NaNoWriMo was started in July of 1999. Founder Chris Baty and 20 friends decided to each write a 50,000 word novel in a month. They wrote from July 1 to Aug. 1. The second event was held in November and included an official website, 140 participants, and a set of rules: you must start from scratch, it cannot be co-authored, you must write a novel, and you must validate it with NaNoWriMo to verify that you actually wrote 50,000 words.
While the second year was far more successful, year three was when it really took off. Over 5,000 participants signed up at the beginning of the month. The next year brought the count up to 14,000, and participants this year will likely exceed last year's figure. By 2008, NaNoWriMo had produced over 1.6 billion words. This venue has served as a jumping off point for several known novels that have since been traditionally published, such as Sara Gruen's New York Times Best Seller,Water for Elephants.
I have participated in NaNoWriMo for two years, and though I've never made it to the vaunted 50,000 word goal, this year I will embark on my third attempt. Participating entails a major time commitment, and requires a will of iron to persevere. In order to reach the goal of 50,000 words, one must commit to writing between 1,500 and 2,000 words per day. Throughout the month, participants are encouraged to continue through "pep talks" written by NaNoWriMo staff and various well-known authors. They often offer up strategies such as advising writers to write without input from their "Inner Editors," and to save editing for after the completion of the first draft. The program continues to involve participants even after the end of the month by periodically sending tips on how to revise their novels and orchestrating other smaller programs like "Camp NaNoWriMo,” which happens during the summer months and includes an online “cabin” community, where people assist each other in their writing goals.
Experiences with and opinions on NaNoWriMo vary. WSA humanities teacher Allan Batchelder describes it as a "chance to share with and receive feedback from a vast community of writers, from beginners to award-winning authors of best-selling novels." However, former English and Creative Writing teacher Eleanor Johnson questions the process by saying, "NaNoWriMo is a splendid way to get many pens and keyboards moving, but I do not think that November should be designated National Writing Month (...) In my limited experience, students who have taken on the NaNoWriMo challenge come to school exhausted and have difficulty completing writing assignments and other homework." Eleanor goes on to suggest that the event take place in an alternate month such as January or July. She says that though she acknowledges the program provides benefits to some, all writers are different, and NaNoWriMo is not for everyone.
Though fraught with new challenges at every turn, NaNoWriMo presents an unequaled opportunity for growth and self-discovery. And you might have fun! Participating in a program like NaNoWriMo is also a fantastic CAS opportunity, thoroughly fulfilling the Creative component, several times over. Whether or not NaNoWriMo is a good fit for your personal writing style, it's definitely an opportunity to undertake new challenges, and is something that, even though you may not finish, is worth trying.