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Writers take aim at writing a novel, in a month

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Nanowrimo Sign
A handmade sign and a copy of "No Plot:No Problem" the Nanowrimo bible, marks a write in at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Writing is usually a solitary experience, unless it's November and you are doing Nanowrimo. For thirty days coffee shops all over the United States  often become unwitting hosts to what are known as write-ins.

"And how is your word count going?" Theresa Alberti asks Emily Wallner.

"I'm almost to 30,000 now," says Wallner.  

Writing at Brewberrys
The write-in group at Brewberrys in St Paul. From left to right: Emily Wallner, Roslind Nelson and Theresa Alberti.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Yay!" replied Alberti.

At the Brewberrys Coffee Shop in St Paul Theresa Alberti and Emily Wallner compare notes, and novel plotlines, with Roslind Nelson.

"Mine's kind of depressing," Alberti laughs, "I'm exploring the issue of obesity."

"I am doing six short stories based on the theme of people doing impossible things. It's called 'Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast," based on a Lewis Carroll quote, says Wallner.

"Mine it started out as a murder mystery, it started out with someone the protagonist knows being found in the Mississippi," says Nelson. 

A group of friends in California created Nanowrimo about a decade ago. They had all said they intended to write a novel someday but someday never arrived. So they set themselves a deadline. It's the power of that deadline which forces people to their writing desks.  

"Writing is such a solitary art, and Nanowrimo makes it a sport that you can do with a team."

Organizers stress that for Nanowrimo, is not about craft it's all about the numbers. Turn off your inner editor, and just write, they say. You can always go back and clean up your masterpiece after November 30. 

However Roslind Nelson is finding that it isn't quite that simple. Nanowrimo inevitably forces a writer to confront the challenges of fiction writing. And she's got a big one right now, particularly for someone who is writing a whodunnit. 

"I really go into it intending to have a lot of violence, but I have hard time hurting my characters," she says. 

"Maybe you should try doing some violence on a character you don't care about," says Alberti. "You know pick somebody, just write in a minor character and just practice." They both laugh at the idea, but Nelson says she may try it. 

Theresa Alberti is known for suggestions like that. She is one of the two Municipal Liaisons for Nanowrimo in the Twin Cities, cracking the whip to keep writers on task. Actually she cracks the whip pretty gently. She says there's no shame in not making 50,000 words. She remembers the year her husband tried, and made it to 25,000 words. She says he was shame-faced, but she wasn't having it.

"And I said 'That's still like 80 pages in a month, and in any month, that's good." 

According to the Nanowrimo website there are more than 1900 Twin Citians signed up for Nanowrimo. Since November 1st they had written a total of well over 10 million words, and the number keeps growing by the minute. 

Later in the day another small group gathers for a write in at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. It's not a place you might expect novelists. It's pretty noisy. But there is good people watching, and access to many electric sockets to power laptops. 

Global Market writers
The write-in at the Midtown Global Market. From left to right: Heather Bufkin, Emily Wallner, and Serena Mira Asta.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Emily Wallner of 'Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast" is here for her second write-in of the day. There's also Heather Bufkin who claims she's shy, but then launches into a discussion of the attraction of writing a novel. 

"I know with fiction it's a chance to create situations for characters doing things that you'll never be able to do, and go places you'll never be able to go and I think that can be really attractive to people," she says.

"Wow, that was really deep," says Serena Mira Asta, a Nanowrimo veteran. This year she is writing a novel about a 13-year-old girl who can fly. She was nervous about doing fiction but now says she is having a blast. 

"Writing is such a solitary art, and Nanowrimo makes it a sport that you can do with a team," she says. 

To hit the 50,000 word total by midnight Saturday, Nanowrimo writers have to produce an average of 1,667 words a day, which means as of Monday they should have written 40,008 words. 

Many have, even more probably haven't which means over the next few days you may see a surge of people desperately typing in coffee shops.