Once upon a time, Danielle Le Roux took on an improbable mission to complete a novel in just one month.
But first she had to start with the basics.
“There’s a definite corpse and a definite investigation,” said Le Roux, laughing as she described the more obvious plot elements in her story, a mystery novel.
That’s just the beginning for Le Roux and several other aspiring Elk Grove novelists meeting weekly this November for , affectionately known as “NaNo” to participants. Founded by a Bay Area writing group in 1999, the online event has become increasingly popular with thousands of amateur writers seeking an extra push to write the Great American Novel.
And just to raise the stakes even higher, there’s a clear goal: writing 50,000 words by 11:59 p.m., November 30.
“I think the word challenge is what keeps me going,” said Heidi Craig, a stay-at-home mom from Elk Grove. “I’m really competitive, so I feel like I need to get those words done every day.”
Craig, Le Roux and seven other regulars make up the Elk Grove writing group that meets Wednesday evenings at on Bruceville Road. Most of the group members have participated before and some, including Alma Galapon, have even reached the prized word count milestone.
This year marks Galapon’s third NaNo event, but she says each year is a fresh lesson in balancing preparation with creative flexibility.
“The first year when I [finished], I wrote consistently 2,000 words every day,” said Galapon, an Elk Grove substitute teacher. “This year, I wrote without an outline for four days, then I realized that I’m just floating around in this world that I made.”
While NaNo writers have plenty of freedom in writing their novels, the event does come with a few rules. Nothing written before November 1 counts against the 50,000 goal—but some of the Elk Grove writers have found a loophole.
“It says no prose before November 1,” said Andrew Wilson, a Sacramento resident who joined the Elk Grove NaNo group this year. “It doesn’t say anything about outlines.”
Meetings help writers stay motivated
Since many NaNo participants are not published authors, meeting together is almost like joining a support group. While the Elk Grove members haven’t developed deeper friendships yet, they say having a specific day to commiserate helps the writing process.
“It’s a big motivator because I have a point in the week where I’m going to see other people who I’m at least mildly accountable to for how much I’ve worked on my novel,” said Le Roux, who works during the week as a program technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Outside of their weekly meetings, it’s up to the Elk Grove writers to stay motivated. There’s a NaNo website with tools like charts and daily reports that help track each novelist’s progress.
But the daily grind of writing, editing and crafting plotlines is a solitary job.
“It’s not necessarily getting words on the page,” said Alison Price, a senior at who’s participating in her third NaNo event. “It’s getting good words on the page.”
Last year, Price did just that by finishing her novel with 80,000 words—but her computer crashed and she lost the entire book. Undaunted, she recycled some characters for this year’s novel, a fantasy she titled “One of the Seven Sides of the Moon.”
“When you go into a bookstore, the name is really the biggest advertisement,” said Price. “It’s what makes you pull it off the shelf.”
Some NaNo participants have big dreams
Each of the Elk Grove group members had different reasons to sign up for NaNo. Ruby Petargue, participating for the fourth time, isn’t focused on meeting the word count goal. She started a new story along with the other writers on November 1, but recently scrapped that draft to continue working on an older project.
“I do it mostly for fun and I’m not too concerned about the end result,” said Petargue.
But some of the other writers have bigger dreams.
Craig’s NaNo project is historical fiction based on several generations of her family history with roots in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. If she finishes the novel, Craig thinks the church might publish it.
And if that happens, she might use NaNo to launch a writing career.
“Every chance I get, I want to work on this,” said Craig.