NaNoWriMo: You’re doing it wrong!

It is officially December, which means NaNoWriMo is over. NaNoWriMo, for those who don’t know, stands for “National Novel Writing Month.” It is a creative writing competition in which thousands of writers from across the globe race to write a novel in a month. The goal is to start the novel from scratch on November first and have at least 50,000 words of it done by midnight on November 30.

My opinions of NaNoWriMo have changed slightly over the past month. I don’t feel any different about the activity itself, though I think I’ve found more and better ways to use it to aid me. No, it’s not NaNoWriMo that irritates me, it’s some of the people. I don’t care what the “rules” are for NaNoWriMo. I don’t care what your final word count is at the end of the month. The only way you can fail NaNoWriMo is by attitude.

Let me start by assessing the reasons people hate NaNoWriMo. Number one would be the quality versus quantity debate.

It’s no secret NaNoWriMo promotes quantity over quality. The whole point is to write as much as you can without caring about plot holes, one-dimensional characters, clichés, and grammar. For a first draft, this shouldn’t matter. Jane Austen’s first drafts were riddled with such mistakes. Making mistakes is part of learning.

However, the NaNo-haters are right about constant quantity-centered thinking being bad. Writing a bunch of nothing in a short period of time is useless if you don’t learn from it. If it doesn’t help you improve, it’s useless. As you progress from novice writer to intermediate writer, writing 50k+ words of crap one month out of the year is nothing to be proud of.

NaNoWriMo tells beginning writers that it’s okay if you’re not perfect, because you’ve done something you’ve never done before. If you’re not a beginning writer, if you have done this before, you have to change your goals to reflect that. Here I refer you to my post on How to Use NaNoWriMo to Improve as a Writer. Unless you only participate in NaNoWriMo for the fun of it, if you pour out 50k+ words of trash-worthy muddle every year, you’re doing NaNoWriMo wrong!

Next argument! I believe it’s something along the lines of “You can’t write a bestselling novel in 30 days.”

True. Very few people could manage such a thing, though I’m sure there are a couple fantastic writers who could. I know I’m not one of them. NaNoWriMo doesn’t expect you to be one of them. The outcome of NaNoWriMo should be a rough first draft that is in need of heavy editing. It’s the skeleton of a story, the outline, the general idea. Not a completed novel.

Alas, there are many people who think otherwise and mail off their poorly-written query letters to agents, hoping to land a 6-figure deal on their 50k word-long novel they wrote by the seat of their pants in 30 days or less (or your money back!). The fact is: you can’t do this. If you thought about doing this, don’t. If you have done this, hang your head in shame.

Writing a novel is a lot of work. Most people go through at least three or four revisions before they consider querying an agent. This doesn’t take a month, it doesn’t take two months. More often than not, it takes a couple years. If you submit your unedited NaNoWriMo manuscript for consideration come December, you’re doing NaNoWriMo wrong! And should burn in the fiery pits of Slushpile Hell.

There are several other arguments against NaNoWriMo, but they all invariably boil down to the individual participant. Insisting NaNoWriMo is evil is like the 6th grade teacher who banned pencils, calling them murder weapons. Pencils are brilliant tools for creation, but in the wrong hands, they can do physical damage.

The intent behind a pencil was to offer a tool to create without the fear of making an irremovable mistake. NaNoWriMo is no different. NaNoWriMo strives to create a worry-free environment for beginning writers to accept the fact that they can and will write poorly, and that is okay! Poor writing is the first step to better writing.

However, NaNoWriMo becomes a murder weapon when the word count goal towers over the quivering writer. When the writer caves to the stress of writing 1,667 words every day and panics at the thought of being 10,000 words behind, NaNoWriMo turns into NaNoWriMonster. Kyeli Smith wrote a fantastic guest post on Men With Pens that demonstrates this type of “NaNoWriMo failure.”

Owning a pencil does not mean write or perform seppuku.

Joining NaNoWriMo does not mean hit 50k or consider yourself a pathetic failure of a writer.

Not everyone can write 50k words in a month. Not everyone can shut off their inner-editor and write regardless of mistakes. NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. But guess what? That NaNoWriMonster is a figment of your imagination. As Kyeli said, the only person judging her was herself.

If you feel pressured into writing and consider yourself a failure for “falling behind,” you’re doing NaNoWriMo wrong! If you feel shadowed by such fears, whether in NaNoWriMo or something else, do what Kyeli did and take your fear on a date. You may find out that murder weapon is just a pencil.

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About Squishy

Writer, dancer, gamer, and admirer of all that is beautiful.

Posted on December 2, 2010, in Ishy Writes! and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. “NaNoWriMo tells beginning writers that it’s okay if you’re not perfect, because you’ve done something you’ve never done before. If you’re not a beginning writer, if you have done this before, you have to change your goals to reflect that.”

    This is EXACTLY what I’ve been doing the past two years. I am frankly not a novice, so I twist NaNo to my will and I use it as a tool.

    This year it seems to have worked!

    Nice post.

    • Using NaNoWriMo momentum to finish a WIP is brilliant, and I’m very happy to hear it worked well for you, even if you didn’t quite finish in November. I daresay OLL would approve.

  2. A nice read as usual. I agree wholeheartedly. NaNoWriMo can be a great tool, but you can’t allow it to dominate your life. The goal of NaNoWriMo is not to write 50,000 words. It is to write. Period. Last month wasn’t the right moment for me, but with 11 months of exercising left, hopefully I’ll be ready for it next year.

  3. Excellent post. Some of the arguments and their effects remind me of a situation in my intermediate fiction writing course.The professor told us that 99% of what we write is garbage (in less savory terms). While it may be true that you only keep a minimal amout of the words you actually write, his attitude ruined that semester. He expected garbage, and that’s what most of the class gave him. Only a handful of us invested anything into our work. The rest openly admitted that they just wrote whatever came to their minds the night before assignments were due. If NaNoWriMo is approached in a similarly flippant manner, you could end up with 50,000 worthless words. If you approach it with real goals and strive to achieve those goals, though, then every one of those words are worthwhile–even if you don’t keep those exact words for later drafts.

    • So true! It’s easy to forget how much our expectations can affect the final outcome. Goals are the best way to make every draft worthwhile, even if the plot itself crashes and burns. Thank you for the comment!

  4. Hm. Maybe that’s the reason why I crashed, burned and failed this year? I thought of just typing whatever came up in my mind, like a last second photo-finish thing but I realized that for me, I had to plan whatever I write out before I start typing away.

    Then again, when I heard that I had to type 50k worth of words, I had my hesitations as I never wrote anything more than 10k. *facepalm* So I guess you’re right, it’s the attitude that makes people (like me) balk at the sight of a 50k deadline by the end of the month. It’s a fault of mine that I -hopefully- have overcome.

    Mayhap I need to write ahead of the date? 🙂

    • Everyone writes differently, but personally, I cannot start writing anything without some sort of plan. An idea will suffice for something short. NaNoWriMo isn’t exactly short. In retrospect, I think I would have done better had I planned more before November.

      Even if you don’t agree with the goal of NaNoWriMo, there’s nothing stopping you from joining in and using the NaNoWriMomentum to accomplish whatever you would like. Be it fewer words, several short stories instead of a single novel, or something else entirely. As long as you don’t let fear stop you from writing.

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