So this year I decided to finally take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo from here on out), a socially-oriented on-line event where you attempt to write a 50,000-plus word novel in just thirty short days.
On the surface the concept is a nice one. You’re invited to challenge your limits, and finally write that book you’ve had kicking around in your head. It was something I’ve been wanting to try for years, and it was now or never.
However, on day 28, and about 25,000 words short of the goal, I’ve come to realized that I hate NaNoWriMo, and I feel like it was more harmful than good for me.
Before I go farther, if you enjoyed NaNoWriMo and it helped you out as a writer, more power to you. But in general I think NaNoWriMo is a solution without a problem. It’s an unfocused monster that puts the emphasis on all the wrong aspects of writing.
It focuses on word count instead of preparation
When I first decided to do NaNoWriMo, I didn’t know the actual nuts and bolts of how people were preparing for it. Did they outline for the first couple of weeks and then write? Surely they didn’t beforehand, since that felt like cheating.
Cheating you say?
Yes, because writing is all about prep. All good books come from months and months of preparation, research, and outlining your idea into a solid structure. It’s asking yourself how your concept can be turned into something people would actually want to read. It’s about meshing premise, character, their desires, their weaknesses, their environment, and working it into a coherent story (for more on this, I highly recommend the book Anatomy of Story).
And that’s where NaNoWriMo is true bullshit. You’re expected to do all this BEFORE November begins. Well, I’m sorry, but a novel writing month that focuses on smashing out an arbitrary word count isn’t actually writing. It’s a contest of who has the wherewithal to clack out the most words into something resembling a manuscript in thirty days.
That’s not writing. That’s throwing sentences into a word-processor. Preparation is the real cornerstone of the craft, and NaNoWriMo doesn’t even touch on that part of the process.
It’s maybe good for people that don’t write, and terrible for people who have some discipline already
NaNoWriMo may be beneficial for people who don’t write at all, but that’s not me. I generally write every day to a pretty strict schedule, so altering it for NaNoWriMo fucked up my rhythm. I found myself doing what I hate, which is not stopping to think.
Again, this comes back to word count. You’re stressed to write 1667 words a day, which doesn’t allow for much pausing to actually consider what you’re writing. I would reach parts of the manuscript that didn’t feel right, and instead doing the intelligent thing, you know, like taking stock and evaluating what I was doing, I kept writing anyway.
This can be nice (powering through does wonders sometimes), but it can also be a humungous waste of time. Writing is a very quirky mental exercise, and not thinking seems anathema to the process. When you stop considering what you’re actually writing, it’s akin to mindlessly bashing away at very expensive laptop keys, hoping something good will come out of it.
If that works for you, great. Some writers are like filmmakers who shoot a thousand hours of footage. They figure something good is in there, and editing will bring it out. This absolutely works for some people, but definitely not for me. I prefer editing from less, and hopefully more thoughtful footage.
Novel writing isn’t a thirty-day thing, and it skews what book writing is
Book writing is a very peculiar practice. You’re creating something huge, potentially sprawling, with lots of moving parts and many places where everything can come crashing down.
In essence, book writing is hard. My general writing experience is in a different area: writing for the screen. I love the specific challenges of screenwriting, and how it’s more of a blueprint than a finished tome. The fascinating thing about writing for television or movies is that you’re writing something collaborators will change. This is why the turnaround on most assignments is six weeks or less–other eyes will see it, disassemble it, fix it, and give it to others who will do the same, etc.
Book writing is very different. It’s generally one person’s vision, and aside from your eventual editor, the process is pretty autocratic. This is why it can take years to churn out a book. There’s just so much to it (including the personal doubt and anguish you have to work though, but that’s another topic). Take last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. It took her eleven years to finish it. Books have a specific sort of depth that only time can get to the bottom of.
So you can see where I’m driving at: Thirty days to write a novel? I’m sorry, but no. Even a first draft in a month is ludicrous, and I think NaNoWriMo actually hurts the integrity of book writing, and trivializes the difficulty.
If only 15% win, what do the other 85% do?
The terminology of NaNoWriMo is pretty infuriating if you step back to look at it. The people who write 50,000 words? What do they call them?
But statistics show that greater than 85% of participants don’t reach the goal. So what does that make that group of people?
Oh yeah, that’s right. Losers.
I actually started to feel bad about myself when I realized that reaching 50,000 words was impossible for me this month. I felt terrible, actually. Seeing the other people who were making it started to stir up some genuine jealousy. I wanted to kick my laptop down the street.
But then I realized, oh yeah, I’m writing a book, and there’s really no competition in that at all. Especially regarding time.
But the way NaNoWriMo presents it, if you don’t reach the goal you didn’t win, even if the goal itself is faulty. Instead of boosting self-esteem, I think NaNoWriMo does the opposite. When you start to fall behind, you really feel it. You begin to feel hopeless and a little sad, which seems like the opposite reactions you should be having from an event that’s supposed to “help writers.”
NaNoWriMo is a wonderful exercise, but it’s not an ideal way to write a novel. To me, the event seems silly and arbitrary, and doesn’t speak to the true spirit of book writing. Creating a novel is intense, personal, and ultimately a fantastic life challenge. It’s not for everyone. Book writing isn’t tee-ball where everyone gets a hit. It’s a land of very few successes, and more failures than are even countable.
Is it worth it? It all depends on what kind of person you are. If the journey is fun for you, go for it. If you need some sort of result, look elsewhere. NaNoWriMo seems too focused on said results, which is why I think it doesn’t work.