NaNoWriMo – thoughts from an outsider

Firstly, in case people are wondering what the hell NaNoWriMo means, it’s short for National Novel Writing Month. You can learn all about it here. In a nutshell, every year the month of November is dedicated to this idea, and people “win” NaNoWriMo if they manage to write 50,000 words of a novel between November 1st and 30th.

I see a lot of chatter around the social networks about this thing, but I’ve never done it myself, for several reasons. Firstly, I should clarify a couple of points. I’m very lucky that I’ve managed to create a situation where I have a lot more time to write than most people. The nature of how I make a living gives me large chunks of writing time. Of course, I spent a long time engineering that situation – you don’t become a martial arts instructor overnight – but it’s worth bearing in mind in the context of this post. I did it because I’m a writer and writing time is fucking important to me. So I recognise that my situation is different from people that are working full-time jobs and have kids or whatever and want to write. But more on that later.

The thing is, I don’t really get NaNoWriMo. On the website it says:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000 word, (approximately 175 page) novel by 11:59:59, November 30.

There’s the first problem for me – 50,000 words is not a novel. It’s barely more than a novella. However, I know that most people that get involved use the figure as motivation. They want to get 50,000 words of a novel written, rather than a 50,000 word novel, which is fair enough.

But is forcing yourself to write an average of around 1,700 words a day actually very useful? Another part of the site FAQ that really raises my eyebrows is this bit:

Why: The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era’s most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.

The bolding is mine. Firstly, what’s the use of spending an entire month writing 50,000 words of poor quality? Sure, you can maybe fix it up over the following months, but isn’t it better to spend a month writing 20,000 words of good quality? Then do it again the following month. Then, after six months, you’ve got a decent novel to be working with.

The second bit I bolded just pisses me off. Of course real novelists take longer than 30 days to produce their work. That’s because they care about the quality of the work. And they’re presumably “real novelists” because their novels are published. As opposed to all the NaNoWriMo participants that spend a month a year churning out bollocks that’ll never get them anywhere as writers. (I know that a lot of NaNoWriMo participants don’t churn out bollocks, but I’m commenting from the frame of reference of the site quoted.)

I suppose this is what bothers me the most about this concept. To succeed as a writer you need to hone your craft constantly, not churn out as much as possible. Of course, the more you write, the better you’ll get, but forcing a wordcount isn’t the right approach in my opinion. I understand that for many people this month is a serious kickstart, forcing themselves to commit to projects they’ve been meaning to get around to. But I think it’s far better to establish a situation where you find time regularly to write and concentrate on improving your craft regardless of how many words you manage each day.

A lot of “professional” writing advice says you have to write every day if you want to be successful. That’s rubbish. Not everyone can write every day, and I know lots of very good pro writers that certainly don’t. But they do write regularly, certainly at least once a week and probably a lot more often. Setting up a regular writing schedule, making time to write as much as possible, and constantly working to improve your writing is the path to success. Forcing 50,000 words in a month, once a year, is really not going to do anything other than:

a) Give you 175 pages of unsellable drek;

or

b) Leave you feeling bad about yourself because you didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo because you only managed 40,000 words or something like that.

If the whole concept does work for you and gives you that motivational kick you need to get work done, then good for you. If the only writing you ever do is a word marathon for one month a year, it’s not going to turn you into a successful writer.

So it’s probably pretty obvious by now why I don’t bother with it, but I do recognise that I’ve made writing time a priority in my life. To be honest, that’s what every seriously aspiring writer needs to do. John Scalzi wrote this excellent and brutally honest post on the subject back in September. It’s harsh, but I agree with him completely.

I’m interested in the thoughts of others out there on this subject, whether you’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo or not. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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25 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo – thoughts from an outsider

  1. I haven’t done NaNoWriMo but I have written an 80k ms in eight weeks. I read that Andrew McGahan wrote Praise (also about 80k) in eight weeks, and I wanted to give it a go.

    I finished the first draft. And into the electronic bottom drawer it went.

    This was before I had kids, so it’s been in that drawer for over six years now.

    My personal opinion is that writing quickly can make it harder to come back to, because you know how bad it is. In fact, given most writers are plagued by self-doubt, you can actually start to imagine that it’s worse than it really is.

    If NaNoWriMo can kickstart someone’s writing life, then great! But I think people need to go into it knowing that there is a long, long road that extends from that first draft.

    In terms of finding time to write. Yes, you have to find it! I’ve got two kids now. I’ve learnt to live with the fact that I’m not going to be able to write every day. If we have a bad week with the kids I may not get any actual writing done.

    But I try to at least *think* about the project I’m working on, so that when I sit down to write, I can make best use of that time.

    Gary

  2. I don’t think the quote saying not to obsess over quality is telling you it’s ok to write crap. Anyone’s first draft is usually rubbish and it’s about stop worrying about it and getting the story out, turning off that inner editor.

    I don’t think anyone is pretending it’s ok to write rubbish and then publish it. It’s a start and with that I’ll use what I have to rewrite it.

  3. Gary – Good article, thanks. I agree with most of it, but definitely not with this bit:

    “Leave yourself a rough edge

    When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work.”

    If I hit my word count goal and I still have the inclination and the time, I’m going to keep writing!

    Benjamin – Not worrying about your internal editor during a first draft is good, for sure. But if you’re striving after a high word count, you’re going to end up with a LOT of rewriting. Better to aim for decent quality and fewer words, in my opinion.

  4. Mine is going to need a total rewrite, sure, which is a lot of work but finishing the whole story arc (which is something I’ve never done with a whole novel before) and exploring the characters has been a huge learning experience for me and I’ll probably re-outline the whole thing. For me, it’s kind of a big in depth outline.

  5. Yeah, it sounds kind of insane but I got to explore an idea I had pushed to the end and now I can see the plot holes and how to expand it. The community around it motivated me to do so.

    With so much going on, it’s hard for me to maintain work on one project over a long period and so pushing it all out in one month was great.

  6. Cool. I’ll be interested to know if you ever take that work and turn it into an actual novel though. Drop by again and keep us up to date?

  7. I’ve been toying with short story writing for around 12 months now and have only just been happy enough to start submitting last month (Resulting in my first official rejection yesterday mind you, but it’s a start), so I guess that was possibly what November meant to me this year.

    I’ve got a couple of bigger-ticket ideas milling around in my head (and filling up some notebooks at home) but I’m still trying to get the hang of writing something presentable that’s longer than a short story. I agree with you pretty much entirely on this one; I don’t think I could just sit and blurt out 50,000 forced words in a month and I don’t think shooting for a word count is going to inspire me.

  8. NaNoWriMo is a mixed blessing. There’s a lot of overt silliness associated with it, such as that “sneer at slower novelists” line, the Viking helmets, etc. It’s good to note, thought, that throughout the site and in the pep talks from the published novelists, they make it quite clear that this is a draft of a novel, to be expanded after November.

    I’ve found it to be an instructive experience, although I’ve learned different things each time I’ve done it. Making time to write, setting goals, finding a pace that works and sticking to it, the importance of quality, using judgment to know when to revise bad writing as it happens vs. when to let it stand as an item to be fixed later, etc., etc.

    Most likely, I’d have left this novel idea as a nebulous “someday” thing on the to-do list if I hadn’t written it up for NaNoWriMO. Now I have a rough draft of a novel for it, and the draft isn’t too bad. This is my fifth time, and my third time reaching 50K. Each product got progressively less dreadful, so this year’s “not too bad” is a good sign. Along the way, it’s helped me to understand that my best writing comes not as a pure panster or rigid outliner, but at a reasonable middle ground.

    I really think that this NaNoWriMo has given me the most solid rough draft of any long-form work I’ve ever done. Along with at least a dozen 10-15K false starts gathering dust in the drawer, two other 50K NaNoWriMos sit unattended. I’ve more or less decided that they would be more trouble than they’re worth to rewrite and/or revise. Wasted effort? No, more like the product of intensive writing short courses, a bit of tuition paid in the school of literary hard knocks.

    Real writing, the kind that a publisher and readers will pay for, demands higher quality than I think anyone can see flow right from their fingertips in a first-draft sprint. However, NaNoWriMo is like the local 20K race you run as part of training for a competitive marathon. If you don’t worry about quality, just get out there and run, it can make the difference between running a lousy 20K and not running at all.

    My take on NaNoWriMo is “Learn what you can from the experience and use it to get better.” The book you produce isn’t nearly as important as the writer you become for having written it.

  9. Perhaps the merit of it for people who are serious about their writing is to finish something, anything, in the hopes that finishing the next (better?) thing will be easier after that. But I think perhaps you underestimate the number of people who do it who don’t want to be writers, or who say they do but know deep down they probably don’t have the commitment, and so this is a way for them to have fun writing something for their own satisfaction. For fun. The ‘associated silliness’ someone mentioned above is part of that fun and for the life of me I can’t see anything wrong with that. It makes the website a place that is very inclusive of people coming to writing for all kinds of reasons from pure recreation to steely ambition, and it’s a much more good-natured environment than many of the spaces for writers/wannabe writers on the internet. That ‘mocking real novelists’ remark that annoyed you- it’s so not serious that it seems a shame to take offence at it. It’s just a joke.
    I think it’s nice to see somewhere on the internet celebrating amateurism- that is the doing of something for love, by people who may or may not want to do it as a vocation.

    Whether it’s useful to seriously aspiring writers is a different question- I am one, and personally I know I will never ever be able to do it. Nor do I particularly want to. I’ll never be able to let myself write as badly as I (personally) would need to write to do that much that fast. But I sign up every year, use it as a springboard for ideas in the longer term, inevitably ‘fail’ 🙂 but enjoy very much the opportunity to be part of it, join in fun conversations about writing and watch other people achieve their goals. It’s pretty cool that for one month there gazillions of folks, some I know in real life even, obsessing about the thing I obsess about all year round. I agree it isn’t the path to success as a writer. Regular practise is the only thing, imo, that makes anyone any good at anything. But it can be part of regular practise with a little camaraderie for one month a year.

    I like what you say about working your way into a place where you keep time in your life for writing. I’m not long out of uni and trying to think of careers where I can do that and not stultify/ kill myself (so not barista or telesales, tried that.) Martial arts instructor is a very cool one but sadly not a talent of mine 🙂

  10. Tony – you make some interesting points. However, when you said:

    “Wasted effort? No, more like the product of intensive writing short courses, a bit of tuition paid in the school of literary hard knocks.”

    Usually, with intensive writing short courses, you’re left with something pretty good to keep working on, rather than something that’s going into the drawer forever more.

    You also said:

    “Real writing, the kind that a publisher and readers will pay for, demands higher quality than I think anyone can see flow right from their fingertips in a first-draft sprint.”

    No publisher or reader is going to want to read your first draft, whether you got it done in a sprint or a crawl. You always need to revise and edit. But if you took your time over the first draft, the revisions will be a lot easier and the end product much better. This is why I don’t understand forcing 50,000 words NaNoWriMo-style.

    You say:

    “The book you produce isn’t nearly as important as the writer you become for having written it.”

    But I wonder if that’s true. It’s quite possible that the writer you become will be one that churns out thousands of words every November, and that’s it. As I said in the post, though, if it works for you as motivation, then that’s good.

    Laura – You said:

    “That ‘mocking real novelists’ remark that annoyed you- it’s so not serious that it seems a shame to take offence at it. It’s just a joke.”

    I’m guessing you haven’t met as many wannabe writers as me, most of whom would hang onto a comment like that as truth.

    “I think it’s nice to see somewhere on the internet celebrating amateurism”

    The entire internet celebrates amateurism and mediocrity. We really don’t need any more.

    “Regular practise is the only thing, imo, that makes anyone any good at anything. But it can be part of regular practise with a little camaraderie for one month a year.”

    This is true, but the way you practice is the way you will learn to write. If you practice by churning out massive word counts of pretty ordinary quality, then I wonder what it’s really doing for you.

    You talk about using the month as a way to play with ideas, mix with people and never worry about meeting the word count goal. That strikes me as a good way to approach it, but I think too many people focus on the 50k words. You’d get the same thing 12 months a year with a good writers group.

    There have also been a couple of interesting comments on my Facebook page about this (where my blog posts automatically update):

    It’s a game, that’s all. The bit about mocking people who dawdle is merely a joke. I’ve done NaNo four times; won three (lost dreadfully this year). It’s a game. And it’s a chance to allow yourself the opportunity to try something extra…vagant. Or else try a new way of writing to see if it works for you. Or to hang out (on line and in real life) with people who think writing is fun and amazing and worthwhile.

    And that’s all. It’s not an indictment of anybody, anybody’s way of writing, anybody’s ideas about quality.

    And this one:

    *shrugs* It’s a goal. I find myself motivated by competition. Everybody subscribes to a different writing method, but it’s all either carrot or stick (or the ultra rare stick-carrot).

    This is really interesting stuff, everyone – thanks for chiming in. Feel free to add your thoughts if you’re lurking.

  11. I’m lurking.

    I attempted NaNo once, back in 2004. I didn’t have my own computer at the time so I wrote, with a pen (you know, those round things with ink in them?) and yellow legal pads. I made it to 26k before dropping out. The resulting material was so not worth it. As a matter of fact, I mangled that idea so bad I wouldn’t feed it to my dog. I was stressed and grouchy and yes, felt like a “failure” because I didn’t “win”.

    I write non-fiction for a living. That’s all I do. And the thought of barfing up 50k in a month writing fiction is, frankly, horrifying to me. That being said, the bulk of my current novel was written within 7 weeks last summer — and it doesn’t suck. But then, I was post surgery and I had no other distractions. I wrote a little bit every day. At my own pace. In truth, I couldn’t write it fast enough — sometimes, it’s like that.

    The one thing I learned from NaNo is I can’t write successfully under those kinds of circumstances. If it works for some people, go for it. Not my “thang”. I understand the attraction of inclusion and the motivation of competition, but it’s just not for me.

    P.S. Honestly, that “joke” is not funny to me. Sorry.

    P.P.S. Thank you so much Alan, for saying what a lot of people think.

    <- Back to lurking.

  12. Saying what others think. I seem to do that a lot.

    Amazing that you managed 26k words with pen and paper. My hand cramps up writing a postcard. Thanks for chiming in.

  13. Well, I can’t see any of the wannabe writers I know taking it that way, but since there’s only about ten of them, I expect it’s true that you know significantly more than I 🙂

    Not sure I agree with your statement on amateurism though. I certainly don’t think it’s synonymous with mediocrity. Amateurs in the correct sense of the word can be very highly skilled, what makes them amateurs is that they see the activity in question as a pastime, not a profession or potential profession. It’s not the way I approach it, but I don’t think it’s bad. In his book about writing poetry (The Ode Less Travelled) Stephen Fry talks about how in times gone by people would write verses for each other, as a pastime, to stretch their wits, in a way that’s gone out of fashion now. Perhaps if it were more accepted to write stories (and not just fanfiction) for pleasure and to share with a few friends, there would be more satisfied amateurs out there and fewer people aspiring to a pro career they may not have the drive to achieve. Certainly if amateur writers (mediocre or not) annoy you, Nano is a good corral for them; far better if you’re doing something for fun to go somewhere where it’s done for fun, rather than half-trying to do it seriously. That’s what I meant about ‘celebrating amateurism’- I certainly don’t like the idea of deliberately celebrating mediocrity.

    ‘..the way you practice is the way you will learn to write. If you practice by churning out massive word counts of pretty ordinary quality, then I wonder what it’s really doing for you.’
    True, but it is only once a year. I have to agree with you here though because this is the sticking point for me. The daily wordcount necessary to hit the target is 1667 which isn’t all that much, I can certainly do that in a day, but I can’t do it every day. My imagination needs to draw breath every now and then but if you stop in Nano you quickly fall behind. The idea is to keep going anyway but the one time I really tried that the story quickly became so comically awful I had to stop and backtrack because it was giving me physical pain 🙂 It just doesn’t chime with my way of working, but it works for some people.I don’t think doing Nano once a year is going to get anybody in very dreadful habits, but I agree that getting to 50,000 at all costs probably has limited value for people who want to write publishable prose one day.

    Interesting topic.

  14. Thanks for the clarification. And I should also clarify my point – I’m certainly not rolling in money as a writer. Most writers I know, even very established and loved ones, are not making huge money. Many great writers are amateurs in that they write when they can and have day jobs and families, etc. But even then, their writing is certainly not bad or of amateur quality. Some of the best writers are making more at their day jobs. You write because you have to write and you do all you can to make the time to improve your craft. My problem with the NaNo thing is that it does celebrate mediocrity, and that was my point.

    Ah, semantics! The key point is the one you made very well at the end of your comment:

    “getting to 50,000 at all costs probably has limited value for people who want to write publishable prose one day”

    Thanks!

  15. I’ve looked at NaNoWriMo before and did it myself for the first time this year (although I just took the goal of the word count for the month and didn’t register officially with their site or pay attention to their advice).

    I like the general concept of NaNoWriMo, in that it gives new writers a measurable goal they can work towards in a set time period.

    I think it can be good for new writers in particular, especially those who really need to stop reading advice and fiddling with theories and formulas so they actually get something written. Many aspiring writers spend years planning and studying without getting a finished draft of a story written.

    I take your point about the distinction between writing anything to get to the word count and writing something of quality.

    Despite the question of quality, writing 50,000 words in a month gives a new writer a first draft to work with. Of course, events like this this can attract a lot of people whose story will never be published but people who want a goal and maybe to meet some like-minded writers can also make it work for them.

    For more experienced writers, there’s the motivation of a fixed goal, but many full-time professional writers will write a few thousand words a day, or something not far short of it, anyway (whether all year round or for a stretch a few times a year).

  16. Thanks for your comment, Steve. I would again draw attention to this point though:

    “Despite the question of quality, writing 50,000 words in a month gives a new writer a first draft to work with.”

    It’s only part of a first draft. A novel is more than 50k words! 🙂

  17. A writer gets as much out of NaNoWriMo as they put into it. If they approach it as a flippant diversion, they will end up with dreck, but will still be happy because they only did it to have a good time. If they approach it seriously, do some October preparation such as outlining or character sketches, they will likely end up with a very workable first draft.

    I’ve “won” NaNo twice, and both times I ended up with manuscripts I was quite happy with. Neither are published, they are first drafts, but I intend to polish them off and submit.

    As to the ridiculous statements on their website, remember NaNo is about raising money to support literacy projects. I think they write that stuff in an attempt to appeal to the broadest possible audience. If they approached it as dead serious work they’d get something like ten participants world wide.
    ~jon

  18. I think the problem is that a lot of people don’t consider it a flippant diversion, but take it very seriously and that creates issues because it’s an unsustainable practice.

    Do let us know if you have any luck with subbing any of your NaNo manuscripts.

  19. I’m probably not going to point out much more than what’s already been said in previous comments, but I’m just going to relate my own experience.

    Before Nanowrimo 2007, I’d never written a complete story. Never. I’ve always loved books, but I always thought that to write you needed to have a specific method, plan, inspiration, whatever and I since I didn’t have a clue where to start I was too intimidated to even try. I’m sure I’m not the only person like that. Not everyone is *driven* in the same way. People have hangups, and many of them are overly critical of themselves so they end up not starting something they might really enjoy and even improve at over time.

    I really wanted to write a children’s story for my son but life always seemed to take precedence. I’ll admit that spending time with my family was my priority, and when I was tired I slept. But it was more than that. I needed a kickstart, and what Nanowrimo did was give me permission to allow myself to write total crap. My first Nano novel was awful. I’m still editing it, as well as the other novels I’ve written since then each November. Each one I’ve written has gotten a little better, and I think the last two were pretty good (considering that they still need intensive editing). They have good bones, and I plan on continuing to work on them. Even if they never get published, I’ve learned something from each and every one of them. And even if I hadn’t, I enjoyed writing them, they motivated me to write more, and I got a new appreciation for just how much hard work goes into a novel. And even if it was just for fun, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m willing to bet people who aspire to write a novel for any reason, for fun or profit, already love books.

    One of my favorite sayings is by Ernest Hemmingway, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He’s one of my very favorite authors who wrote extensively about subjects I can’t stand. But I love the way he writes so much that I’m drawn in anyway. If he thought his first drafts were crap, then I can certainly give myself permission to write crap too. After all, once I get that editor to shut up then I can get my ideas on paper. Once I’ve freewritten 50,000 words, I can bring her back out and she can be as critical as she wants. But if she does that in the creative stage, I can’t even start. Everyone has different motivations and methods.

    As far as writing groups,I didn’t know any writers in real life. Through Nanowrimo I’ve met several other aspiring writers in my community. I’ve also had access to the online writing community of Nanowrimo, and then later that has led to other things like submitting weekly fiction or poetry to #Friday Flash, #Spoken Sunday and 52/250 flash.

    Nanowrimo inspired me to write, to try and see if I could improve. I blog, write short fiction, flash, poetry, podcast, and now I’ve just begun submitting my work on a regular basis for publication. It’s taken me a long time to get here, and I can honestly say I would never have started if I hadn’t taken a chance and done Nanowrimo. I’m not Shakespeare, but I keep improving the more I write.

    If Nanowrimo helps people overcome their own inhibitions,that’s great. If it motivates people, that’s great. If it serves as support for aspiring writers, that’s great too. Even if it’s just for fun, there’s nothing wrong with that. I look forward to it every year like a vacation, and when it’s over I know that at the very least I’ll have some flash or short stories to work on over the next year.

    And 50,000 can be considered a novel. Granted, most are longer, but you’ll probably end up adding more when you edit. It’s just about getting the bones of the story down. Besides, my all time favorite novel, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is right around 50k.

    I’m not sure how many words this comment is… Maybe it’s a novella? 🙂

  20. I think your comment is a short story at least! 🙂

    You make some great points and it’s good to hear a wholistic approach to writing that was triggered by Nano. Good for you!

    I agree that some of the greatest novels are closer to 50,000 words, but you’d have trouble selling that now. Perhaps there are niches where it could work, but most publishers consider a novel length manuscript to be between 80,000 and 120,000 words. Big fantasy novels are often 150,000 words or more in each volume.

  21. Incidentally, given the comment above about what’s considered a novel by wordcount, it’s worth looking at these numbers. According to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, or SFFWA, word counts are as follows:

    Novel over 40,000 words
    Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
    Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
    Short story under 7,500 words

    They use these numbers to categorise the Nebula awards.

    Also, word count is not the be all and end all. For example, Animal Farm was only 30,000 words, which is novella length. War & Peace is close to 600,000 words.

    For me it’s not so much the word count on its own that concerns me with NaNoWriMo, but the forced word count in such a short time frame.

  22. The word count is simply the motivator. Writing a lot of words with a short deadline means that you don’t have time to waste. It forces you to not procrastinate. It may not work for everyone, but it does work for lots of people. You honestly don’t realise all the little pockets of time you have. After doing 50K in a month, writing some short stories, submitting, and editing each week doesn’t seem like such a monumental task. 🙂

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