On a cold, dark Friday night, the Alley Cat Cafe in downtown Ithaca is a warm safe haven from the harsh weather. The scent of freshly brewed coffee hits soon after the first step inside. Smooth jazz music can be heard over customers interacting with the baristas, and, further inside the cafe, the faint cries of cats and the laughter of children can be heard from the other room. In one corner of the room, people of all ages type on their laptops and discuss the stories they are writing.
This is the atmosphere in which the Alley Cat Cafe’s weekly workshops for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) take place. NaNoWriMo is an annual creative writing project started by freelance writer Chris Baty in July 1999. In 2006, Baty and nonprofit expert Ellen Martin established the National Novel Writing Month nonprofit, originally named The Office of Letters and Light, to run NaNoWriMo. This project challenges writers of all levels from all over the world to write 50,000 words of a brand-new novel during the month of November. People of all ages can participate in the challenge. To promote participation from younger people, the nonprofit created a Young Writers Program aimed to engage with students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Kids can choose how many words they want to write instead of having to follow the 50,000-word word count.
The national event has steadily grown from having just 21 participants in its first year to garnering over 300,000 participants in 2016. The NaNoWriMo website, nanowrimo.org, is advertising on its homepage that there are nearly 800,000 active participants this year. The Young Writers Program started in 2005 with only 100 schools participating but increased to have over 95,000 students and educators participating by 2017.
NaNoWriMo’s massive reach has lead to a handful of critically acclaimed novels, like Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl,” a young adult novel that won the 2015 Buckeye Children’s Book Award in the teen category. Rowell wrote a letter to prospective NaNoWriMo participants on the NaNoWriMo website to encourage anyone interested in participating and to recount her experiences with the event. She wrote, “What I noticed right away was how easy it was for me to pick up. One of my challenges as an author is staying inside the fictional world I’m creating. … During NaNoWriMo, I never left the world of the book long enough to lose momentum.”
Ithaca College sophomore Jason Langford said the month gives him the opportunity to venture outside the typical college student routine of writing essays and research papers and focus on his creative ability.
“Especially when we’re in college, we’re just so focused on writing papers for classes,” Langford said. “It’s all academic, but the ambition of National Novel Writing Month and the push to be creative is just so refreshing and invigorating. There’s such a rush of adrenaline you’re experiencing throughout the month of November that it’s kind of like a rollercoaster, and it just keeps you going.”
Langford started participating in the project in middle school when his creative writing teacher suggested he should sign up for the Young Writers Program. This year is his first year participating in the adult version of the program. For this year’s NaNoWriMo, Langford is working on a young adult fantasy novel called “From Ashes to Wings,” a tale that tells the story of a half-dragon, half-human boy who is thrown into conflict between humans and dragons that he does not want to be involved in, but he must figure out what to do.
Though there are weekly writing sessions at the Alley Cat Cafe, Langford primarily works on his novel at home or at weekly write-ins hosted by students in the college’s Department of Writing. The write-ins, which take place on Tuesdays at the Student Activities Center and Thursdays at Smiddy Hall, allow students to get together, write and critique each other’s work. Langford said that working with other writers and having a group of people participating in the same task as him has been beneficial for his work on his novel so far.
“It’s really fun to be able to say to your neighbor ‘Hey, I’m stuck on this scene, can you help me?’” he said. “Having that community of writers grounds me throughout this whole process because it helps me realize that even when I get frustrated or stuck, I’m not alone.”
Senior Andrea Yzaguirre is the host of the college’s write-ins for NaNoWriMo. Yzaguirre has participated in NaNoWriMo since her senior year of high school in Pomona, California, when she took part in the program for her senior project. This year, she is working on a fantasy adventure novel about a pirate who has a vendetta against another character who killed a loved-one, and the pirate must find the killer.
After coming to the college and realizing that there were no groups on campus that meet up for NaNoWriMo, Yzaguirre took it upon herself to create one. This year, approximately 15 students are participating in NaNoWriMo and regularly attending the write-ins hosted on campus, Yzaguirre said.
“During my first year [of participation], the best thing that happened was that I found a community nearby who was meeting up every week to write together,” Yzaguirre said. “When I got here, I realized that I was going to be so bad at holding myself accountable if I don’t have that community. But since there was nothing here, I decided to make my own group so I could have people like I did back home that could inspire me to push through.”
Yzaguirre said that though being a college student and balancing NaNoWriMo with her classes, jobs and other extracurricular activities has been tough so far, planning out the times she writes and removing distractions has helped her stay on task.
“During the month, I make a plan by writing down everything I do in the week and find spots where I have two or three hours where I end up procrastinating regularly,” Yzaguirre said. “If I know that I have some time before my afternoon class to mess around, that’s now my writing time. I also removed all of my social media apps from my phone so I won’t waste time on my phone when I could be writing.”
Sprinkled throughout the internet, countless blog posts, articles and forums also discuss participating in NaNoWriMo and give advice for success — many of these posts are specifically geared toward sharing advice on how to succeed in the program as a college student. Some of the articles include, “Tackling NaNoWriMo as a College Student,” “NaNoWriMo Advice From A University Student” and “Why You Should Do NaNoWriMo While You’re In College.”
College students like Langford and Yzaguirre are not the only people in the Ithaca area participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo. Troye Platt is a teacher at the Northern Light Learning Center, a homeschool cooperative in the Ithaca area, and currently teaches a class called “Writer’s Kitchen” for young writers. She is also the organizer of the cafe’s write-ins. The class, which is marketed for kids between the ages of 9 and 14, allows students to learn the elements of a story, including plot, character development and scene, and apply what they’ve learned by creating their own stories.
“Before I had kids and started homeschooling, I was a classroom teacher, and one of the things I loved the most was engaging with kids about writing,” Platt said. “There’s nothing like holding that thing in your hand that you created, even with parent help, and it makes you feel so accomplished and powerful. Even if you don’t ever intend to be a professional, published writer, it serves you well in the future in so many aspects. That’s what I think makes storytelling so powerful.”