Emphasizing quantity over quality may seem like a guaranteed way of getting page after page of unreadable drivel. But even submissions of drivel are okay, Baty says, adding that most people who participate are in it just to flex their creative muscles or to say they've written a novel. Others, like McClellan, use the event as practice, to tone and improve their writing. Baty estimates that only about 20 percent of participants are dead set on getting their NaNoWriMo work published.

A few people, like Rich and science fiction author James R. Strickland, go into the month with no expectations and come out with the novels that start their writing careers. Rich, a former stay-at-home mom, signed up on a whim in 2002. "I thought, I'll give it a shot," she says. "The worst possible scenario was that I would start writing and not finish." But by the end of the month, Rich felt that she had a workable manuscript. She joined the Romance Writers of America and soon signed a book deal. Her first novel, Time Off for Good Behavior, went on to win the RWA's Best First Book award.

Strickland revised or rewrote about two-thirds of his 2004 NaNoWriMo manuscript, Looking Glass. He shopped it around to different agents before selling it to a publisher he met at a science fiction convention. And Sara Gruen, author of the New York Times best-seller Water for Elephants, published her NaNoWriMo novel, Flying Changes, in 2005.

DESPITE SUCCESS STORIES like these, NaNoWriMo is not without its critics. Eric Rosenfield, a computer programmer who runs the literary blog Wet Asphalt, wrote the post, "Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too," claiming the event trivializes novel writing.

Rosenfield emphasizes that he has nothing against the participants and is not attacking their right to write a novel. "It's the attitude that [the creators] take toward it," he says. "The way that they're presenting it indicates to me that they're not taking the idea of writing a novel seriously."

Baty, though, has a different perspective. He doesn’t deny that writing takes dedication and commitment, but he feels that dutiful revisions should take place later on. After the inhibitions are removed, he says, people can write what they’ve always been afraid to write and then “get the genius on the second draft.”

Over the years, NaNoWriMo has grown beyond its original purpose of simply encouraging people to write. For the past three years, organizers have donated half of their net profits (NaNoWriMo has an online store that sells products; it’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that accepts donations, and writers can be sponsored much like runners or walkers can be for charity races) to Room to Read, a group dedicated to building libraries in rural areas of Southeast Asia. And in 2005, Baty and his friends launched NaNoWriMo’s K–12 equivalent, called the Young Writers Program. Teachers and students set individual word-count goals and use the event as a way to create excitement about writing.

Despite the changes to and the growing popularity of NaNoWriMo, Baty insists that its main purpose remains simple yet powerful. “People just sometimes see for the first time that people have a story to tell, and that they have the perfect voice to tell it,” he says. “This model of monthlong creativity for everyone has an amazing potential to transform the world.”