At Borderlands Books last Saturday, Cary Heater was clear: The excitement was next door at the café.
”People are trying to finish writing their novels,” she said.
Writing novels? I asked. For National Novel Writing Month, she said.
Sure enough, Borderlands Café, near 20th Street, had a small swarm of caffeinated, furious typists battling through one of NaNoWriMo’s write-ins.
How could I forget about NaNoWriMo? I’ve participated in the global event twice. In November of 2005, I wrote 200 pages of science fiction gobbledygook and “won.” In 2007, I tried to write a decent melodrama in the midst of taking college courses, including biology — and failed.
Everyone who writes 50,000 words and uploads the text to the website by 11:59 p.m. on November 30 wins.
The prize? Having written 50,000 words inside of a month. The goal, according to NaNoWriMo’s website, is quantity, not quality.
This year there were at least 3,293 registered participants in San Francisco. More than 200,000 people participated worldwide. Fewer than 19 percent completed the challenge.
In a forum thread, participants from the Bay Area summed up their novels in six words or less. “Apathetic barista helps save San Francisco,” wrote one. “Coming of age in the sixties,” wrote another. Others were supernatural: “You get to crew the Enterprise,” and “Guess what? You’re a God!”
On Tuesday night, during the infamous final hours of the contest, I wandered the Mission in search of writers. I returned to Valencia to hit Borderlands, Ritual Coffee Roasters and The Summit. Whenever I spied a laptop through a café window, I went inside to inquire, but the answer was always no, or “You just missed one.” One man pounding on his keyboard looked like a participant to me, but it was clear he didn’t want to be disturbed.
Who wants to deal with a reporter when there are only three hours left to submit a month’s worth of writing?
Perhaps the Mission District’s writers were already finished. That was the case for Diana Wynne.
“I hit 50,000 words early,” said Wynne, a software designer and two-time NaNoWriMo participant who still wrote a little on Tuesday. She worked on her novel, called “MINE,” during morning write-ins she organized at Nervous Dog Coffee on Mission Street. Usually, two or three other writers would attend.
Wynne also drove to Carrot’s Coffee and Tea in San Bruno to meet up with Peninsula writers over carrot soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
But Wynne, who’s in her 40s, said she wrote most of her novel at home, with the goal of writing 2,000 words each morning. Her final word count was 55,366.
Winners of NaNoWriMo didn’t mind talking about their experience — after they reached the 50,000 threshold. No one who didn’t meet the criteria had the heart to talk about it.
Jen Tartaglione, a student teacher at Mission High School and volunteer at 826 Valencia, crossed the finish line on Thanksgiving day. She had done most of her writing over tea and bagels at Café Que Tal, near the corner of Guerrero and 22nd streets, but admits cheap mimosas at the Crepe House on Valencia aided her creative process.
Tartaglione, 25, participated in NaNoWriMo to answer a call from beyond the grave. Her late father inspired her 51,000-word novel, “The Life and Death of Ellie, Graveyard Psychic.”
Before moving to the Mission this year, Tartaglione worked in marketing for a Los Angeles-based psychic hotline. “One of the psychics said, off the cuff, ‘Your dad told me that you’re holding back on writing and he can’t figure out why. You’re too good,’” Tartaglione recalled. “I don’t believe in psychics, but what she said was exactly something he would have said.”
Another successful participant, Chris Kenworthy, 35, enjoyed sightseeing while attending write-ins across San Francisco during his vacation here in November. He ventured from the Readers Café at Fort Mason to the Blue Danube in the Richmond District.
Kenworthy, a computer programmer from Ontario, Canada, came to the Mission last week to attend one of Wynne’s write-ins. It was the second-to-last Tuesday of NaNoWriMo, and the dedicated pair were the only writers in attendance.
“He’s a writing machine,” Wynne said of Kenworthy. “He’d already written 50,000 words. Every now and then, he would smile and we’d compare word counts.”
“I ended up finishing my main book and also writing 20,000 extra words on a few other projects,” said Kenworthy, a six-time NaNoWriMo participant who aspires to publish his work. He’s tentatively calling this year’s novel, an urban fantasy/romance, either “The Onus of Grace” or “The Angel’s Charlie.”
Since November has drawn to a close, user accounts on NaNoWriMo’s website reveal who completed the challenge and who did not. No participant is listed as a “loser,” but there aren’t a ton of winners. “The big push for people who were behind was Thanksgiving, on Friday through Sunday,” said Wynne. “Yesterday was probably too late to catch up unless you were really close.”
If part one of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in a month, part two is to transform the hastily written work into a novel its author can be proud of. For those who wish to polish their novels, tips are posted on the contest website.
Kenworthy is done with his novel, and Tartaglione is already dreaming up a sequel to hers. But Wynne is beginning the editorial process on “MINE,” which she describes as the television show “Lost” meets Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto.”
For more than three years, Wynne has had an unfinished story set at Ritual Coffee on her hands, and she doesn’t want another incomplete novel in tow. She said that neglecting to put the finishing touches on her NaNoWriMo novel “would be a betrayal of all those characters who just spilled out onto the page.”