Navigating novels in November

Alicia Thompson has a tight deadline – 50,000 words, or the equivalent of a 175-page book, by Nov. 30 at midnight.

Thompson, a graduate student studying creative writing, is participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual event that challenges aspiring authors to pen a novel in 30 days.

The Oracle reported in 2008 that USF even had its own NaNoWriMo chapter called Velvet Botox. Although USF’s English department said it offers no official participation this year, novels remain on students’ and professors’ minds in November.

The project, which was founded in 1999 by San Francisco resident Chris Baty, started with 21 participants. By 2009, that number had risen to 167,510 novelist hopefuls – also known as Wrimos.

According to, the Tampa Bay area currently has 734 applicants who keep in touch through chat forums and “write-ins” where they meet and collaborate on their novels.

On Friday, write-ins will be held at Bloomingdale Public Library from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Sacred Grounds from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sixty-six percent of Tampa Wrimos are first-time NaNoWriMo participants, including Thompson.

Thompson said she decided to participate to help her finish her thesis, a young adult novel about a girl struggling with an eating disorder and other issues in her personal life.

“So far, I’m a little behind on my word count … but it’s making me commit to writing every day, which I think is the true point of NaNoWriMo – to encourage people to do what can be the hardest part of writing, to sit their butts in chairs and actually write,” Thompson said.

However, Thompson said she knows the work hasn’t ended once a writer meets NaNoWriMo’s deadline.

“Finishing 50,000 words doesn’t mean you should immediately turn those pages around and send them to an agent,” Thompson said. “But I think it’s a great way … to churn out a first draft that can serve as the foundation for something amazing.”

Disney Hyperion Books published her first young adult novel, “Psych Major Syndrome,” in 2009. The story follows Leigh Nolan, a freshman with a tendency to overanalyze everything.

Thompson said it took her six months to write the book, another six months to land an agent and two years to see it published.

“When I wrote it, I was in my last semester of college and faced with a lot of questions about my own future,” Thompson said. “I was supposed to be working on my thesis, but instead, I couldn’t stop writing chapters of this young adult novel.”

Associate professor of English John Fleming teaches Novel Writing, a course that stretches NaNoWriMo’s deadline and reduces the completed writing’s size.

“I wanted to create a course where students could learn how to plan out and structure a novel,” Fleming said.

Fleming said his students should have a plot, outline and at least the first 20 pages of their individual novels completed by the end of the course.

“We are also working on a young adult mystery novel as a group,” Fleming said.

Fleming’s own published writing includes the 1880s historical fiction novel “The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman” and the illustrated collection of tales “Fearsome Creatures of Florida.”

Although he said he doesn’t believe a writer can produce an effective novel in a month, Fletcher thinks NaNoWriMo offers students an entry point.

“I tell my students that the key is to start writing,” Fleming said. “If you wait for inspiration to strike, then you are never going to start writing a novel.”

Mass communications professor Rick Wilber said it took him several years to write each of his two novels, “Rum Point” and “The Cold Road,” and eight to nine months to rewrite a good draft.

Despite the difference in preparation time, Wilber said NaNoWriMo is a great idea because it encourages thousands of would-be writers to finally pick up their pens.

“Read heavily – especially the kind of novels that you are interested in writing – and stop talking about it and start writing,” Wilber said. “Until you write the first draft, you aren’t serious about it.”