25 Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of the year, then, that normal everyday men and women get a hankering for the taste of ink and misery, thus choosing to step into the arena to tangle with the NaNoWriMo beast.

Here, then, are 25 of my thoughts regarding this month-long pilgrimage into the mouth of the novel — peruse, digest, then discuss. Feel free to hit the comments and add your own thoughts to the tangle.

1. Writing Requires Writing

The oft-repeated refrain, “Writers write,” is as true a sentiment as one can find, and yet so many self-declared writers seem to ignore it just the same. National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo, which sounds like like the more formalized greeting used by Mork when calling home to Ork — demands that writers shit or get off the pot. It says, you’re a writer, so get to scrawling, motherfucker.

2. Writing Requires Finishing

The other giant sucking chest wound that afflicts a great many so-called writers is the inability to finish a single fucking thing. Not a novel, not a script, not a short story. (One wonders how many unfinished manuscripts sit collecting dust like a shelf full of Hummel figurines in an old cat lady’s decrepit Victorian manse.) NaNoWriMo lays down the law: you have a goal and that goal is to finish.

3. Discipline, With A Capital “Do That Shit Every Day, Son”

The way you survive NaNoWriMo is the same way any novelist survives: by spot-welding one’s ass to the office chair every day and putting the words to screen and paper no matter what. Got a headache? Better write. Kid won’t stop crying? Better write. Life is hard and weepy-pissy-sadfaced-panda-noises? Fuck you and write. Covered in killer bees? Maybe today’s not the best day to write. You might want to call somebody. Just don’t pee in fear. Bees can smell fear-urine. Pee is to bees as catnip is to cats.

4. The Magic Number Is 1666

Ahh. The Devil’s vintage. Ahem. Anyway. To hit 50,000 words in one month, you must write at least 1,666 words per day over the 30 day period. I write about 1000 words in an hour, so you’re probably looking at two to three hours worth of work per day. If you choose to not work weekends, you’ll probably need to hit around 2300 words per day. If you’re only working weekends, then ~6000 per day.

5. The Problem With 50,000 Words

Be advised: 50,000 words does not a novel make. It may technically count, but publishers don’t want to hear it. Even in the young adult market I’d say that most novels hover around 60,000 words. You go to a publisher with 50k in hand and call it a novel, they’re going to laugh at you. And whip your naked ass with a towel. And put that shit on YouTube so everybody can have a chortle or three. Someone out there is surely saying, “Yes, but what if I’m self-publishing?” Oh, don’t worry, you intrepid DIY’ers. I’ll get to you.

6. The True Nature Of “Finishing”

For the record, I’m not a fan of referring to one’s sexual climax as “finishing.” It’s so… final. “I have finished. I am complete. Snooze Mode, engaged!” I prefer “arrived.” Sounds so much more festive! As if there’s more on the way! This party’s just getting started! … wait, I’m talking about the wrong type of finishing, aren’t I? Hm. Damn. Ah, yes, NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words is your technical goal — completing a novel in those 50,000 words is not. You can turn in an unfinished novel and be good to go. The only concern there is that 50,000 words serves only as a milestone and come December it again becomes oh-so-easy to settle in with the “I’ve Written Part Of A Novel” crowd. Always remember: the only way through is through.

7. Draft Zero

It helps to look at your NaNoWriMo novel as the zero draft — it has a beginning, it has an ending, it has a whole lot of something in the middle. The puzzle pieces are all on the table and, at the very least, you’ve got an image starting to come together (“is that a dolphin riding side-saddle on a mechanical warhorse through a hail of lasers?”). But the zero draft isn’t done cooking. A proper first draft awaits. A first draft that will see more meat slapped onto those exposed bones, taking your word count into more realistic territory.

8. Quantity Above Quality

Put differently, the end result of any written novel is quality. You’re looking for that thing to shine like a stiletto and be just as sharp. NaNoWriMo doesn’t ask for or judge quality as part of its end goal. To “win” the month, you could theoretically write the phrase “nipple sandwich” 25,000 times and earn yourself a little certificate. Quantity must be spun into quality. You’ve got all the sticks. Now build yourself a house.

9. Beware “Win” Conditions

If you complete NaNoWriMo, I give you permission to feel like a winner. If you don’t, I do not — repeat, awooga, awooga, do not — give you permission to feel like a loser. This is one of the perils of the gamification of novel-writing, the belief that by racking up a certain score (word count) in a pre-set time-frame (one month for everybody), you win. And by not doing this, well, fuck you, put another quarter in the machine, dongface. Which leads me to:

10. We’re Not All Robots Who Follow The Same Pre-Described Program

NaNoWriMo assumes a single way of writing a novel. Part of this equation — “smash brain against keyboard until story bleeds out” — is fairly universal. The rest is not. For every novelist comes a new path cut through the jungle. Some novelists write 1000 words a day. Some 5000 words a day. Some spend more time on planning, others spend a year or more writing. Be advised that NaNoWriMo is not a guaranteed solution, nor is your “failure to thrive” in that program in any way meaningful. I tried it years back and found it just didn’t fit for me. (And yet I remain!) It is not a bellwether of your ability or talent.

11. November Is A Shitty Month

November. The month of Thanksgiving. The month where people start shopping for Christmas. The month where we celebrate National Pomegranate Month (NaPoGraMo?). Yeah. Not a great month to pick to get stuff done. Just be aware that November presents its own unique challenges to novelists of any stripe, much less those doing a combat landing during NaNoWriMo. Know this going in.

12. The Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good

NaNoWriMo gets one lesson right: writing can at times be like a sprint and you can’t hover over every day’s worth of writing, picking ticks and mites from its hair — you will always find more ticks, more mites. The desire for perfection is like a pit of wet coal silt: it will grab your boots like iron hands and never let you go.

13. Total Suckity-Ass Donkey Crap Is Also The Enemy Of The Good

On the other hand, is this novel is the equivalent of you shitting your diaper and then rubbing your poopy butt up against the walls of your plexiglass enclosure, then what’s the fucking point?

14. You Have Permission To Suck — Temporarily

The point is, you’re not aiming to be a shitty writer with prose on par with a mouthful of toilet water, but you must allow yourself permission to embrace imperfection. You’re not trying to write irreparable fiction, you’re trying to make a go at a flawed story whose bones are good but whose components may need rebuilding. Imperfect is not the same as impossible.

15. NaStoPlaMo

Take October. Name it “National Story Planning Month.” Whatever you’re going to do in November, you don’t have to go in blind. You’ve no requirement, after all, to suddenly leap out of bed on November 1st, crack open your head with an ice ax, and let the story come pouring from the cleft. Spontaneous generation is a myth in science as it is in creative spheres. Plan. Prep. Take a month. Get your mise en place in place.

16. NaEdYoShiMo

December then becomes “National Edit Your Shit Month.” Or, if you need a month away from it, maybe you come back to it in January — but the point is, always come back to it. If you want to do this novel writing thing then you must come to terms with the fact that rewriting is part of a novel’s life-cycle. Repeat the mantra: Writing is when I make the words. Editing is when I make them not shitty.

17. The Stats Bear Ogling

In 2009, NaNo had 167,150 participants, and 32,178 “winners.” That’s a pretty good rate, just shy of 20% completion. The numbers get a bit more telling when you look at the number of published novels that have come out of the entire ten-year program, and that number appears to be below 200 books. Out of the 500,000 or so total participants of NaNo over the years, that’s a very minor 0.04%. This isn’t an indictment against NaNoWriMo but is, however, an illustrative number just the same: it’s harder than the Devil’s dangle-rod in a cobalt-tungsten condom to get published these days.

18. Why Some Authors Dismiss NaNoWriMo

Professional authors — perhaps unfairly — sometimes look at the program with a dismissive sniff or a condescending eye roll. Look at it from their perspective: NaNo participants might seem on par with tourists. Professional authors live here all year. We are what we are all the time. And then others come along and, for one month, dance around on our beaches and poop in the water and pretend to be native. The point is, don’t act like a haole, haole. Don’t be like that girl in college who kissed girls and called herself a lesbian even though she was really just doing it to get other guys hot under the scrotum collar. And pro authors, don’t act like prigs and pricks, either. Drop the dismissal. Most of us are all trying to share the same weird wordmonkey dream, and that’s a thing to be celebrated, not denigrated.

19. Why Some Agents And Editors Despise NaNoWriMo

If the story holds true, agents and editors receive a flush of slush from NaNoWriMo in the months following November. A heaping midden pile of bad prose which, for the record, only serves to block the door for everybody else with its stinky robustness. You may say, “But I’m not going to do that.” Of course you’re not, but somebody probably is. And those that spam every agent or editor with their half-cocked garbage novel should be dragged around by their balls or labia and then fed to a pen full of rutting pigs.

20. The Self-Publishing Marketplace Is Not Your Vomit Bag

Just as you should not run to agents and editors with your fetal draft, you should not instantly fling it like a booger into the marketplace. Novels, like whisky and wine, need time.

21. The NaNoWriMo Website Isn’t Doing Itself Any Favors

The text on the NaNoWriMo website is, for me, a point of dismissal and does little to engender respect from professional writers (as opposed to, say, the participants, who often do earn that respect). Check, for example, the text identifying why you should participate: “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.” Yes, we stupid novelists, what with our interest in quality and our inability to produce a perfect draft in 30 days. Sometimes I want to kick the NaNoWriMo website in its non-existent digital crotch.

22. Engage The Community (But Realize That Writing Is Up To You)

November sees a flurry of activity on the novel-writing front, and you can harness that energy by engaging with the community. Just the same — at the end of the day it’s you and your word count. Nobody can do this shit for you. When it all comes down to it, you’re the one motherfucker who can slay this dragon and make a hat from his skull, a coat from his scales, and a tale from his tongue.

23. Fuck The Police

NaNoWriMo has a lot of rules: you’re supposed to “start fresh,” you’re not really meant to work on non-fiction, blah blah blah. This is all just made-up stuff. It’s not government mandated. This isn’t taxes, for fuck’s sake. Do what you like. Even better: do what the story needs. Hell with the rules. Fuck the police. Write. Write endlessly. Don’t be constrained by this program. It’s just a springboard: use it to launch your way to awesomeness. Anything you don’t like about it, toss it out the window. That certificate you get at the end doesn’t mean dog dick. The only thing that matters is you and your writing.

24. Be Aware Of Variants

Have you seen ROW80, or, A Round of Words in 80 Days? I’ve also seen smaller variants about writing scripts and non-fiction projects. Come up with your own variant if you must. NaNoWriMo is just a means to an end — it’s just one path up the mountain. Other exist, so find them if this one doesn’t seem your speed.

25. November Is Just Your Beginning

If you get to the end of the month with a manuscript — finished or not — in hand, celebrate. Do a little dance. Eat a microwaved pizza, do a shot of tequila, take off your pants and burn them in the fireplace. And then think, “Tomorrow, I’ve got more to do.” Because this is just the start. I don’t mean that to sound punishing — if it sounds punishing, you shouldn’t be a writer. It should be fucking liberating. It should fill your heart with a flutter of eager wings: “Holy shit! I can do this tomorrow, too! I can do this in December and January and any day of the goddamn week I so choose.” Don’t stop on November 30th. You want to do this thing, do this thing. Your energy and effort can turn NaNoWriMo from a month-long gimmick to a life-long love and possibly even a career. Let this foster in you a love of storytelling made real through discipline — and don’t let that love or that discipline wither on the vine come December 1st.

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  • It’s a month long learning curve for anybody who ever wanted to write a novel and needs some impetus or handholding or motivation via the mob to do so. Everybody has to start somewhere and NaNoWriMo is as good a place as any. It shows people it can be done and instills some of the work ethic required – learn by doing and all that. Even if a person ends up with a bucket of crap it’s their hard-earned bucket of crap. I did my first one in ’05 or so and I thought the amount of writing was impossible. Now if I don’t finish 2,000 words a day I think bad thoughts about myself. And yeah, it’s mostly still crap.

  • Awesome overview, for which many thanks, especially the business about ignoring the police. Bravo!

    You may (or may not) want to fix the minor typo on #13 where you have “is the novel” instead of “if the novel” — stopped me, may stop others. Or, if left as is, it may serve as a valuable object lesson in WRITING THE SOLID FIRST DRAFT AND EDITING LATER, PEOPLE!

    A fine piece. Again, many thanks.

  • bit in your face but this is probably the most valuable writeup on Nanoetc that i have read so far. =) i especially like the last few points. I use the challenge mostly to get myself going, i doubt i will be disciplined enough to go all the way in just one month, but i know i will benefit from the pressure and competition a little. also very happy about finding this blog actually..

  • #16 – That’s my favorite part of writing: rewriting and editing. HATE first drafts. HATE.

    The only reason I’m considering doing NaNoWriMo this year is just to finish the damn current WIP. It’s not my first book, and it’s definitely one of the better concepts I’ve had, but it’s beating its head against the wall for some stupid reason.

    I think I will. I will do it. I’m posting about it right now. And I will link to this post because it is teh awesome.

  • Love this article.

    While I disagree with a lot of NaNoWriMo’s rules and “motivators”, I look at it as a vacation. I write every day and put up a lot of words but it gets lonely – just my cat and me. NaNoWriMo is a time where I go out to multiple write-ins every week to spend time with other writers and write. I do get annoyed with a lot of the fledgling writers especially those that give me crap because I spend the month writing poetry/novels in verse rather than the “traditional” novel, and they act like I am not writing anything. News flash: writing 50K of poetry is extremely difficult.

  • I “NaNered” in 2009 because I was unemployed with no job in sight and was depressed. I thought it was a goal I could reach.

    Little did I expect that I would come away with a viable novel (and plans for two more). I recently published that novel. Last year’s novel is getting broken into two and I hope to publish the first installment next year (although my editing is going slow, so it’s not looking too good). I’m working on a new project this year, which may end up as a novella or as a novel.

    Thanks to NaNo for getting me started, I have recovered my dreams of being a writer (after college writing classes killed all love of writing in me) and hope to be doing it full-time in a year or two.

  • For me NaNoWriMo is a way to stop me going back and endlessly editing the same pages, rather than moving forward with the story. It’s an easy trap to fall in to. It’s also a chance to say to all those people you know who say they want to write a novel ‘stop fannying about and DO IT then.’ If they then proceed to do nothing in future you have the right to stop listening to them go on endlessly about their ‘novel’ and instead tell them to STFU. Seriously – you will not believe the number of ‘writers’ who have never written anything!! IMO if you participate in NaNoWriMo you have the right to call yourself a writer, just not a PROFESSIONAL writer – see the difference there? But yes – embrace writers who actually write, even for just a month.

  • This is my first year of NaNoWriMo. I already started planning my novel in early October after the last novel I finished was published in Kindle format (paperback coming sometime in 2013). I don’t have to bother searching for a publisher, since I’ve had one the last two years or so anyway.

    As for not editing during NaNo? Pffft. I do it anyway, especially now that I’m closing in on the magical first 50,000 words (I started right at midnight on November 1, and had a BIG writing weekend this past one). As my parents used to say, “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” Of course, I’ll probably edit again come December 1, because there’s bound to be something I’ll find that doesn’t satisfy me. I’m picky that way. =D

  • I’ve begun posting poems and ‘articles’ on a community based website.. its been interesting, and I like the comments. Though it still (after a couple of years) hasn’t brought me to a point where I share any of my longer written stories. NaNoWriMo appears to be a very good idea. Poetry comes easy… its something I can write within minutes, and post without thinking. A work of fiction, I am guilty of prodding and preening while I write….keeping my word count down and keeping me relatively motionless. I’m looking for something that will actually push me towards movement, help me reconstruct my way of looking at writing. Time will only tell.

  • Ummm!? Well I’m perhaps no writer but I do get complaints from all and sundry about my so called “Long Txt Messages!!” Does that qualify?
    My Son will reward me for short succinct msg., (abreviations extra exta rewards!!) by a simply Reply!
    I often ask him, “Son , is that a threat or a promise?”
    To which naturally I get NO reply.
    My sisters in law, yes all of them, (except one is actually a daughter in law) say,
    “Oh Linda I always KEEP your txt till I get home and I can put my feet up and enjoy!!!!” ????
    Me, still sitting in my car without petrol…it gets dark, darker REALLY DARK!!
    That’s when I txt my Son one of those short and to the point txt’s!
    Love Mum xxx
    Anyway I really had a question referring to your comment on “bees/urine and the smell of fear??
    I wondered if you’d heard of Ones Urinating dude to ANGER!!????
    Or is it just me?
    Thank you

  • I’ve read this about 11 times now. The first few times I came for wonderful advice.i have to say the article is very informative and I do come for knowledge purposes. Today, I’m a feeling a little down so I came for a laugh at all the Step Titles. Thank you for making this post. 🙂

  • Unfortunately, I’m one of those so-called writers who struggles to finish… I do fine with short stories, but when it comes to writing novels I seem to hit a rut and get too stuck on deciding which path the plot should take or little details that get in the way of continuing. I am going to do NaNo for the first time this year, so it was great to read another perspective on it. I think I will end up using it just as a way to force myself to plow through the little details and just keep moving the story forward.

  • The only real problem I have with your blog here, Chuck, is #23.

    NaNoWriMo has no police. Now, we’ve got a forum where, if you ask specifically about the rules, we’ll tell you what they are. But there’s not a lot of them. Hell, you have more “rules” here than we do! 😉 What I tell people all the time in the forums is that “this is a self challenge” — there are reasons for the rules we have, but if they don’t work for you, we don’t care. You’re not flouting the police, you’re just doing what thousands have done before you. IN fact, we’ve worked to build a culture of welcoming. Every so often, some new fellow comes along and starts wielding the 8 paragraph “rulebook” like they know something everyone doesn’t.

    And I politely hand him his ass, and tell him to pipe down. “Cheaters” are welcome, and people who call them cheaters get their asses handed to them, as well. Usually by the community, but if they don’t get them, I do.

    We’ve never claimed to have one way of doing it. That’s why I even wrote a blog a while back about being a “loser” and being okay with that.

    In the end, we all want one thing. MORE FUCKING WORDS. Write more fucking words, people, and do it from a smoky dark room in your mom’s basement. Do it in public. Do it with friends. Do it with the forums community. Just fucking do it already.

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