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Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing exercise an example of web community

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It goes without saying, or should, that online relationships aren't a substitute for our in-person relationships. But it also goes without saying that the web can, at its best, be a powerful tool for connecting us with others.

Years ago, when not everyone had Internet access or was good at searching the web, I helped a local couple find an online message board related to a rare condition their son was facing. They've thanked me several times over the years, saying the information and support they got from other participants on that message board helped them greatly to deal with their own situation.

There are other phenomena, not quite so serious, that couldn't exist in the same form without the web. One such community is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, an annual event which begins Thursday.

NaNoWriMo is, basically, a writing exercise. Participants attempt to write a 50,000-word novel (some would call that a novella, but definitions vary) entirely during the month of November. That requires participants to write an average of 1,667 words a day. The point is not to produce polished prose -- which would be all but impossible, given the pace -- but to instill discipline, form a daily habit of writing, and jump-start the creative process. Because participants don't have time to edit or second-guess themselves, they sometimes produce creative twists and turns that wouldn't turn up in a slower, more deliberative environment.

There are no prizes, other than bragging rights for those who get to 50,000, and NaNoWriMo doesn't do anything with the novels. The NaNoWriMo web site generates a word count when you upload the novel; the software has no idea whether the uploaded file contains sparkling prose, random gibberish, or text which has been copied and pasted from the works of Ernest Hemingway. At one time, they actually suggested that you use your software's find-and-replace function to turn a copy of your manuscript into gibberish before uploading it for the word count, so that there would be no question about any human from NaNoWriMo having access to it.

Participants always have the option of going back, finishing and rewriting their novels once the month is over, keeping the amazing things produced by the NaNoWriMo experience while trying to eliminate the parts that seem as if they were written at a breakneck pace.

I can speak about NaNoWriMo from experience, having participated in NaNoWriMo several times and gotten to the 50,000-word mark twice. I eventually rewrote one of those efforts and self-published it.

In the days before the Internet, someone like NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty could probably have tried to start such an exercise, but it would have been much harder to promote and would probably have been far more limited in scope. I can imagine Writer's Digest or some other magazine promoting it and a few thousand people deciding to sign up.

But, because NaNoWriMo lives on the web -- in the form of its web site, and various message forums in which participants encourage each other, trade suggestions or words of encouragement -- it has grown from 21 participants in 1999 to 256,618 last year, of whom 36,843 made it to the 50,000-word mark by the end of the month. They range from professional writers to curious aspirants who just want to see what stories they have to tell.

The publish-on-demand firm CreateSpace, owned by Amazon, has been a supporter of NaNoWriMo and has offered special discounts and offers in the past to encourage NaNoWriMo participants to publish their novels, another technology tie-in.

Is this a good thing? I'd like to think so. Sure, the growth in self-publishing has meant that anyone (yours truly included) can go public with an inept, uneven, un-edited or even bad novel. I can't count the number of press releases we get here at the newspaper each week about self-published books of one type or another. Often, I find myself rolling my eyes just reading the synopsis. That's the risk of encouraging creativity. But the reward is that there are sometimes diamonds in the mine. NaNoWriMo has led to a handful of professionally-published books, including a few best-sellers. Self-published books like "The Shack" have turned into professional books from major publishers.

Technology keeps changing the world. That, too, goes without saying, but it's still mind-boggling sometimes to stop and count some of the ways.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.

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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.