In November 2013, 310,095 writers embarked on a mission to pen a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in one month. That’s approximately 1,667 words every day for 30 days. The challenge is the crux of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an event that fosters creativity and community among writers of all ages and skill sets. Since its inception in 1999, when only 21 people took part, NaNoWriMo participation has increased exponentially, and the program has grown into a global phenomenon. Libraries have played an important role in that growth, opening their doors to host events throughout the month to help writers hone their craft.
“It’s a natural partnership,” Lissa Staley, public services librarian at Topeka and Shawnee County (Kans.) Public Library (TSCPL), tells American Libraries. “We have everything you need to write a novel.”
TSCPL offers two four-hour “write-ins” in November, allowing NaNoWriMo participants to work surrounded by others writers. A fiction-writing workshop and a kick-off event are held in October to build enthusiasm. Creating a supportive environment is key, Staley says.
“We’re trying to bring people into the knowledge that a novel can be written in 30 days, and [we] also try to create a space where newcomers can be surrounded by people who have done it,” she says. “We want to make everyone feel like they’re part of the club. It’s hard to find that kind of encouragement in the real world.”
Eric Riley, coordinator of adult programs and partnerships at District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) in Washington, D.C., echoes Staley’s comments.
“We want to be a place where people can read, write, and create,” he says. “Our NaNoWriMo programs raise awareness of writing and get people curious. They offer patrons a chance to see others writing in the wild and to think, ‘Maybe I can do that.’”
To encourage participation, DCPL added friendly competition to its NaNoWriMo events. Every writer who met or passed the 50,000-word goal won a mug, a journal, a printed copy of their book from DCPL’s print-on-demand machine, and a Finish-It Toolkit designed to help take the next steps with a draft, including vouchers for workshops on creating cover art and typesetting.
Of the nearly 70 participants in 2013, 30 finished their books, says Riley. To encourage further work, DCPL followed up with each writer and connected them with independent authors, who provided guidance on completing their projects.
Twelve DCPL libraries will serve as host sites for official NaNoWriMo “Come Write In” programs this year. “Come Write In” provides libraries, bookstores, and other public spaces resources to facilitate writing events: promotional materials such as posters, window clings, and bookmarks (available for the price of shipping), access to a local NaNoWriMo liaison who can help organize events, and inclusion in a searchable public database of all participating organizations around the world.
The “Come Write In” program was the brainchild of Sarah Mackey, NaNoWriMo director of community engagement. A library staffer for seven years in Edmonton, Canada, before joining NaNoWriMo, she understands the synergy between the two groups.
“There are no more library-friendly people around than writers,” Mackey says. “NaNoWriMo events are a great way for libraries to engage with writers and get them to re-discover the library.”
Libraries comprise 80% of “Come Write In” host sites, and NaNoWriMo hopes to increase that number, Mackey says. To encourage library participation, NaNoWriMo offers a guide specifically geared towards administrators who have concerns about the viability of running a NaNoWriMo program. The guide provides testimonials, answers questions about the events, and stresses the ease of implementation. This latter aspect is a selling point for many libraries.
“NaNoWriMo is one of the easiest, less intense programs I work on,” says Ruth Percey, teen services librarian at Oshkosh (Wis.) Public Library. “It’s really cheap. NaNoWriMo provides the handouts and materials. All you need is space for people to write.”
Oshkosh hosts writing events each week in November. In addition to space to write, it also offers word ninjas—slips of paper with random words or situations printed on them—to help writers in need of inspiration. The Oshkosh Friends group provides refreshments.
Oshkosh uses NaNoWriMo as a springboard to promote creativity year-round. Local authors are invited to speak once a month on navigating the publishing world, networking, and improving the presentation of works in progress. The library also hosts a show on the local public access channel to promote writers’ days and conferences at the library and to conduct author interviews. The cross-promotional is reciprocal, says Percey. “People who read make better writers, and writers are the best readers,” she says.