Top Five Pros and Cons of National Novel Writing Month

You know you’re a writer if the end of October fills you with a certain kind of eagerness and trepidation: NaNoWriMo is upon us. That’s short for National Novel Writing Month, a stunt where writers the world over try to pull off churning out 50,000 words during the month of November. Now the 2016 edition is looming on the horizon: should you participate?

If you’re anything like me, the thought of November and NaNoWriMo fills you with dread. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t is definitely how I feel about it. Go ahead, check my stats – I have never finished a manuscript I started for the November event. The reasons or excuses I can give for this are manifold: November is traditionally not a great month to get stuff done (in 2016, the US Presidential elections offer a huge distraction); 1,666 words per day is slightly above my ideal word count; my writing routine differs; I happen to be traveling, etc. – you get the idea.

National Novel Writing Month describes itself as “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.” It started in 1999 as a motivational event or exercise for a small group of friends and enthusiasts, and has since then evolved into a non-profit organisation that offers programs for writers, structure, community and encouragement year round. Their proclaimed values are “enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline.” The idea is to start November with a fresh project, finish the end of the month with a manuscript of at least 50,000 words, and hopefully evolve that into a first draft of a novel henceforth. During the 30 days of November, you’re supposed to kill your inner editor and just let the words flow. Sounds like fun, so why whine?

Already in 2010, Laura Miller argued in an article on NaNoWriMo that writing is a “narcissistic commerce” – it is more lucrative to market to people who want to write than to people who want to read. Non-fiction guide books like Everybody Writes by Ann Handley are best sellers. However, if you look at the numbers, according to NaNoWriMo, 489,028 writers participated in the event in 2015. Compare that to the number of roughly only 400 traditionally published novels NaNoWriMo has produced since 1999. Publishers, agents and editors dread the month of December, when the (largely unedited) manuscript submissions by NaNoWriMo winners start pouring in. Professional (or rather: published) authors sometimes display a condescending attitude towards Wrimos, as NaNoWriMo participants are called. For the duration of one month or less each year, they toil and sweat and cry and laugh with the rest of professional authors, but most of them will be gone like tourists once the season is over.

Jakob writes - To NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo logo – image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Nonetheless, like the Pomodoro Technique, National Novel Writing Month is simply the means to an end that can or cannot totally work for you. Use my following subjective pros and cons to find out if you can make it work, what aspects might require tweaking for you or if you will be better off dedicating yourself to an entirely different technique.

The Pros of NaNoWriMo

1. Learn about goals and stretches

NaNoWriMo is great in the sense that it will give you a very specific goal. All you have to do to “win” is write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s a good, solid goal: you can measure it (write 1,666 words per day), and it’s achievable. Your average content writer can produce roughly 1,000 words in less than an hour.

The number of 50,000 words is completely arbitrary – more on that below. But it gives you something on which to focus in order to finish before the deadline. Many aspiring writers struggle with the inability to finish a draft. NaNoWriMo can increase your motivation with the concrete goal of finishing. Everything else becomes secondary. Yes, the quality of your writing will suffer. But the takeaway for you is your relation to a daily word count and the insight you gain about which writing stretches work best for you.

2. Sketching

1,666 words per day might not strike you as that large a number to write every day. But it can become an increasingly difficult word count to reach when you’re working on a continuous story. Especially when you’re making up and developing everything as you go along, from characters to plot to story arch. Once you skip a day, you’ll realize that writing quickly is of the essence. It’s a great skill to have as a writer, so better learn it fast.

I call it sketching. You write sentences which are not perfect but for the time being serve their purpose, convey the idea, albeit crudely, or simply tell it as it is, without showing. If need be, put down “She hit him with the best possible comeback” and move on, nevermind which words your character actually chose. Lose the mindset of perfection, shake off your inner instant editor. Apart from completing NaNoWriMo, sketching is an important skill to have, so develop it during your November project.

“Writers write” goes the saying, and sketching is exactly that – getting things done. Don’t get stuck on a particular scene. If the words don’t come, don’t jump ahead to a different part of your story. Do sketches of the parts where you’re blocked, and move on, plowing linearly through your NaNoWriMo novel.Jakob writes - To NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo

3. Skills

The more you write, the better you get. Once you start producing words in quantity, the quality of what you write will improve – if you put yourself to the task. The 50,000 words of NaNoWriMo are an opportunity to hone your skills. If you know you suck at dialogs, don’t skirt them but insert exchanges between two and more people into your writing. Don’t know your weaknesses yet? Learn to identify and overcome them.

As a writer, you also need to develop your editing and rewriting skills. NaNoWriMo is not the time for that, otherwise you’ll never reach your goal. But as you go along, you can already mark passages in your manuscript with which you struggled and make a note of passages which you only sketched in. That way you know which difficult areas to tackle first when you’re reworking your NaNoWriMo project into a proper draft of a novel.

4. Form a habit

The moments of genial inspiration are rare, fleeting and far apart. But you better spend the time in between writing nonetheless. NaNoWriMo is there to teach you that the only way out is through, so plant your ass in the same spot day after day and get to work. You need to make writing a habit. Whether or not 30 days are sufficient to form a habit is debatable (scientific evidence seems to point towards at least double the amount of time, but that’s a different discussion), but writing every day in November is a start. Claim your certificate and call yourself a winner if you reach your 50,000 words, but by all means, don’t stop afterwards. Keep going with your daily writing routine.

5. Procrastination

In the words of Henri Chinaski in Charles Bukowski’s Factotum:

“Even at my lowest times, I can feel the words bubbling inside of me. And I had to get the words down or be overcome by something worse than death.”

NaNoWriMo is as good a reason as any to finally stop procrastinating and get started on that novel. Not writing might indeed be worse than death, but from Netflix to Facebook to email, we have many distractions to divert our attention from that feeling. If you participate in National Novel Writing Month, November 1st is your definite starting point, come hell or high water.Jakob writes - To NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo

The Cons of NaNoWriMo

1. Planning

NaNoWriMo teaches you nothing about planning a novel. A novelist may spend years planning and researching their book. The assumption that you can just wing it in 30 days is a bit naive. To not run out of steam and to avoid winding up with 50,000 words of complete garbage at the end of the month, you need to plan ahead. Create your characters in as much detail as you can. Work out the world of your story. Develop the plot and its major turning points. You need to lay a solid foundation for your novel. Writers who enter NaNoWriMo without planning and preparation often catch a glimpse of what their project is really about the last third of the month and end up starting over. Great if you have the courage to do that, given that you most likely won’t reach you final word goal that year. But it can be avoided by planning, so the least you can do is use October to prepare – it’s not against the rules.

To be fair, NaNoWriMo has a prep section on their website dedicated to pre-work. But they still proclaim the planner and the pantser as equally valid.

2. Editing

NaNoWriMo has one goal only – reaching 50,000 words within the deadline. But in the big picture, that is only a major milestone towards finishing your novel. Don’t delude yourself, you won’t have a finished draft at the end of November. For that, you’ll need to continue writing, fleshing out the manuscript – before you even set foot into editing territory.

NaNoWriMo is all about suppressing the urge to edit on the go. But the hardest part of writing is rewriting and editing. The quality of your draft depends on being able to come back to it after November and making it shine. NaNoWriMo has a section titled Now what? where you can browse “revision and publishing resources.” Make ample use of them if you’re serious. In 2015, of 489,028 participants, 72.3% said they “planned to revise” their novels. Only 20,000+ attended the “Now What?” editing and publishing webinars. Between these numbers and the less than 400 traditionally published NaNoWriMo novels, there is no documentation of how many writers started shopping around their manuscripts with publishers to no avail.

3. Word count

50,000 words are half a manuscript, not a novel. As I’ve mentioned above, the number is a bit arbitrary in terms of a novel. NaNoWriMo calls it a “challenging but achievable” goal, mentioning that it’s just about the length of The Great Gatsby. Of course, there is a great difference between just any 50,000 words and the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Opinions differ on the length of a novel, but most publishers will not consider your 50,000 word NaNoWriMo manuscript a novel. An average novel can range between 100,000 and 175,000 words. A sub-genre might be 60,000 or 80,000 words. There are no fixed rules, but all this goes to say that the title of National Novel Writing Month is slightly misleading. Come December 1st, you still won’t have written a novel.

4. Focus

Don’t lose your original novel idea to winning NaNoWriMo. In order to achieve your word goal, you have to stay focused. But that can go against your creative process, whatever it may be. Ideally, you are creative during the planning and sketching phase. If you are using the month to write out what you have planned in great detail, chances are your creative process doesn’t factor in that much. But if there are still great white areas on the map of your novel which you need to chart in, the focus on reaching your word count will not make you more creative. The easy way out is taking shortcuts and working with things you already know, which results in cliché, formulaic dialog, derivative plots etc. Throwing out things in the editing process is part of writing a novel, but it’s much harder to edit in creativity that is not there from the beginning. Your focus should also remain always fixed on the unique idea for your novel. If that means going at a slower pace, so be it.

5. Routine

Here is the thing: if you are a writer year round, chances are you will not interrupt your routine to participate in NaNoWriMo – because you are writing every month, not just in November. Yes, I have pointed out above that NaNoWriMo can help you form a writing routine, but in my opinion, you need to stay flexible. Chances are high that the exact routine of 1,666 words every day is not working for you. Many established authors would not “win” NaNoWriMo simply because it goes against their ingrained writing process. If you fail in November, it just shows that this particular approach is not for you. Work out your own routine, whether that is writing 500 words on your lunch break or 5,000 every morning between 5 and 7 am. But you need to work towards being a writer all the time, not just one month of the year. That implies scheduling time as well for edits and revisions.

Wrimo no more?

There are certain aspects of National Novel Writing Month that I have left out, such as the communities people form around the event like write-ins and groups, both online and offline. Much like the program itself, they’re means to an end. If you need to sit in a bookshop with 15 other people in order to write 1,666 words every day, that’s good. If you need to write 50,000 words in 30 days to kickstart your novel, that’s great. But don’t be constrained by anything. If NaNoWriMo is not your thing, maybe one of the many variants that exist is. Maybe you start a writing group on Meetup and have a go at your project that way.

Persistence is the mark of the writer. You can turn your back on National Novel Writing Month and still persist, or you can fail year-in, year-out with the same novel manuscript but still make progress. To continue that Bukowski quote from above:

“My contest is only with myself: to do it right, with power and force and delight and gamble.”

Are you attempting NaNoWriMo this year? What do you think of the program? Which writing routine works best for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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