implies that the finished product of NaNoWriMo must be just that: finished. However, the end result can be literally anything, from a stream-of-consciousness diary to a first draft ready to become a book, like Arnett’s 2011 NaNoWriMo sci-fi story.

After two years of polishing, Arnett is attempting to publish that novel now, joking that he’s “collecting rejections.” This year, he’s writing the sequel, where the smartest computer of the future gets tossed into present time and needs to figure out how to get back.

Arnett said the 50,000-word goal is daunting. It’s a common fear first-timers face.

Jessica Whittamore is participating in the National Novel Writing Month for the first time. She's a lawyer, but she's taking on the challenge of writing a zombie novel in a month.

Jessica Whittamore is a lawyer by trade and writing in NaNoWriMo for the first time. She’s working on a zombie novel. “I went in feeling just so convinced that everything that I had to write had to make sense and had to be in order,” she said. “But I’m seven days in and I’ve got that word count so low that I’m like, I just need to write.”

Writers, gather in the salon

While writers, seasoned and new, churn out word after word, they run into motivational roadblocks. That’s where the Lawrence NaNoWriMo community comes in. Writers keep tabs on each other and ask questions through forums on NaNoWriMo’s website. Plus, they meet (in person or in chatrooms) at “write-ins” to work on their novels.

Write-ins reminded Whittamore of those late-night college study groups. “You’re trying to be productive but you’re also having fun and chatting about fun things,” she said. “But every once in a while somebody would motivate me, say ‘Oh Jessie, you haven’t written in a while.'”

Whittamore said she gets texts from friends too, nudging her to get typing. For Arnett, his motivators became his good friends, and it’s part of the reason he continues to write in NaNo.

“They push you to keep writing and to do things that are interesting,” he said. “They’ve been the best thing that happened to my writing.”

Dave DeHetre is taking on the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Standing in his studio, he describes illustrations he painted for previous novels.

For Dave DeHetre, a painter and photographer writing in his seventh NaNo, is writing a set of vignettes exploring philosophical and spiritual human behavior. He said the family-like bonds between NaNoWriMo writers is important, but almost a side effect of the writing they all do.

“There’s an indie spirit about it,” he said. “There’s something very cool about reading something that no one else has read, that’s by someone who’s completely fresh and doesn’t necessarily know what they’re doing.”

He said he reads NaNoWriMo novels almost exclusively now, not only because he learns about writing but because they’re, well, better. “It’s better fiction. It’s more interesting, it’s more creative, it’s more exciting because it’s raw, it’s unfiltered,” he said.

He also enjoys the feedback he gets on his novels. “The worth is that I’m doing something… constructive. It may not ever lead to anything,” DeHetre said. “For me, it’s the process of doing it.”

And that’s what it comes down to: the process of writing words.

So how could anyone one do this? Arnett sums it up: “The motivation is simply to be with my friends and to write as fast as I can and as well as I can.”