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It was a dark and stormy month...

From cyberspace, National Novel Writing Month looked like a real organization. From inside Chris Baty's apartment, it looked like a bunch of thin people in bad sweaters, bent over their laptops, cranked up on Frito-Lay products and Red Bull energy drink.



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Among the first sentences posted for group admiration:

"It's not easy being Pope, you know."

"Cops hate finding charred bodies on park benches at six o'clock in the morning."

And, without apparent irony, "It was a dark and stormy night."

People also find an encouraging message from Baty in their in-boxes. "So this is how it starts," he writes. "The question is now whether or not you have a novel in you. You have dozens. The question is whether or not you'll stop beating yourself up long enough to let one of those novels transcribe itself on your computer. The question is whether you'll stop trying to be perfect, and start letting yourself be messy. November is not an oil painting. November is a charcoal sketch, a breathless, dashed-off line drawing. It's imperfect, but that's the point."

NaNoWriMo's own imperfections are starting to emerge. Most of the publicity rolled out just days before Baty planned to close the sign-up list, and pleas for late entries to the now-closed list are pouring in. Baty stands his ground; the site just isn't prepared to accommodate thousands of visitors a day. He encourages latecomers to write a novel anyway, but he knows most won't. "It's like The Wizard of Oz -- there's nothing that I'm offering," he sighs. "You can still write the novel on your own."

November 2

Some people choose to apply their energies another way. Overnight, the NaNoWriMo Web site is hacked, and users are treated to the sight of what Baty calls some "very shocking ladies' backsides" and a message reading "You suck!" when they try to update their word counts. A participant from Chicago volunteers his programming help and within a day the security leak is plugged.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Schlesinger is receiving creepy e-mail from cybergoons; Baty realizes that putting an attractive woman's picture on the site next to her travel itinerary was not a good idea. Schlesinger's picture is replaced with a slightly less hot one of her car. Baty is shocked by the hostility directed at such an innocuous Web site. "I thought we were invisible," he says. "We're just a bunch of smiley dopes who are trying to write a bad novel in the month."

Far from invisible, the Web has given NaNoWriMo more presence than ever. By now, participants have created two dozen regional and international spin-off sites offering chat rooms and places for people to link to their novels-in-progress. There are specialized online groups for the College NaNos, the Over Forty NaNos, the Tech Writer NaNos, the blogger NaNos, and the NaNoidlings, or those under age 21. One Wrimo starts an enthusiastically hailed "experts" page, on which volunteers answer their fellow novelists' questions on topics like beekeeping, taxi driving, orbital mechanics, and duck farming. There also are the Rebel NaNos, people who were turned away after the cutoff date but are writing novels anyway, whose Web page looks remarkably like the official site except that the cartoon kids are now waving portraits of Che Guevara.

Still, Baty could not be happier with the proliferation of satellite sites. "It's like the field of dreams," he says, "where I've built the baseball diamond and all the players come out, but then there are also people who show up to sell hot dogs and set up the porta-potties and sell pennants and souvenir baseball bats, and I just get to sit on my porch now and kind of watch the game."

November 4

For team NaNoWriMo, the bases are loading quickly. Thousands of messages make the boards in the first several days, as Wrimos trade names for protagonists, doughnut shops, and gangster rappers; console those afflicted by hard-drive crashes, repetitive stress injuries, or unsympathetic spouses; and bashfully share excerpts, then wax poetic over one another's literary prowess.

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