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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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November 11

Amid the growing complexity of the proceedings, the first NaNo novel is complete. Sure, the author with the online nom de plume "goodgeck" quoted The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in their entireties. But Wrimos are a forgiving group, and a speed record is established.

Baty has dubbed week #2 "The Week of Fatigue." The novelty has faded and word counts are beginning to lag. Sustaining dramatic action is hard work, even if your credo is "No plot? No problem!" The Yahoo boards resonate with the wails of people who are days behind, people who set out to write autobiographies but now find their own lives totally banal, people who have become so frustrated that they've scrapped their first draft and started over. People post inspirational quotations, rail at the gods, reacquire old smoking habits. Fred Roemer, teacher of the fifth-grade class in Florida, posts a message with his prescription for beating writer's block: extra recess.

Baty pens a sympathetic missive. "You've wrapped up the exposition and introduced all the characters," he writes. "Now something book-like has to happen. Someone needs to fall in love. Or get amnesia. Or go on a road trip. But who? And how? And whatever happened to that soft and luscious thing called sleep? We remember sleep. Sleep was our friend."

November 13

Sleep may once have been Baty's friend, but lately he's confining himself to a sleeping bag to cut down on the sleepwalking. He is in the disturbing position of man whose nightmares are seeping into his waking life: He worries that he's losing control of NaNoWriMo.

While at first Baty appreciated the spin-off sites, now he worries about them. Wrimos have frankly discussed their dissatisfaction with the Yahoo club and its numerous technical glitches. Many Internet-savvy participants have moved their discussion groups elsewhere. After yet another good-natured Wrimo proposes to set up an auxiliary site with features Baty can't yet promise -- automatically-generated e-mail invitations to NaNo club functions, for example -- Baty forks over the money to register, just to prevent anyone else from taking it. "What if they do make a chat room and I don't know how it works, and I don't know how to post to it, and suddenly all those baseball players and concession-stand operators and stuff have moved into the cornfield down the way and I'm still sitting on my porch and I can't see the game anymore?" he says. "What if somebody else has better computer smarts or is funnier or is more engaging or is able to respond to more e-mails, what if they offer people money or they get an sponsorship? What do I do then?"

Although Baty has registered National Novel Writing Month as a business in Oakland, he still doesn't have a trademark on NaNoWriMo. He worries that the big online bookstores might appropriate the novel-in-a-month idea, turning it into an actual contest with prizes and literary-hipster judges. "I've been going through these scenarios in my head where I'm hiring a legal team and filing trademark papers," he says. "And then I just think, 'What the hell?' I don't want to have a little TM next to NaNoWriMo. I don't want to have a patent pending. I just want it to be fun."

November 14

Wrimos are easy to spot in cafes. They're the ones with laptops but no accompanying books and papers, who type madly and never look up. But they seem to be having fun, at least on this blustery night. Three of them are gathered in the back room of Espresso Roma in Berkeley: freelance writer Carol Kirschenbaum, CNET managing editor C.C. Holland, and between-gigs management consultant Pete Mummert. Holland, in journalistic fashion, edits Mummert's job description for him.

"Repeat after me," she jokes. "I am a full-time novelist."

It's midway through the month, which means everyone's wrestling with plot holes and internal inconsistencies. Mummert, who is writing a 1940s noir crime novel, discovers that his culprit died before the crime was committed, so he has to go back and fix that. Kirschenbaum, who is writing something she calls a "romance suspense," can't figure out why her divorced protagonist would allow her only son to go live with his father, and yet the plot can't progress unless he does. Holland, who is writing a contemporary thriller, discovers that one of her characters was having an affair. But all three are fully committed to NaNoWriMo core values -- speed and verbosity -- and there's no way they're letting plot holes stop them now. And all agree that meeting as a group helps them crank the words out faster.

"Doing fiction this way with the word count and the deadline eliminates all that agonizing, the sentence-by-sentence decisions, the who-should-say-what-now," says Kirschenbaum. "It really lets it flow."

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