Debbie Koehler, left, and M.J. Ulmer, 17, type on their laptops during a write-in for National Novel Writing Month at Holy Roast Cafe in Santa Rosa, California on Monday, November 12, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

A novel idea that keeps growing

A growing group of people across the nation look forward to November every year as the month they finally write that novel, achieving a goal seen as unattainable by most of the rest of us.

Hailed as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, the event prompts aspiring novelists to throw literary caution to the wind and write furiously to reach 50,000 words in 30 days' time. They "win" if they accomplish that task; there are no judges or contests involving the content of their novel.

The idea behind NaNoWriMo started in 1999 with a group of friends in Berkeley.

By the second year, NaNoWriMo had an actual website and 140 participants; only 21 crossed the finish line by Nov. 30 with 50,000 words.

In 2011, NaNoWriMo saw 256,618 aspiring novelists across the country, poised over their keyboards, filled with hope. Of that number, 36,843 writers successfully finished before the deadline.

This year, 1,410 writers from Sonoma County are taking part in the madness of writing a novel in 30 days. The common wish is to cross that finish line successfully, and some even look ahead with dreams of getting their work published. But their reasons for taking part in such a grueling challenge vary as widely as the stories they're writing this month.

"When I began dating my husband, I would ride on the back of his motorcycle as we traveled across country," said Debbie Hughes, 54, formerly of Petaluma. "During that time I wrote story after story in my head. I just never put pen to paper or finger to keys, and they stayed in my head."

Hughes and her husband recently retired, choosing to give up an address in favor of traveling the country by RV with the motorcycles towed behind. "Now that we are retired and living our dream of traveling, it is time for me to dust off a very old dream and check it off my &‘Bucket List' — that of being an author, not just a dreamer."

"I found out about NaNoWriMo last year when my English teacher told me about it," said Sarah Long, 17, of Lake County.

In recent years, many teachers have been introducing NaNoWriMo into their school plan, encouraging young writers to accomplish something grandiose before they graduate. Those under 17 are encouraged to sign up with the Young Writers Program at NaNoWriMo's website, where they can set a lower writing goal for the month.

"NaNoWriMo is a chance to challenge myself to go beyond the usual short stories and design a larger, far more complex world, full of larger, more complex characters and plot lines," Long explained. "It's a chance to let myself go insane with the possibilities, then create sense from the chaos."

"I joined NaNoWriMo in 2003 as a way to finally get me writing," said Debbie Koehler, 58, a Petaluma local in her ninth year of NaNoWriMo. "I struggled for the first two weeks with all the usual blocks — I'm not good enough, I can't do this, this is insane, I don't have the time."

Koehler gave up after 2? weeks of struggling, figuring that the mere 7,000 words she'd come up with by that point weren't enough to continue trying to reach 50,000 words in such a short amount of time.

"A few nights later, I had a dream," she said. "I don't remember what the dream was about, but I woke up totally energized, knowing I had to give this crazy contest one more try."

In the last week and a half of that November, Koehler scrapped her original story idea and started fresh, coming in at 33,000 words (of the 50,000 due) in eight days.

"I've crossed the finish line every year except that first one, and yet I consider 2003 a personal win for me," she said. "I proved to myself that I was capable of doing it, and that year gave birth to my fantasy series, &‘The Amoran Trilogy.'"

With only 12 days left, the few novelists still in the race are hunkering down to type out the last few thousand words before they submit their novels for an official "win" at

And come Dec. 1, they'll enjoy a full night's sleep for the first time in probably 30 days, the title of "novelist" firmly affixed to their list of accomplishments.

For more thoughts from NaNoWriMo novelists, visit

(You can reach Crissi Langwell at

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