NaNoWriMo a ‘novel’ experience for eighth graders

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Bailey Hallberg

Kira Reick

Eli Johnson

Maci Dalton

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Each November since 1999, hundreds of thousands of writing enthusiasts have participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an online creative writing project that encourages writers to complete a novel (50,000 words) in just 30 days.

Since 2005, NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program has offered the opportunity to students. Five years ago, MFL MarMac Middle School teacher Scott Boylen took advantage of the program, challenging his eighth grade language arts students to write a 10,000-word novel in that time span.

Each year, enthusiasm has grown.

“This is the best any class has ever done,” Boylen said of this year’s eighth graders. “Over 90 percent made it to their goal.”

Many set their sights higher than 10,000, with seven students writing novels of over 20,000 words.

Among them, Eli Johnson wrote 22,500 words, Bailey Hallberg over 24,000, Maci Dalton 26,000 and Kira Reick 30,000.

Johnson said the experience was easier than he thought it would be, as did Reick. Already a writer of several 6,000-word novels, Dalton said the hefty amount wasn’t so intimidating for her either. 

However, some aspects were easier than others.

“At first it seemed easy,” noted Hallberg. “At the end, it got a little harder, trying to figure out ideas and come up with an ending.”

Boylen said all the students prepared to write their novels two weeks ahead of time, forming plot lines and creating details about characters. 

Since this is the fifth year of NaNoWriMo, he said students also learn about what to expect from prior students.

“The kids knew about it, and they’re either freaked out or excited,” he said. “That awareness is a new thing.”

After the preparation, November was solely devoted to writing, with many working on their novels outside class.

With Boylen away from school at the end of November, he said the students also had to complete the process on their own.

“It’s a big undertaking,” he said.

Students select their own novel topics. Both Hallberg and Reick wrote about girls searching for their fathers. Johnson wrote about a German soldier during World War II, providing a different perspective than people normally read, he said. Dalton’s novel had a romantic touch to it, as a girl switched boarding schools and was sent to South Korea, where the school mixed up her gender and roomed her with a guy; the two eventually fell in love with one another.

A romantic element is common in many girls’ novels, Boylen said, whereas many of the boys tend to write about sports. Murder mysteries have also been popular over the years, he added, along with abductions.

No matter what the students choose to write about, it’s a rewarding experience, he said. That goes for both students who do well academically and for those who sometimes struggle.

“It teaches them they can do something,” he said. “It might seem impossible, but they can achieve it.”

The students realized that as well.

“I learned that I can go farther than I ever thought I could,” Reick said. “It helps you a lot with your writing.”

“Anyone can write a novel,” Johnson stated. “You just have to do it. It’s pretty fun.”

And not only is novel-writing useful for the students academically, it’s also cathartic.

“I like sitting down and writing,” Dalton explained. “I just have ideas boiling in my mind, and I need to write them down.”

Hallberg agreed: “I enjoy creating a story and seeing where my imagination takes me.”

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