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50,000 words, 30 days, 1 big challenge

Susan Midlarsky, a fifth-grade teacher at the Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, normally doesn't condone her students staying awake till midnight. Wednesday, though, was the last day to enter a word count for National Novel Writing Month, and some of them couldn't resist staying up late to finish.

''I have never seen such enthusiasm about a school assignment before," she said. ''Children would often elect to sit in the classroom and write instead of going outside to play during recess."

Nearly 60,000 people around the world set out Nov. 1 to reach the goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. About one in six made it. Students could enter under less-strict guidelines. Working with goals set by their teacher (anywhere from 1,000 to 30,000 words), Midlarsky's 24 students did considerably better -- all but one accomplished the task.

''They believe in their ability to accomplish huge tasks in a short amount of time," she said. ''Some consider themselves 'novelists,' and rightly so." Her students plan to self-publish their work, but not until after four months of editing, applying lessons in grammar and technique.

Those who completed the goal by midnight Wednesday could upload their manuscript to a word-counter on If the word count exceeded 50,000, they achieved fame of a sort: the word ''Winner!" next to their names on the site, a ''winner" icon for their personal sites, and a certificate they could print out.

Some participants kept up a steady pace throughout the month. Lanna Lee Maheux-Quinn of Westbrook, Maine, was the other sort, completing her final 25,000 words in five days and overcoming the frustrations of a last-minute computer crash to upload her novel at 11:53 p.m. on Wednesday. Like many other November novelists, she relied on others to help her make it -- in her case, a loaned laptop from her husband, Edmund, whose own novel had been finished days earlier.

Travis L. Kelley's co-worker encouraged him with a chant at the beginning of each shift: ''Hey! Hey! TLK! How many words did you write today?" Kelley, who lives in Roslindale, won with the help of a 2,000-word-a-day goal and a simple reward system: ''No television until word count is met."

Erin McCauley's mother, a school librarian, provided regular updates on Erin's progress to kids at her school. ''It definitely helped to keep me motivated," she said. Her ''quasi-Victorian Gothic mystery," composed in her North End apartment with the help of red wine and chocolate-covered popcorn, made it to 50,000 words on Nov. 24.

Lori Libby, like many others, found help in the forum. ''Anytime I got discouraged, I went to the boards and the others would prop me up." She went past 50,000 words and plans to keep going. ''I still have some 20,000 words to finish the story. Then I get to edit," she said. Her manuscript, a paranormal romance, is the fourth in a series; the first was published, and the second is being published next week.

Annie Archambault, an editor for a newsletter publisher in Boston, was one of the ones who didn't make it.

''What got in my way? Basically life, and a lot of it has to do with what my novel was about," she said, describing dealing with her father's estate, her mother in a nursing home, and finding a place for a disabled brother to live. ''My novel pretty much parallels the way my life has been going in the past year. It was almost cathartic to write some of it down."

Sometimes the authors were surprised at the turns their stories took. Patti Cassidy of Jamestown, R.I., a two-time winner, found that her characters ''hijacked" the ''Long Island meets the new age" story she had planned. ''By the end they were not at all who or what they were supposed to be," she said.

Maheux-Quinn had a policeman character show up at 42,000 words -- ''apparently he had been in the story the whole time; I just hadn't seen him." Kelley had three additional characters appear -- a little brother, an obnoxious choir director, and an amorous wedding guest, all of whom proved to be pivotal to the plot.

McCauley had a similar experience. ''Around 20K I was really unhappy with how it was going and it was really hard to keep writing, but I ended up having someone kidnapped, and that improved my whole plot," she said. ''I didn't plan a whole lot, but my original plan did not include pirates." Still, there they were. ''I'm quite fond of my pirates, actually, even though they don't have a boat."

Most of the winners would like to get their work published, but they all know it won't happen without some serious editing. They have time. A companion event, National Novel Editing Month, comes in March.

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