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.