Goodbye NaNoWriMo

After five years of participating in NaNoWriMo, one year as a Municipal Liaison (ML), where I helped my region navigate through the challenge, I have decided my time with the organisation is done. It hasn’t been an easy decision, as I appreciate all this month-long challenge has provided me – time to focus on getting the words down, in order to finish my first (second, third…) novel.

But it’s time for me to leave.

This year, it’s become clear to me that the organisation needs help. And a great deal of it. They are too large now to manage the challenge, and all its followers, effectively. I’m sure they are trying, but even with the large gobs of money they receive in donations, and likely grants, it feels that they don’t focus their funds on the right thing – staffing and training.

Now I know I’m an armchair critic here, but as someone who has invested a lot of time and energy into this organisation, I simply don’t feel supported.

In fact, this year, I feel less supported by the organisation than ever before. They are a U.S. based organisation, and that’s never been as obvious as now, despite being a worldwide group. This year, when other regions have expressed grave concerns, they have been ignored. My area – Australia – has been no different.

For example: This year, when scheduling events on their website, there is an option that asks if the location is – and I am not changing the wording here – ‘fat friendly’. Many outside geographical regions are up in arms. People were massively offended. In fact, when the French-speaking community raised their hand about it, saying it is a rude and an extremely offensive thing to call someone within their culture, they were dismissed. When I posted on the ML forum, asking about the background on the decision, I was abused by many fellow MLs in the U.S. region. I was essentially told to sit down and shut up. “That’s what HQ decided, so deal with it.”

As someone who is very aware of what it’s like to be overweight and dealing with the challenges of larger hips in smaller spaces, I see what NaNoWriMo HQ is TRYING to do. But to call it FAT FRIENDLY is offensive. I was told “Fat Advocates” advised HQ to use this language. But these advocates are U.S. based and do not represent me. (And clearly they don’t represent a number of others either.)

Surely, as an international organisation, common sense prevails?

They could have easily asked their international base or the MLs – but did they do that? Nope. They went with whatever the ‘fat advocates’ said instead.

But that’s not all. There have been issues in vetting their MLs as well. I was greatly challenged being an ML. I was one of two MLs in my STATE. Tasmania does not have a lot of writers taking part in NaNo each year, but there are at least fifty and there’s a vast distance between them. There’s a need for effective MLs in the north, in the state’s south, and if there are more to include other areas, even better.

You may have noticed I used the word effective when it comes to MLs. While working with the incumbent ML, I found I was quite often holding the bag, as it were. When I asked how them how they liked to do things, they told me they don’t do in write-ins, either in person or online. It wasn’t ’their thing’. What I discovered was nothing seemed to be ‘their thing’ other than posting daily stats – and even then they were only willing to do that for two weeks. Turns out, they were simply a numbers person, which is fine, but that’s NOT what NaNo is all about.

Being an ML is about rallying your region. Getting them excited. Bringing the writers together. Making it a community. Helping new MLs with their questions. Getting more people to sign up, gaining more ML applications. It’s not to sit in a room and post stats once a day.

When I approached NaNo with feedback, being quite frank about what my experience was like, and the lack of support I received, including being ghosted for a week, I received no acknowledgment at all. I was shocked to find out that the ML was re-signed on the following year. And has anything changed? Nope.

But it gets worse.

This year, before NaNo had even started, there was an issue with a region nearby. Rather than the issue being addressed, NaNo HQ removed all the MLs in the region. Why? Because there was one ML causing a raucous and, rather than dealing with it, NaNo just pulled the plug. Now this is in a MAJOR Australian city, and they did this one week before the challenge began.

Now they’ve done the same thing, but the issue is much larger.

Earlier this year a complaint was made to NaNo staff regarding problems with the Young Writers Program forums. It has been alleged that there has been bullying, bigotry, and – the most shocking of all – one particular moderator was using their position to groom young teenagers.

While it was agreed that the moderator needed to be removed from the position, they did not follow up on it. Meanwhile, one staff member said they could find no evidence of wrongdoing. When nothing happened after six months, people began emailing the NaNo board, making their complaints public. Several days went by, with lots of comments on the forums, before the Board shut down the forums entirely, while they ‘investigated’.

But their email to the larger community was appalling.

Here’s what they wrote:

To The NaNoWriMo Community,

We’re dropping in to communicate to a broader audience about concerns that were brought to the attention of the Board. The concerns we received related exclusively to activity on our online forums. Though individual issues were varied in nature, they led us to a singular conclusion: that closing down the forums until issues could be properly resolved was the right first step. 

We are aware that a great deal of misinformation and innuendo on the matter is circulating. Though we cannot control speculation and sensationalism, we can be transparent about the questions we’ve received and the action that has been taken. 

The issues brought to our attention include:

1.         Inconsistent moderation and lack of attention to resolving complaints

2.         Concerns about the safety of minors (one volunteer moderator accused of grooming was complained about for not being removed from the forums in a timely fashion)

3.         Dynamics between moderators and community members; concerns about inclusiveness and staff conflicts of interest

The decision to temporarily shut down the forums was made out of a desire to stop and investigate, and to exercise an abundance of caution. Online forums cannot serve as safe and welcoming community spaces without a large-enough team of well-trained moderators.

We are also a 25-year-old community whose growth has outpaced that of the resources in place to support it. It is the Board’s opinion that now is the right moment to pause, meaningfully resolve problems, and address complaints and match resources to needs. It’s time to press the reset button on the forums. 

Okay – so far, so good… right? But then they go on…

This will take time and we appreciate your patience. In the meantime, we need to make a few things absolutely clear:

•           The vast majority of complaints sent to the Board have not been verified, including claims about child grooming. It is important to draw a distinction between the voluntary, precautionary measure of proactively shutting down the forums and measures that might be taken if our thorough investigation confirms the truth of any of these complaints. 

•           The Board received its first complaint on November 7th. This was the Board’s first knowledge of these issues and the first community member outreach that any current Board member had been sent. 

•           Since that date, the Board has been transparent and responsive. You are welcome to view our official statements and findings on the NaNoWriMo main forums

•           We have primarily communicated on the forums about this, but we realized that some commentary was warranted more broadly, which is why we’re sending this email.  

Maintaining the Magic of NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is a rich, dynamic, global community that reaches far beyond our online forums. Around the world, countless authors are writing amazing things. NaNoWriMo has tremendous reach beyond the forums that continues to lend support and resources to writers. 

Though some of what is being said about the organization is unflattering, we hope you will review our responses and conclude that we are operating to the highest standards of integrity in this matter. We have volunteered to serve on this Board from an abundance of love for the organization, its people and what it aims to do. We will work hard to regain your trust.

We’ll end with a Fred Rogers quote we like about what truly happens in challenging situations. “Look for the helpers. There is always someone helping.” We want to acknowledge the hundreds (if not thousands) of community members who step forward every day and who have stepped forward in this moment. For every concern we’ve received in our inbox, we have also received words of encouragement and offers of help.

In Partnership,

The NaNoWriMo Board

So, while this is fine, they’ve left the MLs hanging with little warning.

If the board only heard about this, a week into NaNo, seems to me that the staff weren’t completely transparent with the board about the feedback they were receiving, as this discussion was happening before NaNo even began. With no technical support, no way to have an ongoing discussion with their regions (which for some is an entire country) NaNo has, for many, been cancelled.

And the board’s comments further on the website tell the other regions how it is pretty clearly: They don’t have the time, or the resources, to manage this program anymore.

“We want to allow responses and questions, to creating accountability and make space for community voices. But we also have to be realistic about the fact that the Board cannot moderate high-velocity message boards (we all have day jobs), let alone do so indefinitely. We are surfacing now to transparently share our responses and plans at this critical time, but we must make sure we remain in a position to spend time performing our intended role.

A “Questions for the Board” thread will also be opened and maintained. Unlike the other threads, this one will be maintained indefinitely. Given the aforementioned issue (our day jobs), we ask for the community’s understanding in giving us time to answer questions.

For the time being, please bear with us. We will open this thread to questions but please be aware that we are trying hard to focus our efforts on giving answers about the issues folks have already alerted us to before we take on more. Two of us are traveling right now and we’re very aware that more of us will have odd schedules week-after-next due to the holiday.

We will open the “Questions for the Board” forum on November 27th, after the American Thanksgiving holiday–after we have had a chance to issue initial responses to community member complaints.”

Which goes back to the question I’ve had for a long time – whose idea was it to do NaNoWriMo during the month of November? It’s a busy time for everyone, but the U.S. essentially shut down for week and claim it as ‘family time’.

So, what does this mean? Is this the end of NaNoWriMo?

Maybe.

From what I can gather, there seems to be a good many of us ready to walk away. Maybe even establishing our own regional writing challenges.

As for NaNo, while I’m grateful for the push, I don’t need the drama that goes along with it. And certainly not under an organisation that deals with it in such a way.

And thus I’ve decided, once and for all, that my time with NaNo is done. So, goodbye NaNo. It was nice while it lasted.

What are your thoughts? What would you do? Are you a writer who’s been appalled by the drama?