NaNoWriMo: The Debbil’s Adbocate

The Spiraling Shape (Sorry, I have a cold, so that’s how I talk right now.)

Hey, writers. Let’s talk about NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.

Let me be clear about this right up front: overall, I think it’s a pretty cool thing. I support it, and those who engage in this mad contest have the uttermost respect from yours truly.

Still, though, if you’re going to get into it, seems to me that you might have a few elements to consider. Good to go in armed, as it were. Let’s tackle a few of the concepts and rules, and in doing so, maybe you’ll be aware of some high points and pitfalls. (I’m playing Devil’s Advocate is all. It’s always good to set up camp in the middle of an issue, try to see it from both sides.)

Word Count: 50k

The Good: This is a robust word count, and will teach you to tackle long projects. Heck, these days even a 5k short story is on the long side, so 50k is a big beast to wrestle, and will prep you for The Big Game.

The Bad: Yeaaaaah, that means that 50k really isn’t “The Big Game.” Listen, a 50k novel is a bit on the short side, and if your goal is publication (and why wouldn’t it be?), you’d better prep another 10-30k to go in there. This isn’t a universal, but generally, 50k is on the shy side — even a slim pulp novel generally goes to 60k, and sci-fi or romance stories can clock in at 75-100k, easy. From what I’ve read, agents and publishers of first-time novelists are looking for material in the 70-80k range. This seems true from what I’ve gotten back from agents. So, in writing 50k, don’t think that you’ve crossed the finish line. It may even be tricky for you to go back and add word count without “padding” it — so, try to loosely plan for it from the get-go. (A personal example? Over at Shadowstories: The Infi-Net Revolution, we’re up to 47 chapters at 1500 words per chapter. We’re not done, and it still feels shy, and this means we’re already at a solid 70,500 words. We only have 14 chapters published, which is 21,000 words — and we’re just coming out of the first act.)

Deadline: One Month

The Good: What this should tell you is, writing is work. You’ll only easily achieve your timeline by measuring out the count and manifesting discipline. Over 30 days, you need to hit 1500-2000 words daily. Writing is a business, and driven by deadline, not by muse. That’s the lesson. Better to have an arbitrary deadline than no deadline at all. Plus, if you’re able to average higher, you can churn out bigger work faster.

The Bad: This can be punishing for new writers (and even some established writers don’t commit to this strident a schedule — Caitlin Kiernan, if I read her tweets properly, may only tackle 1200 words a day). This also isn’t necessarily how writers write. Everybody’s got their own schedule — and, provided that the schedule is served by discipline, it’ll work just fine. Adhering to 50k in 30 days can be a square peg in a circle hole. And that might just set you up for failure even before you begin.

Drawing in Circles The Writing, Front And Center

The Good: In a world where publishing and writing walk on increasingly unsteady legs, it’s nice to have it thrust into the spotlight. Further, the Young Writer’s Program looks like a great idea.

The Bad: It’s also a bit of a stunt. Some people do this for a living (ahem, cough cough, me). One could theorize that, by relegating it to this crazygonuts month you run the risk of giving it the wrong kind of attention. It’s fun! It’s wacky! It’s one slapdash race to the finish! What a fun game! Which leads us to…

Victory Conditions

The Good: One of the greatest stumbling blocks to new writers is an inability to commit to the work and finish. By establishing victory conditions, finishing has incentive beyond your own good feelings. You can actually “win” NaNoWriMo, which has a definite plus side.

The Bad: … but it’s also sort of weird. Writing isn’t a game. Again, for many, it’s a career. By relegating it to a “game” with victory conditions, is the act potentially devalued? Maybe. Further, the inability to finish during this time could be viewed as “losing.” Instead of saying, “Still more work to do — time to adjust the schedule, I’m getting close now!” one runs the risk of feeling, “Well, I didn’t finish my book in 30 days, I guess I’ll go glumly masturbate in the broom closet because I’m a big loser.” By pairing the act (the work) of writing with game playing, some people might actually end up hobbled and hurt by the process rather than energized by it. According to the site, writing is “fun” and “seat-of-your-pants!” Well. Yes. Yes, that can be true. But it’s not always true. And people need to recognize that it’s important to persevere even when it fails to be a party in your pants.

Quality Control

The Good: According to the website —

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

— which imparts a useful message, one that Will Hindmarch more clearly orbits on his blog regarding perfection (please, read it, for Will is thoughtful and puts things far more elegantly than I). Yes, sometimes you need to just get it out there, get it done, and have fun doing it.

The Bad: Still, though, is your goal really to write a lot of crap? Really? I write, and I write for purpose and clarity and… well, ideally, for it not to be crap. I’d rather forgo intensity and turn in a solid product; a balance must be struck. Writing should never be a churn-and-burn situation, just as it shouldn’t be a quest for crystalline perfection. Further, in a perfect world October would be NaOuYoShMo (National Outline Your Shit Month) and December would be NaReYoCraNoMo (National Revise Your Crappy Novel Month). As it stands right now, you take 30 days, write a bunch of garbage, and then applaud. (To be fair, the community around the event encourages ways to prep and finalize. But the rules at the outset are a little too “Eee! Celebrate mediocrity!”)

My Personal Experiences

I did NaNoWriMo a couple times several years back. I wouldn’t do it again. This is my experience — not yours, and I know some people have even gone on to be published with it. It is not my intent to tear down the contest or the participants or the products of those participants. If it works for you, do it, do it, do it. Your rules matter to you. I’m just offering one man’s perspective.

That perspective?

It didn’t work for me.

Here’s why.

First, the loose commandment of Writest Thou Crap! came true. I wrote crap. It wasn’t good, and that bummed me out. I worked so hard on it, but there comes a point when you have to measure the quality of your work and the efficiency of your output. Just because you try to run up a muddy hill in cement sneakers doesn’t mean you’re getting a good workout, and more importantly, you’re damn sure not getting anywhere. So, the work I did was unmitigated snotgobs. It was the equivalent of stainy underpants, and that saddened me out enough where I lost a lot of steam.

Second, yes, each time I reached 50k, but neither time did I finish at 50k. Which means I didn’t “win” or whatever, which further meant I felt a little like a loser. The last thing a writer needs is to have arbitrary “win conditions” put on him — if I have a deadline, it better be because I set it knowing my needs and abilities, or because I’m getting paid at the end of it by a third party. Doing otherwise can be an in-road to anxiety and depression, and those are two things most writers already know intimately. That, alcoholism, deviant sexual practices, and cheesecake. I should’ve felt awesome that I did 50k in 30 days, but instead, I felt like shit because I didn’t complete the novel in 30 days. A meaningless benchmark that incurred depression. Nice! How helpful!

Third, what the hell was I waiting till November for? You want to want to be real boy, Pinocchio? Er, I mean, a real writer? Then don’t set 1/12th of the year aside to do it. Do it always, and do it unconditionally. You don’t have to write a novel between November 1st and 30th. That is not your limitation. When I did it, I didn’t want to cheat, and I wanted to hit the mark, but it was all… illusory. Somebody else made up these rules. Not me. You want to write a novel? Write a novel. Start now. Outline it, write it, revise it, sell it. This isn’t meant to be insulting to the participants, though it will sound that way: just because the herd is moving doesn’t mean you need to move with the herd. Okay? That was my issue. I thought I had to move with the herd. Turns out, I didn’t.

I mean, take a look at this, from the FAQ:

Do I have to start my novel from scratch on November 1? Can I use an outline?


This sounds like a dumb, arbitrary rule, we know. But bringing a half-finished manuscript into NaNoWriMo all but guarantees a miserable month. You’ll care about the characters and story too much to write with the gleeful, anything-goes approach that makes NaNoWriMo such a creative rush. Give yourself the gift of a clean slate, and you’ll tap into realms of imagination and intuition that are out-of-reach when working on pre-existing manuscripts.

Outlines and plot notes are very much encouraged, and can be started months ahead of the actual novel-writing adventure. Previously written prose, though, is punishable by death.

… really? Okay, writing an outline? Good idea. But they paint the act of bringing half-completed projects to the fore as if it’s not only a breach of the rules, but a dreadfully unsatisfying experience. Gasp, I won’t get the creative rush! Oh noes. If you’re writing purely for the rush, fuck it, just go smoke crack. It’s easier, cheaper, and probably less stressful.

Also from the FAQ:

If I’m just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?

There are three reasons.

1) If you don’t do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly a “one day” event. As in “One day, I’d like to write a novel.” Here’s the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It’s just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will come. And you’ll have friends to help you see it through to 50k.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing, shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations, everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. And you’ll start surprising yourself with a great bit of dialogue here and a ingenious plot twist there. Characters will start doing things you never expected, taking the story places you’d never imagined. There will be much execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of it.

3) Art for art’s sake does wonderful things to you. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you want to take naps and go places wearing funny pants. Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the chores and “must-dos” of daily life. Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives.

… I’ll ask again, really? Point #1, I like. Points #2 and #3… I’d start to worry.

Aim low? Best way to succeed? Holy crap, no. That is not a good message (can you imagine telling your children that? “Aim for a D+, honey! That’s the way toward success!”). I echo that frequently-asked question, and will ask it again to up the frequency: Why bother? If your barrier to entry is as low as “Can Totally Suck Balls,” why waste 30 days and countless hours? Would you build a house and be utterly unconcerned with the stability of the foundation?

And “art for art’s sake”… ehhh, c’mon. Writers are doing a job. We work for a living. The funny pants are because I don’t have to go outside, not because I want to express my inner artist with a pair of kooky chef pants. (Frankly, you people are lucky I wear pants in public anymore. If I didn’t have a wife, you could be assured I’d go pantsless in all but the nicest government buildings). Tying the very powerful process of writing a novel to “spontaneous stupidity” is insulting to the people who do this for a living, isn’t it? Maybe? Just a little?

So, What The Hell?

I don’t think NaNoWriMo is a bad thing, but I do have some criticisms, and I think if you’re going to partake in it, it helps to know what awaits. Keep this process in perspective is all I’m saying. It may work for you, and if it does, high-five, slap-on-the-ass, let’s go get a beer. But be ready for it not to work. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean you failed or lost. It just means NaNoWriMo is a circle hole, and you’re a square peg. Find the process that accommodates your peg and… stick your peg… in… uhh. In the hole.

Which sounds kind of pornographic, so take it however you want.


  • Sigh. I tried this a couple of years ago, and was going great guns, but what I was writing was pretty depressing. The subject matter, I mean.

    I may try it again this year, though I’ll either write something based upon my own RPG background (as an excuse to get back into rewriting that game) or I may “cheat” and develop a couple of pretty decent short stories I wrote previously into a fully-fledged novel.

    I already have my starting line in my head.

    “I first met him the day I was born. He was older, by two days. We shared the same warm room just off the maternity ward, where they always keep brand new babies when they’re not being used.”

    • Stephen:

      I’ll be a little more frank in my commentary here in that, I’m surprised to hear real (i.e. already working) writers planning on doing NaNoWriMo.

      You want to try, okay, you do whatcha gotta.

      But… what’s stopping you from writing that novel *right now*?

      — c.

  • I’ve tried this before also, but I felt the arbitrary nature of the entire contest made me feel forced to do something I should be enjoying. More recently, I did a bit where I (self inflicted) created thirty days of content for a game, and ended up writing ~40k words worth. Some of it was good, some of it was crap, all of it needed revision… and a fuckton of it. The difference in this arbitrary 30-days of forced writing is that it was goal I set, not because it is writing month. My wife is all about NaNoWriMo, and I totally support her in it… I just can’t get behind it.

    Also, boobs.

    • Boobs indeed, sir.

      Yes, that’s the key (er, not boobs) — set your own pace, do what’s right for you, not what’s right for Everybody Else.

      — c.

  • You make a good point, C-dog. I quite like the structure of the NaNoNoNoNoNoMo thing, but excuses and procrastination are my enemy. Always have been. A deadline is a beautiful thing.

    • Entirely fair, Herr Doktor Herron.



      If your goal is really truly to end up Your Own Writer, then you have to train yourself to adhere to your own deadlines, not to an arbitrary annual deadline. Deadlines are beautiful; just don’t let it be someone else’s deadline.

      — c.

  • Thank you. I don’t why I actually posted that instead of just looking it up. Feel free to delete the useless banter so the real conversation can pick up again. Sometimes I don’t think before I post, and just post what I am thinking, especially when… you get the idea.

  • I’ve been debating on whether or not to do this, this year, and I’m honestly of two minds on it. On the one hand, it might give me the kick in the ass I really need to … well, get off said ass and finish any of the dozens of projects on my computer. On the other hand, the thought of 50k words in one month just sounds exhausting, and I’m already plenty exhausted at the end of the day dealing with a pair of preschoolers running around like hooligans on crack all day.

    A couple of times, I tried NaNoWriMo — very lacklusterly — and just could not commit to it. The thought of, as you put it, Writest Thou Crap, just depresses me. And although I do tend to have a problem with self-editing as I’m writing a piece that I really need to break, I’m not entirely sure doing nothing but writing crap for an entire month is the way to do it.

    JanNoWriMo, a secondary, less intensive, program, proved to be a little more flexible for me, especially since you can set your own goals for word count. I actually managed to get halfway through it before other demands and pure procrastination caught up with me. I don’t think I’ve ever made it past the first week/10k words — whichever came first — with NaNo.

    Might be I’ll just wait and see if I feel like doing JanNo in a couple of months, and slate working on my world bible and second-drafting that short story for the month of November. Thanks for sharing the insights. 🙂

    • I did not know that JanNoWriMo was even a thing! Huh.

      I think setting your own pace is key; finding a third party to hold you to it is not a bad measure, though!

      — c.

  • It sounds interesting, but I’m with Chuck (I think) in that I don’t really need an excuse to write. Granted, most of my writing time at the moment is being taken up with skool work, but that’s why I started my blog: to write something for myself. I’m not really a very contesty sort of guy either, to be honest. Seems like a gimmick to me. /shrug

  • See, I need an excuse to stay on one project long enough to complete something that isn’t pre-contracted and work-for-hire. So, once again, I’m planning on doing NaNoWriMo. I also have this reading event I’m a part of in December, and I want new material that’s weighty and literary and good to read, so I’m going to be grinding towards that.

    The trouble, for me, is that this novel I’ve been working on keeps suggesting that I don’t yet have the chops to tell it well. Meanwhile, this other novel that I think I can do well even now… isn’t formed enough yet for me to know quite how to start it.

    I like the camaraderie that comes with the shared writing experience, though. Also, and this is a little unglamorous, but NaNoWriMo has a certain built-in rep with it that makes the work that comes out of it approachable and accessible — that same camaraderie makes some folks more likely to read than they would be if I just said, “Here’s my unfinished novel.”

    • Fair nuff, Will; I never really took part in the camaraderie (and it wasn’t as accessible when I tried it, moon ago — at least according to my memory of it). I don’t think it being unglamorous is a concern. That being said, remember that you know a number of people who are happy to read and provide honest criticism of any work you throw. It’s always going to be brilliant work.

      — c.

  • That you say you never really took part in the camaraderie is telling. NaNoWriMo is as much of an event as it is a month of writing, and I think this is what your entry largely fails to recognise. You say things like “why wait until November?” Well, the difference between having written a novel and not having written a novel is absolutely staggering. When you don’t have a novel under your belt (50,000 words or more) you’re not actually sure if you can write one of the damned things. You don’t have the confidence, or the conviction.

    That doesn’t mean you’re not a writer.

    All it means is that you need a boost. And NaNoWriMo is a boost unlike any other. NaNoWrimo isn’t a case of attending a class with a teacher who knows how to write and relays his/her knowledge to you. It isn’t a case of picking up “Writing for Dummies” and flicking through the pages as you absorb someone else’s ideas on writing. It’s a venture in which you’re propelled by enthusiasm rather than lessons. By encouragement rather than rules.

    There’s around 200,000 writers from around the world who do NaNoWriMo these days (it’s hardly national anymore…), and knowing that 199,999 writers are doing exactly the same as you is very humbling indeed. Even something as simple as watching the collective word count pop up every hour really gives an impression of the frenzied creativity pooling into the world.

    But communicating with people is key to it. If you treat NaNoWriMo as a personal challenge, you’re not going to see a whole lot of benefits. You need to network, and there are so many ways of doing this. Talking to people from all over the world about your and their novels is the boring bit (boring bit? Heh. 15 years ago it would have been amazing. But how the Internet has evolved novels and communication) The real exciting bits are sending emails to people and expecting them to read your work day in and day out. Or being in mass conversations on MSN, which serve as competition grounds. The goal? To write more words than anyone else in a period of five minutes. The focus on being the best quickly propels you into writing reams and reams of fiction. Or, if that’s not your cup of tea, how about meeting your fellow writers from the region, and having a coffee, a few drinks, or going to see a movie? NaNoWriMo is absolutely brilliant for meeting friends at. I can’t overstate this enough: it might only happen once a year, but I know of no better International way of meeting fellow writers. In your last comment you say “you know a number of people who are happy to read and provide honest criticism of any work you throw.” 9 times out of 10 you’re going to be meeting these people AT NaNoWriMo. You’re not going to be relying on your parents, your girlfriend/boyfriend, or your other friends. You’re going to be relying on fellow writers.

    And geez man, what’s this “wrong kind of attention” thing? Is NaNoWriMo to experienced writers the Harry Potter to experienced readers? Do you believe that NaNoWriMo will be all the writer does? It’ll just be “OK, I’ve finished my novel! Now to get it published!” I’m not sure if they sent emails out when you did NaNo, but the project lead, Chris Baty, explicitly states that that’s not the case. Having a quick look through my emails reveals this advice from the man himself:

    “Don’t waste your time measuring the success of your NaNo novel by the sparkle of your prose or the rock-solid genius of your plot. The books we write in November won’t start out like the novels we buy in bookstores. Because the novels we buy in bookstores didn’t start out like bookstore-novels either.

    Nope. They started out as way-less beautiful, way-more exciting things called first drafts. These are the dinged-up cousins to final drafts, and they’re packed with crazy energy and laughable tangents and embarrassing instances where a main character’s name shifts six times over the course of a single chapter.

    Creating this reckless, romantic, and potential-filled beast is the first step in writing a great book. It’s also a fantastic workout for your imagination, and monkey-barrels of fun. There’s a catch, though. Getting through a first draft will require you leave perfectionism and self-criticism at the door. Fear not: We’ll keep them both safe and return them to you in December.”

    I also think that, with this, you’re at risk of patronising people. Of thinking them unknowing of the writing process. I mentioned the Internet earlier, but these days, people know what goes into most stuff. People know, for example, what goes into making a film, or journalism, or PR. Because the Internet is there to get all of this information out to people – the common public.

    I hope your comparison to smoking crack and getting a rush from writing a novel was tongue-in-cheek. I won’t spend long reacting to it as if it wasn’t, but, no. In the first NaNoWriMo I did, I wrote my best ideas down during the rush. They were littered with spelling mistakes and poor wordings as my typing fingers tried to keep with my brain, but I have scarcely felt a better feeling. I’m not sure if you’re arguing here that writing should be a clinical and introspective process, and the only bursts of ideas should go into your planning, but man. I hope novel-writing really isn’t like that…

    Furthermore, I think you misinterpret the “aim low” thing. As you said earlier, trying to be perfectionist about it can be really counter-productive. At the end of the day you need to write to get to the end of the journey, and if you’re not prepared to sometimes stumble through some scenes awkwardly then you’re not going to get there at all. The message here isn’t “aim low to write a novel” but “aim low in order to finish the novel.” And again, this is something that many, many, many NaNoers understand – which is why December is often NaNoEdMo. National Novel Editing Month. Some people just don’t have the skills yet. I know I didn’t in 2007, but if anyone tries to tell me that by aiming low I did not succeed I will be quite ticked off. The fact is, by writing How To Be A Barbarian (a thrilling tale of heroism, a middle-class boy throwing away all his wealth to wear a loincloth, and a demon fortress directly mocking MMO-style instances) I learned so much about the writing process. Away from the event part, away from the encouraging emails from a whole range of authors (Gaiman and Pullman, for example. Philip Pullman himself. One of the best bits of NaNoWrimo is opening your inbox in the morning and seeing an email from a famous novelist. Advice, encouragement, and anecdotes from them are ace), is finding out what sort of writer you are. NaNoWriMo is excellent for finding this out. I learnt, for example, how to link scenes together in a satisfying way. My novel, all the way through, only contained one perspective, so I really needed to keep the flow going. I like to think I achieved in this. And the thing was, I needed to keep thinking on my feet. So there’s a lot of awkward moments in the novel (75,000 words long), but at least I can identify them.

    I use NaNoWriMo as a sort of big milestone every year. I don’t think I’m good enough to get a novel published yet, but I write all through the year, in shorter bursts. Whether RP stories, scribbles at college/uni, or instances where I’m suddenly hit by inspiration to write my own original stuff, November always looms on the horizon. “Right then,” I say when NaNoWriMo starts, “Let’s find out what sort of a writer I am now.” A writer until a harsh deadline, yes, but so was I the last two years. You can still work out the difference. You can still see in which elements you’ve improved upon.

    Learn by doing is fantastic advice, but with novels, as a solo excursion, it’s often hard to propel yourself to do that. Writing is one of those things that, at the start of the novel, you have nothing. All the great things, such as getting your story published, lauded, or even just read and enjoyed by friends, are far, far far off. You have an empty sheet, and probably some other more fun, more instantly gratifying things to do. The wrong temperament for a writer? Certainly. But who says that a leopard can’t change his spots? And who says that, once the leopard has changed his spots, that they are any less worthy than leopards who always had their spots like that (and let’s admit it, leopards who have had their spots like that since they were born are very few, and very far between).

    If you are successful at the end of NaNoWriMo, you’ll have written a novel. You’ve probably worked out that I am extremely precious about the whole thing. But it’s because that, as an aspiring writer, it helped me achieve writing one. It helped me develop as a writer, and it helped me make friends. I have aspirations higher than simply writing a novel – I aspire to write a great one, the greatest fantasy novel in a long time.

    Writing isn’t a game, no.

    But it isn’t solely a craft, either.

    And uh, I feel the need to take up more of your blog space with these two extracts from other NaNo emails. They’re more concise and entertaining than my word splurge. The first is from Kelley Armstrong, whose NaNo novel was published:

    “If a multi-publishe d author can’t expect to turn out a publishable first draft during NaNoWriMo, then neither should you. Of course, you could—some people do—but what NaNoWriMo has given you is at least two things you didn’t have on November 1.

    The first reward will vary. Maybe you have a first draft you can work on. Or maybe you’ve realized that your idea wasn’t as novel-worthy as you thought. Or maybe, in the course of writing this book, you got an idea for another.

    The last two may not seem as rewarding as the first, but they’re equally important. If you’ve been writing for a while, you probably have stories you’ve labored on for months, even years, before realizing the idea wasn’t novel-worthy. To hit that realization in a month frees you up to start something new without lamenting all the time you put into a story that didn’t work.

    The second reward is one that every NaNoWriMo participant ge ts: one full month of writing practice. It’s a rare writer who publishes the first book they wrote—I didn’t—so practice is invaluable. And whether you dream of getting published or not, you have just spent a month discovering and exploring the joys of storytelling.”

    And Chris “Awesome” Baty:

    “With so much fiction produced, you might mistake National Novel Writing Month for a novel writing event. But we actually have a sneaky secondary mission that extends beyond books…and into your job.

    (If you’re still in school, please print this email out, seal it in an envelope, and read it on your first day at work.)

    Okay. Jobs. Having a job is one of the greatest, trickiest things you can do as an adult. Employment brings perks like challenges and growth and (sometimes) money. But the longer you work at a job, the easier it is to confuse what you are doing with what you can do.

    This is true whether you’re a dental hygienist, a stay-at-home parent, or Sirkka-Liisa Anttila, the Forestry Minister of Finland. Because careers tend to be all about specialization. Human beings, on the other hand, contain multitudes. Each of us has a wealth of talents spread broadly over domains both marketable and deliciously impractical. The tricky part is that we tend to develop the former at the expense of the latter. Passions become hobbies. Hobbies become something we swear we’ll get back to when we have more time. Or when the kids are grown. Or when the stock market recovers.

    Which means we leave unexplored many of those paths that ultimately make us feel most alive—the moments of creating, building, playing, and doing that lead to extraordinary and unexpected things.

    Like writing a book.

    Or, more loosely, postponing the must-dos of the real world to spend 30 days exploring an attractive, improbable dream.

    Giving ourselves that time is so important. Because the world can wait. It’s what the world does best, in fact. It was hanging out for 4.5 billion years before we arrived, and it’ll be waiting around for another few billion after we’re gone.

    Our dreams, however, have much shorter shelf-lives.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned from running NaNoWriMo, it’s this: Whatever you think you are, you are more than that. You possess a fearsome array of skills and abilities, and the most satisfying of these may be completely unknown to you now. Your curiosity is a dependable guide; follow it. Put yourself in unfamiliar places. Kindle passions. Savor the raw joy of making things, and then remake the best of those things until they take someone’s breath away. Wrestle bears.

    Actually, skip the bear-wrestling.

    But do keep trying big things, okay? Sometimes we can wait so long for a clear sign that it’s time to begin, that the opportunity sails right past us.

    Life is so short. Adventures beckon. Let’s get packed and head out on a new one today.

    I think it’s time.”

    I’ll stop now. SORRY ABOUT THIS. But your blog-post woke me up enough to respond to it. Now to see if this won’t break the page…

    • Dear The Hammer:

      Man, you are verbose enough where I think I should just let you write the posts from now on.

      I’m not going to tackle all of what you wrote, but you make a lot of really strong points, and clearly state them.

      A few quick comments while I have a moment:

      My post is meant, at times, to be tongue-in-cheek. I’m snarky and rambly. It’s Who I Be most hours of the day. So, don’t take any of that personally — the point about the crack-smoking was, if you’re writing just to get a rush, there are less frustrating ways to achieve it.

      The nature of community and camaraderie is one I missed when I did NaNoWriMo a while back, and maybe my experiences would be different today. That being said, community is something that you can foster locally, or with like-minded people, without requiring the backbone of a one-month novel-attempting writestravaganza.

      Ultimately, if it works for you, do it. My experience with it was that it didn’t work for me, and I know others have suffered similar experiences. I’m not trying to knock anybody’s positive experiences — but, I do want people to see that other options exist, and that they should be prepared for NaNoWriMo to not be their bag of chips. And, if it’s not their bag of chips, then they shouldn’t feel discouraged and should instead try to find something more personal to them.

      — c.

  • Chuck,

    Heh, sorry for any aggressiveness in my response. It did feel, at first, that your article was devaluing NaNo, which was more my own readiness to defend it (and identify criticism of being condescending)than anything else. So apologies for that.

    I guess my further response against the crack thing (and I know here that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m not a prude against fairly harmless drug-fuelled highs, honest) is that you were comparing a passive rush with an active, creative rush. I think there are times when you’re rapidly farting words out because you’re so carried away by the scene – your own scene. And you get… it’s less of a high and more of an epiphany, I think.

    And I know that sounds romantic, and I know those furious times come few and far between. I think it was Pratchett who said the best writing is mostly done when you force yourself to crawl out of the bed and write. Certainly there were fewer typos when I did that.

    But yeah. My problem with that was, you were suggesting similarities between that glorious creative output, to simply smoking a spliff and going “wahey!” One will get you far, the other… not so much. (God damn it, I AM a prude!)

    Though I don’t really agree with your networking thing. Even with Facebook and suchlike, people can be precious with their own works, and timid about the fact that they consider themselves writers. I think with NaNo, it’s all about the context. You’re all writing 50,000 words in a month, you’re all on the same stage, you’re all taking writing seriously enough to try something like this. And with the NaNo website, which is a bit unintuitive but packed full of handy features, you’ve got a great base to work on.

    Any more words and I’ll start sounding like a fanatic about this stuff. 🙂 I totally agree with your last paragraph, you’ll be relieved to know!

    • Trust me, I don’t actually think that the creative process is comparable to taking drugs (well, maybe hallucinogens) — it was mostly a joke, a riff of of what was on the NaNo page.

      I’ll be frank — the less I romanticize writing, the more successful my writing. The more I assure that it is work — albeit, work I enjoy, work I love — the more capable my efforts. YMMV, of course.

      As for networking — well, are you saying that people can’t foster writing community without joining NaNoWriMo? Writers tend to find each other and form little groups and communities of like-minded interest, whether they’re groups that share criticisms or pro-tips or networking angles or just camaraderie, one can easily find a stable and steady group of writers and friends. Even local classes or writer groups can be a big boon (but, again, that’s a personal preference for some people, while for others they just won’t work).

      Again, I’m not knocking the whole shebang. If you diggit, then keep on digging it. 😀

      — c.

  • “As for networking — well, are you saying that people can’t foster writing community without joining NaNoWriMo? Writers tend to find each other and form little groups and communities of like-minded interest, whether they’re groups that share criticisms or pro-tips or networking angles or just camaraderie, one can easily find a stable and steady group of writers and friends. Even local classes or writer groups can be a big boon (but, again, that’s a personal preference for some people, while for others they just won’t work).”

    Wouldn’t you say that’s the case -after- some success, though? Maybe it’s just the place that I live (North-East Blighty), but there isn’t a great deal of stuff like that here. The college I went to ran one, but it had about 8 members at the most. Good, but it also tended to be more about teaching how to write a story, than actually going through what people had wrote. Plus the prose was sidelined by the dread art: poetry. At least for a while.

    The other instance was a professionally taught writing group, but both the target audience and the actual audience were over 30, mostly. I was the youngest there, by far. (Though that did help me write to a broader audience. I was writing my first NaNo novel at the time, and so consciously made it deeper emotionally in order to interest those allergic to fantasy).

    NaNo is certainly the best base I know of, for networking. It’s just… there. I think it’ll only improve that over the years it runs, too. I have a feeling, a potentially naive feeling, that in something like 10-20 years, it’ll be more of a staple in the writing world. It’s not the only option, but it’s the best I know of for aspiring writers in your own region.

    • My experience is, noooo, not at all. I’ve been connecting with writers for a long time, long before I ever found any success.

      If the community you find there is valuable, then that’s awesome, but I don’t think that people should feel it’s their only choice.

      — c.

  • On some points, I agree with you, but overall I think NaNo is a great way to get a rough draft out of the way. I’m the kind of writer who needs a rough draft on paper just to start forming the story properly. I need to explore all of the little subplots and see what works and what doesn’t before I can get serious about a manuscript.

    I set my November daily writing goal for 3k, and I come in just under 90k because I don’t write everyday (Thanksgiving and some weekends). That’s a solid rough draft for a novel. Most my roughs come in around 75k even when I’m not writing for NaNo. I flesh out and add details in the second draft.

    And, out of the years I’ve done NaNo. The writing has been good. I understand not everyone can write well under pressure. And I wouldn’t ever consider a NaNo script a finished product. But for a rough draft? It’s fine. The pacing tends to be better in my NaNo drafts than in roughs I take longer to write.

    I guess it takes all kinds. But, yes, I’m doing NaNo again this year 🙂

    • Liana:

      I’m glad it works out for you; sounds like you have a solid system down — 90k in a month? Whoo! That’s a rockin’ good haul.

      Do you outline?

      — c.

  • You post had me chuckling somewhat!

    This is my first nano though I plan for it too be one of many – mainly due to the fact that I decided two months ago to do it and have been planning and outlining since mid-September! It is now going to be a big long series and I hope nano is going to jump start it.

    I find blog writing much easier than novel writing so nano sort of tapes straight into that but you make some really very valid points and not all of them I had sussed out myself.

    Thanks muchly and I shall go off a chuckling to myself and getting odd looks 🙂


  • I tried to do NaNoWriMo last year, and I had the same doubts you expressed here. (Write crap? But I already DO that! I’m interested in NOT writing crap anymore!)

    As for learning to write on deadlines? I joined my college newspaper. Few things teach you the importance of getting writing in by a deadline like the certainty that your editor and faculty adviser will strangle you with your laptops power cord for submitting your human interest piece two days late. That failing grade is also pretty good incentive.

    As for the community aspect, I DID develop a network of writing pals while I was working on NaNo, but I didn’t MEET any of them on NaNo. I collected them from all over the internet and keep most of them in a jar now. I take them out when my homework is done and I need cheerleaders while work on my current WIP.

    I really like the idea of NaNoWriMo, but it doesn’t fit me or my writing style. This year, however, I found JoNoWriMo on livejournal. It’s by the author Jo Knowles and I’ve been having a lot of success working there. Instead of 1 month, you have 2.5 and you set your own goals, and you get the community. I as said, this really works for me and I’ve been making steady progress on my novel since I started.

    • Good call, Maria — that sounds like more a pace and process I can get behind. Cool stuff. Thanks for the link, and thanks for stopping by.

      — c.

  • I had a few comments to make but Hammer pretty much said it all. I think for the most part, folks are smart enough to realize that they won’t have a submittable novel at the end of November. Nano was a learning experience for me. I first heard about Nano in 2007 and decided to challenge myself. I learned much and have been writing ever since. I think the most beneficial thing about Nano is the encouragement to write. Yes, it is stressful trying to write 50,000 words in one month. However, the experience of locking away your internal editor and writing free flow. Opens up your imagination.

  • Y’know, I just signed up last week. I received an email from a friend who is doing NaNo that coincided with a moment full-on caffiene fueled bravado.

    I quietly admit to sharing some of your concerns. I have been writing for my own hedonistic pleasure; for the simple joy of creating. I decided I would do NaNo to: a)see where my tolerances are b)what I learn about myself as a writer c) determine how much self discipline I am capable of, and d) See what happens to the ol’ cranium when I push myself.

  • If you write 50K words of fiction within the month of November, YOU DID WIN. The fact that the story wasn’t finished is irrelevant.

    I love NaNoWriMo, but I’ve never “won.” Why? Because my quality of writing drops when I write more than 1,000 words/day, and I do have a commitment to keeping a certain level of quality in my writing. (However, I would never have learned that I *can* write 1,000 words/day if I hadn’t been trying for 1,667/day.)

    I’ve also started writing before the start date because I was inspired and saw no reason to miss out on that. I’ve also brought older writing projects to NaNo because I needed the energy of the other WriMos to help me FINISH THE DANG BOOK… as far as I’m concerned, the spirit of NaNo is to GET IT WRITTEN however it works for you, and so I play with the rules to make them fit my own writing needs. And it’s been the best thing ever, seriously.

    I have a very loud internal editor, and it helps to have a community and a deadline to pressure me into finishing that first draft (“shut up, internal editor! how good do expect it to be in a month?”) and then I can take my time once I have a decent number of words to work with. You can’t edit a blank page.

    • CKHB:

      I agree with your approach, absolutely. Though, there might be “letter of the law” versus “spirit of the law” issues as far as NaNoWriMo is concerned — the letter of the law isn’t open to the approach you make.

      — c.

  • I’m doing it for two reasons:

    1) I’ve never actually written a novel before, and I have a weird-ass mental block about starting one. I’m hoping getting a draft of one done will get me over that hump.

    2) A bunch of people at work are doing it as well, and I want to try writing with a group physically instead of the usual “virtual collaboration” that usually happens.

    3) I seem to work better with arbitrary rules at the early stages of a project — probably from too many years of freelancing.

    Okay, that’s three reasons. Whatever. Point is, I think it’s a decent program for where I’m at right now, so it’s less something inherent in the program, and more an accident of coincidence. When I work on novel #2, it might be totally different.

    • Eddy —

      You’ll probably find it successful for you, especially with the local WW101 union backing your shit up. That’s good stuff, and I imagine will be very valuable.

      Also, I failed to mention what was a positive outcome for me doing NaNo — I did learn a lot about writing novels. Positive and negative lessons both. They didn’t enter into play *during* NaNo, exactly, but they did teach me lots of things about the process and the outcome after the fact.

      My only comment to you specifically is, don’t take on too much — you have Whitechapel rocking, too. 🙂

      — c.

  • Oh, my priorities in November are pretty clear:

    1) Work writing
    2) Whitechapel
    3) NaNoWriMo
    4) Sleep

    I’m shooting for 2,000 words a night (which is pretty comfortable for me), but I’m not going to cry myself to sleep if it takes me until December 15th or so to hit 50k. As long as it’s coming along, I’ll keep writing until the novel is done, regardless of what date that ends up being on.

  • Hello,
    I just signed up for NaNoWriMo because I am in my fifties with a huge real life and an even bigger procrastination habit (I wanted to write when I was a teen and finally got twenty pages of one first draft, a short story which can launch a novel, written nine months ago. )The only thing I write outside work is poetry and an occasional newsletter article.

    I let this sit from January to September then wrote 750 words of a different chapter (still in first draft status) despite two interesting protagonists trying to take over my brain long enough to let me write about them in excruciating detail.

    In college and ever since I’ve had the habit of writing a few pages and then beating them to death with revisions and NEVER MOVING FORWARD. In college it was by ink cartridge pen and manual typewriter. Now, it’s by ballpoint pen and computer. Otherwise, no difference. Just knowing about it is making me plan. Doing it, I hope, gets me over the endless spin arounds on a few pages. The reassurance that It’s a First Draft is actually helpful. Do I want to write crap? No, but I MUST get past my normal habits. Even if it is 50K words, 40K of which must be completely rewritten.
    I have been inspired by several writers I know well or know over the internet. This has its good and bad points. The bad is that I tend to distract myself terribly by forming internet friendships so I am actually apprehensive about the NaNoWriMo community aspect derailing my focus. I do, after all, have a family and real life job, and plan to keep both. 🙂

    So we’re about to see how this works. I will consider it a personal victory if I get somewhere reasonable within the NaNoWriMo guidelines AND THEN KEEP GOING.

  • I picked up No Plot, No Problem from the library while I was thinking about writing a novel. I had no idea it was about NaNoWriMo, nor had I ever heard of it before. I found the concept interesting, but a bit nutty, and not quite right for me. It was April or May, and I wanted to get started then, not wait until November. On the plus side, some of the suggestions for how to write (let your characters guide the action, for example) have helped me make turns in my plots. There’s some good advice here and some not-so-good. If you really need a kick in the pants and don’t have time (or can’t make time), then maybe NaNoWriMo is for you. I just make the time now.

    As for the “victory” goals of NaNoWriMo, I think if it makes you start, you actually get somewhere, and you might finish it (not necessarily in November at 50K words), then you’ve achieved “victory”. Getting going is the hardest part for most people.

  • I tried nano a coupl years ago, and whil it was a rush to create faster than normal for me, so much of it was such unusable crap that it was pointless to write. I didnt hit the 50k mark, i did about 30k which was great for me. But i dont think ill be participating again, for the idea that i can set self-imposed goals on myself. Or use my writers group to keep me in check on my goals.
    like you said you just have to set a schedule and stick to it, if you want a career out of your writing!
    cool post.

  • I’m thinking of NaNoWriMo as a marathon. I’ve never run (or written) one before. And I’ve often thought – “Why the hell would a person do that to themselves?’ (I used to think the same about cross-country runners in high school.) There was a respect there certainly, but also a complete inability to relate.

    Then, about 8 years ago, an editor friend of mine asked me to write a book for his company. I was flattered. I left my masters program to work on it. I came up with a fantastic premise, was completely inspired and dedicated and gave it all I knew how to at the time. It was an invaluable experience for me because it taught me that despite lots of feedback to the contrary throughout school, I really knew jack about writing – and – I discovered I really wanted to change that.

    So, after a few years of health issues demanding all of my time and focus, I set my sight on the craft of writing. I started learning to “see” things in writing I’d heard people talk about but never could understand let alone identify in my work or that of others. I have been energized all this time by the admittedly s-l-o-w progress I’ve noticed in my proficiency, comfort and discernment in working with words.

    Now, I feel like I have been “in training.” Yes, mostly for the satisfaction of seeing myself develop a skill I have learned tremendous respect for. And, to prepare for successful professional work that makes good use of this skill. But then hearing about NaNoWriMo, I thought “Why Not?”. Similar to the time I signed up for a 10k through my fitness center – something I never saw my self doing, as i mentioned before. And, yeah, I walked the whole dang thing at a ridiculously leisurely pace – still felt great. It was a walk for MS along a beautiful stretch of central California coast – and I felt good about all of that. If I had to call for a ride part way through, or if it took me till dusk to make it to the finish line – didn’t matter.

    Now, NaNoWriMo. Is it silly to devote so much time to writing a bunch of crap… I’ve devoted much more than a month to writing crap all with the belief that it was part of learning to write NOT crap. I may, I now believe, even work my way up to being a solidly GOOD writer someday (hence the name of my site/blog/project). This goal is a far cry from “creating one of the greatest literary works, ever on my first go, just based on talent flowing out of me.” I really thought that way. No pressure, no anxiety, no “expectation”…

    So, anyway, yes, I set goals for myself. I actually self-designed my entire undergraduate education which taught me more than anything to take responsibility in self-directing my life endeavors. Seems that’s called “lifestyle design” these days. Still, this time around, I’m directing myself to participate in NanNoWriMo. It’s not for MS this time, but I do intend to use my writing to promote ‘good things.’ And yes, it is a big event set up by some ‘random’ organization complete with arbitrary starting and stoping points, with rules inbetween, but, much like my 10k, I sill plan to show up at the NaNoWriMo starting line and head towards the finish. I’m sure I’ll learn from the experience – even if only to never do another nanowrimo ever, ever again!

    Just being Devil’s Advocate for the Devil’s Advocate.

    ~ Selene

  • Terrific post! I found it via

    A few of my own thoughts:

    As a professional writer, I don’t like the contest mentality. Writing, for me, is not a contest. I eat my words – literally. If I’m going to commit to a month of writing nonstop, I want it to be quality – not quantity. That means slower progress on a manuscript that is much more polished than drivel I could do just to make a word count.

    Second, it amazes me that anyone who criticizes NaNo or who just doesn’t want to participate for whatever reason gets hammered by a writing elite that seems to think participation makes you a REAL writer. This, to me, at least, is weird.

    Third, it is in a terrible month – for me, at least. If I’m working on an MS, November would be a month I’d take off simply because of exhaustive work commitments. I’ve learned the hard way not to overextend myself too much. Otherwise everything I do is crap. Someone mentioned in another forum that NaNo is to teach you how to write even while you are busy, but that doesn’t quite work for me. Why add something else to my plate so I can fail at several things because I’m too busy than humanly possible?

    NaNo is a terrific idea that could help some authors – especially those who are just starting out. A few published authors are doing it this year – which really shocks me. But hey, if it works for them, awesome.

    Thanks for the post!

  • I think one of the overlooked advantages of NaNo is for the writer who is not looking to become a professsional writer. I would venture to guess that a high precentage of WriMos know they do not well enough to get published. Stay at home moms, engineers, mathmatecians and waitresses may not have opprotunity in their real worlds to express that nagging creatvity they possess.

    This is such a good way to that. “I can’t write a novel, I am not a writer.” And why not? True, you may never be a well-paid professional writer, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with non-writers putting 50,000 words of crap on paper just to be creative. And even moreso, to do it with tons of other people who are acting as insane as you are. It is good, clean fun.

    Surely people are not stupid enough to think that just because they spit out 50,000 words of nonsense they are now publication-worthy? I sure don’t.

    I did however, find that I am capable of writing fiction, which I had no idea about. It actaully sparked a passion in me I have never felt before. I cannot stop thinking about my story, or my characters. I want to tell thier story. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up – I think I might want to be a writer.

    I may sound cliche, but for me it was life-changing. My husband had commented every few days how exciting it is to see me excited and passionate about something. He loves his job, and I never imagined I would love a job either.

    I may have just completely underminded my own point about random people writing 50,000 words of crap and then thinking they are writers, seeing as how I decided in 30 days that I was going to be a writer. I would love for it to be with my NaNo Novel – I think, although rough, it really is a great story. And my inner editor did get to come out a play a little, and I won anyway.

    My novel is not complete, but it is well on its way. I am a sucker for a competition, which is why I tried it anyway. Not to get published, just to see if I could do it. The drive to write is just a crazy, wonderful perk. Even if I never get published I would love to earmark Novemeber to let my inner artist play without fear of rejection.

    I may not have impressed anyone, and if not, I am sorry I wasted your time, but this was a great experience for me.

  • On a side note – I just read the link that was posted about a NaNoWriMo reality check. That was a wakeup call for me! I was not surprised that a novel needs a great deal of work to be published – I would assume that to be a given; I was surprised that anyone would send a novel fresh out of NaNoWriMo to an agent – seriously?

    That thought is appalling to me, and disrespectful to writers who slave over their craft and to agents who sift through manuscripts for a living. That my first post had spelling errors I missed is embarrassing, much less sending my unpolished draft to a professional for consideration. Maybe people are stupider than I gave them credit for. I still love NaNoWriMo, but my faith in the human race may have dropped a bit.

  • The biggest plus that I’ve found to doing Nano is that it gives me a 50k litmus test for all the plots that I have in my “Should I write this?” folder.

  • Touched a nerve, did you?

    I go for the camaraderie. I’m always writing multiple projects; one of them might as well be a 50K novel or the start of something longer.

  • I decided I wanted to be a writer in 6th grade. I’ve been a bookworm forever and decided to add some books of my own.

    My first Nanowrimo: I wrote a book that I had been thinking about for years and only got 15,000 words down. At least, I had 15,000 words written. When I began rewriting it, it told me which directions I couldn’t go into, and taught me a lot about planning… and character motives, conflict, and growth.

    My Nanowrimo experience has proven invaluable in many ways… I can write well quickly, I can edit, really well.

    Last years Nanowrimo, while I didn’t win… I found out that I could write 10,000 words that sort of made sense in 6 hours (probably 5,000 words that makes sense in 6 lol). I learned that my characters were pretty flesh, the problem, is that I didn’t give them enough conflict to allow them to shine. I’ve made friends that I’ll talk to always, and I’ve learned about so many resources through the serious writers who do it.

    Yes, Nanowrimo is about first drafts, and taking risks… but for me, more importantly it’s about learning how to write… and you can read many things about writing and have a good idea about how it’s supposed to go. But until you Go out and force yourself to write, you won’t know how it goes.

    I learned how to write better, faster and learned different techniques, the importance of research, as well as motivations comes from yourself.

    I haven’t “won” a year, but I’ve produced things that I’ve never thought possible, and although in it’s current state it isn’t publishable, I’m proud and glad I did it… because otherwise I wouldn’t have learned the things you need to learn, before you can take on a project this size.

  • Well, here’s my tuppence on the whole NaNo thing.

    I’ve been a screenwriter for the past six years. Last year, I developed a project that was just screaming to become a novel instead of a screenplay. All of this coincided with NaNoWriMo, and I decided to give NaNo a shot.

    My novel sucked big fat goose eggs. I stopped myself about halfway through when I realized I took out all contractions just to increase my wordcount. Oy.

    To me, that’s not what writing is about, I learned from it and vowed not to do it again this year.

    This year, I’m using NaNo as a reward. If I get my “real” writing done during the day, I can spend a few hours at night working on my NaNo novel. So far, it’s worked out for me. Of course, I’m only on day one…

    But I do know a few people that are doing NaNo this year simply because the deadlines and the community help them stay on task. And if at the end of the month, they have 50K or 25K or 10K words on paper, it’s more than they started with. The trick is to keep them writing the other eleven months out of the year.

  • It’s always reassuring to find those rare people who are unafraid to admit that they dislike NaNoWriMo, despite the numerous expected replies from people trying to prove that You Are Wrong and that you should be One Of Us.

    I’m sorry. It’s a procrastinator’s wet dream. It’s all it is. Come November, this large internet community jumps on the “Imma be a writer!” bandwagon, and come December, they jump off just as quickly. Do I hear about people editing their work afterwards? No, and I bet you that most NaNo “winners” don’t *touch* their work when November is over. Instead of dealing with the harsh reality of the world of writing, NaNo participants pat each other on the back and offer empty congratulations and good-for-yous for reaching this magical word count, as it is the ultimate goal. Usually, NaNoWriMo is simply a feel-good placebo for the procrastinator who knows that, deep down, they’ll never become the writer they daydream of becoming.

    Why should anyone need a large internet community in order to be motivated to write? If you’re serious about writing, that motivation should already be there. It shouldn’t be a large popular internet circlejerk in order for someone to take that initiative.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds