The next bestseller to hit Indonesian shelves might have been born last month, in a frenzied labor of love powered by caffeine and the camaraderie of fellow writers around the city and beyond.
This November was the 11th edition of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the world’s largest writing contest, founded in San Francisco by Chris Baty, in which 167, 150 professional and amateur writers attempt to complete at least 50,000 words of a novel by midnight, local time, on Nov. 30.
There are no prizes – and no one even reads your work unless you want them to; your word count is validated by scrambling counting machines on the site – only the satisfaction of having completed the challenge, although Baty said more than 30 participants last year received publishing deals.
When I first encountered NaNoWriMo on Saturday, Nov. 7, I was incredulous, and then excited. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days – or 23 in my case – was a tall order, but still within reach.
Like many, I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but have always been waiting for that perfect time to write, when I could press the pause button on life. This became one of my favorite daydreams, especially in Jakarta traffic, picturing myself in a country cottage or in a beach hut by the sea, writing all day, fuelled by cups of tea.
NaNoWriMo gave me a wakeup call. I didn’t need to wait. The goal of writing for quantity not quality freed me from perfection, and the idea of being accompanied by people all around the world was very motivating.
That first week I kicked off with gusto, deciding to spin out one of my least precious ideas – a retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel. Every night I met my 2,174-word target, experiencing the heady whirl of charging ahead with a story.
You surprise yourself as you write – characters take shape almost of their own accord, things happen you wouldn’t expect – stories come truly alive once you allow them to live outside your head. I grandly imagined myself as Scheherazade, having to tell at least one tale (i.e., chapter) every night to stay alive, by leaving the reader wanting more.
I explored the wider NaNoWriMo community; as it’s a worldwide event, participants can affiliate with a region, an entire country or a city. I joined Indonesia and was intrigued when I clicked into the message board and saw that there were more than 200 Indonesians NaNoWriMos participating – and that they were meeting up on a Saturday (Nov. 14) for their third write-in at Cafe Gramedia in Grand Indonesia, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
I called Duckie, the write-in’s organizer, to learn more. Duckie, a full-time secretary who has participated in NaNoWriMo since 2004, winning four times, is Indonesia’s nearest thing to a “municipal liaison”; she is responsible for coordinating events, answering participants’ emails and pep talks.
We immediately bonded over an appreciation for handsome brothers in Supernatural, about whom she was writing a fan-fiction Nano-novel. She told me about some other participants – two, Sylvia L’Namira and Dee, had already had their edited 2008 Nano-novels published and Rey, 21, who was blind, and had won last year, using a special Braille keyboard.
At Cafe Gramedia, I found my first two fellow NaNoWrimos – Hning and Eve – easily, beckoned by opened laptops and netbooks.
Hning, 28, a holistic blogger and first-time NaNoWriMo, said she was attracted by the challenge NaNoWriMo posed.
“I think Chris Baty chose November deliberately, because it’s the busiest month for many people.”
Eve, 34, a translator, and two-time NaNoWriMo winner, was writing a wuxia (ancient Chinese martial arts genre) novel. She said NaNoWriMo helped her to write “as opposed to thinking about writing and brainstorming.”
As we chatted more than wrote, Hning cracking many jokes, Henny arrived. The 26-year-old educator had wanted to write a story for a long time, but wasn’t sure how to, so had come to see others at work.
“My goal is to write one sentence before the session’s up,” she said.
Duckie arrived, followed by editor Dee, 30, who discussed her Indonesian-language novel about children who solve mysteries.
“It took about three months to edit – I ended up using a third of what I had written during NaNoWriMo,” she said, adding her current Nano-novel, Misteri Brownies yang Terluka, would also be edited for publication.
As we took in hot drinks and snacks, I realized the write-ins weren’t really about writing – I only managed 1,000 words during the four hours – but about meeting others who loved storytelling. We discussed our favorite novels and how we managed to fit Nano-ing into our schedules. Dee gave me the prototype NaNoWriMo 2009 pin she had made. Henny more than achieved her modest goal; she filled several pages by the time the session ended.
During my second week, I lost momentum – the daily 2,174 words, especially when I fell behind, began to feel strenuous on top of obligations.
A pep talk email from novelist Tamora Pierce, saying “at this moment in time the writing is decidedly starting to suck” and “you’re thinking you have no talent” felt too close to the mark.
The fourth write-in was at Brew & Co in Cilandak Town Square, on Saturday, Nov. 21. This time I met Rauf and Sylvia.
Rauf, an aspiring fantasy writer and ardent book lover, said while he’d always wanted to write a novel, he previously felt “why bother, it’s stupid, no one will ever want to read it.”
“Trying to finish a novel in only 30 days, I thought, will neutralize that voice in my head, that doubt, that self-consciousness,” he said.
Sylvia, 34, a librarian and a writer whose 2008 Nano-novel was published as Mi Familia, was writing about middle-school kids at an international school, the first volume of what would hopefully eventually be published as a six-volume series.
“I create the characters, the plot, and play the scenes around in my head during my motorbike trip from home to office and vice versa,” she said, explaining how she fit writing into her daily life.
I proved far less adept than Sylvia at managing my time in my third and final week, writing only 1,500 words, bringing my total to 15,000. I was swamped with assignments and increasingly hesitant of wasting time on bad writing.
Following the abysmal tone set by the week, at the final write-in, held in the food court at Plaza Semanggi on Saturday, Nov. 28, I was unable to find the NaNoWriMos among the masses. I later learned they had been hard to spot because no one had their laptops out – everyone except Dee had already made the 50,000 words.
So, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009, when 32,173 people around the world woke up as Nano-novelists, I was still only myself, a wishful writer with fragments of stories littering my notebooks, hard drive and mind.
The NaNoWriMo website revealed the Indonesian region collectively achieved 1,274,499 words, and while official stats remain unavailable, the message board shows at least 15 people affiliated with Indonesia were winning 2010 Nano-novelists, including all those I had met at the write-ins, all of whom shared their reflections with candor.
“After reaching 50k, the editor in me is like, *Dee, what are you doing? You want ME to edit that?'” Dee wrote.
Hning found the final leg a breeze. “After 48,000 words, those last 2,000, I wanted to enjoy every bit of it. I played solitaire between paragraphs.”
The Thank God It’s Over event at Pondok Indah Mall II, on Saturday, Dec. 5, was sadly accidentally cancelled due to Duckie needing to go out of town, so it was just me and Eve. I had just missed Emily, the youngest Indonesian NaNoWrimo at 13. Still, we enjoyed eking out NaNoWriMo for a little bit longer.
“Writing is a lonely activity, so it was nice to have for one month, other people who were doing the same thing,” Eve said, adding her Nano-win was down to “perseverance” and “lots of coffee”.
On the message boards, I “met” a few more NaNoWrimos, who shared their secrets of success.
Ivanna, a part-time writer, web designer and Nano-veteran based in France, attributed net-free environments and the white noise in cafes for her win.
“I’m kind of having WriMo withdrawful symptoms right now,” said M. Adzania, 29, who said she was aided by long-abandoned plots, which unexpectedly found their way into her stories as she began writing.
Emily credited “staying up late at night” and “a thankful lack of homework during the first two weeks”.
Despite this year’s failure, I intend to participate in 2010. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I met fascinating people and fleshed out a story I now intend to finish. It taught me that no matter how busy your life is, if you want to write fiction, the key is to simply do it regularly – and not to edit too much as you go.
And as Rauf said, “The main lesson is how nothing, and I mean nothing, beats good writing days. On good writing days, nothing else matters.”