Local workshops for novel writers rev up the verbiage

“When he woke a few hours later, it was dark outside. He had slept too long. And now someone was forcibly pulling him out of bed. When he tried to cry out, they gagged him with a piece of cloth.”

Sorry, that’s all we can give you here.

If you’re frustrated, the gripping opening of Stephanie Foley’s submission for National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — has done its job. The rest of this novel runs well over 50,000 words and is packed with action. Your novel could do the same — or it could be entirely different.

Foley is one of more than 380,000 annual participants over six continents who create novels for the month-long event. NaNoWriMo was founded in 1999 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that sponsors writing programs for both early and mature writers.

The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in a month — or, in more digestible terms, a story that measures just over 100 pages. The story can be about anything the writer dreams up and no previous writing qualifications are necessary.

Although it seems like a tall order, Foley said it’s perfectly manageable.

“The first year I did it, I got 225,000 [words] and last year I got 150,000,” Foley said. “So, I go far beyond the 50,000. If I finish this year, it will be my fourth win.”

To “win” means to reach the 50,000- word goal — though as Foley has shown, participants are welcome to surpass it. Writers aren’t actually competing with anyone but themselves to create their work on time.

Foley said the secret to her success is to cultivate the habit of writing daily.

“When I got that daily habit established, it wasn’t as difficult to do a ton, and I changed my perspective,” she said. She went to college to study writing and hopes to be published some day. “I talked to my husband about it and he was very supportive and encouraging,” she said. “He decided that treating it as a job makes the most sense, even though I’m not making money from it at this point.”

But not everyone who participates went to school for literature. Ryan Block, a recent Michigan State University graduate, now works as a farmer. NaNoWriMo gave him a foothold to follow a “lifelong passion” that began with a short story competition in high school.

He started doing NaNo about four years ago, while attending MSU, although he knew about it in high school.

“Early on, I wanted to do some Tolkien-esque fantasy, but over the years it’s become somewhat more grounded,” he said.

Block has won twice since he started the competition.

To make it easier to keep track of a writer’s progress goals easier, the NaNoWriMo website gives participants a daily word count log that sets the word average at 1,667 — the daily amount needed to reach one’s novel goal.

But NaNoWriMo organizers are aware that first-timers might be intimidated by the steep word count, so they’re getting ready ahead of time. The writing event doesn’t start worldwide until Nov. 1, but locally, Lansing is getting some prep help in October.

Annette Barton, a volunteer municipal liaison for the writing event, is looking at her 11th consecutive win this year and helps organize preparatory events.

A series of three workshops will feature two guest authors. The first workshop, from 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, features Laurie Nelson Spielman, author of “The Life List” and “Sweet Forgiveness.” Spielman will focus on the use of personality in the novel.

“It’s going to be an interactive session where she’s going to be looking at voice and character, and answer any writing-related questions,” Barton said.

The second event will feature author Bethany Neal, who wrote “My Last Kiss.” Neal will focus on “writing your novel one scene at a time” and answer questions.

At the third workshop, Oct. 26, veterans and newbies are invited to help each other plot and structure their novels. Handouts will introduce beginners to the three-act storyline and other basic building blocks.

With that level of preparation, Barton hopes to see Lansing’s would-be novelists win so much they get tired of winning. “We also encourage people to ask questions and start threads in our local forum,” she said.

The most important date, of course, is Nov. 1, the official kickoff. The local NaNoWriMo chapter will be hosting a kickoff event at the Avenue Café from 2-5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29.

“That’s always a blast,” Barton said. The thing Barton enjoys most about NaNoWriMo is that it draws people together from all walks of life and uses a time crunch to force participants to be creative.

“That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo to me personally,” she said. She never wrote a novel and didn’t write much fiction before NaNoWriMo because her “inner editor” for fiction was “so horrible.”

“It stopped me before I even started,” she said. “It was liberating when I did NaNoWriMo. I gave myself permission to write a bunch of stuff that was not polished.”

That’s also why NaNoWriMo participants are encouraged not to edit their work during the month they are writing it.

“We like to joke about it being ‘a bunch of crap,’” Barton said. “That’s OK, because in the midst of that, there’s going to be some pearls of beautifully written stuff, and, when you’re done, you have the skeleton of a written novel that you can then edit to get into a polished state.”

NaNoWriMo Prep Workshop with Lori Nelson Spielman. 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5 Old Chicago 1938 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos. nanolansing.org