Updated: May 17, 2019
I spent July on a writing retreat in a cabin – that is to say, a virtual cabin. While staying in this virtual cabin, I had one goal: to write 20,000 words of my newest project, a historical fiction novel set in the early Napoleonic period. My cabin was cozy and in my head it was nestled somewhere cold. In reality, I was parked in my bedroom each night, usually between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. (prime time to a nocturnal lady like myself), with my air conditioner plugging along merrily beside me as I let my brain open up and its characters come flying out onto the screen. I was not alone in this virtual cabin, because like in a summer camp, I had been assigned bunkmates I did not know until camp started. These bunkmates came from all different backgrounds and had various goals and agendas for the month, but we all possessed two major similarities: they loved history and were writing historical pieces.
I was among my people! For 31 days I wrote in my own private corner of our virtual retreat and then logged my progress and engaged with my fellow writers. I learned what my fellow campers found easiest about writing, how they conducted their research, what was troubling them, and some of the treasures they discovered. I have still never met them, but I feel like I know them, and through this experience I finally understand what it means to have a community around you that understands exactly what you’re doing because, in their own way, they are doing the same thing too.
Normally I write in a vacuum. I follow other fiction writers on social media, I partook in PitchWars last year, and I have many wonderful friends who write but most of them focus on academic history. This was the first time I engaged with a proper writing community filled with other historical fiction creatives, all of whom were assigned to be around me by the Powers That Be. I hope I was a successful cheerleader for my fellow writers, because I am incredibly grateful for their participation. Even when we weren’t conversing in our little forum, just knowing they were progressing too made all the difference.
I am a sucker for deadlines and a lover of chatting (especially when I can do both things while in my pajamas!) so this program was perfect for me. My proof? From January through June, when I was not part of anything, I wrote 20,000 words to start this project. In the month of July alone, I amassed the aforementioned 40,000 words…literally double my output for the entire six months prior. Talk about an intense increase!
And as such, I have to say thank you, Camp NaNoWriMo.
Camp NaNoWriMo is a brilliant offshoot of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The premise of NaNoWriMo is that you do everything you can to spend the month of November writing 50,000 words of your project of choice. The Camp version allows you to set your own goal, thus my conservative attempt that turned into a more ambitious one. The cabins can be either created by groups or assigned by the Powers That Be. Obviously my choice to be placed wherever the fates wanted me to be worked out in my favor.
The truth is though, that I owe NaNoWriMo an apology, and not just a small one, because I am a convert. Now I sing the event’s praises to all writers I encounter, but up until last year I was one of its biggest detractors, and I stand corrected and apologetic.
You see, when I first learned of this enormous writing marathon, it struck me as wrong. I was bothered by the fact that it seemed (to me) to be promoting the notion that someone could write an entire novel successfully in a month. The people I encountered who talked about it, all spoke as if writing was easy, something to be done for a lark, and that anyone in possession of a pen or computer could churn something worth reading out in a few weeks. They didn't care about quality, just quantity, and that put me on edge. It bothered me that they spoke as though it was so easy write since it is a skill I have spent the better part of my life seeking to master. I admit this sort of attitude (that anything is easy and does not require lengthy study) always causes me to have negative reactions and become defensive. I regularly have people tell me that they are historians because they watch the History Channel or that “anyone” can be a singer, two things which I’ve always felt devalued the fact that I worked very hard for my BA and MA in history, continue educating myself in that field, and have spent over two decades training as vocalist.
Well, NaNoWriMo, I let my personal hang ups get the better of me, and I apologize. I have learned that the lax attitudes conveyed by those I initially encountered are outliers, not the norm. My experience in July’s Camp incarnation has shown me the truth. The vast majority of participants take what they do very seriously. They are seeking to do far more than churn out a large number of words. They are building a community, learning from one another, dedicating more time than they might usually be able to allot to their craft, finding critique partners and beta readers, brainstorming ideas, asking for/giving advice, cheering and consoling one another, and sharing in everyone else’s successes while helping others move beyond the times when they have fallen behind. It is a remarkable event, and an important one.
I am glad that I began it in July instead of November, because I do still find the hype around November’s event a little daunting, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do it.
You see, that’s one more great thing about NaNoWriMo: it is open to everyone, including a former naysayer like me.