National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo
By Claire Graman
When I was a teen, I would come home from school, eat an enormous snack, and embark on a journey to a fantasy world, retreating to my room where I would write stories on my laptop. Writing always made me feel inspired, empathetic, and powerful. Yet I never shared my stories with anyone, because they were in the fantasy genre and fantasy was silly. Taking a creative writing class in college quickly reinforced this idea, and, to be fair, my fragile ego couldn’t handle criticism. Eventually, I stopped writing. School, work, and relationships all got in the way.
But writing is powerful, especially for teens. It’s therapeutic for mental and even physical health. It helps them be more engaged. It helps them learn to communicate and correlates with better success in school. But most importantly, creative writing builds confidence and creativity. This is vital for teen girls in a society that constantly tries to undermine and confine them.
I’ve been thinking about all this, what creative writing does for teen girls and what it did for me as a teenager, because I’ll be teaching a class in November to tie in with National Novel Writing Month. Founded in 1999, NaNoWriMo (as it’s lovingly called) is a nonprofit dedicated to creating “the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.” The hardest part of writing is often just making time. By setting goals and challenges for the month of November (it doesn’t have to be a whole novel), NaNoWriMo helps transform ideas about writing into realities.
NaNoWriMo Program for Teens
NaNoWriMo has a special Young Writers Program for the under 18 crowd. Teens can register for free to make goals, access resources, and enter a safe writing community.
This November, I’m not only teaching creative writing, but returning to it, by making my own humble goal for NaNoWriMo. Here’s how I’m preparing for my journey and your teens can too:
1. Finding Story Ideas for NaNoWriMo
It’s one thing to say you’re going to write and another to find that amazing idea that will launch your story. Fortunately, there are tons of great writing prompts online, but inspiration can be found anywhere. Gone (for now) are the days of people-watching at a café, but you can find people from all walks of life sharing their perspectives and stories online. One of my favorites is the YouTube channel Great Big Story which has bite-sized documentaries on fascinating subjects and people.
2. Developing Characters
You might think the next step is plot, but I think character is even more important. Having a rich, complex protagonist is the key to a great story, an anchor on which to suspend disbelief. The character’s desires and beliefs about the world shape the story, so it’s important to know your heroine (or hero). Answering some questions about your protagonist is a simple way to flesh them out. Another good exercise is to think of your favorite characters from fiction and deconstruct them. For example, I turn to the reboot of She-Ra on Netflix. Creator Noelle Stevenson did an amazing job turning the characters from the 80s cartoon (nearly identical Barbie-shaped women from a glorified toy commercial) into unique and memorable teen girls coming of age in different ways.
3. Charting a NaNoWriMo Course
Once you have your characters, where do they go? Up a mountain, of course. A figurative mountain that is: the classic narrative arc of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. A roller coaster is another apt analogy. Here’s where I always get into to trouble. I know the beginning and the end, but how to fill up the middle with mini struggles that will eventually lead them to that end? Fortunately, there are plenty of great resources online for shaping your story. One of my favorites is Mythcreants, a blog that focuses on fantasy and sci-fi, but offers great advice for any type of writer, including deconstructions of tropes and stereotypes, as well as lessons learned from popular novels and tv shows.
4. Style and Substance
Now that you know where you’re going, you can get fancy. How are you going to tell your story? What’s the genre? What’s the perspective? First person (I went to the park)? Third person (she went to the park)? Maybe you’ll take the bold step of telling it in second person (you went to the park). Will you tell it through the point of view of one character or many? Maybe it’ll be epistolary, told through letters, newspaper articles, or audio recordings (like Dracula). Maybe it’ll be a graphic novel or a play or poem. Maybe it’ll be nonlinear, with flashbacks or even time travel. Again, the best way to get inspiration here is to look to your favorite authors and see what they do. There are writing rules and conventions, of course, but once you understand them, you can break them.
5. Editing and Revising
The most important part is getting words down on the page, but once you’ve done that, what’s next. Learning how to edit and revise is how your draft becomes a polished story or novel. Be ready to “kill your darlings” and find “beta readers.” This part is challenging, but ultimately rewarding as your story reaches its full potential. For my class, I’m hoping girls can reach out to each other and create a writing and editing community.
Writing can be daunting, but also exciting. This November, try encouraging your teen girls to write or even write a bit yourself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a fantasy world to return to.