Why I Don’t Do NaNoWriMo

Well, tomorrow it begins. All over the nation, nay, the world, word processors will fire up as literary aspirants everywhere prepare to do battle with themselves during NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – the solitaire sporting event in which folks try to complete a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November.

And every year before NaNoWriMo begins, someone drops me a line and says I ought to give it a try, usually implying that I would kick butt and take names at something like this. While I appreciate the confidence in my abilities, I’ve never had the urge to participate in the month-long write-a-thon. Maybe because I’ve done so many of my own – I tend to write the ends of my novels in one marathon burst, the record being 80 manuscript pages in one day at the end of The Company Man.

How’s about would I recommend it to someone wanting to write a novel of their own? My stance there is a little different. If you’re already thinking about it, if your mind is already made up, go for it. It has a lot of value as a motivator because it wields some really big weapons: a deadline, a community of people involved in the same trial, accountability (if you have a blog and put their progress widget on your blog), peer pressure (if you tell your friends what you’re doing – which technically you could do without NaNoWriMo). There is something to be said for doing what you can to cross the finish line.

On the other hand, I do have some concerns with what the program does in terms of writer’s habits. Those are just as important – a writer needs great work habits to sustain their careers if they’re serious about it. The publishing world doesn’t need a bunch of novelists who can only work 30 days a year. They’re looking for people who produce with regularity.

And that’s the thing. NaNoWriMo is largely a motivator that doesn’t, in my view, deal with a lot of the other aspects of writing that are important if you’re looking for a career beyond November. By focusing on getting the words on the page, it slights the actual work that goes into writing a book.

Here are some other reasons why I don’t participate, some practical, some not:

  1. It’s for Young Turks, not me. I’ve considered myself a writer for 29 years now, so I’m old and set in my literary ways (although my methods of writing do continue to evolve). This fancy stuff is for the new kids. NaNoWriMo is the loud, fast, and angry version of novel writing. It’s kind of like the year is 1977. I’m Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the new kids doing NaNoWriMo are the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
  2. It’s a Cheat. Really. You’re not writing a novel in 30 days. You’re doing the work of putting the story on paper in 30 days. By tomorrow you’re supposed to have done the work of outlining the book and working out the character arcs, all of that (unless you’re going to Jack Kerouac it and start writing without an idea). And then there’s all the work required on the back end – something called revisions. NaNoWriMo focuses on the romantic part of writing a book – the author alone in a room, struggling with a blank page.
  3. It’s Not the Way I Work. When I write a book, I usually know the opening scene and the ending of the book. I start with little else other than a sense of what the story is about, and I let the characters talk to me, developing the outline as I go. I take a more leisurely writing pace, about 1000 words a day as things develop. As a result, there’s an average of 100 “writing days” in one of my books, with many “non-writing days” in between spent making notes (hint: all of those are actually writing days).
  4. The Prep Required Would Make Me Not Want to Write the Novel. For me, part of the fun and magic of writing a novel is watching the plot fall together with all of the attendant unexpectedness that writers typically talk about. It’s about the creative journey. If I have to outline completely first, the mystery is gone because I know how the story unfolds. And I’ve never finished any story that I’ve completely outlined first.
  5. Their Format Does Not Fit the Kind of Novels I Write. Officially, the novel starts at 40,000 words. The typical novel sold on the shelves today, the kind most editors look for, is 100,000 words. NaNoWriMo runs 50,000. It’s a healthy length – probably the length of Shane or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or some of those early Nicholas Sparks books. You can hit that length writing about 8 pages a day (depending on your font and type size). That’s close enough to my current writing pace that I could probably stretch it. But to get to the length of the typical Joe Clifford Faust novel, I’d have to write 16 pages a day. Um, don’t think so.
  6. I Already Know I Can Write a Novel. NaNoWriMO strikes me as a writer’s journey (well, in this case more of a forced march) for the novice to discover if “I have it in me” to write a novel. I already know I have it in me. I just started what will be my 13th (written) novel. (Yeah, that means that there are some that never made it to publication.)
  7. NaNoWriMo May Shoehorn You Into Things You Don’t Want To Do Later. I feel that part of the journey in writing a first novel is the all-important one of Discovering How You Work. You can read all the advice books by writers you want and try out their Guaranteed Methods of writing, but the only right method of writing a novel is the one that works for you. How are you going to stretch out and discover that if you’re grinding your fingers into bloody stubs during a 30 day marathon? I feel that NaNoWriMo shoehorns writers into the same kind of writer’s journey. It also shoehorns them into one way of writing – loud and fast.
  8. It’s a Brutal Schedule That Could Discourage As Much As It Helps. Like I said, I’m a marathon runner, not a sprinter. I know lots of people that NaNoWriMo has left in the dust. Some learned from their failure, some didn’t.
  9. If You Really Want To Be A Writer It Doesn’t Matter. If you’re determined to be a novelist, NaNoWriMo might give you a jump start – but in the long run you’ll find that it’s one of those tools that you use once or twice and end up leaving behind, because you will have discovered yourself as a writer.

Want to find out if you can write a book in 30 days? Be my guest! If I were young and unpublished and hadn’t written a novel yet, I would be all over this. But keep in mind that there’s a reason why most authors only do one book a year.

However, if you think you have a novel in you, you have the other 11 months of the year to work on it, too. If crossing the finish line is your goal, go for it. But if you have something in mind that’s more long term, you might want to stretch out, experiment, and find a more comfortable way of writing.

So that’s my NSHO. If you want to do it, don’t let me stop you. But it would be good of you not to ask me to read the results. After all, I’m busy slowpoking through one of my own projects. Besides, you might want to consider a revision first… more of that unglamorous part of writing…

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3 responses to “Why I Don’t Do NaNoWriMo

  1. I love to read and write both ….but i am little scare…because its my first novel writing….

  2. Don’t be scared. In spite of what some curmudgeonly writers say about it, it really is a fun process because your story and characters can take you to places you didn’t expect.

    If there’s one piece of advice I left out of the above essay, it would be not to stop with NaNoWriMo. Use it as the beginning. And if you don’t finish your novel in 30 days, you have 11 more months. Writers who produce a book a year are considered prolific.

  3. Thanks Joe! This answered my question and confirmed my own feelings about this writing exercise. I don’t have the perspective of actually having written a novel, but I’m an old dog myself and this just seems to pushed and forced and rushed and I don’t think creative quality writing should ever be all of those things at the same time. I’m sharing this post.

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