- Year One (1999)
- Year Two (2000)
- Year Three (2001)
- Year Four (2002)
- Year Five (2003)
- Year Six (2004)
- Year Seven (2005)
- Year Eight (2006)
- Year Nine (2007)
- Year Ten (2008)
- Year Eleven (2009)
- Year Twelve (2010)
- Year Thirteen (2011)
Year One: Making some (not entirely horrible) noise
The very first NaNoWriMo took place in July, 1999, in the San Francisco Bay Area. That first year there were 21 of us, and our July noveling binge had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front. Nor did it reflect any hopes we had about tapping more fully into our creative selves. No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.
So sad. But so, so true.
The first year’s trials and tribulations are laid out in the introduction to No Plot? No Problem!, but the short version is that our novels, despite our questionable motives and pitiful experience, came out okay. Not great. But not horrible, either. And, more surprising than that, the writing process had been really, really fun.
Fun was something we hadn’t expected. Pain? Sure. Embarrassment? Yes. Crippling self-doubt followed by a quiet distancing of ourselves from the entire project? You bet.
But fun? Fun was a revelation. Novel-writing, we had discovered, was just like watching TV. You get a bunch of friends together, load up on caffeine and junk food, and stare at a glowing screen for a couple hours. And a story spins itself out in front of you.
I think the scene—full of smack-talk and muffin crumbs on our keyboards—would have rightly horrified professional writers. We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.
We called it noveling. And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.
Year Two: Peaking early
The next year, a friend offered to build an actual website for the event. His plan to create a professional-ish looking site that could accommodate several hundred participants seemed overly ambitious, but I didn’t want to discourage him because he was doing it for free. He built the site in time for the second NaNoWriMo, which had been moved to November to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.
I sent out an email announcing the November start date and new NaNoWriMo.com URL to friends. Who, in turn, forwarded the invitation on to their friends. By November 1, we had 140 people participating, half of whom I didn’t know, and most of whom lived outside of the Bay Area. Including some from Canada and places further afield. We had become international!
The event, I knew, was peaking. I was determined to make the most of our moment in the sun, though, and started adding some much-needed improvements to the site. The biggest of these was the NaNoWriMo Yahoo club I created, so participants spread out over a half-dozen cities could get to know each other.
The Yahoo club worked well on that front. But however helpful it was as a friend-finder, the message boards also started causing a few problems. Like when participants began posting some difficult questions. ‘Are you allowed to quote from other works in your book and still have the words count towards your total word tally?’ ‘Can you write a 50,000-word poem?’ And: ‘What if the book is entirely autobiographical with a few names changed? Is that still fiction?’ Serious debates ensued, and clarification of the rules was requested.
At first, I was flummoxed. Rules? Didn’t these people know that the ‘rules’ had just been a loose aggregation of contradictory statements that I’d hurriedly pulled from my butt the previous year?
Who had time for namby-pamby rules? A literary revolution was afoot here, people! Write first! Ask questions later! A novel-writing tornado was ripping through our very heartlands! When a tornado is approaching, do you waste time pondering what rules may govern its mighty winds?
No! You take off all your clothes and hurl yourself directly into its maw, feeling the elemental forces course through your very soul. And you ride those explosive currents until you becomethe cyclone. All-powerful. All-knowing. Destroying everything in your path.
How long did I keep up the tornado talk before providing some guidelines?
About twenty minutes.
Because, from my years of work as an editor, I knew that having a set of unbendable rules and a merciless deadline was absolutely essential in giving writers the mental focus and shared sense of toil necessary to tackle daunting projects.
So Year Two was when most of NaNoWriMo’s regulations were born.
Yes, you do have to start from scratch. No, you can’t co-author a book. Yes, it has to be a novel (some of the first year’s participants had worked on graphic novels and screenplays using an equivalency formula worked out in advance). And you are required to email your novel into headquarters by midnight, Pacific Time, at the end of the month for word-count verification purposes. Or it will be dismissed by the global governing council that oversees internet-based novel-writing events.
With the guidelines set in stone (and enforced by an invisible army of flying monkeys I had rented for the event), the second year came together smoothly. I sent out a couple pep talks in an effort to help acclimate first-timers to the strange climate of high-velocity novel-writing. And the Yahoo club was bursting with hilarious, empowering conversations and helpful hints. That year, 21 of the 140 people who signed up crossed the finish line, roughly mirroring the completion rates from the previous year.
Those who finished in time filled my Yahoo inbox with their novels, and I gleefully opened each manuscript and ceremoniously ran the word count function, rewarding each writer’s Herculean efforts with a small star placed at the end of their NaNoWriMo progress bars.
Because we all needed a drink by the end of the month, those of us in the Bay Area organized a Thank God It’s Over party at my friend Tim’s house, running string throughout his kitchen so people could clothespin excerpts of their novels up for others to enjoy. At the party, participants who had known each other only by their screen-names met and talked and danced and threw peanut M&M’s at each other. It was great. And things seemed enormously promising for the following year.
Year Three: The literary tornado touches down
To best understand the cataclysmic series of events that rained down on the third year of NaNoWriMo, you should read journalist Kara Platoni’s blow-by-blow account that ran in the East Bay Express newspaper:
It’s a good, long story, the gist of which can be summed up in two sentences: I had been anticipating 150 participants. Five thousand showed up.
I blame it on the bloggers. Blogs, at that point, had yet to be discovered by the mainstream media, and I was pretty clueless about them as well. I knew of their existence, but I had no real sense of their power to drive massive amounts of traffic until NaNoWriMo began being hit by hundreds of pinpoint visitor-streams from websites I’d never heard of.
At first it was great. Watching NaNoWriMo’s hit-counter spike as all these small web entities delivered yet another boatload of visitors to the NaNoWriMo site was truly a thrill. As sign-ups continued to increase—first to 200 then on towards 400—the amount of newcomers became a slight concern.
High turnout was awesome, but without any sort of automated sign-up system in place, getting each new user registered for NaNoWriMo took me about five minutes. And that wasn’t counting any questions that participants may need answered.
With five days remaining until the event started, I was working 16 hours a day flinging names up on the participant page as fast as I could. Then inviting them to join the Yahoo group, and, in a separate operation, sending them a welcome email. As I fell ever-further behind, the rising tide of Wrimos went from fun to frightening. STOP THE BOATS! I wanted to scream at all our referring websites. TURN BACK! WE HAVE NO MORE CABANAS! OUR BEACHES ARE FULL! WE’RE MINING THE HARBORS!
But it was too late. The NaNo population leapt from 1000 to 2000. And that’s when the newspaper articles began. NaNoWriMo got a wonderful write-up in the Los Angeles Times, which then lead to other pieces around the country. My mom was very proud, my friends were impressed, and the event was on the verge of collapse.
By the time sign-ups ended, the backlog of people waiting to be registered stood at over 3000.
Thankfully, that was when the cavalry arrived. My friends, many of whom had done NaNoWriMo the first year, came in to save the day. Bolstered by the redemptive power of caffeine and my friend Rolf’s set of networked computers, we began all-night sign-up processing vigils, taking turns opening, alphabetizing, club-inviting, and lying comatose on the floor.
It was a rough start, and things just got worse from there. Most of us came down with RSI problems from the mousework, and those of us who had planned to write novels had our start slowed by wrist pains and a four-day late start from all the administrative work.
Adding to the gray mood, the site was unceremoniously hacked a few hours into the event, and soon thereafter our tiny web-host demanded we find a new home because we were so horribly over our bandwith allotment that we had begun stealing resources from other web sites on our server.
But we rode it out. And, thanks to the compassionate help of volunteers and participants, things got better. This was, in effect, the birth of the modern NaNoWriMo. Where every seemingly insurmountable problem was solved by a supportive community who stepped forward at just the right time to say: ‘What do you need me to do?’
With the main Yahoo club disastrously overcrowded, individual participants set up regional message boards where participants could actually carry on a conversation. When, at the end of the month, I realized that having an official word-count validation would be impossible due to the numbers of potential winners, people just validated each other’s novels.
It was a beautiful, organic system where everyone, including complete strangers, chipped in with solutions. And better still, everyone took care of each other. This, too, would come to be one of NaNoWriMo’s greatest and most defining features. Friendly, funny writing support everywhere you turn.
In its three years, NaNoWriMo had become a new kind of writing group, one where it was okay to laugh at yourself and, more importantly, laugh at your shortcomings as a writer. With everyone aiming for completion rather than perfection, energy levels soared to new heights.
By the end of the third year, though, a new question had come up: Money. I had paid for the first and second NaNoWriMo’s myself, but Year Three posed a dilemma. The web-hosting costs had doubled, and the work of running NaNoWriMo had meant I hadn’t been able to take on any freelance writing assignments in October or November. Which left me in an awkward financial situation at the end of November.
On the last day of the event, I sent out a PayPal request for participants to help pay for the event by chipping in whatever they felt was fair. The mood at the close of that NaNoWriMo was triumphant, and I figured that if everyone who had gotten something worthwhile out of the adventure were to send in $1, I’d have more than enough to build a new automated site, pay the hosting bills, pay my own bills, and take all the year’s volunteers out for a gigantic thank-you pizza.
This was the start of my education in running an event without a mandatory entry fee. The biggest lesson of which is this: When you make contributions voluntary, very few people volunteer to contribute. No matter how great a time they had or how much they believe in your cause, 90% of participants just won’t find their way to clicking on the PayPal link or mailing in a couple dollars.
The karmic repercussions of it all were mind-boggling to me. Who were these monsters? I’d spent the last month staying up till 3 am every night patiently answering emails, offering encouragement, and giving up every ounce of love and support that the Red Bull hadn’t leached from my body. And when I asked for one dollar in return, they turned a cold shoulder? Was this the definition of community?
I spent a week or so frozen in that bitter, martyred pose until a public radio fundraising drive brought me out of it. The baritone-voiced radio announcer was trying to interest me in yet another Newsweek-filled pledge package, and I was looking around to find something to throw at the stereo. Which was when I realized what was happening.
My god, I thought. I suckle at the teat of public radio all year, and I have never once sent them a dime. Never. And how often had I ever given anything to charities or organizations I believed in?
Either I was a monster, or none of us were monsters. I did some quick calculations and decided, for the sake of my self-image, that none of us were monsters. We were just busy. With our hearts in the right places and way too much going on in our lives for us to always remember to support the institutions that made us happy.
That realization got me down off my cross, and improved my mood immensely. If I wanted to keep NaNoWriMo alive — and free of ads and other annoyances — I was going to have to work to communicate NaNoWriMo’s needs better. Which meant I had a lot of work to do before the following November. And I set to doing it. Right after getting a Newsweek subscription courtesy of the local public radio station.
Year Four: The blessed new site brings robots to NaNoLand
Every few years, someone enters NaNoWriMo’s orbit and raises the whole event up a few notches. Between years Three and Four, I was lucky enough to find Dan Sanderson. Who single-handedly wrenched NaNoWriMo into the 21st century.
Many of the site features you associate with NaNoWriMo were invented by Dan. Dan created the tantalizing candy-colored progress and winner bars. He wrote the novel-validation ‘count and delete’ computer script that allowed us to re-institute official novel verification. He customized the forums and somehow made an online home that easily accommodated the 14,000 people who signed up for NaNoWriMo IV.
For me, 2002 was all about the joy of having a fully automated, smoothly functioning site. That, and the painfully hilarious debacle of the t-shirts.
NaNoWriMo had sold t-shirts in tiny quantities and limited sizes in previous years. In 2002, though, I got carried away and decided that what the NaNo world really needed was 21 different combinations of sizes, styles, and logos.
The fact that I am easily confused, horrible at maintaining any sort of consistent organizational system, and prone to misplacing objects in very small spaces should have been a warning to me that processing and shipping so many items out of my living room was going to be a challenge.
But there are some lessons, apparently, you just have to learn the hard way. Which is why, when not answering emails, processing donations, writing pep talks, site text, or my own novel, I spent every waking moment of NaNoWriMo 2002 with the volunteer cavalry of friends, loading shirts one by one into a Tyvek mailers, carefully misaddressing them with a marker, and then making endless midnight rounds of postal drop boxes in Oakland, stuffing each poor blue box to the gills, and then moving on to the next box to repeat the process.
To the postal workers of Oakland: I’m sorry. And to everyone who ordered a shirt in 2002, I say this: Thank you for your boundless patience. If you got a shirt that even vaguely resembled your original order, you did much, much better than most people.
Happily, apart from the laugh-so-we-don’t-cry t-shirt misadventures, and some initial technical glitches, the event was absolutely mind-blowing. And from a programming point of view, it kind of set a template for all our future plans: Build things against a ridiculous time deadline, and then, unencumbered by things like beta-testing, put them out there for thousands of people to use.
It’s not the soundest of blueprints. But with a little calibration, it worked. And the new forums meant all participants could be in the same place again. Man! The forums! Watching the post numbers climb on the forums was like watching a small city build itself, from gate to spire, in a week’s time. And as it had been in its more small-town days, the city was governed by the impossibly helpful rules of kindness, humor, and high-octane encouragement.
The mood was dynamic. And the growth was beyond anything I had ever imagined. This was also the year that media attention helped the event spread further. NPR’s All Things Considered. CBS Evening News. Waking up in the middle of the night to talk to the BBC in Scotland. It was exhilarating and dumbfounding to watch this simple idea leap from computer to computer, country to country.
The finances of the event smoothed out in NaNoWriMo IV as well, and we raised enough money to pay for all our expenses without resorting to ads or sign-up fees. Things looked dandy for NaNoWriMo V. Which made me very nervous indeed.
Year Five: The ML Years + A Man Called Russ
As the escapade continued into its fifth year, I realized that the most important thing I could do for the longevity of the event was to help foster local NaNoWriMo chapters around the world. The NaNoWriMo.org site was useful and fun on a big-picture level, but a weekly pep talk from a disembodied voice in Oakland just wasn’t adequate motivational pressure for someone living in Singapore or Saskatchewan. What really kept participants writing was the fear of humiliating themselves in front of a group of real live humans in their own post code. I was on a mission.
The previous year, I had created the position of Municipal Liaison, an officious-sounding title for the already-existing groups of volunteer NaNoWriMo chapter-heads in each town. These people — with their dedication, their smarts, and their tender tough-love tactics — blew me away back then, and they continue to today. They are the heart of NaNoWriMo, and they do amazing work for no pay, and deserve a huge, huge cake with lots of icing.
In lieu of cake, during NaNoWriMo’s fourth year we had begun airlifting them NaNoWriMo stickers and pencils to help entice people to local meetings. In our fifth year, we continued with the stickers and pens, and added Lauren Ayer to our staff to be a point person for the MLs.
In 2003, I also hired the talented Julia Cardis to help with answering emails, processing donations, and overseeing t-shirt sales (the handling of which had been taken over by a fulfillment company in Ohio, mercifully far removed from my living room).
Relinquishing my death-grip on every aspect of the organization was hard, but by year five I had to admit I was teetering on the edge of burn-out, and having Julia’s calm hand on the rudder helped me start sleeping again. Mmm…sleep.
That was also the year the formidable Russ Uman joined the tech staff as part-time computer overlord. Remember that thing earlier about someone coming along every few years to usher in a new era of technolgical know-how for the event? Russ was that guy—a friend of a friend who answered a desperate help-wanted email I sent asking if he could recommmend any freelance PHP programmers who might be able to start work yesterday.
Russ offered himself. I had no idea that taking him onboard would lead to a chain of events that would end up changing my life, and the NaNoWriMo event, forever.
But more about that in a second.
Some memorable moments from the 2003 yearbook:
*Kicking the event off by sending out the first pep talk email to 2000 people, rather than the 25,000 in the database. What we lacked in breadth of dispersal, though, we made up for in depth: The lucky recipients got the email sent to them 10 times. The unlucky received over 200 copies before we were able to overpower the confused mail server and shut it down.
*The Tony Danza excitement: Was it the Tony Danza participating? Only his agent knows for sure.
*Hearing that another NaNoWriMo winner had sold her manuscript to a big-time publisher.
*Emailing with a monk participating from India, who wondered if it would be okay if helpers updated his word counts for him because his internet access was unreliable.
*Waking up in late November to find that the novel-validator had turned itself on ten hours early and had already validated a hundred novels. The good news: It had added everyone to the winner’s page without a hitch. The bad news: It had celebrated their accomplishment by sending them the winner icon and certificate from the year before. Doh.
Year Six: A new site and some new hopes
After the dust cleared on 2003, I sat down for awhile and made a list of the things that were critical to the future success of NaNoWriMo. These items included:
A cart that could be pulled by a team of miniature pot-bellied pigs.
A talking alarm clock.
The list went on and on, but by the end of my ponderings, one item seemed more important than any other: A new website that would better reflect the color and energy of the event. A new site that would have photos of participants, and help MLs spread the word about local meetings more easily.
Enter Jeff Fassnacht, a San Francisco graphic designer who made these dreams a reality. (Well, some of the dreams anyway. Despite his facility with the graphic design world, Jeff turned out to be entirely useless on the pig-cart-acquisition front.)
But Jeff did an amazing job of fulfilling NaNoWriMo’s every non-porcine need. From the running-man logo to the seductive light-blue curve-cornered rectangles, Jeff saw design solutions where I saw only lines and lines of confusing HTML code. And then Russ took the amazing skin Jeff had made, and concocted a muscly new site with well-toned database abs rippling beneath it.
We were expecting 40,000 participants to use Jeff and Russ’ new site in 2004, and 42,000 writers showed up. To help keep everything running smoothly with the higher turnout, we added a few more great people to the staff page. Julia took on the responsibilities and formal dress code of a full-time office job after NaNoWriMo 2003, but we were lucky to snag the brilliant Hyland Baron to take over for her as Managing Director.
Ellen Martin arrived from whatever heavens birthed her to be our contact person for the growing number of teachers who have brought NaNoWriMo into their classrooms. And East Bay ML and NaNo veteran Erin Allday stepped up to the plate as the Daily NaNo Q&A section editor and Co-ML Headmistress.
The sixth year also marked the debut of NaNoWriMo’s partnership with Room to Read, the international children’s literacy program. I had been looking for an international organization that would help us do some bookish good in the world, and through a friend, I found Room to Read. A few weeks later, our Cambodian Libraries program was born. NaNoWriMo gave 50% of its net profits from 2004 to the program, raising over $7000 — enough to establish and outfit children’s libraries in three Cambodian villages.
On a personal level, NaNoWriMo 2004 was also interesting because I spent much of it on book tour. The year before, I had pitched a NaNoWriMo surival guide called “No Plot? No Problem!” to a literary agent. She liked the idea, and we ended up selling a book proposal for it to Chronicle Books (woo hoo!), who wanted the completed manuscript in early December (uh oh). So I had spent November 2003 writing a novel in a month while also writing a guide to writing a novel in a month. Which completely proved the NaNoWriMo maxim “the busier you are, the easier it is.”
Anyway, when the book came out in November 2004, the publisher sent me out on a tour that gave me a chance to preach the high-velocity NaNoWriMo gospel (and work on my NaNo-novel) in a bunch of exciting places. I met MLs and wrote with local chapters and talked and typed my way through libraries, living rooms, bookstores and, most terrifyingly, writers conferences. As someone who had never published a novel of my own (or spent any time in ficiton-writing circles), I kept waiting for one of the conference volunteers to come wrestle me away from the podium when I got up to speak.
Thankfully, everyone was much too polite to wrestle me, and I even started getting a few hints that NaNoWriMo was slowly becoming a known entity in the the professional writing world. “I have all my students do NaNoWriMo,” one college professor told me at a bookstore talk. At a dinner reception for a writing conference, I was stopped by a fellow presenter on my way in the door. “You saved me,” she said. It turns out she was a writer who’d published her stories in the New Yorker when she was younger. But as the pressure mounted, she became too self-criticial to write. NaNoWriMo had made creating stories fun again, and she was at the conference to talk about a new collection of her work that had just been published.
While she talked, I kept trying to spot cameras hidden in the hummus platter. It felt like it had to be a practical joke. Real authors were doing NaNoWriMo?
Year Seven: Warehouses, WrimoRadio, and Children Everywhere!
NaNoWriMo 2005 began much like NaNoWriMo 2004—with me hovering nervously behind Russ as he did incomprehensible code-y things on that black screen with the white text that computer programmers always use. We were a couple hours late in getting the site launched (see “island time,” below). But finally things seemed ready, Russ waved his magic wand, and the site went live.
We watched the first folks show up in the forums. Initially, everything seemed brilliant. Sign-ups were functioning. The userlist was growing. But the site seemed a little slow. Then it got slower. Then it died entirely. Russ requested a server reboot from the folks in Pittsburg, PA who were hosting the site, and then NaNoWriMo.org came back up and we watched it die all over again.
“The database server is hosed,” Russ said. We cried together.
Opening day crashes had been an annual tradition for NaNoWriMo for many years at that point. And long-time participants had begun asking the good question: If you know the servers are going to get overloaded on that first day, why don’t you just get more servers?
I asked Russ this question in the weeks leading up to October 1, 2005, and he answered me in computer terms. But as he was talking, I envisioned his answer in corndogs. Let’s say you’re a corn dog chef, and you have a restaurant where 50 people a night come to have a nice glass of chardonnay and a breaded dog. But one day a year, National Corndog Day, 500 people come to your restaurant to partake in the goodness that is your corn dog. You love corn dogs and you love your patrons and you love NaCoDoDa so much that you want to invest in extra ovens to make sure that people don’t have to wait forever for their dog on that high-volume day. But the extra ovens are expensive, and aren’t used at all the other 364 days of the year. If you spend too much money on the extra ovens for that single day, you may not have enough money for rent, which means you would go out of business, which would mean no more corndogs for anyone. But if you don’t spend enough money, NaCoDoDa will suck, and that would break your heart.
This was our dilemma. Russ had scaled us up to five servers at our host for the 2005 launch, but what we really needed was a dual-processor server and mulitple database servers that were properly “load balanced” and root access and a couple other boring technical things that would make a normal corndog-lover’s eyes glaze over.
So Russ just turned off searches on the Forums and requested something called a php accelerator, and it was pretty okay from there on out, and we didn’t crash once on November 1, which was a first for us. And I began a sneaky plan for a “stealth launch” in 2006 that would fix everything forever.
Meanwhile, we’d temporarily acquired a NaNoWriMo warehouse.
Do you remember all those NaNoWriMo t-shirts I’d talked about shipping off to a fulfillment warehouse in Ohio? Well, many of them were still there in the spring of 2005, when, in the spirit of completely forgetting past lessons learned, I decided to give the whole ship-it-ourselves operation a try again. So I had two palettes of shirts trucked back across the county to a warehouse space we were subletting. (Within two days of us getting our stuff back, the fulfillment house—iFulfill.com—declared bankruptcy and locked its doors with most of its clients merchandise trapped inside).
This time, with Russ’ help, we got a great store operation going. And we ran it out of a converted warehouse space in a tough part of Oakland. The place was huge, with a modern kitchen, a French Press coffee maker, and a stylish stone bathroom. A 30′-long table made from a bowling alley lane took up most of the living room. It looked like the kind of place where a designer would live. And, in fact, it belonged to a genius Flash programmer who just happened to be going to live in rural France for October and November. The timing was perfect for us to fill the space with boxes, tape guns, and other accouterments of the packing lifestyle.
Less perfect was the fact that the Flash programmer who lived in the warehouse was the same person we’d hired to make our amazing brand-new Flash author profile pages. And he still hadn’t finished them when he left for France in late September.
The new author profiles, complete with their elegantly turning pages, dynamic word-count, and writing buddy lists launched almost a week into November, setting a new record in NaNoWriMo’s tendency to debut new features on “island time.” Visually, they are the most beautiful thing I think the NaNoWriMo site will ever see. Implementation-wise, they took several years off my life and taught us a lot about working with people who make tables from bowling alleys.
The biggest hit of 2005 was our Young Writers Program. The YWP lives on a separate site, and YWP Director Ellen Martin grew the program to encompass over 150 schools and 4000 kids. In YWP, kids are able to set their own word count goals, but the hands-on, anything-goes approach to prose is the same. We sent classrooms participating in the event posters, stickers, and kid-friendly participant and winner certificates, and heard heaps of great stories of freshly minted nine-year-old novelists, school-sponsored teen noveling lock-ins, and wonderstruck English teachers who couldn’t believe that the whole thing worked so well (or that school superintendents let them do it in the first place).
This was also the year when Sam Hallgren helped us realize our months-old dream of creating a NaNoWriMo podcast. Produced from Chicago (where Sam was living and working for This American Life at the time), WrimoRadio was our attempt to capture participants’ voices and stories as they wrestled with their manuscripts and triumphed over their inner editors. From check-ins with our Forums Moderation Queen Cybele May to reports from the field by a high school correspondant whose school was taking the plunge together to readings of nano-novel excerpts from Ira Glass, Will Wheaton, and George Saunders, WrimoRadio felt like a tremendous step forward in making the site better represent the energy of the actual event.
After a terrifying mid-November donation lull in which it looked like we weren’t going to have enough money to pay back our annual bank loan, we ended up raising $28,000 above our break-even point, and were able to give $14,000 to Room to Read to build seven libraries in Laos, and throw $14,000 in the bank for seed money.
From the numbers of participants, money raised, and general having-our-act-togetherness, it was the best NaNoWriMo ever. But there were some tough decisions to be made, all of which came quickly in 2006.
Year Eight: The Office
At the end of the 2005 event, NaNoWriMo was at a crossroads. We’d come farther and lasted longer than I’d ever imagined, but the scope of operations had become too big, the staffing situation too complex, and the risk for personal financial ruin too high. We either needed to take the next step of turning NaNoWriMo into a 501(c) (3) nonprofit and running it as a major part of a year-round endeavor, or we needed to stop doing it all together.
Not sure what to do, I went to Scotland for five weeks on an apartment exchange. I loved Scottish living, especially listening to the BBC Radio Scotland every morning while sucking down Scottish coffee and toast. BBC Radio Scotland had been one of the first radio stations to do a piece on NaNoWriMo back in the early years, which is why I almost spit out my coffee one morning when I heard the announcer mention their “Write Here, Right Now” novel-in-a-month contest. The goal was to write a 28,000-word novel in February. You signed up for free at their website and got daily pep talk emails and…
Holy cow! Daily pep talk emails? We’d been beaten at our own game! And the programmers had Scottish accents, making the whole thing irresistable. Sam had tried to do an Irish accent once on WrimoRadio, but the results had been somewhat questionable.
I was proud of the BBC for taking a good idea and inviting a whole country to do it. But it was kind of weird all the same, to be in a foreign place and hear NaNoWriMo on the radio, but with a different name, and a much more charming accent.
When I got back from Scotland, I felt fired up, and had a meeting with Ellen, who had since gone back to business school and become a nonprofit guru. And the subject of this meeting was: Exactly how much work would it be to make NaNoWriMo a 501(c)(3) charity? She gave me a long list of pros and cons, most of which involved more time and a dramatically biggened budget. It turns out that when you get all the right insurances, hire people properly, pay all the taxes and incorporation fees that come with creating and running a corporation, everything costs twice as much as it did when you ran the thing out of coffee shops.
But it’s also a billion times as stable, and you get all sorts of fantastic things in the bargain. Like an office. And a board of directors. And a hulking, smooth-rolling set of lateral files donated by Hyland Baron to fill up with seven years of notes and clippings and dreams.
But I’m getting ahead of the story here.
That spring, we began the long march towards nonprofit incorporation. On our founding board of directors, we had corporate lawyer and very excellent dancer Eric Doherty, five-time NaNoWriMo winner and award-winning journalist Kara Platoni, five-time NaNoWriMo and computer guru Diane Reese, NaNoWriMo technical overlord and spreadsheet whiz Russ Uman, and former YWP director-turned-social-venture-maestro Ellen Martin.
The first thing we needed to do together: Name the thing.
My instinct was to call it “NaNoCorp,” and that was a very bad instinct. We wanted the nonprofit to be able to run NaNoWriMo and a bunch of other events that had nothing to do with novels. We needed a new name that was encouraging and friendly, that implied creativity on a global scale, and that had a dash of whimsy, but not so much whimsy that foundations would worry that we were going to sneak off to Mexico to build sandcastles.
Discarded early candidates included: Imaginary Expeditions (too river-rafty), the Society for Creative Combustion (too close to Society for Creative Anachronism), Pants-Kickers, Inc. (too confusing), Exploding Writers (too exploding), and the Literary Wild (too nature parky).
Eventually, we winnowed the list down to four finalists:
- The Eureka Project
- International Letters and Light
- The Starting Line
- The Corporation for Public Letters
The Starting Line sounded like something that foundations had been funding for decades, which seemed like a good sign. But my favorite was International Letters and Light. Unfortunately, I was alone in my enthusiasm for the name. Ellen insisted it was missing a noun, and everyone else pointed out that it had a very unfortunate acronym.
I kept thinking about it. A day later, I got it. I called Ellen.
“The Office of Letters and Light,” I said. “It’s like a little glowing governmental bureaucracy staffed by elves.”
“I like it,” she said.
And that was it. Our lawyer worked with us on all the paperwork, and we sent it in with a $750 check in filing fees. Now all we had to do was wait.
In the meantime, I began reading everything I could about nonprofit creation, management, and finances. It was, in a word, terrifying. There was so much to learn, and so many ways to do things incorrectly. My previous nightmares of hackers and server explosions were immediately replaced by the fear that I would misfile our board meeting minutes and wake up to find that every single NaNoWriMo participant had become a ward of the State.
The office, though, came together beautifully. Tim Lohnes, who had won NaNoWriMo for the first six years of the event, had just launched a cartography company with another mapmaker. Lohnes + Wright GIS and Mapping were looking for an office in Oakland. The Office of Letters and Light was looking for an office in Oakland. We joined forces, and then Tim did all the work in finding the place. It was a match made in heaven.
The office Tim found still makes people oooh and ahh when they walk in the door. It’s the former lobby of an ancient YMCA, and it’s been converted into a large, sun-drenched room with 40′ ceilings and wrap-around windows that look out onto a 24-hour Giant Burger and a welfare application support center. The area feels sketchy and deserted at night, but it’s great during the day, and it’s located next to two coffeeshops and the best shrimp burritos you can get without a shrimp burrito prescription.
When we picked up the keys to the new office, it felt like Tim, Bart, and I were in some sort of thirtysomething urban MasterCard ad. “Rent: $1100 per month. Alarm system: $30 per month. Being able to make baked potatoes in your office microwave while the police arrest someone outside: Priceless”
So we had an office that we loved. Now we really needed someone to help run it. As a year-round organization with an anticipated 80,000 participants, the Office of Letters and Light was going to need someone other than me to handle everything.
In August, 2006, I posted a Craigslist ad for a full-time Managing Editor. We received over 150 applications, and I interviewed a bunch of great candidates, but in the end it was all about Tavia Stewart. She was enthusiastic and tireless, with a great sense of humor and a degree in creative writing. Tavia was working at McSweeney’s at the time, across the Bay in San Francisco. Within three weeks of accepting the job, Tavia gave up her San Francisco apartment, bought a car, and moved to Oakland.
This, for me, was a stomach-drop moment.
Here was a very nice person who had left a job at one of the country’s coolest magazines to work for an organization that had $0 in guaranteed funding, no cash reserves, and which had recently entertained the idea of calling itself Exploding Writers.
Up to that point, the idea of failure wasn’t anything I’d given much thought to. If, God forbid, something catastrophic happened on the fundraising front, the eight or so people who did contract work for us had full-time jobs they could fall back on. I could return to freelancing. Russ would become a pirate. Things would be okay.
With Tavia coming on board too, that changed. Suddenly, NaNoWriMo’s success was essential to rent and car payments and the ability to go home to visit families at Christmas. It made everything feel different. Not better or worse. Just a lot more serious.
I went home and stared at the wall. When did this happen? Between 1999 and 2006, I realized, I had somehow become an adult. One who hired full-time employees and picked out company health plans and went to seminars called “Philanthropic networking with banking institutions.”
Of all of NaNoWriMo’s weird twists and turns over the years, this may have been the strangest. And you know what? I absolutely loved it. Being an adult was much more interesting than not being an adult. The fact that my adulthood had arrived courtesy of an month-long novel-writing escapade just made it all the sweeter.
Tavia jumped in with both feet, and by September we’d lined up the top-notch staff of Erin Allday to run our Municipal Liaison program, Cybele May to moderate our forums, and Karlyn Pratt to direct our Young Writers Program. Russ was on the computer keys, as always. And when Sam Hallgren decided at the last minute that he couldn’t produce WrimoRadio again, I happily took over podcasting duties.
On the eve of NaNoWriMo 2006, we were set. We had supplies. We had staff. And then we got the best news of all: The IRS approved our 501(c)(3) status.
The Office of Letters and Light was off and running.
On October 31, the staff had gathered in the office, poised to write our way into a new noveling year together. I kept nervously checking the NaNoWriMo site, which had been sluggish since BoingBoing.net had posted a link to us that morning. Under the heavy surge of participants in easterly time zones updating their word counts, along with the curious visitors who’d seen the link on BoingBoing, the NaNo site was timing out, which wasn’t good.
Looking to take my mind off the site woes, I started putzing around on the internet. Where I saw something that made my jaw drop. The NaNoWriMo site had ended up somewhere it shouldn’t have been. Top left corner. In a box marked “Featured.”
“Oh, crap,” I said. “We’re on the front page of Yahoo.”
By the time we’d disappeared from Yahoo front page 24 hours later, NaNoWriMo had grown by 7000 participants.
That year, the Young Writers Program experienced a similar surge (but without the help of a major search engine). It grew from 4,000 to 15,000 kids and teens. And colleges, too, had begun offering courses on the month-long novel. We got ecstatic updates from instructors at UCLA, Phoenix College, and George Mason University with tales of win rates as high as 90%, and students coming away from the experience absolutely on fire about books and writing.
The news from the publishing front was similarly bountiful. We were up to 13 manuscripts sold at that point, when we heard about Sara Gruen. Sara had been one of the first participants to sell her NaNoWriMo manuscript, and had since written another NaNoWriMo novel that had become a bestseller, Water For Elephants. When her new project went out for auction in the fall of ’06, she landed a reported $5.2 million, two-book deal. How did she celebrate? She sat down and wrote another book for NaNoWriMo.
As November drew to a close, we had our annual heart-stopping run in with fundraising shortfalls. But in the last day, we crossed the break-even point, and then sailed past it, raising an additional $44,600 in profit. This meant we had $22,300 to give to Room to Read for seven libraries in Vietnam.
It was, in retrospect, a hard NaNoWriMo to let go of. I had written one of my favorite novels. The staff had worked great together. The question, as always, was how to keep some of the creative momentum of NaNoWriMo alive into the off-season.
So I emailed out a challenge with the final NaNo pep talk: Let’s spend 2007 pursuing one of the big, fun, scary things we’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t yet gotten around to pursuing. We’d post updates on our progress in the forums, and cheer each other on as we checked off an item or two from our lifetime to-do lists.
The Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures ended up taking over the forums. For my part, I learned rudimentary Spanish. Other people bought cellos, took painting classes, came out to their parents, went back to college, started businesses, ran marathons, rewrote their novels, and submitted stories to all sorts of scary publishers and literary magazines. It was fantastic. Combine a deadline with a supportive community, and great stuff will happen every time.
Year Nine: A New Frenzy and Cash-Flow Chickens Coming Home to Roost
Over the years, we’d heard from a lot of participants who wanted a NaNoWriMo-like event to help them do other things. We’d received requests to launch a memoir-writing event, suggestions that we lead a month-long art-making escapade, and, my personal favorite, pleas from grad students for a thirty-day regimen that would help them finish their PhD dissertations without losing their minds.
By 2007, the Office of Letters and Light had the infrastructure in place to launch a second major event. And we chose to go with the request we’d gotten more than all the others combined: a month dedicated to scriptwriting.
I was pretty excited. I had never written a script before, but I knew it was a lot like novel writing. You just used a typewriter font, wrote every fifth word in all caps, clapped that little clapper thing, yelled “that’s a wrap!” and ordered your assistant to get you a latte.
When I shared my scriptwriting insights with the Office of Letters and Light’s board of directors, they wisely suggested we bring in someone else to run the event. Which is how we ended up hiring Kristina Malsberger, one of the best, funniest writers I know. Kristina had just picked up a fancy masters degree from UCLA film school, had a great head for systems and websites, and was more than up to the challenge of leading a global scriptwriting adventure.
Kristina dubbed the event Script Frenzy, and she and I worked with designer Todd Blank on launching two new Script Frenzy websites—one for adults and one for kids and teens in the Young Writers Program. To help answer the eternal “what could I possibly write about?” question, we created an on-site Plot Machine to spit out such randomly generated, Oscar-winning plots as “Badly burned in a meth lab explosion/the cast of Riverdance/joins Bill Clinton’s reggae band.”
(We changed the meth lab reference to “After losing a three-legged race” on the YWP site.)
For the 8,000 of us who took part in the world premiere frenzy, the event was life-changing. The goofy energy was very NaNoWriMo-esque—participants were trying new things, learning a ton, and having a blast doing it. I was stunned at how easy script formatting was to master (mostly because free programs do it all for you) and how much my understanding of dialogue improved by being forced to tell a two-hour story entirely through people talking at each other.
The rub: Finances. Script Frenzy’s donations didn’t meet expenses. The shortfall wasn’t great, but the Office of Letters and Light had little in the way of cash reserves, so going into the red was pretty serious. Compounding problems, we’d lost a large line of credit when we became a nonprofit in 2006, and NaNoWriMo had just completed the final year of giving away 50% of our annual proceeds to build libraries for children in Southeast Asia. This was the partnership with Room to Read that we’d begun in 2004, and it felt great to build those libraries. But when your profits aren’t huge to begin with, handing 50% of them over to another organization leaves you on pretty shaky financial footing. In our case, it left us without a rainy-day fund, and meant we had to borrow tens of thousands of dollars every year to relaunch NaNoWriMo.
In the years before we became a nonprofit, this was doable, thanks to the large line of credit and the relatively low staff and server costs of the smaller events. With the line of credit now gone, payroll and hosting costs up, and Script Frenzy donations coming in lower than expected, we were in a bind. The board of directors and I immediately began talking to community banks and nonprofit loan agencies, trying to find someone who could give us a bridge loan to keep us operating into October.
In retrospect, we were facing a problem endemic to young nonprofits. We had passion. We had vision. We had a very handsome conical-burr coffee maker. And you need all those things. But unless you also have access to a huge chunk of credit or cash that you can spend on building out your programs months before anyone will see them (and therefore donate to them), you’re in trouble.
In the summer of 2007, the Office of Letters and Light had the credit reserves of a Girl Scout troop. We sputtered into October on fumes, relaunching thanks to a new, smaller loan from our bank and some personal financial heroics from staff.
NaNoWriMo 2007 ended up being ginormous; we crossed the 100,000-author mark for the first time. The Young Writers Program, now under Tavia’s able leadership, was also off the charts. We were up to 366 schools now, including classes in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Sweden. Teachers were sending back reports from their classrooms that NaNoWriMo had gotten their students excited about books and writing in a way they’d never seen before.
There were lots of other highs in 2007. We got our first series of foundation grants (thank you San Francisco Foundation and the Bennack-Polan Foundation!), enjoyed fantastic celebrity pep talks from Neil Gaiman, Tom Robbins, Sue Grafton, and other authors, and had our first-ever fundraising evening, the wildly successful Night of Writing Dangerously Write-a-thon in San Francisco.
But there were lows as well. The cash-flow chickens from the summer really came home to roost. Our pre-launch beta-testing hadn’t been adequate—we didn’t have the money or staff to get the improvements done early enough to do much tire-kicking. Instead of everything working out fine as it had in the past, things blew up, with bugs, permissions issues, and general slowness haunting the sites for parts of October and early November. Russ was working his eyeballs off trying to fix things, but he had a full-time job elsewhere, so his NaNo hours were limited.
These were the two toughest months of my NaNo life. I spent October and early November in a bolt of sour adrenaline, putting out fires, trying to explain and apologize for ongoing technical issues, working to keep staff coordinated and prevent them from feeling overwhelmed by their ridiculous to-do lists, writing and recording the weekly podcasts, and working on my own novel, all while trying to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to pay for the main and YWP events and set aside enough to make sure Wrimos and staff wouldn’t have to go through this again in 2008.
As in previous years, 99% of our participants were the greatest, most supportive, hilarious group of people you can imagine. They rolled with the ups and downs, bringing our attention to yet another set of problems in heartbreakingly tactful ways. (“You guys rock! And, um, I’m sure you know this, but the entire site is just a big white screen right now.” Or: “I love my new red NaNoWriMo mug. There’s a sticker on the bottom that says drinking from it may prevent me from having children. Any word on that?”)
At the event’s close, I was proud of everyone for bootstrapping through a challenging year. Our forums moderation team, lead by Cybele May and assisted by Heather Dudley and other fantastic volunteers, had done a saintly job. I was particularly heartwarmed by the 6,000 participants who answered our call to donate. Thanks to them, we ended the year in the black, putting away enough money to improve the NaNoWriMo and YWP sites and bulk up our servers. But there were also key improvements we didn’t raise enough money to implement, and a bunch of really cool features I’d wanted to add to the site for years that were going to be left out again.
So it was very tough to run the numbers at the end of the event, and see that almost 10,000 NaNoWriMo winners hadn’t donated. These folks had been inspired by our challenge, had enjoyed the forums and the pep, and had successfully written 50,000-word novels, validated them on our site, and collected their winner’s certificates. When they won, we asked them to contribute whatever they felt the experience had been worth. And 10,000 chose the round, round number of $0.
It felt like 2001 all over again. But by this point, I was older and wiser: No martyr pose for me, thank you very much. I had taken enough nonprofit fundraising seminars to view the problem and solution objectively.
- The problem: Many people who loved NaNoWriMo weren’t supporting it at even the most minimal level, leaving us understaffed, underpowered, and unable to handle the huge turn-out every year.
- The solution: Build a billionaire robot with the intelligence of a child who could be tricked into giving us all the money we needed while crushing our enemies beneath its gigantic tank-tread feet.
Check and mate. Sometimes the simplest solutions are best. I readied my robot-building plans for the board’s approval.
In the meantime, we had one more event to put on—a December Young Writers Program reading at a bookstore in Berkeley. The readers were kids and teens from throughout the Bay Area who had taken part in NaNoWriMo with their classrooms. The bookstore was a roiling sea of kids, teens, teachers, parents, and curious onlookers drawn in by the fruit plates and bottomless cups of grape juice.
The bookstore fell silent when the first author was introduced. He was a seven-year-old Nabokov in khakis and a rumpled white dress shirt who had spent November writing a novel about Halloween. And superheroes. And maybe monkeys. It was hard to tell—he read very quickly. When he finished, the applause shook the paperbacks on the store’s shelves. He sat down, a little stunned, and the next reader ran up to the microphone, eager to share her book with the masses.
After their readings, the young writers just couldn’t stop beaming. I’m sure it was partly relief at having survived their literary debuts. But their faces also carried the same beatific expressions I’d seen on my friends who had completed their first NaNoWriMo back in 1999. It was the mile-wide grin of someone who had just realized they had the magical power to make impossible things happen.
Discovering this ability as an adult is exciting. Discovering it as a seven-year-old gives you such a head start on a lifetime of creative mayhem that I was simultaneously happy for them and deeply, bitterly jealous.
It was a very good night.
As for NaNoWriMo? Despite some realistic sound effects I improvised during my presentation, the board nixed the billionaire robot plan.
So. New, simpler plan: We’d tackle the challenges of 2008 with the help of our participants and Municipal Liaisons. It had always worked before, and I was sure it would work again.
Year Ten: NaNoWriMo Comes Back Swinging
By 2008, my bond with the NaNoWriMo CPU helped me know things that a normal human being shouldn’t. I could tell when a webserver was about to tumble off a cliff. I felt a disturbance in the force when a donor accidentally typo’d her user name in the Donation Station and lost her chance to get a halo. Or when an Australian Municipal Liaison had his package of NaNo stickers stolen from his front porch by a numbat.
I knew many strange things. And more than anything else, I knew that 2008 was going to be an outstanding year for NaNoWriMo. Script Frenzy had set the pace for us by having a great second year under the guidance of new Program Director Jennifer Arzt.
To get NaNoWriMo back on solid footing again, though, the staff and board first had to sit down and figure out where we wanted the organization to go. We needed, in short, a three-year strategic plan. If your eyes just glazed over, I understand. Strategic planning sounds like the most boring thing you can do without actually being asleep. But for a small nonprofit like ours, a three-year plan is actually a swashbuckling document, bursting with plots, friendship, courage, and triumph.
In creating OLL’s strategic plan, our new grantwriter Elizabeth Gregg and board president Ellen helped us lay out our cast of characters, devise glorious futures for each of our programs, and identify the antagonists who might derail those futures. For NaNoWriMo, our antagonists were a lack of financial resources, a tendency to do things with about half as many staff as we really needed to do them, and a fear of finding dead spiders floating in our coffee.
At Elizabeth’s behest, we left the spiders out of the document. Instead, we laid out OLL’s future in 43 pages of text, charts, and graphs. By 2011, we would diversify our funding base, triple the number of participants and YWP classrooms, launch new NaNoWriMo initiatives in libraries, bookstores, and adult-school classrooms, roll out a brand-new Young Writers Program site and a new Office of Letters and Light Donation Station and Store, deepen our resources for authors and Municipal Liaisons, pilot a completely new OLL event, and create a year-round way for people to take part in NaNoWriMo.
It was a lot of stuff, but having a year-by-year plan made it all seem doable. So, in the spring of 2008, Tavia and I consulted the Plan, took a deep breath, and posted a Help Wanted ad for our third full-time position, which we called Community Liaison. This new person would be a pillar of support for our 350 volunteer-run chapters around the world, manage the day-to-day needs of the office, and handle press and communications. Having a Community Liaison would free up Tavia to focus her energies on running the Young Writers Program and the dozens of other things she was handling. It would free me up to raise enough money to make sure the strategic plan could become a reality.
After a crazy amount of job interviews, our top candidate for the Community Liaison position was a hilarious, self-deprecating writer named Lindsey Grant. Lindsey was organized, wise beyond her years, and she’d just graduated from a local MFA program with a degree in creative writing. The catch: She had an unshakable fondness for soft rock artists like Celine Dion, Air Supply, and Peter Cetera.
I consulted our strategic plan, certain that Peter Cetera and Air Supply had been identified as organizational antagonists.
They weren’t on the list. So we hired her, and the next chapter of NaNoWriMo began. We had a bunch of other staff changes as well. Cybele May stepped down from her longtime post as forums moderator to lend her expertise at testing and launching new site features. The awesome Heather Dudley took over forums-wrangling from Cybele, and first-time Wrimo Diane Bock took charge of the WrimoRadio podcast. Shipper Captain Bradford Earle stepped up and promptly blew our minds with his organizational moxie.
We hired the talented Sam Gawthrop to help Russ on the tech side of things, and began our love affair with designer Graham Dobson, who created our 2008 t-shirts and inadvertently came up with a brand-new NaNoWriMo logo in the process. Jen Arzt returned from the Frenzy-lands to help us with web design and great graphics, Drew Patty became our kind-hearted email ambassador, and Emily Bristow made time in the midst of her Austin ML duties to pioneer a regional fundraising contest that would eventually grow into the famous Donation Derby.
With a larger team in place, we were able to do more, and do it faster. After an insanely busy summer and fall, we ended up re-launching the websites on September 26th, five days earlier than scheduled.
Five days may not seem like a lot, but for NaNoWriMo it was a quantum leap forward. We’d been trying to do an early “stealth launch” for years, but we’d never been able to get everything together to pull it off. In 2008, we didn’t have a choice. Russ was heading to Italy for a wedding on September 27, and he wouldn’t be back in the US until October 6.
Russ’ Roman holiday scared all of us, given NaNoWriMo’s history of the sites getting wonked on October 1. But it was probably good for us to have him away—after six years running NaNoWriMo’s tech world (on top of all the demands of his full-time job), Russ had announced he would be stepping down at the end of 2008.
We were sad about losing Russ, and we commemorated all of his mighty achievements by naming the bookstore in the 2008 NaNoWriMo poster after him. We resolved to have his last year with us be a good one. Thanks to Russ’ and Sam’s hard work, the September launch went off without a hitch. Russ flew off to Italy a hero.
This, I realized, is why organizations have strategic plans. We’d simply written ourselves a better future and then begun living it. My telepathic connection to the NaNoWriMo websites told me things would be fine in Russ’ absence. This was NaNoWriMo 2.0. We’d turned a corner, and 2008 was golden.
Then everything exploded.
On the morning of October 1, I went to the sites eager to read the astonished posts from Wrimos who’d shown up to discover the party was already in full swing. Instead, I found error screens on all of our websites and several emails from Russ in Italy, each with progressively darker news. The database server—the one with everyone’s accounts and all the forums posts on it—had apparently experienced a catastrophic disk failure in the night. It was dead. Gone.
In the past, a hardware failure of that magnitude with Russ out of the country would have shut us down for at least a week, maybe more. But the strategic planning we’d done had helped us route a lot more of our donation funds into servers. So, for the first time ever, we had a secondary database at the ready. We also had a heroic Sam standing by in the office to pull all the site data from our back-ups, load it all onto the smaller server, and get us back up again on October 2.
That first week of October 2008, we were all awash in pep, and it wasn’t just because we’d averted a tech crisis. Lindsey had asked a bunch of professional novelists to write emails of encouragement for NaNoWriMo 2008 participants, and their pep talks were just starting to arrive at headquarters. Philip Pullman sent one in. Piers Anthony knocked one out. Katherine Patterson pepped us up as well. We were raining pep!
The brand-new Young Writers Program site ended up being a huge hit with kids, teens, and teachers. In 2008, 600 classrooms signed up for the challenge, and we ended up with 22,000 K-12 students writing books with us. Thanks to corporate sponsor Renaissance Learning, we were also able to airlift 100 AlphaSmart computers to three YWP classrooms that lacked the technology to take part in the challenge.
And the servers? They did okay. The sites were achingly slow for a week around November 1. Even our increased server budget wasn’t enough to accommodate the ten-fold increase of traffic we experienced on either side of lift-off. This was frustrating, but we’d pushed our donations as far as we could. We vowed to fix it once and for all in 2009.
- A sell-out crowd (including Wrimos from as far away as Australia!) came to our second-annual Night of Writing Dangerously fundraising gala in San Francisco, where we dressed up, ate and drank ourselves into a noveling frenzy, and raised almost $20,000 for our programs,
- I wrote a truly abysmal novel.
- We found zero dead spiders floating in our coffee.
On the balance, it was a great year, and when the sun set on November, the staff and I gathered to look at the numbers. Every previous NaNoWriMo record had been shattered. We had 119,301 adult participants, 21,683 of whom won. That was 18.2% win rate—the highest we’d seen since NaNoWriMo was just a bunch of yahoos in the Bay Area. Cumulatively NaNoWriMo had produced 1.6 billion words, enough to wrap around the moon fourteen times. Maybe fifteen. We’d spent over a quarter million dollars on our programs, and raised enough in donations, grants, t-shirt profits, and sponsorships to cover our costs and set some money aside for improvements in 2009. NaNoWriMo had come back swinging.
Shortly after the event wrapped, I flew to New York City to do one of the scariest things I’d ever done. I was giving a keynote presentation at a publishing industry conference.
My talk wasn’t scheduled until the last day of the conference, so I spent a couple of nervous days sitting in on panels and lectures. The atmosphere was unsettled—profits in publishing were down, forms of digital media that no one seemed to fully understand were on the rise, and everyone was starting to wonder if the floor was about to drop out of the entire industry.
When the time for my talk finally came, I walked out onto the stage, the camera man zoomed in, and I flirted briefly with the idea of vomiting on the podium.
I didn’t throw up. Instead, I told the story I’d been rehearsing all week. Which was really the story I’d been living for the past ten years. I told them that a grassroots revolution was afoot in the way people related to books and writing. I told them that I’d just watched 142,000 kids, teens, and adults give up their entire Novembers to take part in a writing contest where the only prize was writing itself. I told them I’d seen countless people find friends through books, find hope through books, and find their sense of themselves remade through books.
I was among those people. From where I was standing, books weren’t dying. Books were just getting started.
Year Eleven: Life in the Clouds
In 2009, something big happened. Tech captain Dan Duvall packed up all of our bits and bytes, and liberated our websites from the Los Angeles servers that had long housed them. We were moving into the clouds.
“Cloud computing” had been a buzzword in technology circles for years, and it offered something we’d always dreamed of having: Infinite Server Power. But the move to “virtual servers” came with some risks, the biggest of which was that NaNo’s notoriously pokey content management system wouldn’t be able to handle the increased power. We were dropping a Millennium Falcon engine into a Ford Fiesta; things had the potential to go very right or very, very wrong.
But we had to give it a shot. With Dan acting as our Han Solo and me offering plaintive Wookiee cries in the background, we initiated our October 1 relaunch sequence on invisible servers. The sites roared, then purred, then settled into the happy hum of millions of pages loading perfectly. For the first year in almost a decade, the speed problems that had frustrated participants and stolen my joy, youth, and hairline were finally over.
And that was just the start of the good news.
In 2009, Lindsey rolled out an incredible new program called Come Write In, where we partnered with public libraries and indie bookstores to help transform their spaces into community noveling zones. Over 75 institutions signed up, and we mailed them “Write your novel here!” window clings, NaNo posters, and reams of advice on the care and feeding of high-velocity writers.
After four great years, we retired the WrimoRadio podcast and launched NaNoVideo, a terrifying opportunity for the OLL staff to embarrass ourselves in a new medium. NaNoVideo, which was directed by Script Frenzy’s Jen Arzt and shot and edited by Eva Moss and Jen, had me dancing down hillsides in Berkeley, flinging kiwis out of poster tubes, and running laps in the rain. It also let us sneak bits of inspiration and writerly mojo out to participants while showcasing amazing stories, songs, and tales from Wrimos around the world.
NaNoWriMo had been on Twitter for a couple years, but in 2009, we discovered a productive new use for the social networking site. We supplemented our Twitter account with wordsprints. Where we began hosting rollicking group writing sessions for thousands of people, usually until the wee hours of the morning.
This year also marked the launch of a couple new online NaNo tools. Our Municipal Liaisons got a hunk of organizational moxie in the new Regional Lounge headers, a longtime passion project of Site Wrangler Cybele May. The new headers gave writers stats on their region, a handy Google Calendar of local events, a deeper connection to their MLs, and a popular widget designed to help NaNo towns smite each other in regional word wars.
We also launched our new OLL online Donation Station and Store, dreamt up and overseen by Tavia. The new Donation Station not only provided a portal for donations and the sale of program-related merchandise, but it also served as an easy, secure way for our 400-plus Municipal Liaisons to order their chapter goodies, and Young Writers Program teachers to get their classroom kits. All of which were carefully packed up a few feet from our desks by Shipping Captain Bradford Earle. In 2009, Bradford mailed out over 10,000 NaNoWriMo items from our office.
Thanks to a grant from the San Francisco Foundation, the Young Writers Program was able to map all of its fantastic lesson plans to California state language arts standards, giving educators ammunition in making the case for teaching NaNoWriMo at their schools. YWP participation ended up almost doubling in 2009, expanding to over 1,200 classrooms around the world.
Another first for us in 2009 was “30 Covers, 30 Days.” The brainchild of book-cover designer Chris Papasadero, the challenge featured Chris knocking out a professional book cover design for a randomly chosen NaNoWriMo work-in-progress every day in November. For the Wrimos who got to see their name and novel title on a beautiful book cover, it was a life-changing moment. For the rest of us, it was a chance to have nerdy conversations about book-cover design while getting a front-row seat on the design process.
Towards the end of the month, we held the most enchanted Night of Writing Dangerously ever, located at the gorgeous Julia Morgan ballroom in downtown San Francisco. Sarah Mackey, a superstar ML from Edmonton, helped Tavia organize the event from afar, and then flew in to bestow gifts and encouragement on attendees. Cybele showed up from Los Angeles with over 100 pounds of candy in tow, and people came from as far away as the UK and Australia to spend the night drinking, noveling, and consuming more chocolate and bacon-bedecked donuts than was healthy. Our prizes that year included laptops, iPods, and—topping my all-time list of surreal NaNoWriMo moments—a Chris Baty doll, created and donated by a professional doll-maker.
It was the smoothest NaNoWriMo I had ever known, and we ended November with the highest win rate in modern NaNo history (19.2%), the highest donation percentage in NaNoWriMo history (over 8%), and more than 2.4 billion words written. At our annual Bay Area Thank God It’s Over Party in San Francisco, and I ran through these stunning figures for the assembled Wrimos. And then I made my annual “we did it!” toast, knowing it would be my last time doing so as NaNoWriMo Program Director.
In the summer ahead, I would be moving to full-time OLL Executive Director, with Lindsey taking over day-to-day operations of NaNoWriMo. Lindsey was the perfect person for the job—hilarious, kind, passionate, and deeply familiar with every aspect of our programs. As full-time ED, I would still be actively involved in NaNo, but I would have a chance to focus on big-picture improvements and new initiatives that we’d been putting off for years.
Which is how Tavia, Lindsey, Dan, Cybele, Heather, Jen, Emily, and I came to spend 2010 rolling out the third major stage of OLL’s three-year plan. This included a new, bigger office, four new staffers, and a couple plot twists that even the most frenzied NaNo-novelist couldn’t have come up with.
But that, my friends, is Lindsey’s story to tell. Thank you for spending the last eleven years of NaNoWriMo history with me! It’s been a completely improbable, totally wonderful, absolutely life-changing ride.
Year Twelve: Change: It isn’t just the coins in your pocket
Like a wacky marmot-loving Nostradamus, Chris gave you a glimpse into the future in his 2009 history. He foretold plot twists, a new office, and many new hires. And he was right on all counts.
In the aftermath of NaNoWriMo 2009, things started to happen very quickly at the Office of Letters and Light. We planned on hiring another member to bolster the existing tech team-of-one, as well as a full-time Community Liaison and a YWP Director.
In the meantime, Chris, Tavia, and I were readying ourselves to transition into full-time (single-hat wearing!) positions: Chris as Executive Director of our parent nonprofit, the Office of Letters and Light; Tavia as Operations Manager for OLL; and I was to fill the oversized NaNoWriMo Program Director shoes. (As some of you may remember from my emails at the time, I was a mess of panic and excitement. I recall that time fondly as a frenzied, pepperoni-consuming stage in my life. Which has thankfully passed.)
This first hire was Jezra Lickter, a talented programmer with a love for bagpipes and breaking things. He arrived at our office sporting the coolest Back to the Future bomber jacket I’ve ever seen, and we knew he was the Jez we were looking for. He came on just in time to help get the Script Frenzy airship aloft. (And did he ever! Between his technical genius and the Program-Directing prowess of Jen Arzt, Script Frenzy’s numbers in 2010 nearly doubled in participants and winners!)
Once the Frenzy had blown past, leaving thousands upon thousands of newly minted scripts in its wake, we needed to start thinking about posting some job descriptions. But our lease at 2101 Telegraph Avenue was coming to an end, and we needed to move into an office that could accommodate all these new employees!
We began the long search for a space that we could afford on our limited nonprofit budget; preferably an office with running hot water and an indoor bathroom. But we didn’t want to push our luck too much. It took boatloads of patience and a few discussions about the relative importance of plumbing before we stumbled upon the perfect new home for OLL: 3354 Adeline Street, just across the Oakland border in Berkeley, California. Skylights, a storefront with floor-to-ceiling windows, two (two) bathrooms (both indoor with modern plumbing!), and all the hot water we could ever hope for. It also came with a full-size refrigerator, which came to be named Voldefridge by one very intuitive Wrimo. Because while Voldefridge keeps our food cold, he does so with an evil as old as the world and as cold as, well, a refrigerator.
In the midst of moving madness, we were gifted with one Sarah Mackey, a longtime remote volunteer for OLL. As an internship requirement for her diploma program, she settled here in Berkeley for three months and graced us with her wisdom and brilliance. We wasted no time draining her brain of all its great knowledge. More specifically, she worked on our social media program (blogging! Facebook! Twitter!) and bolstered the resources for our fabulous MLs.
All the while, between moving hundred-pound stacks of posters and erecting desks left and right, we still had a YWP Director and a Community Liaison to hire.
It was an exceptionally productive search, bringing us Chris Angotti. Formerly a middle and high school English Language Arts teacher, Chris had recently relocated here from New York and was looking to work at a nonprofit well-versed in marmot jokes and with a high threshold for caffeine consumption. We were looking for an ultra-articulate educator with a passion for community arts. So it was pretty much a match made in NaNoHeaven.
Next, we interviewed and quickly hired the well-traveled and ultra-talented Nancy Smith as our Community Liaison. Nancy was finishing up her MFA at the University of San Francisco and still had time in her schedule to rock our worlds here at OLL. (We suspect she’s made of magic, but we didn’t question her too closely about it. )
We had a full house as we hurtled toward the NaNo season. And then it got a little fuller. From land, sea, and sky, a cadre of outstanding interns offered up their time and talents.
Nora Coon, recently graduated from Grinnell College, relocated here to intern full time. She pioneered the resource-rich NaNoU, a tool for university students and professors facilitating NaNoWriMo on campuses around the country. She also exploded all preconceived notions about the architecture of flow charts made from Post-It notes.
Joining Nora in the intern pod were Tavi Haberman and long-time NaNo participant, OLL intern, and East Bay ML Candace Cunard. Fall of 2010 bore witness to the ultimate (if slightly gender imbalanced) dream team of interns.
With all positions filled and transitions complete, it was time to get the NaNoWriMo website cranking for the 12th year!
Press outreach was already off the charts come October 1, with more podcast interviews, articles, and radio-show mentions than ever before. One NaNoVideo even got posted on USA Today’s website! Chris Baty and I also got to visit Facebook (yep, that Facebook) where we gave a presentation to employees about the wonders of writing a novel in a month, I perspired a lot, and we got to look at the back of Mark Zuckerberg’s head. Twice!
In the era of Dan and Jez, deployment of the newly updated NaNoWriMo site was quick and easy, and we felt certain that when November 1 rolled around, the waters on Lake NaNo would be placid and wordy for the duration of the event.
Boy, were we wrong!
Within hours of event-start early in the morning of November 1, we encountered an unexpected bottleneck in Drupal’s interaction with our database. As we scaled up our new cloud servers to accommodate the epic noveling party taking place in NaNoLand, we found that the servers weren’t even the issue; we had 23 running strong and we still couldn’t seem to dispel the lag on the site. One international sandwich crisis and a marathon emergency diagnostic analysis later, we had a culprit. Drupal. And our slave databases.
The 200,500 participants all querying the site at once stalled the site dramatically—like one person transcribing the conversation of thousands, as Dan so eloquently described it. But we powered through, disabling certain types of notifications and search commands and making ritual sacrifices on or near Dan’s workspace. It wasn’t ideal, but it had to be done.
Our tentative plan? To ditch Drupal. As soon as possible. But that would be a massively expensive and laborious undertaking, requiring all our development power, cunning, and resources in 2011. Until NaNoWriMo 2010 wrapped, that project would have to wait.
In other realms, NaNoLand was peaceable and joyous, with participants in over 40 countries and 528 chapters around the world, and 590 volunteer Municipal Liaisons cheering on their local Wrimos to victory.
Pep talks from six wildly popular published authors went out to participants’ inboxes throughout the month, causing delightful squeals of excitement in offices, coffee shops, and computer closets everywhere.
Our online store sported the first ever NaNo totes, a sweet poster design with matching shirts courtesy of the wildly talented Kate Harmer, and extra-exciting new journals and pens.
The newly revamped OLL Blog showcased yet another year of “30 Covers, 30 Days” featuring a different designer every day, each of whom interpreted a Wrimo’s NaNo-novel synopsis as a book cover.
Over in the YWP, Chris Angotti took an already astonishing event and added even more great resources and functionality. He aligned all lesson plans with the new national Common Core. He also masterminded the Virtual Classroom, where educators could could interact online with their students and check on their progress throughout November. As if that weren’t enough wizardry for one season, Chris also flew to Orlando, Florida where he hosted a YWP exhibit at the National Council of Teachers of English’s annual conference. Attendees were so taken with his resources that someone actually made off with the display copies of the student workbooks. Teacher bandits aside, it was a tremendous year of growth for the Young Writers Program, with 1,740 classrooms participating worldwide.
On November 21, 170 writers (including 55 out-of-towners, 11 of whom traveled from another country!) gathered at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco’s Merchant Exchange Building for the fourth-annual Night of Writing Dangerously Write-a-thon. Sarah reprised her role as Cruise Director, facilitating the festivities with aplomb. Chris Baty brought the room to tears with his speech, and everyone walked away fairly buzzing from the sinister combination of cookies, candy, donuts, and pure writerly enthusiasm. It was a dangerous night, indeed!
All told, when NaNoWriMo wrapped at November’s end, 200,530 participants had written 2,872,682,109 words, with 37,479 winners blowing through the 50,000-word goal. The staff deemed it an outrageous success, and wasted no time before congregating in a boardroom with bagels aplenty to strategically plan the upcoming year.
We had a lot to look forward to, after all! Our late December staff retreat foretold a summer run of NaNoWriMo (hint: it rhymes with lamp and stamp, and involves virtual archery and canoes) along with a formalized exodus from the Drupal-built NaNoWriMo website to a Ruby-on-Rails framework.
But that’s a story for another day… The time had finally come for each and every staff person to hunker down within his or her bear cave for a long winter’s nap before we started it all over again in 2011.
Year Thirteen: A lucky number in our book
When 2011 dawned, we knew we had our work cut out for us. On the immediate list of to-do’s: hire a Script Frenzy Program Director. Our beloved Jennifer Arzt was fulfilling her dream of making movies, and we needed an inspiring captain to helm our scripty airship through April and beyond.
Thankfully for us, the multi-talented filmmaker and director Sandra Salas answered the call. A teacher, writer, and filmmaker with her own production studio, Georgie Girl Pictures, Sandra was the perfect match for our creative arts nonprofit.
With Sandra steering us true, Script Frenzy saw 19,123 scriptwriters participate in April’s writing extravaganza. 2,204 scribes reached their 100-page goal and emerged as victors, for a win rate of 11.5%!
Following Jen’s inspirational example, Community Liaison Nancy Smith was also leaving OLL to pursue her creative passion after receiving a writing fellowship to finish her novel-in-progress.
With Script Frenzy wrapped, we set about looking for a replacement CL, only to find the answer was already before us: Sarah Mackey, one of our “favourite” Canadians and formerly our Special Projects Manager. In a deft little staffing switcheroo, we hired her as our first-ever international employee.
We also brought on Tupelo Hassman, one-time shipping associate, as our first ever Office Manager. In the era of Tupe, our plants thrived, the Office of Letters and Light was a lot brighter, and wordplay–in email and conversation–abounded.
The office was growing, and for good reason. We had not one but two websites’ worth of development to tackle in 2011. And we were building them both on a new framework, Ruby on Rails, which better suited the volume of traffic and database demands of our worldwide novel-writing event.
You might recall the revelation of 2010, post-Sandwichgate, when it became clear that NaNoWriMo could not continue on a Drupal-built platform. The party had become too big, and the complexity of site users’ queries too great, for Drupal’s capabilities.
But in addition to a nanowrimo.org rebuild, we had plans to launch our non-November, summer camp-themed noveling challenge, Camp NaNoWriMo.
And soon. Summer was coming!
We knew that if we built it, they would come. But we needed to amass even more talented developers, a web designer, and perhaps most importantly, the money to make it all happen.
With that in mind, we launched an epic Camp and Guts Fund Drive where we unveiled the first-ever NaNoWriMo bumper sticker featuring a cute little anatomically correct heart. “NaNoWriMo Takes Guts,” it proclaimed, with a cheerful squirt of arterial blood.
Proceeds from this fundraiser would go toward the new Camp NaNoWriMo website, and subsidize the brand new innards for nanowrimo.org in time for the 2011 event.
It was a tall order, to be sure. In true NaNoWriMo fashion, we had a challenging but achievable goal, a tight deadline, and a heck of a community at our backs. And our community certainly came through. The fundraising drive raised enough money for us to break ground on the construction (web)site.
With the web design stylings of Maury Boswell and the super-swift and exacting coding of Beezwax to supplement Dan and Jez’s masterful efforts, we plunged ourselves into a fast and fevered season of Rails development.
Camp NaNoWriMo launched on a resplendent day in late June, just in time for the first-ever noveling session of Camp to begin on July 1. Head Camp Counselor Cylithria Dubois welcomed the 6,640 new noveling recruits with great enthusiasm over in the NaNoWriMo forums. Profiles were populated, the Camp News bulletin board filled up, pep talks abounded, and slowly but surely, Campers’ word counts soared through the month of July.
6,236 more fresh-faced and eager writers signed up for for an August of noveling in a virtual tent. August debuted a new feature for Camp: cabins, filled with up to six online cabin mates to help each other along the journey to 50K. Between the two sessions, 1,755 participants hit the 50,000-word goal and were declared Camp NaNoWriMo Winners.
The Camp staff rejoiced mightily with a feast of gourmet s’mores cooked in the office toaster oven. And we vowed to never again run back-to-back noveling months. Not only were we overwhelmed with exhaustion from two straight months of noveling momentum, but logistically the site couldn’t manage the implications of having novelists in time zones around the world simultaneously starting and finishing novels.
It was a brain-busting, time-traveling, hard lesson well-learned, and we squirreled that knowledge away for the future of Camp NaNoWriMo.
For even with Camp wrapped and our virtual sunburns barely healed, it was time to turn our sights to the main event: nanowrimo.org and November’s flagship noveling fiesta!
Joining us from Canada for the fall was Paige Knorr, who would be interning full-time as a part of her degree program, fulfilling a burning need we had for an ultra-quick and indomitable editor, slayer of CMS conundrums, overseer of translators and our NaNo University initiative. Rounding out our team of intrepid interns: the perennially-joyful Max Berwald, film major at San Francisco State, and Arianna Asercion, a recent UCSC grad with hidden depths.
And joining us as a new employee? Former intern and new Office Manager Tim Kim! Tupelo’s brief reign as mistress of all things office and manage-y came to an end when her novel got its publication date and she departed for her book tour. Tim took up the post with aplomb, answering the avalanche of seasonal info@ emails with superhuman speed and good humor.
Yes, it was a busy time here at OLL: a time of eating jellybeans in bulk, designing and producing Chris-Baty-quote-themed merchandise, filing bug reports and then squashing them at a rate never before seen in these parts. It seemed the clock was set to fast-forward as we sped into autumn.
Beezwax developers Francisco, Pedro, and Marquete rocked our Rails-development worlds, aiding Dan and Jez as they whipped the NaNoWriMo website into shape for another November of high-velocity literary hijinks.
Ther development efforts were girded by a heroic team of beta testers–another first for NaNoWriMo–overseen by the unstoppable and outrageously multi-talented trio of Ticketmaster Rob Diaz, Lead Forums Moderator Heather Dudley, and the always-inspiring Tester-in-Chief Cylithria Dubois.
When we relaunched nanowrimo.org in mid-October, we had the first draft of our Rails-built website. Though it needed further revision before we could call it a finished product, we had successfully gutted the old site, removed the Drupals, and installed the Rails. The site outage disasters of the past were just a distant memory, never to haunt us again in this new era of rebuilding and revision.
And there was even more change on the horizon that had nothing to do with new websites, stickers, or slave databases. Beloved founder and Executive Director Chris Baty had announced that come January 2012, he was leaving OLL to write full-time. Concurrent to the year-long marathon of website and merchandise design, we were searching far and wide for an Executive Director to fill his comically large, frankly clowny, shoes.
Coasting on adrenaline and a cornucopia of sweet treats from the bakery next door, the NaNoWriMo staff welcomed 256,618 novelists to the NaNoWriMo party. 657 Municipal Liaisons in 506 regions around the world hosted write-ins and cheered their local writers onward. We shared pep talk from the likes of literary all-stars Chris Cleave and Audrey Niffenegger, and wildly successful published NaNo participants Brandon Sanderson and Erin Morgenstern.
Meanwhile, the Young Writers Program was hosting over 51,000 aspiring novelists and providing resources for more than 2,000 classrooms worldwide. Christopher Paolini led an inspiring roster of pep talkers, helping to cheer a record 16,334 young authors to their word-count goals.
On November 20, over 250 writers from around the world gathered in the elegantly adorned Julia Morgan Ballroom for the Fifth Annual Night of Writing Dangerously Write-a-thon. There were Cosmonoveltons to drink, a candy buffet to decimate, novels to write, and victory to be claimed. And we heard from board member Grant Faulkner who, after our exhaustive search, we’d selected as OLL’s new fearless, viking-helmet-wearing Executive Director-to-be. Chris Baty also gave a farewell speech that made everyone–even the waitstaff, and one guy who accidentally wandered into the ballroom–cry.
When NaNoWriMo wrapped, we triumphantly applauded the whopping 36,843 writers who wrote 50K or more words, and got to shipping out Winner shirts hand over fist. We spent December cleaning up the novel-writing confetti, distributing surveys, and getting ready to close the office for a short but much-needed end-of-year nap. Because when we woke up, it would be a new year, with a new Executive Director and all-new adventures in creatively motivating writers everywhere to write now and ask questions later.