The novel-writing challenge: 50,000 words in 30 days

November is National Novel Writing Month, a US-based initiative that sees would-be writers aiming to complete a 50,000 word work in 30 days.

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November is National Novel Writing Month, a US-based initiative that sees would-be authors around the world pledge to complete a 50,000-word work in 30 days. Zaineb al Hassani talks to the organiser and some of the participants

As the clock struck midnight on Sunday tens of thousands of people began a journey into the creative unknown, all participants in the increasingly popular annual event known as NaNoWriMo.

Otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo was started by the San Francisco native Chris Baty in the summer of 1999. The main aim is to produce 50,000 words - the equivalent of 175 pages - of a novel in 30 days.

Participants must sign up to the website,, and upload their work before midnight on November 30. Uploading verifies the word count (you can scramble the document beforehand if you're worried about putting your manuscript into a stranger's hands). People who successfully complete the challenge are listed as official winners and can collect a certificate. But with no tangible rewards beyond this, what exactly is the point?

"It's always been a delightful moment when I've explained this to strangers," says Baty, the executive director of The Office of Letters and Light - the charitable organisation through which NaNoWriMo is run. "I think for most people it just feels really great. Tackling a large creative project, you never feel more alive than when you set a goal that's slightly bigger than yourself and then nail it. Additionally, I think that spending a month exploring your imagination is truly one of the best things you can do."

Taking place throughout the whole of this month, and now in its 12th year, NaNoWriMo has so far welcomed 612,935 people to its fold, and between them they have produced more than seven billion words. Not bad for a non-profit, participant-funded event that initially saw a mere 21 people take part - producing a total of six winners.

Not that reaching the 50,000 mark is the most important thing to achieve, at least according to NaNoWriMo's programme director, Lindsey Grant: "We encourage a lot of people to write just to write and not even worry about that word goal because, ultimately, they're going to write more during November than they would otherwise.

"Whether that's 1,000 words, or 15,000 words, or whether they reach the 50,000 goal or go beyond, what gets us so excited is that instead of thinking about writing, people are actually doing the writing.

"It still sounds daunting, even when you say it'll be fine, it'll be 30 days' work. But the remarkable thing about it is that when you break it down into that daily total - 1,667 words - it becomes infinitely manageable."

Of course, there is no guarantee that those words will be any good. But one of NaNoWriMo's aims is to rid people of their fear of producing less -than-stellar work, as well as forcing them to take risks.

Hollie Parker, a 27-year-old PR executive based in Bahrain, agrees: "The most important thing I think I've gained is the knowledge that writing a book isn't as impossible a task as it may seem. Until I took part, I never thought I'd have a chance at being a novelist. With (almost) one book under my belt, though, and hopefully a second one from this year's NaNoWriMo, I'm just that extra step closer to realising my dream."

As for the rules, they are simple enough. Starting from scratch, wrimos must write an original piece of work and upload it on to the official website for verification before midnight on Tuesday, November 30.

Brian Chapman, a 37-year-old English teacher based in Amman, says that he finds the deadline helps to spur on his creativity. "I think NaNo is an incredibly important cultural phenomenon. It is a perfect example of how technology has changed the way we interact and get things done in this world. NaNo is extremely important to me. Not to be overly dramatic, but it strikes a creative vibe deep in my soul. I love the writing part, I love the challenge part, I love the connecting with people part."

People from more than 90 countries will be taking part in this year's event, from Micronesia to Tanzania, and from Russia all the way to the Middle East - with participants in this region coming from the UAE, Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Like many of the Middle East wrimos taking part this year, Fatma Abdulla AlBannai, a 21-year-old Emirati based in Abu Dhabi, will be tackling the project for the first time: "I would like to experience the self-satisfaction of finishing a novel. Furthermore, as an Emirati woman, I do believe that this would be breaking into new grounds. I want to show other people from the UAE - and other countries - that Emirati women are capable of becoming writers in different genres such as sci fi, horror, adventure or even romance. Maha Gargash has already broken the ice so I think it's time for the rest of us to melt it completely." Another Middle East-based newcomer is the 16-year-old student Jeehan Jawed, based in Sharjah, who will be participating this year having dreamt of writing a novel since she was six.

"I wanted to take part in NaNo last year but was too intimidated. I feel a lot more confident this year. In any case, isn't the best way to get over a fear to go ahead and just face what scares you?"

If you missed the start of the month, it's not too late to sign up. So does Baty have any last words of wisdom to share with everyone taking part?

"Remember, you can edit a bad novel into a good novel, but you can't edit a blank page into anything but a blank page. You need to give yourself permission to make a mess. I think that once you truly commit to it, the hardest part is over and behind you. Let it be fun, let it be an adventure and whatever you do, leave the editing for December!"