Want to be a writer? Grant Faulkner and NaNoWriMo can help you do that in a month

Grant Faulker reading from his new book, Pep Talk for Writers, at his Oct. 25 launch party at The Octopus Literary Salon. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

It’s no coincidence that Grant Faulkner’s latest book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo, has just been published.

Faulkner is the executive director of the Berkeley-based National Novel Writing Month, more commonly known as NaNoWriMo, where hundreds of thousands of people (yes, you read that right) around the globe write a novel in November.

Beginning Nov. 1 and ending at midnight on Nov. 30, writers and people who want to be writers commit to penning a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. As you read this article, there are thousands of people hard at work putting words to paper or typing on keyboards.

One reason for NaNoWriMo’s incredible success (386,000 writers participated in 2106) is that so many people in the world want to write a book but are prevented by time, excuses, negative thoughts running through their heads and a belief that they are imposters, said Faulkner.


NaNoWriMo was set up to banish those impediments by making writing, if not a team sport, a collective effort to be creative. And Faulkner’s book, coming out just before the start of the month-long exercise, acts as a cheerleader of sorts. Its short chapters offer writing tips, advice, encouragement, and provide exercises to bring out one’s inner genius as well as exhortations to believe in one’s self. Faulker tells readers that anyone who takes writing seriously is a writer. It is the effort, not publication that counts.

“Each year, I talk to hundreds of people who have perfected a peculiar and disturbing art: the art of telling themselves why they can’t jump in and write the novel of their dreams,” begins one section of Pep Talks for Writers.

‘I’ve never taken any classes. I don’t have an MFA.’

‘I have a lot of ideas for stories, but I’m not a real writer.’

‘Or, worst of all, they say, ‘I’m not a creative type.’


“I call this the other syndrome—as in “other people do this, but not me.’”

Faulkner goes on to debunk the notion that “other people are writers.”

“The arts don’t belong to a chosen few. Quite the opposite: every one of us is chosen to be a creator by virtue of being human… And you’re a writer because you write. There’s no other definition. Don’t fall into the common trap of hesitating to call yourself a writer if you haven’t published a book. It can easily happen. Agatha Christie said that even after she’d written ten books, she didn’t really consider herself a “bona fide author.” You earn your bona fides each time you pick up a pen and write your story. So start by telling yourself you’re a writer. Then tell the world. Don’t mumble it, be proud of it, because to be a writer takes moxie and verve.”

Grant Faulkner. Photo: Toby Burditt

Faulkner, who lives in North Berkeley with his wife, the novelist Heather Mackey, and his 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, said he knew from the time he was little that he would become a writer because he spent his allowance on pens and paper, not candy or toys. He later earned a degree in English from Grinnell College and masters in writing from San Francisco State University.

“It seems like I should have other degrees, such as an MFA in Novels about People Doing Nothing But Walking Around, a Ph.D. in Collages and Doodles and Stick Drawings of Fruitless Pursuits, or a Knighthood in Insomniac Studies, but I don’t.” Faulker writes on his website.


Faulkner has also published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, with Press 53. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Poets & Writers, Rumpus, Gargoyle, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Puerto del Sol, PANK, Superstition Review, and The Green Mountain Review.

Faulker began as the executive director of National Novel Writing Month in 2012 after the non-profit’s founder, Chris Baty, stepped down. Baty had come up with the notion of writing a 50,000-word-novel in a month in 1999, not because he had a creative vision but because “he just wanted to write a novel with 20 friends,” said Faulker.

The first year just a few people participated. In 2000, about 140 people joined in. The next year, bloggers discovered NaNoWriMo, prompting the Los Angeles Times to write an article. So 5,000 people wrote like crazy for 30 days. The next year 14,000 scribbled away. It has kept growing. Now NaNoWriMo is a global phenomenon (writers from 90 countries participate) and the organization, located at 3354 Adeline St., has eight staffers and a $1.3 million budget. It expects around 400,000 people to participate this year.

“We have a motto,” said Faulker. “Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a story that matters.”

One way  NaNoWriMo gets people writing is by creating community. There are 1,000 volunteer “municipal liaisons” who set up writing get-togethers during November. Many libraries host writing events. The idea is that while writing is a solitary act, it is best done with others around. People are actually more creative when they are around others, which is why so much writing is done in cafes, said Faulker. With the rise of social media, people are feeling even more connected.

“Twitter will explode in the next 30 days,” said Faulkner.

And it had by early Wednesday, the first day of the 30-day writing challenge.

In Berkeley, there will be four communal writing sessions, known as write-ins, at Doe Library. The first two, on Nov. 5 and 12, will be from 1 to 4 p.m. in Room 180. The session on Nov. 19 will be at the same location from 1 to 3 p.m. The last session is Thursday, Nov. 30, from 6 to 9 p.m. in 303 Doe Library. That will also be a “We Did It Party!”

Faulker’s Oct. 25  book launch at The Octopus Literary Salon, a café/bookstore on Webster Street in Oakland, also served as a NaNoWriMo love fest of sorts. Faulkner told the dozens of people who had gathered how writing 50,000 words in a month had shaken up his writing habit, in a good way. He characterized himself as a “precious, ponderous writer.” He always made sure that his first chapter was perfect before he moved on to the next. Sometimes he would spend six months on a chapter before progressing – and end up tossing the words anyway. But participating in NaNoWriMo forced him to write 1,700 words a day.

“Writing for quantity instead of quality gave me quality because I was taking creative risks, some of which were much more brilliant,” he said.

Faulker and the host of the evening, author Rachael Herron, had everyone do five minutes of free writing and then asked people to share their experiences. The nonstop writing exercise is what the organizers of NaNoWriMo encourage for November. Just get the ideas and words on the page. Fix them up later. But by having them you have accomplished a great deal.

One woman said it was the first time she had ever completed a novel to the end. “It forces you to finish a book. I had been writing and rewriting and rewriting. It was the magic of an enforced deadline.”

Jamie Leigh Real, who attended Faulkner’s launch, is doing NaNoWriMo for the second time. She is working full-time at Chronicle Books, so she has to deliberately carve out time to both write and work out, she said. Since she spends so much time editing at work, NaNoWriMo gives her the extra nudge she needs to write.

“I need to write,” said Real. “It’s a necessity for me. I feel the most alive when I’m writing.”

And writing a novel with others makes it easier.

“I love that there are thousands of other writers, new and established, who are working on the same personal goal,” said Real. “It’s freeing to start anew with fresh and bold ideas knowing that you aren’t alone.”