An interview with Grant Faulkner

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and today I have an interview with Grant Faulkner, the executive director of National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. And although NaNoWriMo is in November, the organization also has lots of other events, including one that starts in April, which is why I’m talking with him today. I want you to know about Camp NaNoWriMo because it’s not too late to participate.

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MIGNON: Thanks for being here with me today, Grant.

GRANT: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on, Mignon.

MIGNON: You bet.

MIGNON: So I know Camp NaNoWriMo is starting in April. Before you tell me about Camp NaNoWriMo, why don’t you you assume my listeners know nothing about your organization its history. And why don't you just tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got started.

GRANT: Yeah, it's kind of a kind of big start, big story. You know Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. In 1989, he really kind of woke up one day and decided that he wanted...as a lover of…as a lover of reading novels, he want to write a novel, and he hadn't taken, you know, writing workshops, he hadn't written a lot of how-to-write books, but he figured out very correctly that the best way to learn to write a novel was to write one. And so he looked over at his bookshelf and kind of took out some of the slimmer volumes and did a rough word count estimate and came up with 50,000 words. And so he figured you can do, you know, he did a little bit of math and figured you can write 50,000 words in a month if you really, you know, dedicate yourself to it and commit yourself. And he invited 20 of his friends, and they met after work in coffee shops and wrote together and did all sorts of kind of writing games, writing challenges, and you know that year the next year those 20 people, they thought it was a worthwhile thing to do, and Chris thought it was a worthwhile thing to do, and they invited friends and 150 people joined them the next year and then they set up a very rudimentary Web site the following year and 5,000 people signed up.

And then you know we've we've now reached 500,000 people in all of our programs. So it's just kind of spread virally on the internet, and all of those things that Chris was doing in that that initial NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, we still do today. We're very much about a goal, and a deadline is a creative midwife as we say, don't wait to write a novel someday, you know, we want people to write their stories today, and then we have this fantastic vibrant community both online and in person. So we have about a thousand volunteers which we call municipal liaisons, around the world organizing writing events during November and beyond. And then we work with 1,200 libraries as well to host writing events. So we're a very collaborative organization, and we're really all about just doing big, big things. So it's...we're really about an empowerment.

MIGNON: And I'm such a fan of the organization. I just think the mission is so great: to get people writing. To just to sit down and write.

GRANT: It’s hard to do, you know, so many people, think I read a "New York Times" survey awhile back and 81 percent of Americans said they want to write a book someday. And the keyword there really is the "someday" part, I think. I think so many people want to do it. But it's, they're not making it happen now and that's what we really believe in: is don't wait until someday because someday just tends not to happen.

MIGNON:  Right. And so you got started, the organization got started with November being the month in which you write a novel, but now I know you have a bunch of other programs. So, yeah, why don't you talk about those.

GRANT: Yeah, we kind of have a branding challenge because we're known as National Novel Writing Month. It's the month part, and we're we're famous for that, but we have extended our programming so we're really here year round. And so after NaNoWriMo, we have, "I wrote a novel now what?" and we do that in January and February, and it's really focused on helping people...all those next steps of novel writing, you know, all the next steps of the journey. So helping people think about how to revise their novels, think about guiding people through all the publishing labyrinth whether people want to self publish or or hybrid publish or traditionally publish. And then we do Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July, and Camp NaNoWriMo, sometimes people will think that that's a real camp, that we're actually, you know, have cabins, real live cabins, and I wish we did, but it's virtual. So we have a website for Camp NaNoWriMo, and : Camp NaNoWriMo is, the way I like to describe it, is it's a more casual version of NaNoWriMo, so writing 50,000 words of a novel is the emphasis in November, but in April and July, it's more open ended. It's kind of a virtual writing retreat as we like to describe it. And so that means that you can write anything; you don't have to write a novel. You can revise a novel. This is what I really love: When people write their novels in November and revise in April and July. You can write a collection of short stories, poems, flash fiction, scripts, anything. And you can set your word your goals too. So you could write 10,000 words, 50,000 words, 100,000 words, or you could write by hours, you know, There are a lot of different ways to measure it. And then during Camp NaNoWriMo, also we have a little online cabins, which is a more kind of intimate experience for people.

MIGNON: Right. And that's why I decided to talk to you now: because Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up in April, and I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo a few years ago, and I, yeah, love the virtual cabin experience. I've kept in touch with some of the people who were in my cabin. It was really wonderful to have that supportive small group of people.

GRANT: Yeah, well, we were super happy. I remember the year that you did it, and it was like a celebrity showed up in our cabin. We're like "Grammar Girl is here!"

MIGNON: And I had this feeling: I can't let down the group because you have a group goals as well as individual goals.

GRANT: Exactly. And that's one of the beautiful things about it is that everyone has a goal and that people really want everyone else to succeed. And I think there are very few writing communities that are like that. And so I think, you know, if you go on Twitter, especially during NaNoWriMo, you just see people encouraging other people and rooting them on, you know, absolute strangers--just the fact that they're doing NaNoWriMo is is...brings people together.

MIGNON: Right. And besides Camp NaNoWriMo, I believe you have things in schools, right? Things for students?

GRANT: We do. We actually have our young writers program, which is also, it's a separate program and a separate website. We just launched a huge new wonderful website, and it's a year-round program as well. And so it is our most popular time for our young writers program is November. Just like with National Novel Writing Month. But we do writing contests and a variety of things on the young writers program site year round. So we're really extending all of our programming to be...to provide year round support, and we're actually going to launch a huge new wonderful NaNoWriMo website this year as well.

MIGNON: Oh, that's a big undertaking.

GRANT: It is. It's gonna be super wonderful. I'm calling it FitBit for novelists.

Yeah, and the reason I do that is because we're providing all of these, you know, writing tracking tools. We're really deepening that and providing an array of ways to kind of explore your writing life and hold yourself accountable and reach new and bigger goals. So I think it's can be really fun, and I should say that we existed before Fitbit, so I think Fitbit is kind of NaNoWriMo for writers.

MIGNON: Yes, that's going to be so great. I confess that I have tried to hack multiple walking and running tracking apps to track my writing, and none of them quite...none of them worked very well for that, so I finally gave up.

GRANT: I know. This is what I feel like: I feel like all of the tracking-oriented sites and organizations in the world, we need to have one big conference, and come up with, like, some some some tools that span different sorts of goals and behaviors.

MIGNON: Right. Yeah. So you've got all these great events that create enthusiasm about writing, mostly fiction writing, but also other kinds of writing like you said poetry. I think I worked on my calendar in my cabin, so you know, you've been doing this for quite a while. So tell me what are the sort of the big picture things you've learned that are the best advice that you can give to writers.

GRANT: Yeah. You know, I think we think about this a lot because we have, you know, this year  for : NaNoWriMo on our adult site, the main site, we'll have somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000  people sign up, and they want to write a novel. Of that number, about 15 percent of them will hit 50,000 words.

So it's always our goal to to raise that number, and it's a really interesting challenge, and I think, we've tried different things every year. We have a whole kind of gamification system on the site where people get badges for different milestones. I think that the key to success in NaNoWriMo is you know we have this discussion about whether you should plan your novel, meaning write a big long outline or just pants it--just show up and write. And I think everybody has to find their own creative process that works for them. But I do think some preparation is really important and that doesn't have to be preparation on your novel persay although I think that helps. But I think just coming up with, like, for instance a time management strategy. Most people we find it takes him about two hours to write 1,700 words.

And so you have to really think about your lives. I mean most of us are busy people. I've never heard anyone say they're not a busy person. And so no matter what...how busy you are you have to think about how can you open up a chunk of two to three hours a day to reach 50,000 words, and so that's that's one thing I really emphasises emphasizes is the plan beforehand, you know, don't, don't just jump in and, you know...I think if you just jump in and do it and don't even know how many hours it takes, you you'll probably drop off after a few days, and then when you when you fall further and further behind the word count, it's harder to come back. And that's another thing that we actually say: we're like if you get sick or have a big work project and have to take a week off or can't write for a week, don't quit. It's the main thing we want is for people to write. So if...just get back and set a new goal, some goal that makes you come back and write. And sometimes people have these amazing heroic comebacks, you know, they'll write 10,000 words in a day and finish.

So, those are just a couple.

MIGNON: Right, and November is always hard because Thanksgiving falls in there too.

GRANT: It depends on your Thanksgiving strategy. If you're someone who travels through Thanksgiving or someone who hosts Thanksgiving, yeah I can count against you. If you're a person like me who does neither,

Thanksgiving is my comeback weekend. I like I, like, block it out, and I use that that long weekend to really catch up on my word count. So, but you're right. Everyone has a different sort of relationship I think that every month. We're always getting asked, like, why do you do it in November. And, you know, every month poses some hazard, you know, like if we didn't February there'd only be 28 days.

MIGNON: Right.

GRANT: There's there's always seemingly a holiday and every month that takes somebody out.

MIGNON: And I guess it's a great excuse to hide from your family for a couple of hours. I have a deadline. Sorry!

GRANT: Exactly. I think it's come in as a really handy tool during awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

MIGNON: And I do I do tend to get overstimulated and need to sneak away and have some quiet time during holidays. So.

GRANT: Yeah.

Yeah, that would be a good excuse.

GRANT: It's a good excuse to find some solitary time because writers tend to be introverts. And so yeah.

MIGNON: It’s funny, everyone...

GRANT: And actually that's a key actually that's a key to NaNoWriMo success too, I think, is, is announcing it to the world so that everyone knows that you have that goal.

And then when you when you see people, you know, if you announce it on Facebook or Twitter or whatever they'll ask you how you're doing. And this is actually a great behavioral change strategy for any behavior you want. You don't want to say, "I dropped out." You want to say, "Oh, I'm at 30,000 words, and I'm all I'm going to finish." So it's just like announcing it to people builds in a system of accountability, also just like what you're saying, like, like, telling your friends and family what you're doing and just asking them for support for a month is also a great way to finish. You know, to have people rooting you on and saying, "Oh I'll make dinner tonight. I'll wash the dishes," so that you have some writing time.

MIGNON: And what your advice for revision those January-February months when you have this really ugly probably manuscript.

GRANT: Yeah.

MIGNON: You can barely even call a novel because it still needs so much work. What is your advice for people?

GRANT: I think first it's like a kind of emotional acceptance that you have created something that's very messy, but it's not just your novel that's messy, every rough draft in the history of the world has been messy, and it takes a lot of, you know, you have. You have to have a lot of fortitude to jump in and to revise it, and revising is much different than writing the rough draft. I think they're equally important in the end, but it's very different. And so, you know, we...and there are, you know, just hundreds of different ways you can go about revising, so we provide a lot of resources and webcasts and podcasts and, you know, try to support people to find their revision techniques that work for them. But I do think it's important to...after you've written the rough draft during November is to take some time off. I think this is the best revision advice ever and and really distance yourself from your writing and then come into it new. So when you open up that messy novel in January or February, you can almost...I heard this too recently, is just to just to pretend like somebody else wrote it, and so pretend that you're reading somebody else's draft, and then it makes it easier to kind of clean up and provide those kind of harsh harsher or more, you know, you strenuous editorial demands.

MIGNON: And to wrap up…

GRANT: Yeah, and that's yeah, yeah, I think like..also like knowing, like, for instance, like, since since you're Grammar Girl, I don't think that that second pass at revision, that's not when you should be too worried about getting all of the commas in the correct place. You know, it's great if you do, but I think that when you're reading that rough draft, you're really thinking a bigger picture. Kind of like story structure, development characterisation, all those things...you're wanting to go deeper into the story, and then when you really want to clean it up in terms of like copy editing proofing that comes that comes later.

MIGNON: Yeah, I absolutely agree: You shouldn't worry about the commas and the capitalization even the spelling until you have the story down and you think it's pretty much done and that's the time...

GRANT: Yeah.

MIGNON: To then copy edit which is a completely different kind of editing from, you know, developmental editing.

GRANT: Yeah, it's different part of your brain, so if you're I mean a writer like me, sometimes I need to clean up things just to feel good about them and create some momentum so I will, you know, do some cleanup but that's not my priority.

MIGNON: Yeah, well to wrap up why don't you share some of the biggest success stories. Give people hope that if they participate in Camp NaNoWriMo in April or maybe wait until July or November that they that there are people who have had great successes coming out of your programs.

GRANT: There are. It's amazing. I recently met with the author Jasmine Guillory who's written several wonderful romance novels. Actually one of them was just chosen by Reese Witherspoon for her book club, and she had her first taste of NaNoWriMo one year during April. We have Sara Gruen with "Water for Elephants." Erin Morgenstern with "Night Circus." Marissa Meyer has written, she writes...she writes participates in NaNoWriMo every year. And if she has to write one of her novels that, you know, in a non November month, she does it NaNoWriMo style, as does Hugh Howey. He wrote the "Wool" series. Let me see Rainbow Rowe wrote "Fan Girl." So there's just a long list of bestselling authors who have participated in NaNoWriMo. Even Alexander Che has. I could I could go on and on to tell you the truth. We've had thousands of novels that have been published through NaNoWriMo.

MIGNON: That’s amazing. So listeners take note! I know that a lot of you are in that group of people who want to write a novel someday and I urge you to try to start, to maybe use this opportunity, maybe do it on your own. But I found NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo to be just a helpful and supportive environment.

GRANT: Yeah. And here's what I want your listeners to do also...is that after you participate in Camp NaNoWriMo, I want you to write Mignon and tell her to come back and write her novel with us because I know that you made some progress during the one Camp you participated in.

MIGNON: I did, and then I had that big mess, I couldn't bring myself to fix it.

GRANT: Yeah, yeah, you can. You can, Mignon.

And you're gonna, you're gonna be up there with with all the authors I just listed some day. I hope so.

MIGNON: Yeah it was...my family had been reading it and they're like it's great. Oh this is wonderful. Wait. Oh my gosh. Happened? Oh this was off the rails. It started out so strong.

GRANT: Yeah, you got to go a little off the rails, I think, especially in those first drafts.

Yeah. And then, you know, kind of kind of bring it back in. Yeah, but I think, I think NaNoWriMo, you know, it's also, it's it's, and this is how I actually started participating. It's a wonderful experiment with your creative process. And so I think every writer should do it just once just for that sake. You know, what's it like to set this, like, really huge goal and to try to reach it. And I find that it influences so many other things they do in life. Yeah. And so I'm always thinking about...one of our staff person...he has a saying about a "montholution," you know, he likes to set monthly goals, and I think that's such a good way to be accountable. I think sometimes when we set annual or yearly goals, that's just too much of a time period, too big of a time period. And if we, kind of, and this is like what NaNoWriMo is about too is take that big goal and break it down into smaller chunks, and then you're just focusing on what you need to do the next day or the next week.

MIGNON: Right. Well, I thought you were going to say...I don't wanna hear from listeners and encouraging me to do it...I want to hear from listeners who tell me they heard this podcast, and then they decided to participate and loved it. So that's what I want to hear.

GRANT: Okay. I want to hear that too. And then and then and then write Mignon and say don't pick up that novel that went off the rails.

MIGNON: Grant is always encouraging everyone to write because that's what he does.

GRANT: Yeah, yeah that's true.

MIGNON: And that's why I love it.

GRANT: Well that's our mantra. Everyone has a story to tell, and I believe that.

MIGNON: Absolutely. So tell tell listeners where they can get more information.

GRANT: Yeah. So we have a separate website for Camp NaNoWriMo it is campnanowrimo.org, and if you don't know how to spell NaNoWriMo because sometimes it gets a little weird, it's N A N O W R I M O, we also have the NaNoWroMo.org website. And if you sign up on the nanowriomo.org website, you can get our monthly newsletter and all of our communications about different events and things we do throughout the year.

MIGNON: Wonderful. I know you're really busy this time of year, so I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

GRANT: It's always fun to talk with you. So thank you so much for having me, Mignon.

MIGNON: You bet.

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