NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Better

Emails are flying, ideas are churning, and thought bunnies are perking up their ears, It is almost time for National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – to get underway.  A project to help writers finish a 50,000 word “novel” in one month, NaNoWriMo has a dual reputation. It’s a motivating push to glory for hobbyists and new writers. It’s an eye-rolling exercise in bad habits to most professional writers, editors and publishers. As professional in the craft who also wants to encourage new writers I find myself somewhere in the middle when it comes to NaNoWriMo. Instead of making judgments about the project as a whole, I decided to present all sides of the issue and let the writer decide. After all, nothing is all good or all bad.

Except for people who use "irregardless" - they are ALL bad.

Except for people who use “irregardless” – they are ALL bad.

The Good

There are a number of things NaNoWriMo gets right in its presentation and structure. Some of the best things about the project:

It motivates people to write.  Writing is something a lot of people want to do. It’s not always something those people actually get done.  By trumpeting the motto “Writers write,” NaNoWriMo gets the dreamers off of their clouds and puts the keyboard under their fingers.

It encourages people to drop their inner critic. One of the rules of NaNoWriMo is that there should be no editing during the month. You’re just supposed to sit down and write with abandon. Turning off the part of brain that gets lost in perfectionism and starts picking apart the work like a vulture with fresh road kill is essential for being a writer.

It helps procrastinators and distracted folks focus on the job at hand. Professional writers operate on the BIC principle – Butt In Chair. By keeping word requirements in front of participants and giving them both a start and finish line, NaNoWriMo helps folks overcome the “I’ll do it later” syndrome.

Butt goes here.

Butt goes here.

It affirms and celebrates. From twitter feeds to small groups that meet and encourage, NaNoWriMo is a month of non-stop writing cheer leading. Quotes, tips and support make the craft of writing a little less lonely.

The Bad

You’re not writing a novel. A novel is larger than 50,000 words (which is a novella at best). A novel is an organized story with flow and meaning. A novel is researched, written, edited, re-written, proofread and put in a format. What you have at the end of NaNoWriMo is a first draft.

It discourages good writing techniques. With the emphasis on consistency and word count, the project discourages or outlaws important things like research, character development, plot outlines, pacing or planning.  NaNoWriMo advises writers to just sit down, type and “follow the thought bunnies” to flesh out your story. Pre-writing is just as important to the novel as post-writing. When you are not consciously exploring literary elements (foreshadowing, symbolism, Deep POV, etc.) you are not creatively writing as much as stringing words together.

Word count is meaningless. By focusing on the number of words, you are taking your eyes off the important things – (telling a good story, creating connection with a character, pacing, literary elements) and watching the number of words go up. If all you’re doing is filling the word requirement you’re typing a document, not writing a story.

It puts you in the wrong place. At the end of November, if you get that far (sources estimate only 15 to 20 percent of people actually get a 50,000 word document done) – the project says you have “won” and you are “finished.”  However, you’ve just completed a first draft. In the world of real writing – you are nowhere near finished.  Writing is a craft professionals do every day. We don’t just stop at the end of a month and say “well, I’m done.”  Writers keep going.

Writing: It's like eternity, with spell check.

Writing: It’s like eternity, with spell check.

 The Better – Ways to Make the Experience Work

Use good writing habits anyway.   It’s okay to break the guidelines. Do some pre-writing to get ready for the start. Do a lot of editing, re-writing and post-work when you are done before you even think of calling it a novel.

Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds has the best way of saying this I know.

“Take October. Name it “National Story Planning Month.” Whatever you’re going to do in November, you don’t have to go in blind… December then becomes “National Edit Your Shit Month.” Or, if you need a month away from it, maybe you come back to it in January — but the point is, always come back to it.”

From “25 Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo” by Chuck Wendig.

Don’t write for word counts. Write scenes. Don’t just say, “Well I hit 1650 words today, I’m done,” and walk out in the middle of a thought or dialogue. Make a list of scenes. The word count will vary day by day but your story will flow better than a stop/start type of narrative.

Do create a community of writers. One of the keys to NaNoWriMo is writers encouraging other writers. Meet friends online or in your city who are also working on the project and continue to work together after November to improve on your skills and polish your work.

Now that you’ve done a good job of introducing your butt to the chair – kept those two together. Keep writing. Investigate new skills and methods  Don’t just get involved in the practice of writing, take time to learn the craft. Writers write. They also learn.

Ultimately, NaNoWriMo isn’t a magical novelist maker machine (just add November and a dash of Twitter). But the project can make a difference in your work when you realize that its benefits are actually the opposite of its stated purpose. NaNoWriMo is not a really a program to help writers “finish.”  It is a program to help you begin.


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