The Rights and Wrongs of NaNoWriMo

Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Here it is, just two days from the start of NaNoWriMo, and I feel compelled to offer my annual advice concerning this November writing event. But first, for the uninitiated, a quick look at National Novel Writing Month:

National Novel Writing Month started twenty years ago and I suspect that in the beginning, it was just a fun writing challenge to give a group of coffee shop writers a way to get out of holiday preparations. Preparations that twenty years ago began—if you can believe it—on November 1st. “Sorry, hon, can’t put those lights up, got a novel to write!” Or “Oh, sweetie, I’d love to fix Thanksgiving dinner for your extended family of ninety, but this darn old novel is not gonna write itself!”

Fast forward to today, where thousands—thousands upon thousands—of writers from all over the world join together via the internet, challenging themselves to finish a 50,000 word novel before November 30th. There are virtual and actual writer meet-ups, lots of pep talks from famous writers, badges to be won, and products with the NaNoWriMo logo to be bought.

So here we are, writers, pondering or perhaps already planning, our NaNoWriMo. And here I am, throwing out my thoughts on what’s right and what’s wrong with this challenge:

What makes NaNoWriMo fun and incredibly helpful and right for a certain kind of writer is the community and the encouragement that one gets in participating. Accountability can be a strong motivator and there is nothing like a challenge (with bragging rights!) to get competitive juices flowing.

But that community can also be what makes it wrong. If you are the kind of writer that will get overly involved with the social side of NaNoWriMo, using all your time chatting and whatnot rather than writing and whatnot, then NaNoWriMo may not be a good fit for you.

Unless, the writing is secondary and you are looking at long last for community. Sign up right now if you want to meet (virtual or actual) writing buddies!

But if writing an actual novel is your primary aim in joining NaNoWriMo, we need to take a closer look at achieving that goal within this challenge.

Fifty thousand words is a lot of words, y’all, but it is not a typical adult novel. (If you’re writing a novel for middle grade or possibly even young adult, then whee! You’re done!) What is right about using NaNoWriMo is that it can get a writer who has a great concept and a good idea of where he or she wants to go with it, off and running, and even push him or her almost to the finish line of a novel. But a plan or outline prior to the challenge is really helpful. You’ll need 1,667 words per day to get ‘er done so this is where a plotter can shine whereas a pantser might write seven pages about the flowers in the park whilst working out what to do about the killer who was accidentally killed off 27,674 words ago.

Then again, pantser or plotter, both may indeed “win” the challenge. And here is what is wrong about NaNoWriMo: a writer is spending a lot of one’s precious working time to put words on a page but one can easily end up with a little—and by a little, I mean a lot—of drivel. So is it worth it?

Well, you might have a novel of sorts, not to mention that pretty legit-sounding excuse, at least for November, am I right?

(Or wrong? What do you think about NaNoWriMo?)

~Cathy C. Hall


Diane Martin said...

I always find it interesting to learn other people's thoughts about NaNoWriMo. I've participated in it 10 times and have eight first drafts because of it. (Two of the years, I was a "NaNo Rebel" and used that time to do complete re-writes.) I can say with full certainty that, if I hadn't done NaNoWriMo, I wouldn't have those novels. It is the annual push I need to get something written, and it works for me. As they say, "You can't edit a blank page." Good luck to all NaNo participants this year!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Thanks for weighing in , Diane! You are the ideal writer for NaNoWriMo and the proof is in your manuscripts!

I've done Nano maybe a half dozen times...though I don't usually try to "win" the challenge the way it's set up. I'll use it for a revision of an already completed ms or I'll use it to jump start a novel and get about 25,000 to 30,000 pretty good words.

Good luck to you, too!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I have been piddling around with my novel for a year plus. Piddling. Not really writing. NaNoWriMo would definitely push me to get something accomplished.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Cath! Last year, I participated in NaNo for the first time as a Rebel and wrote a sh*tty first draft of my memoir that was more like stream of consciousness diary-type rambling. I "won." Most of it was unusable, but something I needed to get out. I revised about 30k of that this year into tight prose. Then I took a memoir class and finally outlined my entire memoir, wrote a beat sheet using Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody (recommended), and created detailed chapter summaries. I'm prepared to rock NaNo this year. If anyone wants to buddy me, my pen name is Andrea Mackall.

I love the spirit and encouragement. I'm one of those writers who needs to be pushed and work well under pressure, so I'm always taking a workshop or participating in a group. NaNo is great because it's free and you have nothing to lose. I don't think any words ever go to waste. They are part of the process of discovery.

PS. Diane, ten times and eight first drafts--wow! Congrats! And you're SO right. You can't edit a blank page, and revising is the real writing.

Nicole Pyles said...

This is a perfect post for me! What can be a MAJOR distraction for me is the social element, which can also distract me on a day-to-day basis on Twitter. I have tried NaNoWriMo only once years and years ago. Okay maybe twice. Both fizzled out. I'm trying to be a NaNo rebel this year and allow myself to focus on five stories that need finishing and aim for 5 stories at 5k. Hopefully I can stick to it :) But this is the month that I allow myself to cheat and be noncommital.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sue, yes! Use Nano for some butt-in-chair writing time because obviously, you have an idea that won't leave you alone.

Ang, I always knew you'd get your life on the page and here you are with the memoir ready to revise. Writing a book--and making it a good book!--is a process, and NaNoWriMo has certainly been part of the process for lots and lots of writers. Good luck this year!

Nicole, I am a BIG proponent of using Nano for what you need so this sounds like a great strategy to me! Also, maybe use a timer whenever you're on social media? You'd be surprised how much stuff you'll skip when you know you only have ten minutes to feed your social soul. :-) Said the woman who just spent 45 minutes on Facebook...Hahahahahaa!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Okay. I signed up!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I love NaNoWriMo because when I do it, it (usually) gets me into the groove of writing. I write every day. I build those writing muscles. And I write like a wild Mustang--not thinking about where I'm going, just wheeling around from one page to another.

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