Muskoka Novel Marathon Celebrates 20 Years With Series Of Workshops Starting Tonight

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Silly hat hour during the 2020 Muskoka Novel Marathon, which was held virtually due to the pandemic
Participants make deadpan faces during silly hat hour for a laugh at the 2020 Muskoka Novel Marathon, which was held virtually due to the pandemic. This year's marathon will also be held on Zoom and includes a series of workshops and lectures in honour of the 20th anniversary. Screenshot courtesy of KM Wehrstein

The Muskoka Novel Marathon (MNM) is celebrating 20 years of bringing writers together in support of literacy by launching a special series of workshops and lectures that kicks off tonight.

The local novel marathon has been gathering writers together for a weekend dedicated to their craft since 2002. Each year, participants set out to produce a manuscript, whether it be a novel, a screenplay or even a collection of short stories or poetry, while socializing with and supporting other writers. After the weekend is over, the manuscripts are considered for MNM awards and the best manuscript winners get the chance to have their work reviewed by a publisher or an agent. Since its inception, the event has raised over $225,000 for literacy training programs in the region.

“The novel marathon is 72 hours of just writing,” said KM Wehrstein, convenor for the 2021 event. “Maybe you sleep, you usually eat and you write, and that’s it.”

Wehrstein’s first encounter with the MNM happened in 2005. She was walking by an old bank building in downtown Huntsville and noticed a sandwich board that said a novel marathon was happening inside. Figuring she would know at least one of the writers, she decided to check it out.

“I walked into the bank building and it was full of writers all pounding away,” Wehrstein said. “There were writers in the teller’s booth and writers in the offices and writers in the vault. The energy in the room of all that creativity pouring out was just amazing.”

Wehrstein immediately felt the need to be involved, so she joined the 2006 event and hasn’t missed one since. A few years later, she took up the task of running the MNM alongside fellow volunteer Paula Boon. Wehrstein has continued to volunteer for the event since then, so when the pandemic hit, she and the rest of the committee decided to move the marathon online.

Muskoka Novel Marathon writers and volunteers at the Active Living Centre in 2017. Photo courtesy of the Muskoka Authors Association

The usual in-person event is held at the Active Living Centre and can only accommodate 40 writers, but because of the online format, the committee was able to offer unlimited seats last year and 66 writers signed up. This year’s marathon will also offer an unlimited number of spaces at a cost of just $25 compared to the usual $100 fee, giving writers the chance to try out a novel marathon at home for a reduced rate.

Registration is open. It’s going to stay open right until the last minute because we can write with as many people as we want,” Wehrstein said. “Next year, if we go back to in-person, it’ll be capped at 40, so this might be a good chance for somebody who wants to jump in.”

The event itself isn’t until July 16 to 19, but in the meantime, the MNM committee will be hosting a series of workshops and lectures covering topics like writing what you know, professional-quality world building and how to go from MNM to international bestseller.

Muskoka Novel Marathon writers, volunteers and judges celebrate their donation to YMCA literacy programs at the Bullock’s Your Independent Grocer in 2017. Photo courtesy of the Muskoka Novel Marathon

Registered writers can get into all the events for free while unregistered attendees can pay a small fee, which will benefit the YMCA literacy programs in Muskoka alongside any money raised by the writers. The fundraising aspect of the marathon was put on hold last year due to the pandemic, but the writers still managed to raise just over $5,000. This year, they’re renewing their fundraising efforts in support of local literacy.

“We know it makes a difference in people’s lives,” Wehrstein said. “Writers in particular know the importance of reading, the importance of the written word. How powerful it is, and how necessary it is.”

Wehrstein experienced the impact literacy can have in a profound way at her first MNM. A 96-year-old man who had just learned to read through the local literacy program, known then as the Muskoka Literacy Council, visited the marathon and shared his story. One of the MNM’s slogans is “writers helping readers,” so the literacy programs are a perfect fit as the event’s beneficiary, Wehrstein said. 

Committee member Jennifer Turney joined the MNM on a whim, participating as a writer for the first time in 2015, but it was the support for local literacy programs that led her to volunteer.

“Once I saw the passion that people had for raising money for literacy and how important it actually is to our community, I knew it was something I really wanted to be a part of,” Jennifer said. “So I volunteered in both the sponsorship coordinator role and as the media liaison.”

Daughter and mother Haley and Jennifer Turney hold their awards from the 2019 Muskoka Novel Marathon. Haley won Rookie of the Year and Jennifer won Best Manuscript in the Adult category. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Turney

Jennifer is looking forward to attending the virtual event with her daughter Haley, who is returning for her third marathon after winning Rookie of the Year during her first go at the event in 2019. Jennifer herself has taken home two awards for best manuscript, leading her to act as a panelist for the workshop on How to Win a Muskoka Novel Marathon.

While Jennifer wishes the writers could be back in-person this year, she’s looking forward to the shared inspiration of the marathon and she’s excited to see what Haley and the rest of the writers come up with.

“To see that it’s grown from a couple people getting together to an event where there can be a real race to get a seat really speaks to how much people love it,” Jennifer said. “It’s something I’m really proud to be a part of.”

For more information, or to register for the event, visit the Muskoka Novel Marathon website.

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