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.

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

$4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY

$2.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

$0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

252 comments

  • Good grief! How can anyone devote time to writing when it’s National Pomegranate Month? I mean, there are parades, community picnics, baking contests … I could go on.

  • Yup, this is my first NaNoWriMo and I’m seeing it as a springboard into the commitment of a novelist’s life. If I, and my family can hack November, whatever happens, then the woild is my oyster…sort of. Thanks for your points, graphic as they may be. Writing, like love, is a messy business.

  • The numbers at the end get to the truth of the matter for me of late, which I talked about a few months ago on my site (http://www.ravenoak.net/writing-resources/nanowha/ ), especially the quality over quantity aspect. I do NaNo every month because I’m a writer. That doesn’t make NaNo a bad thing–but I definitely see it as something I’ve outgrown as a professional writer. I love that it encourages others to write! BIC–Butt in chair–is crucial to beginning and continuing a writing career.

  • I really enjoyed your writing style in this article. It was hilarious. But at the same time, I really didn’t like how you put down NaNoWriMo. It’s not supposed to be a challenge to publish a novel. It’s supposed to encourage writing. Published authors aren’t the only ones with the right to write, and this gives people a reason to write. I think it’s a great challenge and that writing 50,000 words IS an accomplishment.

  • I absolutely love this article! I had argued with my husband in years past that a great novel simply could not be written in a month. I have been sitting on a novel for a while now and I am much more guilty of piling up non-finished manuscripts than I am completing my work. I’m seeing Nanowrimo as a challenge to that particular type of behavior than anything else. I’m seeing it as the end of writing as a hobby and the beginning of a viable career.

  • Thank you. I’m finishing up the first draft of my first novel this month – a book I started writing in April – and now I think I’ll hold of on submitting to agents until the crush of half-written manuscripts ebbs. I have a lot of editing to do anyway. For what it’s worth, I found this post by doing a search for “does nanowrimo produce a lot of crappy novels” because I can’t imagine producing my novel in a month (currently 123,000 words and counting…)

  • i read this in 15 mins and that’s how long it took me to fall in love with your writing..thanks for sharing this! i followed a link here because i was curious about the nano..now i don’t want to leave.

    • In regard to 50K not being a real novel… several Mamatas novels are in the neighborhood, as well as the first installment of the new VanderMeer. Common denominator? Publishers outside of the narrow SF/F community (mainstream publisher for VanderMeer, DarkHorse and other indie publishers, for Mamatas).

  • First novel, took 7 years to write. Not published. Second novel, one year to write, one year to edit, published, selling modestly. Now going back and hacking/editing/gutting the first novel. It is not one size fits all but anything that lights the fire is good. And it has been a fun road mostly…except for those stretches of hating the words on the page and going cross-eyed from the blinky bastard little cursor. Oh, the writer’s life.

  • Just finished and “won” my first NaNoWriMo. Completely dug the ridiculousness. Love the fact that the arbitrary deadline showed me that I was completely full of shit when I said life got in the way of my writing. I’m a mom and not used to putting myself first. Well now my kids can suck it. I am well on my way to a hot mess of a first draft and I couldn’t be happier.

  • Chuck, you are the true definition of “hilarious.” Somehow you are able to combine vulgar writing with down-to-earth inspiration. For that I salute you.

  • This has been the most entertaining ‘X Things You Should Know About Y’ I have read. It may been longer, but I prefer an entertaining several thousand word piece, as opposed to a strict, boring short piece that if printed and blended into a drink would taste like water. But water doesn’t taste of anything? Shut up!

  • I don’t know how you do it, Chuck, but the balance between vulgarity and straight-out inspirational hilarity is on point. I stumbled onto this post because I was curious about the NaNo..and this was exactly what I needed to read.

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