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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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"Every time I think of stopping, I see they're still writing, so I'd better keep going," adds Mummert. "That's my best motivator: peer pressure and shame."

"25,004!" cries Holland, who has been industriously typing, throwing her arms in the air. "I'm four words over halfway!"

Mummert looks over at her admiringly. "Can I borrow 5,000?" he asks.

November 18

By now, Baty could use a loan of his own, but his needs are far more serious: money and a full-time staff. The $5,000 he's sunk into the project is too much for his credit cards. The workload is too much for one person. He has started referring to himself on official correspondence as NaNoWriMo's "Director and Administrative Assistant," and his recycling bin is full of discarded Red Bull cans.

Earlier in the year, Baty applied for several grants, and now the rejections are coming in. As an Internet project, NaNoWriMo is too amorphously boundaried to qualify for state grants. And as an organization led by amateurs rather than renowned scholars, it isn't fundable by humanities councils. Meanwhile, Baty's bills pile up: charges for registering and hosting the Web site, for getting a business license, renting a P.O. box, making party preparations, and printing the official T-shirts. He's decided to ask the Wrimos for donations at the end of the month, which he hopes will cover his expenses and then some. He's hoping that with donations, T-shirt sales, and a cover charge at the month-end party, he can raise about $10,000, enough to start paying for a lawyer, a Web designer to retool the site, and a programmer to automate the sign-up process for next year. "Volunteer help is great, but if you really want to get things done you need to pay people," he says. "It allows them to make it their priority and it allows me to be kind of demanding."

And while Baty's still wary of accepting advertising, he has been reveling in a hazy sponsorship fantasy, in which a kindly corporation gives NaNoWriMo a half million dollars with no promotional strings attached. With that, he says, he could afford everything he wants: a year-round staff, laptops for participants who lack computers, programs to get schoolchildren to participate, and, his personal dream, a bus that drives around spreading the NaNo gospel. "Five hundred thousand dollars to a significant corporate entity is nothing," he muses. "What are they going to do, produce more widgets with it?"

If Baty's impulses were more typically entrepreneurial, his fund-raising fantasy might sound less like one plucked from an episode of the Partridge Family. After all, he's got what most dot-coms lusted after -- 100 percent of a booming market, in what a business plan might call "the Web-enabled-amateur-novel-writing space." NaNoWriMo is an easily recognizable brand name, even though not everyone can pronounce it. His press coverage has been positive, his customer base eager to proselytize, and his cross-promotional possibilities nearly limitless. And while NaNoWriMo had scalability problems during this year's sign-ups, there's no reason why a better-designed site couldn't accommodate the 178,571 participants he will get next year if the event expands at this year's 3,571 percent growth rate.

Baty would have plenty of models to follow if he were more commercially inclined. He could collect the better submissions and reprint them in magazine form like the journals McSweeneys or Granta. He could let Web users download novels the way they can download the work of musicians at and EMusic. He could pay a group of critics to filter out the crummy novels and highlight the best, as once did with online music files. Or he could turn it all into a much more standard enterprise: a contest, with prize money or book contracts for the winners, much in the manner that awards $250,000 recording contracts to unrecorded bands selected by visitors to the site.

But Baty is reluctant to grab this particular brass ring. To him, NaNoWriMo is mostly an offline adventure that takes place in coffee shops, libraries, and people's apartments; it's definitely not e-commerce. Baty frequently compares his creation with Burning Man, a real-world cultural festival that owes a great deal of its popularity to the Internet and word-of-mouth. Even though Burning Man's attendance is now massive, it still is defined by a communal, anti-commercial, and vaguely clandestine ethos. What would happen if Baty slapped a bunch of banner ads on the NaNoWriMo site in an effort to, in Webspeak, "monetize" his traffic? He doesn't want to know.

November 23

One thing is certain, NaNoWriMo's traffic is creating a troublesome problem for Baty. NaNoWriMo's Internet service provider, Laughing Squid Web Hosting, has politely encouraged Baty to move elsewhere. Laughing Squid normally hosts low-traffic sites for nonprofits; now the NaNoWriMo site is taking up five times its allotted bandwidth. Alarmed at the prospect of having to change service providers mid-month, Baty decides to trim back site usage. His biggest worry is the traffic he expects next week, when hundreds, maybe thousands, of novelists will e-mail their manuscripts for word-count verification.

Baty's promise that he would verify participants' word counts had always been somewhat ambiguous. In the back of his mind, he'd been hoping that a tech-savvy participant would step forward with a solution before the end of the month, perhaps a process that would count everyone's words automatically. Otherwise, he'd have to do it by hand; everyone would e-mail him a Word document, he'd open it and run the word-count feature, then send back an e-mail congratulating the writer.

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