Students and teachers try out a novel idea

An organization's anti-procrastination goal is to encourage writers to turn out 50,000 words in 30 days

Education Beat


Juli Murray, a junior at Centennial High School, often writes short stories, but she had never tackled a novel. She was inspired to give it a try by an international challenge that has no prizes and very little structure -- National Novel Writing Month.

The only goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The results are uploaded to the National Novel Writing Month organization (, where the word count is verified. After that ... nothing. Nobody reads or judges the works. Writers can try to polish what they have produced, they can delete the file or they can save it as a memento of a frantic, creative month.

The idea behind NaNoWriMo, which began in 1999 in the San Francisco area, is to encourage writers to stop procrastinating and just get the words down. "It's all about quantity, not quality," its Web site says. "The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks and write on the fly."

In the first year, according to the site, there were 21 participants. In 2004, there were 42,000, with just under 6,000 winners.

Murray's book features seven characters who each commit a deadly sin, she said. It takes place in biblical times. When she came up with the idea, at the end of last month, she decided to try the NaNoWriMo challenge.

At Centennial High School, at least a dozen writers, including four teachers, are participating in NaNoWriMo. A chart on the blackboard of Room 210 -- shared by teachers Rus Van Westervelt and Cara Moulds -- tracks word counts.

The NaNoWriMo writers have been meeting Thursday afternoons for informal chats. They talk about plots and characters and compare word counts, Van Westervelt said. They will celebrate the end of the challenge Thursday with a little party, he said.

"They're not doing it for extra credit or anything like that at all," Van Westervelt said of the students. "They're doing it because they love writing, and they are taking on the challenge of writing a book in a month."

He said he plans to help the students polish and then market the novels when they finish the challenge. "The kids are realizing that if they just put their minds to it, anything is possible," he said.

Ji Seo, a Centennial senior, said the challenge has inspired her to try writing a novel -- about a woman who enters different worlds when she sleeps -- even though she had previously written only short stories. "It's really hard finding time to write it," she said. But she's not giving up.

Bryan Reier, a Centennial senior, said he holds two jobs but finds time to work on his novel.

"The other night, I went crazy," he said. "I wrote close to 7,000 words in one night."

He was up until 3 in the morning doing it, he said. "I just want to be able to prove to myself that I can write 50,000 words by the end of the month," he said. His book, titled Verbena, is about sorcery and nature, he said.

Andrew Rainey, a senior, is also writing about sorcery. He said he has been writing since fourth grade, and for the challenge he revamped a book he had started two years ago but never finished.

While many Centennial novels-in-progress have a science fiction or fantasy element, the work by Christina Kaputsos, a senior, is more reality-based. Her novel centers on a young man who seems to have everything -- he's in college on a full scholarship -- but his life is turned upside down by a woman who leads a rougher life. As she writes, Kaputsos said she is exploring how the characters are changing.

A teacher taking part in NaNoWriMo, Cerise Ashburne, said, "I've wanted to write a novel since I was a kid." Her novel, about a woman who is told to do things by God, passed 25,000 words by the middle of the month, and she said the challenge of meeting the word count has kept her from obsessing about every word. "I'm very nitpicky," she said. "I could spend weeks just on naming my characters."

Mitch Reid, a senior, doesn't seem to have much problem getting words down on paper. He has written four novels, he said. But he usually writes by hand, and for the challenge, he is typing his story so he can submit it for a word count.

According to the NaNoWriMo Web site, words are counted for all stories that are submitted by e-mail. Writers who meet or surpass the 50,000-word mark are "added to our hallowed Winner's Page, and receive a handsome winner's certificate and Web icon."

But, for the writers gathered in a classroom after school recently, the fun was in the writing. With pressure only to get words on paper -- without worrying about the details -- the stories seem to take on lives of their own, the writers agreed.

"Our characters seem to move the story instead of us," Reid said. "I have a character that I wanted to change later, but he's changing now. I'm yelling at the computer, `What are you doing? You can't change now!'"

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