For many writers — including a group of seventh-graders at Whitefish Middle School — NaNoWriMo is a month of hard work and creativity.
NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, started in 1999 as a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel within a month. NaNoWriMo became a nonprofit in 2006 and has since expanded to hundreds of thousands of participants each year. The program has also become part of the curriculum in nearly 6,000 classrooms.
Jessica Mintz’s seventh-grade class is part of those thousands of writers crafting their tales throughout the month.
Mintz herself didn’t know much about NaNoWriMo until she learned about it over the summer.
“I went to a writing conference in Kalispell this summer and there was a Columbia Falls teacher that does it, and I just thought, ‘That looks kind of cool,’” she said. “If anything, I feel like it’s a good chance for the kids to just write about what they’re interested in and have the experience of trying to write a book.”
The NaNoWriMo website provides an outline for the month and tools and worksheets for teachers to use at different grade levels.
Mintz said she started laying the groundwork just before November began, holding brainstorming sessions focused on setting, character, plot and more with her students.
When she told them they were about to write books, Mintz said she was met with enthusiasm.
“They were really excited,” she says. “So much of school is, ‘OK, write about this thing you learned about in social studies or write about what we’re doing in science, or summaries of something you read.’ They were really excited to just be able to write about whatever they wanted to write about.”
“To me, it could be one of those things that just triggers within a few kids like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” she added. “And how often do they get to do that?”
For the project, students had from Nov. 1 to Nov. 22 to hit their word count goals, which ranges from 500 to 10,000 depending on the student.
In finding a story to write, Mintz used models like Pixar’s fill-in-the-blank template — “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”
From this, the students came up with a wide range of tales to spin.
In one book, a girl named Evelin gets lost in a hurricane and tries to find her way home. In another, a boy named Noah begins fifth grade and hopes to turn the year around after being bullied as a fourth-grader.
In a mystery, a boy attends a camp where fellow campers begin to go missing, and another follows the adventures of an avalanche rescue dog and its partner.
In coming up with ideas, Mintz said she encouraged students to write what they know, using Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” as an example.
“I use that as a reference, how Jack London was there for the gold rush and learned a lot, but the story itself he’s making up. The dog’s perspective, some of it maybe could’ve happened, but he’s creating a story around things he experienced,” she said. “I just try to help them. The more connections you have with it, the easier it’s going to be to write about. If you’re just trying to make up everything, it’s really hard.”
The students also got some outside assistance early on, as the Whitefish Writing Coaches of Montana spent two sessions brainstorming things like plot and how to expand the story.
“They really gave us ideas of like, if you get stuck, you could add a background chapter, a flashback to the character’s childhood. Those kinds of things really helped when they gave us ideas like that,” Mintz said.
As far as a trial run goes, Mintz says she’s happy with the project and planning on doing it again in the future. After the students design covers for their book, they also have the option of having their works printed through the NaNoWriMo website.
Right now, as the project winds to a close, she’s got a lot of reading to do, though some of the authors aren’t closing their books just yet.
“One boy came to me today, he’s just been so into it, and he’s like, ‘I’m not even on my climax yet, there’s no way I’ll finish my story by Friday. Can I end it like it’s going to be a series?’ And I said, ‘It’s your book, you can definitely do that.’ And then I told him even after this month is over, he can keep working on it,” Mintz said. “That’s what’s cool about NaNoWriMo, even though it’s a month activity, they can still go in and continue their book.”
More information on NaNoWriMo is available at www.nanowrimo.org.