November is the month that can bring whoops of delight and shudders of fear amongst writers around the globe. It is of course NaNoWrimo or National Novel Writing Month for those not in the know. It is an event that brings hundreds of thousands of writers at all levels or experience and ability and leads them on a roller-coaster ride towards a completed novel of 50,000 words.
I’ve never been a big fan of Nanowrimo and as I have got more into my writing and maybe even slightly better at it, my enthusiasm for it has only steadily reduced. Nanowrimo can be good, it engenders a sense of community and camaraderie. Bashing out those 1,667 words every day to make that target can be slightly addictive especially when you see that purple progress bar get ever lengthier.
I always enjoyed reading the forums on the site. Reading the trials and tribulations, the successes and failures. There are a lot of failures with only around 20% of writers who started the month in a blaze of glory still there at the bitter end.
Nanowrimo teaches the important discipline of writing every day. Writing when you can’t be bothered, writing when you’ve had a bad day at work. Getting experience of plotting and just getting a significant number of words down onto paper. No matter how hard you find it, there will always be some poor sucker whose writing in a freezing tower block with no light, heating and intermittent power. Their partner has walked out on them, they have the worst job in the world and their computer barely works and even when it does, the keyboard is missing all the vowels.
For everyone else though, I think Nanowrimo is a bit of a waste of time. For a start, 50,000 words does not a novel make. Most novels are substantially longer with many double or triple the length. Writing 50,000 words gives you something of a Novella which is all well and good but it’s not a real novel.
Nanowrimo also places far too much emphasis on quantity over quality, in fact quality barely even comes into the equation. Even if you do manage the 50,000 words, the resulting work will be the roughest of rough drafts. Plot and character points may likely have been compromised in order to make the word-count. Personally speaking I’d rather write a little less but be sure that what I wrote makes sense and maybe needs only a few revisions rather than countless revisions.
Writing a novel or even a blog for that matter is a marathon, not a sprint. Even that most prolific of writers Stephen King has stated that a novel needs the minimum of 3 months work and he writes for a job and probably has a better idea of what is going on than most Nanowrimo devotees.
If you take part in Nanowrimo for fun or as a way to dip your toe into writing then that’s great but if you can only do something because hundreds of thousands of people are giving moral support then maybe writing isn’t for you. When it comes down to it like anything else, the motivation for writing has to come from the inside. No-one can really make you train for years to become a successful marathon runner as opposed to someone who hobbles over the finish line as they only ran to get the bus a week earlier instead of putting in the required hours.
Writing is very much the same. It is something that you can only become competent at or even skilful at with constant practice and dedication. There will be days where it is a battle to write down more than a few words whilst just when you don’t expect it you might find inspiration to pen 7,000 words in one session. The overbearing 50,000 target of Nanowrimo can actually out people off writing for ever. People become aware that their prose is awful or that the word limit is excessive for beginners with a real-world life to live and so never give the craft the chance it and they deserve.
Even if you love writing, jumping at the deep end and writing 50,000 unplotted words can lead to a serious overdose. Writing a novel is much more than the word total, yes even this sub-length novella word-total. From my experience such as it is, the more experienced a writer, the less enthralled they are with Nanowrimo and book publishers are even less enthralled still.
If you really want to do Nanowrimo, my advice is don’t. For those determined to give it a go anyway, this is my advice:
1. Prepare at least a vague plot, with characters and motivations. Any time lost will be more than made up when you have the story mapped out ahead of you instead of wondering what happens next.
2. Write every day. Especially in the first weeks, missing the odd day here or there means that required word count each day rapidly escalates. If possible write at the same time every day.
3. Don’t stop at the 1,667 daily limit if you still have the urge to write. I would always aim for a minimum of 2,000 words a day which gave me a form of insurance for unforeseen emergencies or days later in the month when I couldn’t write due to illness or mental exhaustion! Write 2,000 words a day and you’ll break the back of that 50,000 total quickly and with no pressure as panic mounts in the forums.
4. Never finish your writing session at the end of a chapter or paragraph or even sentence. You haven’t the time to waste wondering how to start off each session so finishing a session mid-sentence gives you an easy start to get you going. Consider writing a few key words for the next day to really get you going quickly.
5. Nanowrimo really will take over your life. Make things easy for yourself and plan your life a little before you begin. Make sure your friends and family know you are not to be disturbed until 1st December.
Only a few hundred of the hundreds of thousands who start Nanowrimo come away with a publishable novel. That’s because completing Nanowrimo, as big an achievement as it is, is only the start. There will follow many rounds of revision, vast swathes of the text deleted and much more added to get to the correct word-count. Even after that, only a handful will be published professionally as opposed to self-published. In many ways Nanowrimo is like watching the early rounds of X-Factor or American Idol with countless, hopeless people trying to instantly become the next J.K. Rowling. The vast majority get rooted out early on. A small minority make it to the show proper and though perhaps more talented than the average person, in a very raw and unfinished way, are still not really worth listening to. Only the winner has a real shot at a career and even then, most are instantly forgotten as they just not as determined, experienced or as good as musicians who’ve made it big the old fashioned way, with hard work and a bit of luck. Most musicians have to practice and perform in unglamorous locations for years or decades and even if good, never quite get a lucky break even if they do get enjoyment from it. Writing is like that and anyone doing Nanowrimo should know it.
That’s okay though, unlike many things in the world today, writing takes time, effort and dedication. Writing a novel is not something you can purchase. It isn’t disposable and if you succeed then you really deserve all those congratulations. If not then maybe at least you’ll have discovered a new hobby and gained a new appreciation for writers everywhere be they novelists, journalists, academics or movie screenplays.
To be me though you’d be better off writing something, anything every day or at least very regularly. I always remember when the pop group The Spice Girls split up. Nothing in the intervening years has convinced me that they had much natural talent for singing at all. However as a reviewer in a UK national newspaper put it, their final releases were much better and less grating than their early performances. The music journalist put it that even someone with no talent will get better to a certain extent with lots of practice. Writing is a day-in, day-out pursuit not just for 1 month a year but 12 months a year. It’s not particularly abotu quantity but quality and so unlike Nanowrimo it involves as much care of plotting, characterisation, and descriptive narrative as word count.
Just do your writing in a way that is best for you, not to take part in big event. If you story is only 40,000 words then don’t pad it out. If your plot is complicated and you can only do 500 words a session, 3 days a week then that is the way to go. Most of all, enjoy it and have fun. I know I enjoyed Nanowrimo Novembers and all the hellish jubilation they brought. I just found it never suited my way of writing and so isn’t for me.
I’d love to hear whether you’ve taken part in Nanowrimo or whether you have any opinions on it?