In the outdoor courtyard of a small coffee shop there is conversation and laughter.
It's a cool December dusk. The sun sets below the cool canopy of lush green trees.
The atmosphere is light. But it's quite the contrast from just one week before.
In the month of November, many of the same people were gathered at an old Pasadena Du-par's diner where they furiously typed behind the white glow of laptops.
"The whole concept of NaNoWriMo to write 50,000 words—it's more about the quantity and not the quality," Jennie Vongvith said. "I know it's the complete opposite of what everyone tells you about writing. You want to write quality work. But I think for NaNoWriMo, it's about finally getting your butt in your chair and to just write the words."
NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. Writers across the globe challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
Vongvith is known as an ML, or a municipal liaison. She volunteers to head the Los Angeles region. There are over 600 regions across two to three hundred countries.
"L.A. is one of the largest regions," Vongvith said. "This year we have about 2,500 active participants and because our region is so large, we have write-ins from all over the county set up."
Vongvith's job is to hold write-ins, an event where local participants meet to write together. She also coordinates the kick-off party, end-of-the-year party and encourages her fellow writers. "We're like the regional cheerleader," she said. "If you have questions or are feeling a little doubtful, just chat us up and we'll get you back on track."
During November, Vongvith holds write-ins at Du-par's every week. The group writes for a few hours. To break up the tension, Vongvith splits each hour into 30 minutes of writing and 30 minutes of socializing. She also holds a word-war competition. If any writer hits 1,000 words in 30 minutes, they can get a prize from Vongvith's table of goodies filled with journals, calendars, books, toys, and stickers.
Vongvith's group had their month's final meeting on November 29th—a little over 24 hours before the midnight deadline. Some NaNoWriMo participants, like Daniel Moore, were only halfway done.
"I'm halfway there and I have the next 30 hours to finish," Moore said. "And I guess I am disappointed but at the same time, I'm the kind of writer that doesn't like to write fluff stuff. And it's really hard for me to not edit as I go along or to make sure as I'm writing that it lines up with what happens earlier in the story."
But for Moore, coming to write-ins is about more than getting work done. "I love coming and talking to other people and writers and seeing where they're at. It's good to get out there and be with other people who are trying to accomplish the same thing at the end of the month," Moore said. "I've met so many people. There ambition isn't necessarily to be published and become a world-famous author. They do it for the personal challenge, but also to be a part of a group of people who are doing it. It's like an outlet—a social outlet for writers."
Some writers at the final write-in had already made it to 50,000 words and were just adding extra for completion. "It feels great, but I always kind of start out with the understanding that there's no alternative but to finish," Amy Bowker, a NaNoWriMo participant, said. "I mean, I'm just going to finish no matter what. You just clock it in every day. You have to."
This was Bowker's third time participating. Each year she finished, but she said this year was especially difficult. "I had a crazy schedule this year working two different jobs and fifty hour weeks some weeks, and I still just put in the writing time," she said. "It was like a third job."
Bowker said the NaNoWriMo community helps her write. "It's extremely supportive and it's not a critique community. You don't come to these write-ins to get critiqued," she said. "You just come to support each other. So what it ends up doing is it just kills your inner editor. It kills that voice that tells you, 'You can't do it,' or 'It stinks,' or 'You should stop,' or 'You're wasting your time.' All that just goes away."
It's the kind of community that brought people like Gavin Doughtie, a former NaNoWriMo participant, to the write-in. "I kind of like some of the people who come to the events regularly," he said. "It's nice to have an atmosphere of people who are not all nerding out over this exact same thing that I'm nerding out about." Doughtie didn't participate in NaNoWriMo this year. But even so, he attended the write-in to socialize and work on a personal software project.
For Vongvith, who participated for nine consecutive years, the NaNoWriMo community has helped her in more than just finishing her novel. "Honestly, I'll tell you that I'm a complete antisocial," Vongvith said. "So being an ML has taught me a lot to break out of my shell and be more comfortable public speaking, talking to people, and just being at ease with myself."
When the month came to a close, Vongvith put on the annual TGIO party at the end of the first week in December. The name of the party stands for Thank God It's Over.
It's a time when the writers can take a deep breath and relax after 30 days of intense work. "I dedicated myself. I drank about a barrel of coffee. I was solely hooked on this book," Steven Frank said. Frank not only completed his novel, but also got the book edited and published all in the 30 days of November. "I was able to accomplish this year my first novel titled, 'The Satellite Dragon,'" he said.
"There's some people who made it and there's some people who didn't," Rebekah Walsh, a participant, said. "And one thing that I think we all agree on is that you don't lose by not hitting 50K. You lose by giving up. It's about the experience of writing together."
Throughout the evening, the writers share work, raffle prizes, and drink coffee. It's a celebration of the end—especially for Vongvith. She not only reached the 50,000 mark, but also made a decision.
"This is my last year as an ML because I've been doing it for four years. It's been great fun. I've met a lot of people. Made a lot of friends. Learned a lot about leading a group. I'm actually deciding to, quote on quote, retire this year," Vongvith said. "I feel like it's time for me to sit down and let another person come in and have the joy of leading another group."