Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Good the Bad & the Ugly of NaNoWriMo

Yep, it’s that time of year again. The time when turkeys cower in fear, leaves multiply on your lawn faster than rabbits, costume companies pretend there actually is a reason to take kids’ cartoon characters and make “sexy” versions of them, and last but not least, the time of year when hundreds of thousands of people decide to write a book in a month—I speak of course about National Novel Writing Month.

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, check out their website here. It’s a really cool idea and has picked up amazing steam since it started in 1999. The basic concept is that you and a bunch of other people all try to write a novel (or at least 50,000 words of a novel) in the month of November.

First of all, let me say that I think anything that gets people writing is awesome. So many times people tell me they’ve always wanted to write a book. And I say, “Well then start writing.” And whenever you do anything with a group of people who have the same goals, it makes it a little easier. So, yeah, NaNoWriMo=very cool.

If I stopped my blog right here, everything would be great. I said the right thing to the right people at the right time. Now is the part where I doff my hat and exit stage left.

Except that, while I think NaNoWriMo is very cool for a lot of people, I also think that there could be times when it is actually could be a bad thing.

Here’s why.

Imagine applying the book in a month concept to other activities. Compose a symphony in a month. Train for a marathon in a month. Build ten houses in a month. Perform 100 heart transplants in a month. Have six kids in . . . okay, maybe we will stop the analogy there.

The thing is, different people write at different paces and different books take more or less time. I have written an entire book in close to a month. I’ve also taken a year or more to write another book. Quantity does not always equal quality.

I was recently talking to an editor about an author. The editor thought the author was a great writer, but the author’s work often seemed rushed. The editor felt that the author was hurrying to finish one book after another without taking the time to get each of them right.

I know that NaNoWriMo isn’t about completing a final draft in a month. The idea is that you force yourself to crank out 50,000 words and then come back and edit them later. And that absolutely works for some authors. They do what we used to call in grade school a sloppy copy and then make it better and better as they rewrite.

If you are one of those kinds of people, NaNoWriMo may be a great fit for you. But not everyone can do that. You can’t always “force” creativity. Some stories just take a while to come together. And I worry especially for newer writers that if you start training yourself that writing is like mowing the lawn, you just get up start the mower and get to it, you might be training yourself to be a bad writer.

I think I’d be more comfortable with something where you had to spend x number of hours on your novel in a month. Maybe you create a character bible, maybe you outline, maybe you write that number of hours without worrying about how many words you complete. As an author I’d rather spend an hour writing a great page or even a great paragraph than an hour cranking out 2,000 words that will never be something I’d want to show the public.

I’m not saying don’t take part in NaNoWriMo. If nothing else you will learn whether you are able to write 2,000 words or more a day. I know lots of authors whose first published work came as a result of a NaNoWriMo project.

But if it doesn’t work, don’t feel like you are a failure. Writing is not brick laying. It’s not emptying trash cans. It’s a process that can come together all at once in a rush of inspired storytelling or sweat itself out word by painful word. Sometimes it involves outlining for weeks or months. Sometimes an entire story arrives in only a few minutes with a burst or fireworks and sounding trumpets.

Don’t worry about what other authors are doing around you. Don’t write YA because that’s what everyone is doing. Don’t write a novel in a month because it’s November are you are supposed to. Do what works for you and stick with it.


Blue said...

I just love you! In only the most acceptable, admirable way of course, but I love you because of your way of kindly, encouragingly, insightful, generous and sharingly way of being that has zero stress, anxiety or criticism attached to it. It makes me feel better about myself to read your words. Both the blog ones, and the book ones. Just thought you should know one little way you make this world a better place. Thanks!

Erin G. said...

Great post! I've decided to take part in NaNoWriMo this year for the first time. I don't know if I'll be able to finish it, but I really want to do this to get me into the habit of writing again. I got kind of scared off from the whole idea of writing for a lot of reasons and haven't written very much since. So the idea of just writing and having a goal and just getting the idea out there really appeals to me. But this post was a great reminder not to be too hard on myself. Thanks! You're awesome! :)

J.R. Johansson said...

Totally agreed. I do much better with the time oriented goal. I love revisions, but drafting kills me and it's definitely the more painstaking part of my process. I can't rush through and worry about word-count or I lose all will to live...or something not quite as dramatic. But hey, it's Halloween. Drama fits today!

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Anonymous said...

The analogy fails because writing at breakneck speed is never like mowing the lawn. It's much more like trying to drive ten miles to the pharmacy to get your child's medicine when the store is closing in ten minutes. The writer doesn't yawn his way through the month. No, he sweats.

My first NaNoWriMo, eight years ago, was special because halfway through the month my characters stood up and started talking to each other on their own. All I had to do was take dictation.

That's the magical thing that happens when, as NaNoWriMo intends, the author lets himself surrender to the flow of writing. At the end of the month, there were surprisingly good scenes scattered among the dross.

And that's the other point of NaNoWriMo -- freeing the author from the demands of "good writing." Who cares if your output's not even useful for fishwrap and birdcage liner? A month of daily exercise can do wonders to get writing muscles toned up, and drastically shorten the distance between the writer's imagination and his fingertips.

Want quality writing? Edit that one-month draft in February.

J Scott Savage said...


Obviously you haven't seen me mow the lawn while writing under a deadline.

But seriously, I think you are missing my point. I'm not saying NaNoWriMo is bad. Or that all drafts have to be perfect.

What I am saying is that, while it might be the best think since cable TV, it is not right for everyone, anymore than running a marathon is right for everyone.

I've talked to many authors who felt like failures because they didn't complete 50,000 words. That is so wrong in so many ways. Just because writing like a mad woman makes you get in touch with your inner muse doesn't mean it will for another author.

I tend to rewrite as I go. So when I finish my "first" draft, it is usually ready to send to the editor. That absolutely will not work for many writers.

And the idea of writing 10,000 words, let alone 50,000 that isn't fit to line a birdcage makes me physically ill.

So, again, if NaNoWriMo works for you, awesome! There is no thrill like the thrill of having the words roll straight out of your head and onto the page. But fo forcing yourself to write under a tight deadline with one eye constantly on your word count makes you tighten up, toss it out the window.

Alice said...

I really appreciate this post. I want to do nanowrimo but know it's not realistic for me to write 50,000 words in a month. I'm not that kind of writer. I did write a few hundred the first day of Nov. and plan to work on an outline and summary of a new book and as much of a rough draft as I can, but I did nanorimo a couple years ago and am having lots of trouble trying to fix all the plot problems in my rewrite. I did come up with ideas I wouldn't have if I'd been writing slower by forcing myself to write fas thought. This time, I'm going to take it slower and come up with a better first draft in the long run.

Lauren said...

Ooh, he's cast a gauntlet! :)

Actually, while I agree with you that it's not right (or write :) for many people, I love NaNoWriMo. My best work comes out when I just write, but that's the kind of writer I am--I don't outline, I don't plot or plan ahead, I just write.

The problem with Nano, as you said, is when people try to put this in their things-I-must-do pile and then don't make "the goal." They then (as is our societal imperative) beat themselves up over it for years.

Well, who cares about the goal? Make your own goal, like Alice said! Just write!


I'm chronicling NaNo on my blog this month, by the way. :)

It is telling that the one person who disagreed with you used "Anonymous."

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Such sage wisdom!

I agree with you. Some books can be written in a month while another book takes a year or more. It's all about what works best for the story you're trying to tell.

Thank you, Obi-Wan Kenobi. :)

Diony said...

I appreciate you sharing this, full speed ahead isn't the best way for everyone to write but I do admire those who can.

Anonymous said...

Hey I love your books! I would absolutely love it if you came to Springville Jr. High in Springville, Utah! Please Please Please!!!!

Lisa Nelson said...

I second the previous motion! It would also be spectacular if you came to Springville High School!

Mark said...

Stop being lazy and get back on your sight... Unless of course you are madly working on the next masterpiece and don't have time to deal with mortals just now.

Melanie Fowler said...

Hello! I met you briefly at the LTUE, you were about to run off and I waved and you were kind enough to talk to me and my friend Jen. :) Thanks for chatting with us!