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2 freshmen attempt to write novels

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, November 2, 2007

It’s a process that takes some people years, but Kaitlyn Conway and Emily Craven intend to do it in one month.

Beginning Thursday, the Notre Dame freshmen each began writing a novel, with the goal of finishing 50,000 words by 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30.

That means writing, on average, 1,667 words a day – in addition to doing homework and going to classes and other activities. Conway and Craven said most of their friends won’t be cranking out a novel anytime soon.

“They think we’re crazy,” Conway said.

But they have company. Conway and Craven are part of National Novel Writing Month, a self-described “literary crusade.” The competition encourages people from around the world to pound out a 175-page work of fiction in 30 days. A press release from the organization, nicknamed “NaNoWriMo,” says it is the largest writing contest in the world.

In 2006, more than 79,000 people signed up for the challenge. About 18 percent of the NaNoWriMo participants complete their novels before the deadline each year.

Conway and Craven both entered the competition last year, and Conway also attempted the contest in eighth grade. Neither of them finished in the 30 days allotted. Conway’s “epic fantasy” numbered 17,000 words by the time of the deadline last fall.

“Everything kind of train-wrecked because I had a huge paper to write the last weekend of the month,” she said.

Craven’s “goofy fantasy ‘1984’” novel reached only 6,000 words. Craven and Conway agreed that senior year of high school, with college applications to complete, was not the best time to write a novel with a tight deadline.

“This year, we’re making it to 50,000,” Conway insisted.

But by Thursday afternoon, Conway had written about 100 words. She didn’t write for long and was taking a break to finish homework before she resumed writing later in the evening.

Conway said she isn’t quite sure about the direction of her story. For now, she’s just working on an introduction.

“I think it’s going to end up being a futuristic mob story,” she said.

Thursday was just day one. The writers have 29 more days of churning out almost 2,000 words a day. Conway said she thinks they will finish their novels this time, even if it means bringing their laptops with them everywhere they go.

“It seems like you’re really, really busy and you’re not going to have time to work on it, but the time just kind of finds you, because you’ll start working on it and you won’t be able to stop for a while,” Conway said.

She thinks finding the time to write will be easier than last year. Craven agreed.

“This year we spend so much time doing nothing that I think we’ll actually be able to do it,” Craven said.

The duo put up flyers around campus to get other people to enter the contest, and about seven or eight people e-mailed them to express interest.

“We thought it would be crazy fun to get other people involved,” Craven said. “It’s a lot more fun when you have a group of support instead of just you struggling along.”

The key to winning the contest – that is, reaching the 50,000 word count – is to stay on course and not fall behind on the 1,667 daily word count goal, they said.

“I remember last year, I just missed a couple of days, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll catch up,'” Craven said. “And I kept recalculating how many more words I had to do per day, and after that, you just fall in a hole and it’s hard.”

The NaNoWriMo Web site, www.nanowrimo.org, provides some help to the harried novelists. Contest participants sign up on the Web site and then can submit their novels for word count validation at different times during the month. The site generates a graph to show the budding novelist how far she has progressed to her 50,000 word goal. Through message forums, the writers can talk about problems they are having with plot development or characters. The site also sends supportive e-mails, and it produces podcasts to give listeners pep talks about their novels.

“Week two is always the hardest,” Conway said. “Week one, you are like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this,’ and you write lots and lots and lots. Then week two comes and you’re like, ‘I don’t know where I’m going with life.'”

Although the NaNoWriMo Web site promotes quantity over quality, 16 NaNoWriMo novelists have had their novels published since the contest started in 1999. Sara Gruen, the author of “Water for Elephants,” which hit No. 1 on New York Times Best Seller list, wrote one of those novels.

Conway and Craven said they’d both like to edit their novels after Nov. 30 to see if they can get them published.

“I think you always have to start out with that mindset,” Conway said. “I think that’s what everybody who’s doing it kind of wants.”

But during November, there’s no time for editing, Craven said. Both said they’d like to write a novel later in life – albeit at a slower pace. For now, this contest is a way to force them to get it done.

“I think it’s a great thing to do for yourself,” Conway said. “You are motivating yourself, and no matter how much you do with your novel, whether you get to 6,000 words or you get to 60,000, you feel so good about yourself.”

But even the completed stories are not read, and the winners receive no prizes. So why do it?

“It is insanely fun,” Craven said. “… People think, ‘There’s no way I can write a novel. It’s too huge of a task – there’s no way I can do that in my lifetime.’ And then after the month, you look at what you’ve written, and it’s like, ‘Look what I can do.'”

Aspiring novelists can sign up any time this month at NaNoWriMo’s Web site.