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NaNoWriMo 2023 Wrapup

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A close shot of a person writing long-hand in an open notebook on a table, with an open book and a mug of coffee. Could they be a NaNoWriMo participant?
(lil artsy / Pexels.com)

So, it’s December now. Which means we made it through November.

This was the first year in a while I actually managed to push through National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. November has, historically, been a bit of a trashier for me. This year wasn’t much different, if I’m perfectly honest, yet somehow, I made it through and reached the goal.

A Brief History of NaNo

NaNo kicked off in 1999, when a group of folks challenged each other to write a novel in thirty days. They chose 50,000 words as the length of a novel, based on some popular definitions. (Some sources define a novel as shorter or longer.)

So, the challenge became to write 50,000 words between the first and thirtieth of November. The challenge has grown by leaps and bounds then. Today, NaNo is a charitable organization that raises funds to support activities like a young writers’ program.

They also run events three times per year, with the other two events being “camps” in April and July. Camp is less formal and receives less fanfare than NaNo in November. Still, there are plenty of NaNo “rebels” who choose to work on other projects.

Cherry vs. NaNo

I’ve done NaNo quite a few times. As I noted in the introduction to this post, I’ve crashed and burned at it the last few years. That was a frustrating experience, in part because I had successfully completed the challenge before. I can be quite a quick drafter when I’m inspired, have the time, and feel motivated.

The cover of Saved by the Selkie, which features a brunet man in 1700s-garb on a sailing ship, with a seal in the water behind him.
I wrote 50k in one month to draft this book, but in January.

NaNo often provides the motivation, although time and inspiration can be fleeting.

I’m pretty proud of completing the 50k-word challenge this year, since, as I noted, things weren’t really better. In some ways, things have been worse.

It’s not that I can’t “do” NaNo—I can. I’ve “won” the event before, and in the last couple of years, I’ve actually pulled off the word count (or higher) in other months that are not November. It’s just that November seems to be a really bad time of year for me.

Why NaNo Isn’t for Everyone

That’s one reason a lot of people choose not to participate. November is, in some ways, and ideal month. It’s getting colder outside, if you live in the northern hemisphere. It’s kind of dark and dreary, so you want to spend more time inside. December is usually a write off because of the holidays, and October can be eaten up with Halloween. September is usually getting back to work. From May through August, people are doing all kinds of stuff, like getting outside, taking trips, and going on vacations.

January might seem like a good month too, but people are often focused on getting back to work again. February is too short. March and April often have a few big events, such as tax deadlines and Easter, among others.

So November could really feel like the ideal month to take on a challenge like this, but for a lot of people, it’s not. There’s US Thanksgiving, holiday parties can start kicking into gear, and what about your shopping? For many students, it’s time for final assignments and essays, as well as studying for exams. Beyond that, there’s often a push in many corporate offices to make quotas and wrap up work before December hits.

So it can be a really busy time for people, even if it doesn’t initially look like that!

Other people choose not to participate for other reasons, such as not finding it helpful. Some people don’t do well with challenges or goals like this. Instead of motivating them, they find that it simply creates pressure. Sometimes, that pressure is so overwhelming, they find they can’t write any longer.

So, for those people, NaNo is actually more of a hindrance to getting words on the page.

A New Reason Not to Participate

In early November, news broke about a group that had been trying to work with NaNo about some very shady behavior from at least one of the forum moderators. This group reached out on behalf of a relatively large group of individuals who had participated in the Young Writers’ Program. They had hopes that NaNo would take action and investigate further.

This apparently happened in May 2023. The group members were told the matter was being looked into. Then they heard nothing more.

In the meantime, the moderator in question remained active on the forums.

The allegations were quite serious. Individuals shared that they had been approached and groomed by this person while they were minors. This was incredibly worrisome, considering that the person in question was heavily involved in the Young Writers’ Program.

The group waited until early November to go public with their story. They were concerned that this person remained active and had access to minors. The group also shared concerns that the NaNoWriMo leadership had seemingly not acted. On top of that, they were concerned that they had been misled into believing something would be done.

To them, it looked like NaNo was aiding and abetting this person.

Deny, Hide, CYA

Shortly after that, NaNo-related accounts seemingly began purging comments that asked questions about the group’s story and the allegation. On the forums and in NaNo’s Discord channels, any discussion about the allegations was quickly shut down.

It took the organization well over a week to address the group’s story. In an email that went out to all participants (cross-posted to the paused forums), the Board claimed they were completely unaware of the allegations until the story broke on social media. They claimed that no one on the Board had been approached or told of these allegations.

The organization then shut down the forums on the site, stating that it was the only reasonable action they could take to protect their members. They indicated there would be more forthcoming from them in the future, while also decrying a lack of people-power.

The Truth Is Out There … Maybe

What, precisely, happened is still being speculated on. Did the group merely approach the wrong people, people who then did not escalate the issue or take prompt action? Did the folks who were approached by the group dismiss claims or try to harbor an individual who was harming minors? Is it true the Board really not know anything about this? Or are they just trying to CYA at this point?

It’s likely going to be impossible to tell for some time. Clearly, the organization has created their narrative, and they’re unlikely to deviate from it.

Generally speaking, there’s not much reason to doubt “the little guy” in these sorts of situations.
Someone within the NaNoWriMo organization did hear about these allegations. Whether or not it was the right people is another story. And what exactly went down around how the allegations were brought forward and handled by the organization is yet another thing entirely.

What we do know is that this person was left in place for quite some time. Others in the organization seemingly had some knowledge of their behavior and did not act to remove them. Whether those people had the power to remove this person themselves or simply did not bring the concerns to those who did is irrelevant. They did not take action, which is as good as harboring this individual.

Will I Do NaNo Again?

Probably not in an official capacity. That is, I won’t be too fussed about maintaining my account on their servers, announcing projects, or updating word counts there. I’ll probably limit my interactions with accounts associated with the organization and use of the hashtag.

The organization as a whole, though, seems to have some issues. Whether it’s poor communication and a few “bad apples,” so to speak, or whether it’s a systemic issue where the people at the top are harboring and protecting people who have done bad things, I don’t know.

What I do know is that it sucks to push away from an organization that has done a lot of good, created a lot of friendships, and helped a lot of people write their first book or even their next book.

Organizations and Individuals Are Not Pure Good or Evil

But “all good things must come to an end” or some such. It’s a reality that we have to reckon with. Organizations that do good or that have had positive influences on us can still be negative, and this is a prime example. And I feel like the writing community as a whole needs to take a very clear stand and say doing nothing about allegations like this is absolutely unacceptable.

While I have hope that the org is taking a step in the right direction by closing the forums, it doesn’t seem like enough. From my standpoint, it seems to have been taken only as a CYA move in response to public pressure and outcry. That’s not a good look—and it, worryingly, suggests that the organization will not act on even serious issues unless there’s a public campaign. That means anything kind of shady will be allowed to go on, provided it remains in the shadows.

I think NaNo needs to take a good, hard look at how this happened and how it was allowed to continue. Their reasoning around closing the forums doesn’t suggest to me an organization that’s really willing to look too deep here. They did the easiest thing—and their comments might seem to suggest they’re not looking at steps like revising how they vet volunteers or anything like that.

Protecting Young Writers

I also think they need to step away from the youth program. And I don’t advocate that lightly. I think it’s wonderful that there was such a program to assist young and aspiring writers. But it’s also clear that program was not safe. Until NaNo can address the underlying factors that led to this situation—where an individual was in a position to groom minors—they can’t be trusted to run this program. And, again, their comments in their email to participants really don’t suggest to me that they’re undertaking the appropriate steps. That means the program isn’t likely to become any safer, which is disheartening, to say the least.

I want to see NaNo do better. I honestly think it’s been a great thing for so many people. And I recognize that it’s largely run by volunteers, which no doubt limits what can and can’t be done. But when something like this happens, we need to see more complete responses from these organizations, as well as deep commitment to ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

No organization is perfect, and no organization will ever be 100% safe, even if they go to great lengths. But my own feeling here is that the response has been to do the minimum and to hope that we’re just going to “forgive and forget.”

Until NaNo cleans this mess up—and truly cleans it up—I’ll be staying far away.

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By Cherry

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