Laura Ehrke hears it all the time: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”
As an author, she hears it from readers. As a Harper College Community Education instructor, she hears it from students.
“Unfortunately, most people never get around to doing it,” said Laura, who also serves as CE’s technical systems specialist. “NaNoWriMo is an excellent, albeit intense, way to try out authorship.”
NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, which challenges writers of all ages, experiences and backgrounds to write 50,000 words during November. In 2020, more than 500,000 people participated in the programs, facilitated by libraries, bookstores and educational institutions such as Harper. Since 2017, Laura has taught the Write a Novel in 30 Days Workshop: The NaNoWriMo Challenge, a six-week, non-credit course that begins on October 21 this year.
Laura described her role as both cheerleader and taskmaster for students who need to write an average of 1,667 words a day to meet the challenge. Although anybody can participate in NaNoWriMo, she sees the value of a cohort of students finding a common experience in separate projects. Over the years those projects have represented many genres, including mysteries, memoirs, short story collections and biographies.
“Every November, it’s a magical experience,” Laura said. “But what you have to do in your life is to plan for this. It really takes over your November. This is your time to be selfish. Give yourself the chance to achieve your dream.”
Four years ago, that’s exactly what one of Laura’s students did. A physician from Palatine with a teenage daughter and a half-completed novel saw the NaNoWriMo class in a Harper brochure and decided it was time to finish her project. Before long, she would be known to her readers as Lily Nikopoulos.
“I started the first draft. For four years, I would pick it up, leave it down… my daughter said, ‘Don’t you think it’s about time that you finished it?’” remembered Lily, a pen name used to distinguish her creative identity from her career in medicine. “I have always loved writing. In medical school, I would write down everything interesting that would happen.”
Lily drew upon her experience in writing a romance novel about a character named Eve, a doctor in the midst of a love triangle. She said that the course was crucial to her novel’s completion, highlighting the opportunity to connect with fellow aspiring authors and exercises that led to free-flowing ideas. With newfound direction, Lily kept writing – in long stretches at coffee shops or in short bursts while waiting to pick up her daughter from basketball practice.
At the end of the class, she had a finished draft. One year later, Lily was a published author.
After subsequent months honing the draft, enlisting a professional editor and learning about independent publishing, Christmas and Eve was officially released in 2018. The novel joined others written with the help of NaNoWriMo, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. My daughter and I were home when the boxes arrived with the books,” Lily said. “We did a little party and we took pictures. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Eighteen months later, Lily published a sequel, 2020’s The New Year and Eve, because she liked the characters too much to not continue their stories. She has since begun a third novel. Whenever she’s stuck, she relies on tools she learned in the CE class.
“I think about how lucky I am to be living in this town, where I’m fortunate enough to take these classes so close to home,” Lily said.
Laura shows the cover of Lily’s first novel to students at the beginning of her classes. It’s a reminder of what new authors can achieve.
“People can see that it is possible to succeed in writing a book, or books, in a relatively short period of time,” she said. “It takes hard work, but it can be done… and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your book in print!”
(Photos courtesy of Lily Nikopoulos)