It’s almost November, which means you might be hearing folks talk about something called NaNoWriMo. If you are acquainted with any writers, you might be hearing folks express strong opinions about something called NaNoWriMo.
Allow me to add mine to the maelstrom.
First, why the hell should you listen to me?
You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t listen to anybody without thinking critically about who they are and what they’re saying, and you especially shouldn’t listen to anybody who is communicating with you through text and not sound waves. You will not hear anything.
But you should keep reading because I have some experience with NaNoWriMo, and I take a utilitarian approach to it. I’ve participated four times. The first two times I dropped out before the halfway point. The second two—the last two years—I successfully wrote 50,000 words in a month. So what about it worked for me? Let’s start at the beginning.
What is a NaNoWriMo?
Don’t worry. It’s not yet another of Apple’s new nano-digi-tech toys that you have to go buy RIGHT NOW to stay current, and it’s not a terrifying relative of the rhinoceros. It stands for National Novel Writing Month. This is kind of silly, because it’s not confined to any one nation, and anybody can write a novel during any month that they like, but there you go.
The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get people to write. Not just Aspiring Writertypes, but anybody and everybody who has ever thought, You know, I’ve got this idea for a book…. The sentiment behind this goal is egalitarian and accessible. It’s a smack in the face to the pretentious mentality that One Must Be Properly Vetted Before One Takes Up The Pen, And One Must Have SOMETHING TO SAY That Is Of Capital-L Literary Merit.
I like that. Fuck that pretentious mentality. Books for everybody! Books by the people and books for the people!
How does NaNoWriMo go about executing that idea? They give you two critical things: a deadline and a community.
The deadline is the end of November. But, because hundreds of thousands of people participate every year, there’s no way for any of the people who run this to actually check that you’ve completed the first draft of a novel. So they set the completely arbitrary goal of 50,000 = one novel, and if you write that much then you “win” and get what basically amounts to a pat on the back.
Oh, they do have some sponsors that give out discounts for their services if you participate or win. I got a nice discount on Scrivener this way. But what really matters is writing your book, and nobody can give you that prize but you.
The community is… well, those hundreds of thousands of people I mentioned. NaNo is, in my experience, a wonderfully positive and judgment-free zone. It’s energizing! It’s inspiring! You can log on at pretty much any moment during November and find someone who’s willing to take a break and chat or kick your ass and get you back writing again. It means writing doesn’t have to be the solitary drudgery we are often told it is.
If you check into the community, you have free access to your own personal cheerleading squad that wants more than anything for you to get to 50,000 words. That’s pretty sweet.
You might already be raising your eyebrows at “50,000 words.”
“That’s way too many!”
“That’s not nearly enough!”
It’s both, okay? Just listen a sec. Or… read. Listen with your eyes.
It’s way too many because, well, jeez! That’s a lot of words to write in thirty days. Even for some professional writers, 1667 words a day is a lot, and most NaNoWriMo participants are people who have other things going on in their lives—jobs, families, voodoo doll crafting clubs. Getting those everyday non-professional-writer folks to participate is the whole point.
It’s not nearly enough because, well, what was the last 50,000 word novel you read? You probably don’t know, because everyone outside of the publishing industry measures book length in pages, but chances are the answer is “Not since middle school.”
Why? Consider this article examining average novel length by genre: you’ll see that an adult novel is generally expected to be at least 70k words or so. It’s pretty tough to cram a novel-length story into 50,000 words. Some writers even have trouble fitting them in under 100k words on the first pass—especially those with a taste for epic fantasy.
I can only speculate as to why they chose 50,000. Probably because they wanted to strike a balance between amount that is vaguely in the realm of novel length and amount of writing a human with a job and a life can do without going all Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
50,000 words is a completely arbitrary number—likewise thirty days. A lot of people criticize NaNoWriMo for this, and I don’t disagree. Of course “50,000 words” doesn’t mean anything. You don’t just hit 50k and drop everything, even in the middle of a sentence, because now you magically have a complete and publishable novel.
The key is just to be aware of that. And this:
Your novel is going to suck
If you’re anything like me, your shoulders just straightened up a bit.
“Just who the hell do you think you are?” you shout at your computer screen. “You don’t know me! You don’t know my life! Fuck you, I’m going to write a great novel. I’ll show you!”
First off, that’s a great attitude. I’m not being sarcastic. If you’re motivated by people telling you “No,” you can overcome just about any roadblock. I mean, maybe don’t say those things out loud. Like, to your boss. Just grind your teeth and seethe silently, then wait until their back is turned to spit in that obnoxious customer’s pasta primavera. Ha, sucker.
But let’s be frank.
*slaps on a nametag that says Frank*
*hands you one, too*
The first draft of anything, no matter how long it takes you, is not going to be your best work. Add to that the ridiculously fast and completely arbitrary 50,000-words-in-30-days quota, and this first draft is going to SUCK. Not vegetarian vampire Sparkles Lite suck, either. We’re talking bonafide Dracula levels of suck. We’re talking fucking Nosferatu.
But that is also the point of NaNoWriMo.
“You’re supposed to write something really shitty?” You’re mad now. “What’s the point, then?”
Well, no, I mean, it’s not like you’re trying to be bad. The point is to remove the fear of being bad.
There are acting exercises, particularly in the realm of improv, that work to break down your filter and get you to be spontaneous. Many of these exercises are fast because when you are talking—or writing—quickly, you don’t have time to censor yourself. Yes, you might say some truly stupid shit. But you also might let slip something utterly brilliant that you would have been afraid to say otherwise.
This is the point of that breakneck speed. NaNoWriMo is for new writers more than anything, and that means it’s for building confidence. It’s for the moment that you get to the end and go, “Holy cannoli. I did it. I wrote a novel!”
That’s a powerful moment. Because maybe you wrote a shitty novel….
…but you wrote a novel!
This is the power of NaNoWriMo. Not necessarily the manuscript in your hands—that shitty, shitty manuscript—but the ability to write it.
Clack your heels together, Dorothy! You’ve had what you needed to write that novel inside you all along!
Seriously, though. If you learn just two things from NaNoWriMo—or, screw NaNo if it doesn’t work for you, if you learn two things from writing—let it be these:
- You can fix a shitty page, but not a blank one.
- Keep. Going.
The experience of writing a novel and finishing it, whether you do that through NaNoWriMo or not, is hugely empowering. And that manuscript is good for something, too. The secret is that all first drafts are terrible, but having one gives you something to edit.
And not all second or third drafts are terrible. But you have to start somewhere.
Just don’t be That Guy who sends their terrible NaNoWriMo first draft to a bunch of agents and editors on December 1st.
So is this an endorsement, or what?
Let me put it this way. NaNoWriMo is helpful for me because I’m not a published author with book contracts and deadlines, and—as utterly arbitrary as it is—NaNoWriMo gives me a deadline. That motivates me. Those hundreds of thousands of other Wrimos (yes, that’s really what they call them) amount to an awful lot of peer pressure.
Now, maybe it doesn’t say anything great about me that I need external motivation like deadlines and peer pressure to get shit done, but there are a lot of other people in this boat with me. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe it’s a flaw we need to work on, but if that’s the boat we’re in then we’d better figure out how to row it, you know?
I feel equipped to deal with NaNoWriMo’s drawbacks because I have done so before. I tried it, and it worked. It’s not a miracle and I’ve tried other things that worked just as well for me, if not better—I’m still trying other things. I’m always looking for new techniques that fit for me. I also continue writing for the other eleven months of the year, so participating in NaNoWriMo isn’t a huge change for me.
I approach NaNoWriMo knowing that words I write quickly will not be my best words, knowing that 50,000 words does not make a novel, and knowing that I will have to edit the snot out of my draft.
I also approach NaNoWriMo with an outline because that is what works for me. I’d recommend that you at least try outlining, especially if you’re writing at NaNo speed. You know those first two years that I didn’t finish, and those recent two years that I did? Want to guess which years I wrote an outline? If you’d like some guidance, Chuck Wendig recently posted a great reference for different outlining styles.
You may approach NaNoWriMo as a first-time novelist or a fiftieth, outline or no, with dreams of publication or just because telling a story that is just yours is a hell of a lot of fun—and that is a completely valid reason to write a novel, god damn it!
You may try NaNoWriMo and decide that it’s not for you at all. You might just fucking hate the idea of it and everything it stands for. That’s totally okay!
I mean, that’s okay if you don’t like it because you find it an ineffective way to approach writing. If you hate it because you’re one of those Capital-L Literary Merit snobs then we are going to have to throw down in fisticuffs.
One Last Caveat
The most important thing to remember if you are doing NaNoWriMo is this:
Do not quit just because you can’t make it to 50,000 words.
Let me repeat that:
Just because of a completely arbitrary number that some guy made up because he wanted to have a goal to shoot for.
Having goals is great, and it can motivate us to achieve things we never would have otherwise. But if you think 50,000 words makes you a “winner” and anything less makes you a loser, then stop right there.
You know that’s absurd, right?
There are professional writers who don’t write 50,000 words in a month, and there is no shame in that. If signing up for NaNoWriMo means you write fifty thousand words or just fifty—and those are words that you wouldn’t otherwise have written—then that is a victory.
I hope you’ll write with me this November, whether you choose to don the NaNo mantle or not. I’ll be posting weekly pep talks on here and doing word sprints on Twitter. You can track my progress and join me as a writing buddy on NaNoWriMo’s site—I go by the screenname spaceman.spiff.
So, are you taking the NaNo plunge or doing any other kind of writing this November? Got any helpful resources to share? Drop a link in the comments section!