Western Queens residents tackle 50,000-word writing challenge for National Novel Writing Month

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Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world set themselves a daunting challenge: they pledge to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in just 30 days. It’s all part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which drew 431,626 participants from six continents last year — 40,000 of whom met the word count goal.

The participants (sometimes called “wrimos”) include creatives of all kinds. There are professional writers, aspiring authors, enthusiastic hobbyists and people with 9-to-5 desk jobs who enjoy the fun, creative outlet.

Some projects that were started during past NaNoWriMo challenges went on to become best-sellers, such as “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen, “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern, “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell and “Wool” by Hugh Howey, according to barnesandnoble.com. Some authors, such as thriller writer Elizabeth Haynes, regularly use the challenge as motivation to complete a draft of a novel every year; according to her website, 2015 marked her 10th NaNoWriMo. Other projects end up as a learning experience for their writers or are shared with friends and family.

For Sunnyside resident Mel Walker, who has participated in 11 NaNoWriMos and has reached the word count every single year, “Publication is not a pressing goal,” he said. “It’s really just the journey and the joy of just writing.” He’s gone back and edited about half of his NaNoWriMo projects, and for two of them, he put hard copies together through CreateSpace to give to his family.

Whether a participant ends up with 50,000 words or just 500, NaNoWriMo was a success in that it motivated a writer to create something — anything — that he or she wouldn’t have otherwise.

When Astoria resident Ken Crossland was reaching the end of November last year, his first year participating in NaNoWriMo, he was about halfway to the word count goal and realized that he wasn’t “going to make it” to 50,000, he said. “But I have 25,000 more words than I did a month ago, so it’s not a loss,” he said. He’s working on that same contemporary fiction novel this November.

In his daily life, Crossland, who has also written comedy and performed at open mics at QED in Astoria, is inspired by comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s habit of writing a joke every day and marking it off on a calendar. Crossland has been doing that for a year straight.

“I’m a very habitual writer anyway; I write every day no matter what,” he said. By participating in NaNoWriMo, “I wanted to see if I could push a little harder; sometimes I get caught in the outline hole where you get stuck in the outline forever.”

One way wrimos can get unstuck is by going to write-ins, events in which participants meet up to write together. The New York City region of NaNoWriMo holds write-ins at the Panera on 35th Avenue in Astoria, which Walker and Astoria resident Raven Jakubowski have both taken advantage of in the past. You can join these Queens write-ins on Mondays from 7 to 10 p.m.

Additionally, local writer and teacher Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons regularly hosts her YouDoYou Writers Salon, which she describes as “a study hall for adults,” in her living room in Astoria. She added extra sessions in November specifically with wrimos in mind.

“The hardest thing about writing is to put your butt in the seat and DO IT. Come fight the battle together,” wrote Fitzsimmons, who teaches monthly creative writing classes at the Astoria Bookshop. The YouDoYou sessions have a suggested donation of $10, and you can sign up at kjfitzsimmons.signupsheet.com.

A lot of wrimos find the community aspect of NaNoWriMo to be the best part of it, since writing is normally a solitary activity.

“I would actually like to get involved more in the [western Queens] writing community, because I didn’t realize until I started doing [NaNoWriMo], maybe in the last year, that there were meetups and things happening in Astoria, so I’d definitely like to get involved more in that,” said lifelong Astoria resident Michelle Ruggieri, who will be participating in NaNoWriMo for the third year in 2016.

Since western Queens is home to so many creative types, it’s no wonder you’ll find wrimos here.

“The artistic community is fantastic,” said lifelong Astoria resident Devin Mandelbaum. “I have been going to Socrates Sculpture Park for my entire life, and I really like the atmosphere of the neighborhood.”

One western Queens participant said she would recommend November novel-writing to others as a way to stretch their creative muscles:

“I think it’s a great experience and something that people should try whether or not they consider themselves to be writers,” Jakubowski said. “It’s a good challenge to set for yourself.”

Meet some western Queens wrimos:

Editor’s notes: If a year is boldface, the writer “won” NaNoWriMo that year; that is, he or she reached the 50,000-word goal. If someone is a “plotter,” that means, as you might imagine, that the writer plans out how the story will unfold. A “pantser,” on the other hand, just gets started and continues writing “by the seat of his/her pants,” without plotting out the story.

Raven Jakubowski


Neighborhood: Astoria

Years Done/Won: ‘11, ‘12, ‘13, ‘15

Genre: Sci-fi

Career: Tailor for television at Kaufman Astoria Studios

Favorite local writing spot: My kitchen table

Literary inspiration: Older science-fiction like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke; magical realism like Haruki Murakami

Plotter/Pantser: Plotter, but this year her work will be “a little more freeform than usual” — “I’m going to jump off of a short story I started a while ago and see where it goes,” she said.

“For this year’s novel, even though it’s science-fiction, I’m trying to sort of be inspired by Natsuo Kirino. She writes very feminist narratives, so I would like to sort of put a more fantastic spin on that.”


Ken Crossland


Neighborhood: Astoria

Years Done/Won: ‘15

Genre: Contemporary fiction

Career: Book designer at Penguin Random House

Favorite local writing spot: My apartment

Literary inspiration: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith; currently reading a lot of nonfiction, such as “Alexander Hamilton”

Plotter/Pantser: Plotter

“What’s cool about NaNoWriMo is that it forces you to write the book. It gets you out of your head a little bit.”


Michelle Ruggieri


Neighborhood: Astoria (lifelong resident)

Years Done/Won: ‘14, ‘15

Genre: Romance

Career: Finance assistant

Favorite local writing spot:
Starbucks on 35th Avenue

Literary inspiration: Danielle Steel, Nicholas Sparks, Katie MacAlister and J.K. Rowling

Plotter/Pantser: Plotter

“I’ve always just been interested in [writing] and I’ve always kind of tried my hand at writing little short stories when I was a kid, and it developed from there.”


Devin Mandelbaum


Neighborhood: Astoria (lifelong resident)

Years Done/Won: ‘06, ‘07, ‘11, ‘12

Genre: Historical fiction/romance
(set during the Civil War)

Career: Web developer

Favorite local writing spot:
Starbucks on Broadway; planning to write in Broadway library this year

Literary inspiration: John Scalzi, Lyndsay Faye, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman

Plotter/Pantser: Plotter, “but I’m trying not to overdo it because last time I tried [NaNoWriMo], I got lost in the research and barely got any writing done,” he said.

“[NaNoWriMo] gives me a little more structure with a set goal every day, and having the community around to kind of help encourage and motivate helps keep me on task. … I’ve got high expectations for this year. I’m excited.”


Mel Walker


Neighborhood: Sunnyside

Years Done/Won: ‘05, ‘06, ‘07, ‘08, ‘09, ‘10, ‘11, ‘12, ‘13, ‘14, ‘15

Genre: Romantic suspense

Career: IT project manager at Pfizer

Favorite local writing spot:
Caffe Bene on Queens Boulevard

Literary inspiration:
Kim McLarin, Alessandra Torre, J. A. Konrath

Plotter/Pantser: Plotter

“[NaNoWriMo] is good because it helps you understand your limits. You always think you don’t have time to do certain things, and you can usually find time to write 50,000-plus words in a month, and that carries over to other things [in your life]. Time is almost elastic as long as you prioritize what’s important to you.”

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