Last November, fifteen incarcerated writers in PEN America’s Prison Writing Program took on a daunting challenge: to finish a novel in one month. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, calls on writers each year to write 50,000 words in 30 days. To complete this ambitious word count on time, participants must face the fear of failure that prevents so many writers from even starting in the first place. In the end, the challenge means more than writing a novel. By emphasizing the daily ritual of putting pen to paper, NaNoWriMo pushes writers to confront their self-doubt and perfectionism in order to cultivate a healthy writing routine and create art.

The aim of our Love Lay Dormant zine is to bring together and commemorate that art. We embrace the fresh and rebellious essence of the zine genre in assembling this publication, a collection of beautiful writing that blossomed despite the difficulties of the NaNoWriMo challenge and, of course, the constraints of daily life in prison.


Inside this zine are a series of excerpts from various writers’ novels in progress, as well as pieces by volunteer mentors that were written outside of NaNoWriMo. From epic fantasy quests to ghost stories to murder mystery, reflections on prison, and messages of hope and home, these excerpts constitute only a fraction of what our participants produced, but they speak volumes on the sheer brilliance of what these writers accomplished within that month.

For the past three Novembers, the writer William Daniels has been participating in the challenge through our program, creating an epic fantasy trilogy from beginning to end. The Love Lay Dormant zine opens with an excerpt of the final installment of the series. Below, read his insights into the experience of NaNoWriMo, and what he’s learned at the close of this three-year journey.

By: William Daniels

I cried my eyes out this morning, while my Bic Round Stic etched the truth of my broken heart onto a page of my latest novel. I didn’t wake up today expecting emotional catharsis. One of my characters spoke about how much she missed her Mother, how much it hurt to miss her. This wasn’t even a plotted part of the scene. It occured organically, so I ran with it. I have lost my own Mother. The emotion was real. I wouldn’t change that scene for anything.

I never knew that I had a writing process until I participated in the National Novel Writing Month challenge through PEN America’s Prison Writing Program in 2019. Writing in prison, with the endless distractions and limitations, is challenging but, ultimately, doable. Music makes a definitive difference. I write in a non-linear approach so outlining is key. Early morning and late evening are when I do my stream of consciousness writing. This is when things come from the gut.

During NaNoWriMo, community is everything. At my facility, our writing pod of NaNoWriMo participants provides a soundboard throughout the month and keeps me focused. Mentors help a lot, because they are writers too. They know what you are going through, offer fresh perspectives, and most importantly, they listen; even when you are insecure and just need to talk it out.

The mentor, for me, is the game changer. They are the backbone that gives motion to the limbs. During my first NaNoWriMo, my mentor told me to write the words that I want the world to remember me by when I leave it. Since then, I strive to write nothing less. I may be writing my own novel, but all of these people, the community, remind me that I am not alone. We work together, striving to do a lot in a little bit of time.

For the past three years, I have been working on a fantasy series where cruel and sadistic Gods rule the fictional land of Mheen-De’a. One young boy stands against them. By both word and deed, he seeks to free his people. As he grows up through the story, he finds love, faces great losses, and begins to claim the power that grows within him. This year, in the third book, he is a grown man, raising an army. He has vowed to free Mheen-De’a from the Gods, or die in the trying.

I actually had a different story planned two years ago for my first NaNoWriMo. The idea of this trilogy, however, moved me so profoundly that I couldn’t not write it. I am now three years into NaNoWriMo, three books down, and only the rewrites remain.

I greatly look forward to this challenge each year. Yes, it is stressful, it pushes you. It can, and very well may be difficult, but it remains one of the most positive and worthwhile endeavors that I participate in. What I’ve learned after participating in NaNoWriMo these past few years is that the challenge really isn’t about writing. Writing is what we do. NaNoWriMo is more about who you are, how you see the world, and yourself within it. Reaching the 50,000 word count is one thing, but the real challenge is getting out of your own way so you can put your truth onto the page. When you can do this, the words come naturally, and the challenge becomes a cleansing.

I owe so much of who I am to the NaNoWriMo challenge. Writing does that. It engages our hearts. Writing changes us, our world, and our worldview in subtle and deep-rooted ways. Life hurts. Writing is how I heal. I took a chance, and gained a gift far more precious than just words.