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NaNoWriMo: The World Needs your Novel

Hafsah Zamir-Khan is a zealous NaNo-er and reckons you should be one too.

You’re asking if I have I ever wanted to write a novel?
Is that a silly question? I guess there a very few people who haven’t fantasised about writing a novel and becoming an international bestselling author overnight.


But I’m not talking about fantasies here; I want to know if you have ever had a story you felt the need to write, a story that has haunted you for years. A story that has developed in your mind day by day whilst you’re showering, washing the dishes or trying to sleep, to the extent that you may even have a full set of characters with various meandering and interconnecting storylines (I can’t be the only one wondering if all voices in the head are bad). I’m asking whether there is a story you feel is missing in everything you have already read and that you wish someone would write. As the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison has said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”


Well, now that you mention it, there is this one story that I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but who has the time to write a novel? Isn’t that a self-indulgent thing to do?

Why should we not be self-indulgent once in a while? More often than not, as women, we give so much of ourselves to our loved ones – our husbands, our children, our families – putting aside all our own dreams to cheer on everyone else. Fulfilling our own dreams does not mean we will neglect those who have rights over us. Would it be so terrible if say, out of the twelve months we give to others, we took out one month to ourselves?



Okay, you have a point. But why do I need to write? Because if I’m just trying to be self-indulgent, there are other things I’d like to do. Like taking a one way ticket to the Maldives.

Writing is not an act of self-indulgence. Far too often, books are seen as a frivolous pastime in Muslim communities and separate from our deen. But I agree with Jill Jepson who argues that “to write in service of a good cause is to offer the world a great and wonderful gift” and that “few forms of charity are as profound and long lasting as that of a writer who exposes social injustices and encourages others to do good works”.

There has never been a more important time for Muslim women to write: we are constantly exploited in the media, stereotyped and victimised. Yet the world is becoming more globalised day by day, helping us find ways to reach out to the rest of the world and reclaim our voices. There has never been a greater need for more diverse literature, for ourselves, for our children, for the generations to come. Let’s start telling our own stories.

If you have a story, you must write it. And NaNoWriMo is the best place to start.

Gosh, I never thought of it in that way! Sorry, what’s this NaNoWriMo thing?

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, or NaNo for shorter (ridiculous name, I know, but it pretty much sums up the zaniness of this endeavour) is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing” where participants from all over the world aim to write a 50,000 word novel over the month of November. You just sign up and start writing – it’s as simple as that. You can track your progress, get lots of pep talks and support, and you meet lots of fellow writers from all over the world.


50,000 words in a month? That sounds absurd.

No, no it’s not! It’s only 1, 667 words a day, really.

Ernest Hemingway comes to mind: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”


NaNo is basically like bleeding out every ounce of creativity you’ve hoarded in your body for the past year or likely more. And thousands of people are doing it together, cheering each other on and competing with who can bleed the most in the shortest amount of time.


It’s work, but of the ridiculously fun variety. How many people can say they have written a novel in 30 days? If you were to take just one month for yourself each year, ignored the chores, let your husband deal with the tantrumming toddlers, spent less time preparing food each day – you could possibly write a novel Every. Single. Year.


You’re not exactly selling this to me. You just sound masochistic.

Ha! I know it sounds difficult and a tad masochistic but as Hemingway points out, that is true of writing anyway. A fellow NaNo-er, Sazida Desai, made a brilliant analogy comparing NaNoWriMo to Ramadhan: “before it starts, there is a whole lot of apprehension about how you’re going to survive the whole month with a load of changed priorities”. Like Ramadhan, we are both excited and terrified about the endeavour, but what makes the ride so much easier is “the spirit of unity and togetherness with writers across the globe, who are going through exactly the same challenges right there with you every day”.


You might be writing on your own but you will never be on your own in the NaNo community – we will cheer you on, congratulate you on good days, pull you back up on bad days. As long as you keep connected, the support you’ll receive is absolutely amazing.


The best part of the month is what we, The Muslimah NaNo Team, dubbed ‘Word Warring’, more officially known as ‘NaNo Sprints’ by general NaNo-ers. In our Facebook group, we compete with each other to write as many words as we can in a set amount of time, ranging from 5 to 40 minutes. There was some hot competition last year. Not only did we often easily reach our daily word counts each day, but we also had fun. As Saba N Taylor said to me: “Writing is much easier when you’re having fun”.


I can see how that could be fun! But it also seems like one heck of a journey! Is it even doable?
What if I told you that a bunch of us from the SISTERS community – including full-time working sisters, wives to attention-seeking men and children alike (ha!) – managed to hit the 50,000 target? Although last year was not my first year of NaNo, it was my first year of keeping connected to other NaNo-ers and also the first time I won. Many others also won, some for the second or third time running.


And if that isn’t inspiring enough, Karimah Grayson not only won NaNoWriMo but went on to spend this year editing her novel and successfully self-published it!


That’s given me butterflies! But where does one even start writing a novel?

Starting is probably the hardest part of NaNoWriMo. Janet Kozak has expressed the importance of getting a good start, much like a short distance sprint: “[you need] to get going and pumped from the minute the whistle blows”.

Many don’t plan before starting on November 1st, but it can make a huge difference to your first week if you spend some time in October figuring out the plot, the characters, the structure, and the different storylines. That’s not to say you won’t get stuck during the month, but a good plan will definitely help you build a strong foundation in the beginning.


Any other advice for newbie NaNo-ers? (gosh, I am using NaNo lingo already!)

Oh, that’s when you know you are converted NaNo-er!
My best piece of advice would be: don’t do it on your own! Moral support is extremely important to keep you going, so take to Twitter, join Facebook groups, make use of the forums on the website. And also find yourself a non-virtual cheerleader, someone who asks about your word count each day, gives you a pat on the back – maybe  a hand massage, makes you a cup of tea (bakes you a cake, perhaps?) as you spill away at your computer.


Remember that the most important thing during NaNoWriMo is word count. So forget everything you hold dear in regards to punctuation and grammar and just write. Don’t correct typos, don’t check spelling, forget paragraphs and don’t even bother with speech marks. Get it written. Let your fingers type as fast as they can.


Also, spend 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of the day planning your next writing session, it’ll mean you won’t be sitting there staring at blank screen. Remember, you don’t need to write chronologically: if you get stuck or bored, you can move on to more exciting scenes later in the novel, or even go back and flesh out other scenes you’ve already written.


Just keep writing – don’t delete, don’t proofread, just let it all out. You can figure out structure and shortlist scenes during the editing process that begins after November. NaNoWriMo is all about letting your raw creativity loose.


You’ve actually got me excited now! So where does all the fun stuff like Word Warring and NaNo cheerleading happen?

There’s lots of support and sprinting over on Twitter on both the NaNoWriMo accounts as well as the MuslimWomenNaNo account. The best fun, however, is to be had on our Facebook page for Muslim NaNo-ers – it’s basically a virtual literary boot camp.

But of course, you have to learn the NaNoWriMo cheer before you can join: “N – A – N – O / NaNo-ers let’s go! / Let me hear you say GO! / Lets write! Fight! Unite! (Did you just make that up?) Terrible isn’t it? I should stick to writing fiction.


On a more serious note, I truly believe that if you have been blessed with the desire to write, then it is your duty to use that gift for benefit of the Ummah. The world needs your stories. And we can make it fun. Sign up, bring your notebooks, pens, laptops, mugs of tea and plenty of cake – and let the NaNo-ing begin!


Sign up: www.nanowrimo.org
Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/NaNoWriMo.Muslims/
Twitter: @MuslimWomenNano




Read More: To be a Writer

Na’ima B. Robert speaks to SISTERS writers who have achieved what many only dream of: publishing a book.