Columns > Published on November 2nd, 2011

Binge: My Love/Hate Relationship with NaNoWriMo

The very first NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) took place in July, 1999, in the San Francisco Bay area, consisting of a mere twenty-one participants.  The goal: hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.  Alas, the results were admittedly subpar and publication remained elusive, however, somewhere during the process an important discovery was made: it was fun.  Yes, writing with your friends and getting cracked out on power coffee and candy bars was actually a good time. 

Now fast-forward to the here and now—NaNoWriMo takes place annually in November.  The goal remains the same, but unlike the paltry participation level of its inaugural season, the project now boasts a six-figure volume of writers from around the globe looking to take on the challenge.  Obviously, the demand- the want to be an author- exists.  The numbers don’t lie.  But is NaNoWriMo a broken system?  Did it ever work in the first place?

I’ll start this off on a positive note: I love the idea of it.  The intentions of the project are in the right place, and I especially like the camaraderie aspect.  Writing has always been one of those endeavors often associated with a solitary lifestyle, and for the most part, that’s actually true.  Many of us will pen our novels in the corner of a one-bedroom apartment, yellowing the walls with Marlboro smoke.  So the very fact that NaNoWriMo attempts to make the task a bit more social should be a breath of fresh air for any scribe.

The program also introduces the one thing most aspiring authors lack: a deadline.  A sense of urgency.  If you’ve ever written a high school research paper on the same day it was due, then you already know what I’m talking about.  There’s something about that pressure, the threat of failure, that can be quite motivating.  Some people do their best work under duress, and it’s this area in which NaNoWriMo truly provides a service to writers: creating obligation in those who aren’t actually obligated.  The task and due date are real, but they’re also without consequence.  If you fail, you won’t be asked to give your advance back, you won’t be in breach of contract, but you also won’t have a completed manuscript.  That’s what I really love about the program.  For all those people who bitch and complain about never working on their novel, NaNoWriMo seems to be the proverbial fire lit under their ass that they’ve been waiting for.

Now for a couple of disheartening admissions right off the program’s website:  

-Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality.

-Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing.

Is it a good thing?  I’m suddenly reminded of that episode of Arrested Development where Michael is charged with the task of building a house in two weeks.  Technically, he gets it done, and manages to momentarily impress the shareholders.  It’s at the ribbon cutting ceremony when the house falls apart because there’s nothing built on the inside.  Essentially, this is what you’re going to have at the end of the month: a broken novel.  Messy, rushed, and virtually unreadable—by definition, that’s what “crap” is in the literary world.  Like Michael Bluth, it looks okay on the outside, but you’re not even close to finished.  This is where one could argue that NaNoWriMo actually sets up the author to fail. I’m sure many past participants could chime in with their two cents about how they met the 50,000-word mark but never went past it.  Typically, this is because the first draft is so undeniably horrid that an edit seems impossible.  “You can’t polish a turd,” the saying goes.

Of course, despite the degree of assumed difficulty, every system has its success stories—notably, this one:

The news from the publishing front was similarly bountiful. We were up to 13 manuscripts sold at that point, when we heard about Sara Gruen. Sara had been one of the first participants to sell her NaNoWriMo manuscript, and had since written another NaNoWriMo novel that had become a bestseller, Water For Elephants. When her new project went out for auction in the fall of '06, she landed a reported $5.2 million, two-book deal. How did she celebrate? She sat down and wrote another book for NaNoWriMo.

Don’t be misled.  It’s not as easy as they’re making it sound.  In fact, if you read the following interview with the author, you’ll find out that the amount of time she put into the novel was actually a year.

Please also note that she did four months of research beforehand.  Hopefully, you can see what I’m getting at here.  Yes, you can write a novel in the span of a month.  It’s possible.  We’ve established that.  However, you’re fooling yourself if you think it can be done with no preparation, not to mention a massive amount of backend editing.  Hitting the 50,000 word mark means that you’ve only scratched the surface of the novel writing process.  You’ve shit the lump of coal, but you’re looking at months of squeezing before you can call it a diamond. 

Again, I like the sense of urgency the program places on writers, but if the organization admits flat-out that your product is going to be absolute garbage, doesn’t that imply a defect in the system?  Is there not some better way to approach this that maintains the sense of a deadline but with better results?

Most agents, authors, and publishers will tell you that there are no short cuts in this game.  If there were, we’d all be taking them.  Granted, some authors are prolific by nature.  Stephen Graham Jones is gaining quite the reputation for writing novels faster than they can be printed, but not all of us are lucky enough to be wired this way.  NaNoWriMo might be the gateway to figuring out your own personal motivators and level of resolve, but it’s a far cry from a perfect system.  Unfortunately, most people find that out the hard way when they start reading the fruits of their labor on December 1st.

For those who plan on participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, I’m not going to discourage you by saying “don’t do it,” because I think it’s a singular experience that might yield the discovery you’ve been waiting for.  You could very well be a Sara Gruen or a Stephen Graham Jones.  I can’t discount that possibility.  However, keep in mind that there is a difference between being regimented and being unrealistic.  The people over at NaNoWriMo have certainly been forthcoming about keeping your expectations low, that it’s mostly for fun and the experience.  That brings us to the question: what is the right way?

Well, Monday through Friday the daily word-count comes in between 250 and 500.  Typically, mapping/outlining everything first makes it easier to get things down on paper later.  On the weekend the word-count goes up a little, as does the amount of editing.  Around a year to a year and half later, all distractions considered, a novel usually makes its way to the surface.  For me, that’s the right way.

It’s up to you to develop your own system and find your own motivation.  There is no “one size fits all” regiment.  It’s personal, so write the book only you can write and do it under your own terms.  If you can do that, this job will never seem like work.

About the author

Brandon Tietz is the author of Out of Touch and Good Sex, Great Prayers. His short stories have been widely published, appearing in Warmed and Bound, Amsterdamned If You Do, Spark (vol. II), and Burnt Tongues, the Chuck Palahniuk anthology. Visit him at www.brandontietz.com

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