Goodbye, NaNo; Hello, WMAA!

This lengthy post provides a lot of challenging background information about this newest evolution for our group. So we don’t bury the lede:

The Grand Rapids (formerly OCGR) region of National Novel Writing Month has disaffiliated from the NaNoWriMo organization. We’ve built a strong local community that will persist with its own programming — a group now called the West Michigan Author Alliance.

Why Writing Groups Matter

Local authors’ groups are a precious thing: They nourish creative types and provide a welcoming third space for people — often, people who are vulnerable or marginalized — so they may engage their art in a safe, welcoming, and uplifting environment. The best groups find ways to cheer each other on, promote goal accountability, and build relationships that nurture a sense of belonging with like-minded peers.

A high-performing writers’ group connects its members through some form of commonality. Virtual groups organized by genre are great, as are groups for people who share a social, economic, or cultural identity. We’re a group tied by geography so that we can conduct our activities together either virtually or in person.

We at WMAA consist of more than 100 published or aspiring novelists. Most of us are physically located in Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon counties in central West Michigan, although we welcome virtual participants from anywhere.

WMAA is a network. We connect writers and we foster creative challenges to help writers stay focused and motivated. We are not a critique group — for that, you’d want to join the Grand River Writing Tribe, the Grand Rapids Regional Writers’ Group, the Holland Writers Group, or something similar — but we are focused on helping each other write “more, better, faster” in service of great stories, told well.

Why We Left

For more than a decade, our NaNoWriMo region operated fairly independently, steered by mature leaders who cherished our local community and instilled a sense of fun. We’ve always been a bit removed from what was happening at NaNo HQ, but recent events suggest that ongoing affiliation with HQ is not in the best interest of our local community despite that distance. After a series of focus groups with members, followed by an all-region Discord meeting in March, the participants agreed unanimously to unwind our group’s alignment with NaNoWriMo and to continue doing our own thing on our own terms.

We’ve chosen to part ways because recent events at HQ have revealed an astonishing level of dysfunction within the staff. As of this writing, all the employees in place on Nov. 1, 2023, are gone. The organization is run by a single person — “Kilby Blades” — who’s the interim executive director. She’s the last employee left; literally everyone else was either fired or quit, although she removed the staff page to hide this fact in an astonishing win for the transparency she’s promised but so far failed to deliver. And even Kilby seems to question the viability of the organization, given that she refuses to use her real name (instead of her pen name, despite that her real name has already widely leaked, including to us). As a show of confidence in the organization you lead, that’s … well, it’s something.

Our biggest concerns are these:

  1. The organization provided inadequate protections for minors on the community forums for years. After the events of late 2023, HQ effectively barred young writers from meaningful engagement with adult writers in the community. Instead of solving the trust-and-safety problems, HQ shooed the kids away. Many of our members discovered their love of writing while doing NaNoWriMo in middle school or high school; seeing people of all ages and backgrounds working together made it safe for shy or questioning kids to latch onto a meaningful creative pursuit. And now, vulnerable kids across the globe will find it that much harder to connect — to find a lifeline. A good case can be made that the organization simply cannot provide the legally required protections for minors. Groups, including our own, must take great care to protect not only minors, but also potentially vulnerable adults. We don’t as much disagree with the decision to remove kids as much as we are disappointed that the organization seemed to care so little that it dropped young writers without even pretending to search for a viable third way.
  2. The organization harbors global aspirations but enjoys a resource footprint barely able to service a single county. Its budget is too small. Donations are (appropriately) down. And the organization under-invests in even its bare-minimum infrastructure, as people with accessibility needs have discovered about the NaNoWriMo website. The myth of Icarus is instructive here: by trying to do too much, they burned themselves and ended up doing not enough.
  3. In recent years, “Winner Goodies” have tended more toward discounts off subscriptions for writing-related software and services, many of which really aren’t ready for prime time. And don’t get us started on that time that a primary sponsor was a predatory vanity press.
  4. Kilby fired all MLs without warning. This step was unnecessary and insulting, and adversely affected Camp NaNo for April. It’s likely she took this step because the MLs were actively complaining about the ML agreement on the ML forum, and it was easier to fire everyone and discontinue the forum than to respond in good faith to the criticisms.
  5. Kilby responds defensively (even sarcastically) to criticism and bans people from the site and from Facebook who push back on the quality and truthfulness of her answers. This behavioral pattern significantly undermines our confidence that the organization is capable of undertaking the heavy lifting necessary to align its operations with its aspirations.
  6. We see clear signs of gross fiduciary misconduct by the NaNoWriMo Board of Directors, which appointed Kilby from their own ranks then mostly resigned so that hand-picked allies would protect Kilby from accountability. The board has failed in its most basic job of stewarding the organization’s long-run viability during a crisis. The newest additions to the board don’t seem to have a resume that makes them an obvious good addition to the board at this time in the organization’s history.
  7. Kilby prepared a poorly drafted revised ML agreement that pushes all legal accountability on the MLs, while reducing the role of the ML to something akin to a glorified forum moderator. It’s not obvious that this approach is in line with California labor law.
  8. Kilby required all MLs to undergo background checks, using an organization that is under Congressional investigation for having misled the federal government about the accuracy of its services. This service requires, among other things, transgender MLs to reveal their deadnames in order to continue participating as an ML. And it doesn’t handle MLs well from outside the United States, many of whom have different legal standards for obtaining volunteer background checks. Furthermore, the ML Agreement and the background checks as outlined by Kilby seem to violate California’s Fair Chance Act, which forbids organizations from applying blanket prohibitions on all criminal history to be considered for a staff or volunteer position.

We believe that NaNoWriMo was a great idea in its early days, but (a) it’s no longer the 1990s and we don’t need a website to mediate our writing anymore, and (b) NaNoWriMo can barely manage its own operations let alone presume to run a truly global writing event. The unpaid labor of more than 800 municipal liaisons worldwide kept the candle burning brightly enough that the institutional rot could remain conveniently hidden. Now that Kilby has snuffed out that light, the profound structural gaps in the organization became unavoidably apparent.

For additional insight into the who/what/why/how of the last 18 months, check out these resources — but be warned that some of them deal with quite heavy topics:

The Road Ahead

Although our existing region and its members will continue to write and collaborate within the WMAA, there’s a bit more to the story than that:

  1. We’re now a program of the Lakeshore Literary Foundation. Our LLF partnership won’t change the group’s dynamics but it does make the WMAA a legal part of a non-profit entity with recognized exemption under section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code. Going forward, we can collect donations and hold funds, claim liability insurance, and use electronic infrastructure that’s more sophisticated than a typical writers’ group enjoys.
  2. In the summer, we’ll look at a permanent leadership structure, potentially including a steering committee to lighten the load. We’ll solidify a governance structure and an annual programming schedule that keeps people engaged year-round. The former MLs will shepherd this process, but it’s not “our” writing group; we’re merely its temporary custodians until the group itself charts its own course.
  3. We will conduct a novel-writing challenge in the autumn (ahem). But freed from ML constraints, ours will offer a softer lead-in to 11/1 and a more graceful exit in December. Plus, more/better/different incentives for participating in Fantasy Quest!
  4. We expect to engage in year-round programming and to develop an electronic infrastructure to support goal-tracking and gamification over both a year and over a time-boxed event. These tools will be more robust than what a Discord bot can offer, and should be available by mid-summer 2024.

We recognize that some members of our community may still want to “do NaNo” — and we have no objection. If you want to use the site tracker and create an on-site project there, go for it. But our region will not be using the NaNoWriMo theme, branding, language, or procedures. Instead, we will launch our own November novel-writing challenge that we’ll gamify with a more robust version of the Fantasy Quest points system we used in 2023. We can’t guarantee that our version of the November activity is going to perfectly map on HQ’s standard offering, either, because we aspire to “do more, better.”

Although we’ve parted ways, NaNoWriMo as an organization can always solicit new MLs for the Grand Rapids region. Those MLs, however, will start from scratch — with no access to our Facebook group, our X account, our blog, our file archive, or our most engaged members. Furthermore, NaNoWriMo-sponsored activities will not be welcome at Jason’s Books & Coffee.

HQ is dead to us. Noveling is not.

Join Our Journey

With Rippy the Cyborg Weasel on our side, we’re going to be just fine. Like we always have.

Be a part of our community! You just need to do two things: subscribe to this blog to get periodic email updates about posts and join our Discord server. No fees, no dues, no registration forms — although you’re also welcome to make a donation to the program to offset costs and to sponsor year-round activities. (Select WMAA from the program list.)

We know that this is a big change for members of our community who have been loyal NaNoWriMo participants for a decade or more. And yes, it hurts us, too. There was so much potential with the organization — but instead of flowering, it seems to have collapsed under its own under-resourced weight.

If you love to write, but hate writing drama, stick with us. Be a part of the founding class of WMAA writers. Be a voice that says that writing doesn’t require a bloated bureaucracy more intent on fundraising than on storytelling.

You are important. Your story is important. Stick with us. Better days are coming!