Why NaNoWriMo Doesn’t Work (and Why it Does)

I dunno what the Viking helmet is about.

I dunno what the Viking helmet is about.

Yesterday I wrote 7k words, in one sitting, because I’ve been thinking about a scene for nearly eight months. It as a huge milestone for me. I was GOING to write about how much I loved Writer’s Block. But instead, I’m going to write about something much more relevant (and maybe a follow-up about Writer’s Block).

Na No Wri Mo.

NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month is coming (say it like Game of Thrones‘ Winter is Coming). It sneaks up on little cat feet, born from the creativity of Hallowe’en (if you believe in celebrating it) or All Saints’ Day, spurned forward by extended vacations for Thanksgiving and too much cooked food, and perpetuated by a niche industry asking for donations in emails sent daily. It’s become known nearly everywhere in the writing community, and it’s only fifteen years old.

I like it, but have reservations about it. Here’s why:

*Note: this discussion concerns fiction writers only. Those with a developed skill in a specific area who approach NaNoWriMo from a technical angle will most likely have very different results.

First, I did a little research on the whole phenomenon. The results were, well, interesting to say the least. All research leads to the nanowrimo.org site, which is apparently who took credit for this movement. On its page it says the first NaNoWriMo was a bunch of people who had an interest in writing novels together, had nothing better to do, and thought they’d be cooler if they did it. It was in July, in 1999. They came together and “noveled,” if that is to be believed as a verb. They enjoyed it.

The wikipedia article was written by the same people. It read like an advertisement, and half of the research links were dead (and linking to the nanowrimo.org site). This doesn’t say much. But then, it’s a relatively new market.

Nowadays it’s a pretty different beast. It’s gained recognition via internet and social media, writing sites are dedicated to it, and it gets people writing. The premise? Write 50k words in a month. Period. That’s the size of a children’s novel, two thirds of a big kid novel, and 1/10th of a George R. R. Martin novel. The idea is to push people past the whole “I just don’t do it” ledge, get them to sit down and write. This makes average joes into novel writers.

Why I Like It:

1) An awesome writing exercise

Anything that gets people off their texting machines and away from the television is a win in my Nook (haha). You spend your time thinking and not writing? You spend your time doing nothing. I recently watched an early 90’s inspirational video from Les Brown. He quoted someone else, saying the wealthiest place in the world is the graveyard: all the greatest inventions, creations, ideas that never were, are laid to rest there. It made a profound hit on me. Creating a writing habit is amazing, perfect, and works wonders for people who tend to talk themselves out of doing things that could, in fact, be a huge boon to themselves, their self-confidence, etc.

2) A Confidence booster

Many people don’t start something because they don’t believe they can finish it. NaNoWriMo places a huge focus on the individual accomplishing what he can during a single month. Some people work better under deadlines. Some people work better with an outside force pushing them forward. It’s a great way to track yourself.

3) An excellent trend to set for fun activity

Getting the general populace to write creatively is counter-cultural to what the media and government wants: any creativity is generally frowned upon. We receive resistance from family and friends. But it gives us a deadline. It gives us a focus. And gives us a community to write in. Similar-minded people, sometimes, make all the difference. It’s fun, powerful, helpful. Most of what people write is crap, and that’s alright, because it’s only a writing exercise not meant to bring about instant success.

Anyone can do it.

Why I don’t like it:

1) Anyone can do it

Most of what people write is crap (WHICH IS FINE!), and that’s good enough for them, because they have something physical in their hands when they’re done.

People who have never written a word before in their lives sit and write books. They finish their books, breathe a half-revision, and submit it to publishers, agents, etc. It makes me cringe to read about people who send their 50k rough draft to an agent in December, January, and get really upset when it’s flat-out rejected. One friend swore off writing anything ever again, because they weren’t published by the time their New Year’s Resolutions were mapped.

Would you swear off playing guitar if you were cast aside for a record deal after your passable rendition of cover music? Heck no! “Nobody said it was easy.” ~Coldplay (Yeah. I did it. What?)

I’ve been editing this book for FOUR years, and I’m still not done. And this book is the end result of twelve other books I wrote before, which will NEVER see the light of day. That’s a LOT of writing.

Either you write a crap book fast, or you spend years honing that crap book to a hard edge. Or you get lucky as crap. Take your pick.

2) Expectation

It’s like the moment Maynard says, during an interview with Joe Rogan, his thoughts on psychedelic drugs: you transcend to this place where you’ve had no training to understand it. You take a shortcut and don’t have the mental muscle to handle it. Therefore, it’s tarnished and cheapened, and you can’t control anything. (I also love the frontrunner of A Perfect Circle. He is brilliant.)

People expect instant gratification. Not all. Some. They think, “It’s this easy and fun! Anyone can do it!” They don’t learn the ups and downs of publication work, of a craft you SHOULD take YEARS developing before you’re ready to show a finished product to the world. It’s marketed as some kind of fast track to success.

3) Aggressive nature of “Commerce” writing

This great blog posted in 2010 has some great input on this idea (and the irony is? The ad in the center of the article is: Written a Book? Get your FREE! Writer’s Guide to Publishing!). It’s something I online a lot, as well. Writers who write about writing make much more than the writers writing, because the writers writing are buying up all these how-to books to get their writing off the ground, furthering the idea a quick read will make your words shine. Not the case. As in any creative art, practice will make your words shine. Finding your voice will make your words shine. MORE practice. MORE AND MORE practice.

In fact, this is a great time to insert a quote from Mr. King: “The first MILLION words are practice.” That’s 20 years of WriMo. WriMo hasn’t been around long enough for even the FIRST person writing ONLY during the month of June (November) to be considered a good writer. Think about that, please. And that’s the only practice you need, when it comes to writing.

And I’m not knocking the commerce writing industry: I’ve read my own share of “So you Wanna Write a Novel!?” books, mostly from Orson Scott Card and other writers I love dearly for their writing.

But getting on a blog to read bloggers blogging about how to properly blog seems, well, disingenuous and redundant. The blog works because they write articles about writing articles. Just. Write.

4) The death of the reader

SO many WriMoWriters say things like, “I don’t have time to read. I’m focused so much on my writing.” I choke a little. Yes, I’ve said this same statement in the past. I’ve walked my own path of denial. My writing suffered because of it. Still does. My book pile is higher now than ever before.

But people are much more interested in writing. Much less interested in reading. This is damaging to the book economy as a whole. Why? Sales plummet, obviously, and so many people saturating a market that has little interest in reading what is written only makes the situation worse.


TWO WORDS OF ADVICE IS ALL YOU NEED. Just. Write. Do you need more? Just. Read.

I’ve written NaNoWriMo twice. I wrote most of David and His Shade in the month of November a few years ago. I wrote 78k words that month. I was inspired, I felt compelled, and the story practically wrote itself. The year afterward, I didn’t touch a keyboard the whole month. Why? I had another three novels to work on, update, dominate. I had books to read, work to work. And I feel this is the case for most people. It’s a flavor thing for new writers: they get the taste, don’t have the smash-bang result they wanted, and either shelf the story or give up altogether. This isn’t an area for quick reward. It takes hard work, lots of tears, and thicker skin than an MMA fighter.

A recent poll on critiquecircle (a site I frequent but rarely post to anymore) stated, that of the 319 voters, 49% are not participating in NaNoWriMo this year. A lot of people have come to similar conclusions I have to the project: it is a self-induced deadline, and works great no matter what time of year, no matter when, and no matter what the parameters are.

It is a great writing exercise that builds confidence and community, if done correctly. Beyond that, it is not an end in itself.

(Also, this blog post is, in entirety, longer than the daily recommended word count for a NaNoWriMo applicant at 1775 words)

Support for serious amateur writers who want to make the most out of their WriMo:

I recommend you read several books and blogs before or after the WriMo or whenever you want, really.

  • Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers (this page has a whole load of information aimed to inspire aspiring writers)
  • Strunk & White’s Elements of Style
  • A book of your favorite poetry (If you don’t have one, get one) Mine is Susan Mitchell’s Erotikon or Charles Peguy’s God Speaks (out-of-date author with out-of-print books)
  • Your favorite author’s voice.
  • NaNoWriMo website
  • My Email: heissererwriter@gmail.com
  • I recommend checking out Scrivener (but I find it more of a distraction than a help) for AFTER you finish writing your novel, and all those words are on paper.

Finally: do you have a finished novel you want read? I have an interest in reading it. I’m honest, blunt, and have an opinion. I’d love to share it with you or anyone you want me to. Do you have a novel/story/focus you want proofed/edited? I’d be happy to assist, free of charge. I’m looking for community.

12 thoughts on “Why NaNoWriMo Doesn’t Work (and Why it Does)

  1. Oh, God, I did this for a few years in high school. First novel I ever finished. Also, no doubt, the worst I’ve ever written.

    I’m ambivalent about NaNo myself. I honestly think the only thing that makes it great is the community of writers around, doing the same thing on the same deadline, to support you. For some people, that truly is the difference between meeting a deadline and falling short, and all my love goes out to the people who do this stuff together.

    But I see your reader-death problem in NaNo and I raise you. Folks who write–and I won’t bend on this–NEEd to be folks who read. I had a couple of friends in igh school try NaNo out for the fuck of it, and a few of them never read a book if it wasn’t assigned. Baby steps, folks. If you want to write a good story, you need to take a moment and figure out what one looks like first.

    PS–sounds like you’ve read the same ‘how to write’ books I have. Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint is a GREAT resource for any age or level of skill. I agree with you, though–with the popularity of self-publishing now, it seems like anybody can make money writing a book about how to write, regardless of whether they know how or not. I’d know, I do the same thing with my blog. 😛

  2. Agreed. I’m guilty of the “I don’t read good” syndrome. But in my defense, I’ve been reading my whole life, and have five bookshelves full. It’s tough to find something in my niche anymore. I have to wade through so much colorful plumage to find the good stuff.

    I still have those how-to books around here somewhere. I wonder where they went.

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  5. A fascinating look at NaNoWriMo, some of which I agree with and some I don’t! I think you’ve got a great site here though and I may well pass my books at you as they complete to gain your blunt and honest opinion! Best wishes, Ken.

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