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Victoria writers embrace national novel writing month

Kali Larsen, left, Michelle Sillars, Rachel Peterson, and Josh MacLeod work on their novels at Moka House for the National Novel Writing Month challenge. - Edward Hill/News staff
Kali Larsen, left, Michelle Sillars, Rachel Peterson, and Josh MacLeod work on their novels at Moka House for the National Novel Writing Month challenge.
— image credit: Edward Hill/News staff

They write with blinding speed, fuelled by untold gallons of coffee.

Gathered in cafes and late-night fast-food joints, hunched over laptops and iPads, they appear to be students, but most are not. They tap out page after page of text, all seeking to write the great Canadian novel, or at least the greatest novel possible within 30 days.

This is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWritMo for the initiated or just NaNo – where the singular aim is to binge write what could pass for a novel with at least 50,000 words. There are no winners or losers in this event, just bragging rights and a declaration to the world that, “Yes, I have written a novel.”

Michelle Sillars, for one, has nearly taken up residence at Moka House coffee shop on Hillside Avenue. A “municipal liaison” for NaNo in Victoria for three years, the 23-year-old jewelry maker and three friends sit together at a bench table, each fleshing out their respective plot lines and characters one day into the challenge.

Based on registrations and online chatroom chatter, Sillars estimates 150 to 200 people in Victoria are participating in NaNo, from teens to seniors. With Sillars is Kali Larsen, a 21-year-old University of Victoria political science and religious studies student; Rachel Peterson, 43, an English tutor and freelance editor; and Josh MacLeod, 35, who works at a thrift shop.

Common among this disparate group is an almost obsessive love of writing and the enjoyment of easygoing camaraderie at the coffee shop. The NaNo challenge gives a deadline, structure and a peer network to make the concept of speed-writing a novel less daunting.

“A lot of people say they want to write a novel. NaNo is a kick in the pants to do that,” says Larsen, who is crafting a science fiction story. “I definitely was somebody who said they wanted to be a novelist one day. I thought why not do it in a month?”

Like any group, they’ve created their own lingo – in Victoria’s NaNo world you’re either a “plotter” or a “pantser.” Participants either think ahead and plot their story out months ahead, or fly by the seat of their pants. Peterson says for her, being a plotter is a better path.

“I’m in the outline stage. It’s better than last year when I winged it and did 50,000 words, and the quality might not have been there,” she said. “This second try is more of a deliberate process. We all approach this differently.”

“The longer you do this, the emphasis turns from quantity to quality,” Larsen remarked.

“Some say what matters is quantity, some say what matters is quality. Some never edit, some edit as they go,” MacLeod added.

A group of writers in San Francisco started NaNo in 1999, which morphed into a non-profit educational operation that has spread around the world. Social media has helped connect writers and spread the word to make it a connected, communal event.

Although some professional writers might cringe at an event that measures the finish line at 50,000 words, the goal is to encourage people of any background to embrace literature and storytelling. The four sitting at the Moka House had little formal training, but a desire to be creative.

“I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. I started at three years old dictating to my parents. When I was seven I wrote Sailor Moon stories and eventually as a teen original stories,” Sillars said. “Writing is something I’ve always been interested in.”

Peterson, a tutor and an editor, has the most experience with grammar and structure, but found the idea of writing an novel unnerving.

“I started as a little girl writing a diary and poems and doing extra assignments in high school,” she said. “But writing a novel was the one thing that scared me the most, it seemed big and overwhelming. I thought, I’ve got to attack this.”

Some, like MacLeod, don’t have a problem pumping out novel-length work. In the past  four or five years he’s written about 15 books worth of material during NaNo.

“I wrote short stories myself. Now I’ve written far too many novels with NaNo. Some years its been two, three one year. I wouldn’t do that again,” MacLeod said. “They say you have to write a million words before you start writing good words.”

NaNoWritMo runs until Nov. 30.

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