10 Questions with Sarah Mackey, Nanowrimo Community Liaison

by Matt on November 14, 2011

in Community Management, Grassroots Gaming

We’re smack in the midst of the thirteenth season of National Novel Writing Month, an online writing community based on a simple (if daunting) goal: 50,000 words in one month. That’s almost 1,700 words per day, and even disciplined aspiring writers can struggle to hit 500. What makes Nanowrimo possible and fun is its thriving community, both online and offline. That’s where Sarah Mackey, Nanowrimo’s official Community Liason, comes in.

After participating in an internship with the Office of Letters and Light (Nanowrimo’s parent company), Sarah eventually came on as a full-time employee. Since then she’s actively helped grow Nanowrimo’s community, posting to the blog, videos, Facebook, and more. Nanowrimo’s grown from just a handful of writers to hundreds of thousands, many of them connected through the Internet. Sarah helps make that happen.

She generously agreed to answer a few questions for us. Read on to hear her take on community building, Nanowrimo’s history, productivity, working remotely, and how to motivate writers to get across the 50,000-word finish line.

1. First some background: how did you originally find out about Nanowrimo?

I heard about NaNoWriMo on an online message board I frequented back in 2002. It seems like a life time ago now! I started writing again in 2001 after a long hiatus, so it was perfectly timed to get me a little more committed to writing regularly. I recruited several of my friends, and the rest is history. I’ve won every year since!

2. Apart from size, how does today’s Nanowrimo community look different than when you first started?

The thing that’s most remarkable about it is the changes in technology since 2002. Back then, laptops were hot commodities and much less common than they are now, so when you went into a coffee shop to work on your novel with a couple of friends, yours was the only computer in the whole place. Now, you’re lucky if you can find a free plug. I didn’t have my own laptop then, so I borrowed my Dad’s when I went out to write. I think it was 5 or 6 years old at the time and it weighed a ton. Now when I go to write-ins, the folks without laptops are the exception, and there’s this amazing range of technology – some people even write on their cell phones!

The online community has changed so much since then as well. In 2002, it was much more unusual to be part of a web-based community, and people were far more skeptical about meeting up with groups you met on the internet. I feel like in the 10 years since, the internet has become far more mainstream. We’ve also got so many more ways to connect now – in 2002, it was all based around the website, but now we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, all kinds of other ways that we communicate with participants and the participants communicate with each other.

3. How did you come to be a part of it as an official Community Liaison?

This is actually kind of a long story! In 2003, I signed up to be the Municipal Liaison – that’s what we call our regional volunteers – in my home town of Edmonton Alberta. As NaNoWriMo grew, so did our region here. In 2008, my co-Municipal Liaison and I went down to San Francisco for the annual fundraising gala. We ended up having dinner with Chris Baty that weekend, and he and I started talking about some of the projects we thought the Office of Letters and Light (the parent non-profit of NaNoWriMo) should be working on. Once I got back home, I started working on some of those projects. I went back to school in 2009 and spent two months interning at OLL as part of my program requirements in 2010, and at the end of that, I was hired to do contract work. After a year of that, the Community Liaison position opened up, and we decided I could do that job remotely from home here in Canada. So I started out as a volunteer and gradually got more involved over the years, and now I work for OLL full time. I think the first time I said this was my dream job was around 2004, so it’s pretty amazing to actually be here!

4. What is the most underestimated part of your day-to-day?

Answering email! The sheer volume is pretty overwhelming sometimes, but I’m getting better about putting systems into place. I find that how I’m feeling about my job is directly related to the number of unanswered emails sitting in my inbox.

5. Do you use any tools to keep track of your responsibilities?

I keep thinking that I just need to find the perfect app or website and I’ll suddenly become magically more organized, but it hasn’t happened yet. Despite my fondness for technology, my tried and true organizational method is actually just a notebook and pen. The notebook is divided up into sections based on my major areas of responsibility, and I have a whole section of it that’s just for to-do lists. I used to just have one giant notebook for everything, and that was hard to keep track of, but having things divided up a little better has made it more manageable.

I also date everything obsessively, so I can flip back through meeting notes to find when I talked about something. We use Google Apps in the office, so I try to keep my Google Calendar moderately up to date, and we have a shared Google Doc between everyone in the office where we track what we’re working on. (Although, writing that, I realise how long it’s been since I’ve updated that!)

6. What challenges do you face working remotely in the magical land of Canada?

I think it helps a lot that I started out with those two months when I was in the office in person, because it meant I established relationships with the people in the office. I also go down every November, which helps a lot. But I’m pleasantly surprised by how well I’m able to stay in the loop from here. I have Google Chat open all the time and I chat with my coworkers pretty steadily throughout the day. (It helps that I’m tirelessly nosy about what’s happening in the office.) I Skype into staff meetings every week, and I check in with the people I collaborate with the most on a weekly basis, either by Skype or by phone.

It’s the little things you miss out on, being remote – the conversations that happen in passing, as it were. But my coworkers are really great about filling me in on those types of things, and by being a little annoying about asking what’s going on, I keep up pretty well.

Mostly it’s challenging when they’re having a beautiful California day and I’m buried in three feet of snow. Those are the days I wonder what it would take to get a visa to work in the US.

7. Nanowrimo is a remarkable grassroots effort, with volunteers all over the world hosting write-ins and spreading the word. The forums are also an active source of inspiration. In your opinion, what is the most important thing the community does to help Nanowrimo succeed? How do you help foster that?

I think the most important thing the community does is just exist. Writing is so often a solitary, lonely pursuit, and having this supportive community surrounding you makes the writing process so much more appealing.

So much of that community is created by the in-person component, and we have more than 650 volunteer Municipal Liaisons around the world organizing those events. I oversee those volunteers, and I like to think that because I was one of those volunteers for seven years before I worked for OLL, I can really be useful to help those MLs with the challenges they face and celebrate their accomplishments.

I’m also really delighted with the community that we’ve formed in social media. That was a big focus of my internship last year, and it’s just exploded since then. We’ve now got more than 53,000 followers on Twitter and more than 80,000 people have liked us on Facebook. It’s been really great to have those additional ways of reaching out to the community, and it’s also led to lively discussions and a really effective way for folks who don’t have the in-person events to still be a part of the community.

8. You mention “peer pressure is the most important tool to make your word count soar.” Is this something you’ve built into Nanowrimo’s community itself? What other elements of social psychology come into play?

There’s definitely an element of peer pressure built into the community! We provide a lot of tools to track not only your own word count, but the word counts of your friends. We encourage head-to-head challenges, and we’re working on our widgets right now that automatically track those challenges. We also run a Twitter account, @NaNoWordSprints, that’s specifically meant to offer that mix of peer pressure (“Write for 15 minutes RIGHT NOW!”) and support. We’ve recruited a team of volunteers around the world to help with that account this year, and as a result we’re running those word sprints for 12-18 hours a day, all hours of the day, and it’s a place where someone will offer up a challenge and then congratulate you when you achieve it.

Our Municipal Liaisons are also really great at that supportive mix of peer pressure and collaboration. It’s really motivating to know that someone is looking out for you and cheering you on, and I think that presence really helps keep people going when things get challenging.

9. What advice can you give to people looking to start their own writing communities, online or off?

I think one of the things that’s most effective about NaNoWriMo and its community is the sheer breadth of it. You might be writing your space western alongside someone who’s writing a historical romance novel. So many writers are really focused on narrowing the scope of their writing community, but I think you lose out on a lot of potential allies when you do that. Writers have more in common with each other than I think some communities give them credit for. Sure, we have people in the genre forums who get into the nitty gritty details that apply only to that genre, but at the same time, everyone can sympathize when you hit a plot hole so deep you have to redirect your entire story around it.

I also think there are so many tools that are out there for communities, it’s just a case of taking advantage of them. I see so many hashtags on Twitter for virtual writing groups, and Google Plus has actually really taken off with writers, and there are people hosting Hangouts, where people write together or have discussions via the webcam Hangout feature, which I think is extremely cool.

But don’t be afraid to start small. Sure, there are 250,000 people participating in NaNoWriMo now, but it started out with just Chris Baty and 20 of his friends. Sometimes the evolution is gradual, sometimes it snowballs more quickly, but you just don’t know until you start.

10. And of course, how’s progress with your entry this year?

It started out really well but I’ve gotten a bit bogged down this week. Week two is notoriously hard to get through, because you’re past the exciting beginning part but haven’t made it to the point where things start to gel. So I’m a little behind, but I’m going on a writing retreat this weekend that should help a lot. I’ll get there eventually!

For more information about Nanowrimo, or to connect with a local writing group (there are TONS), head over to the official Nanowrimo site. If you’re currently participating, stop reading blogs and get writing! Good luck!

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