The Pitfalls of NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo logo courtesy

All throughout the month of November, you'll likely see numerous articles on NaNoWriMo—or, National Novel Writing Month, during which aspiring and established authors alike attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. You'll see articles of encouragement, offering up various tips and tricks that will keep you on track and help you complete your goal in time. Words of wisdom, words of cheerleading, all with the aim of getting you to the finish line.

This isn't that kind of article.

Now, let me say this straight away—I have nothing whatsoever against NaNoWriMo. I think it's a great idea, and for some authors, it is the perfect kick-in-the-ass to transform their daydreams, rough sketches and outlines into a fully-formed manuscript. As every famous author will advise: the key to becoming a writer is, simply, to write, write, write. Every now and then we just need a little push, and NaNoWriMo provides that. 

But I would never make a blanket statement one way or another about the event—you MUST do NaNoWriMo, or you MUSN'T do it. Because here's the thing: every writer is different, and for some, participating in NaNoWriMo would be a very bad idea.

Let's get into the specifics of this argument, shall we?

Every writer is different, and for some, participating in NaNoWriMo would be a very bad idea.

Do The Math

NaNoWriMo is a bit of a numbers game, when you get right down to it. In order to meet the 50,000 word goal in time, you'd have to write approximately 1,667 words every single day. If you have few other commitments, or even if—to use a Thanksgiving metaphor—your plate is fairly full, but could withstand the weight of one more jellied cranberry slice... then 1,667 words a day is easily doable. 

But ask yourself—do you already write every single day? All the "experts" say you should, but does that really work out for you? Do you prefer to write five days a week, with Saturday and Sunday left to relax? That would mean instead of having 30 days to crank out your novel, you'd only have 22, at which point you'd have to write at least 2,273 words a day to meet your goal. Is this doable for you? 

How about if you normally only have time to write on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? That only gives you 14 days out of the 30 to write 50,000 words—two weeks, rather than a month, to create a first draft of a novel. In order to do that, you'd have to commit to 3,571 words on those three days you have the time to write. Will those slices of cranberry fit neatly on your plate, or will they cause the otherwise sturdy Chinet paper structure to buckle under the pressure?

Whatever the scenario, if the numbers don't add up and your plate will definitely become bloated with food you can't actually eat, then it's best to leave the cranberries in their saucer.

Check Your Schedule

Continuing on with this Thanksgiving metaphor, you can always make a little room on your plate for those cranberries, right? Maybe put back some of the stuffing or turkey, clear out some space, and slap on those delicious red jelly concoctions. Yes, you could definitely do that—just make sure that you can actually do that. Because let's face it, those cranberry slices are delicious (I really do like them), but they're not exactly nutritious. Turkey has protein, as does the broccoli n' cheese n' rice; the green beans are good for the digestive system; the sweet potato salad...well, I don't know what it has to offer, but it's made from something that grows out of the ground, so that's something, right?

Speaking more directly now, make sure whatever you cut from your normal life isn't going to be detrimental to your health and happiness. Take me for instance: if I were to participate in NaNoWriMo, I'd no doubt have to cut out some time with my fiancée, and we don't get to see each other that much as it is. That's just the nature of my schedule (and my writing style). Everything else on my plate can't be excised for financial/cleanliness reasons. Time with my lady is the only thing that's ostensibly expendable, but I hesitate to even use that word, because that time is important to our relationship and important to me and my mental health. Why would I want to monkey around with something that important?

What's Your Pace?

Okay, let's assume that you've done the math, and it holds up. Your schedule won't be altered in any negative way by NaNoWriMo, so you've decided to jump in and give it a try. It's time now for you to consider your normal workflow. When you sit down to write, do you place your fingers on the keys and just go straight into typing mode, full-on 85 miles per hour, the words gushing out of you like a geyser? Or do you sit and ruminate, staring out the window, at the blank walls, then peck out a sentence at a time—slow-and-steady-wins-the-race style? Somewhere in-between? If you're a more methodical or laborious writer like this—and more importantly, if this approach has proven successful for you, i.e., you're not struggling to finish your work—then ask yourself: can you realistically meet the daily word requirements, writing the way you do. Put another way, if you typically only write 1,000 words a day, can you feasibly double that during NaNoWriMo?

Here's the ultimate question you must ask yourself before committing to NaNoWriMo: will doing so make you hate writing?

Now of course, a change in pace can be a good thing. In fact, I'd say it's universally recommendable to step outside your comfort zone from time to time. And yet, there's that old saying that, despite being a bit of a cliché, still holds up: if it ain't broke, don't fix it—at least not to the the extreme of NaNoWriMo.

All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy

All other considerations aside, here's the ultimate question you must ask yourself before committing to NaNoWriMo: will doing so make you hate writing?

NaNoWriMo is meant to be fun. The only reward you will reap from participation is the satisfaction of completing your novel (and perhaps new friendships with fellow participants). There are no prizes, and there are no guarantees that anything will happen with your finished first draft once December hits. That's up to you, and you alone.

Look ahead and consider: will NaNoWriMo be fun for you, or will it just stress you out?

Now, of course, if you're serious about making a living as a writer, you can't completely view the act of writing in wholly recreational terms. It is work, and you do have to work at it. But it absolutely should be enjoyable too; otherwise, what's the point? You might as well work some soul-sucking cubicle job, if writing is ultimately no different.

I asked myself all of the above questions. Maybe a month or two ago, I was considering doing NaNoWriMo. Here and there I've been working on a book—in-between everything else I've got going on, including work on short stories—and I thought it might be a good way to kick the process into gear. Of course, after I considered the idea from every angle, I realized that it was not only impractical, but participating would absolutely suck the fun out of fiction writing, given the added time and the tight deadlines. 

I don't want that. Right now, fiction is the type of writing I look forward to. It's the itch I make time for between my day job and my column writing here at LitReactor. Yes, I make time for it, but that time is one hundred percent on my terms, and so it's nothing but joy when that time arrives.

Moreover, I'm actually enjoying the sporadic work on the novel. My main focus is short stories right now, and I honestly feel I'm growing as a writer by narrowing my scope this way. When time arrives to work on the novel, it's like this nice surprise—ooh, I have a short story cooling on the sill and all my columns are turned it...hell yeah, I'm going to work on my book! This process, this method, it's working out quite well for me—it isn't broken, so why would I fix it? 

Perhaps one day I might participate, but only if NaNoWriMo works for me, not against me.

What do you think? Is NaNoWriMo the right thing for you? Or are you still on the fence? Are you like me, and at this moment in time, NaNoWriMo is a bad, bad idea? Let us know in the comments section.

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Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb November 6, 2014 - 12:33pm

I didn't really know if it would work for me until I tried it, but one week in the biggest thing I'm getting from it is how it's made me go back to an approach I haven't tapped into for years: don't edit as I go and don't throw anything away even if I think I've just added an idea that's going nowhere.

I wrote like this when I first started, back when I just wrote fanfiction for a bit of a laugh, and I carried on with that approach for years until I started to take it seriously, then I wrote the way I do now: loads of the 'staring at blank walls' thing described above, followed by slow sentences and loads of editing as I go, hunting out the stuff I already know is rubbish. Now it looks like I've finally combined the two approaches: write something that might be a serious work one day but for the moment, have fun and just suck! It's actually fun to write garbage and free myself up from the idea of anything having to be correct or completely coherent. 

I think the wordcount goal is making me stretch certain scenes out for longer than they need to be just to make sure I can get the wordcount out of what's in my head, but I'd rather have too much than too little. I liked the comparison in another article where someone said it was like shoveling sand into a box from which one day castles might be made.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 6, 2014 - 6:45pm

Nano doesn't work for me, as I don't work like that. I see each novel I do as a collection of short stories about the same character. Thus I write 2,000 word one month, all like that for about fifteen months, then after throwing in an intermediary the work speaks for itself.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list November 7, 2014 - 10:33am

I've attempted NaNoWriMo three times and only finished it once. I was working two jobs and in my senior year of college, taking a full load, when I completed it. The challenge was my reward. I used it as a motivatonal tool. If you finish this essay, if you get through that reading, if you just buckle down then you can write tonight. However, I haven't managed to buy in like that again.

This year, November seemed to arrive without me noticing. I was going to attempt it this year, but my stack of grading is constantly growing and I didn't even realize it was November until three days into the month. In fact, I should be grading right now. That is a pitfall of being an English teacher though. I'm looking at this long weekend (I get four days off) and thinking I should use it to write, but then I look at my stack of grading and realize that a) my weekend won't be enjoyed and b) aside from comments and scores on student papers, nothing will be written.

Roger Kilbourne's picture
Roger Kilbourne from Massachusetts is reading The Word Exchange November 7, 2014 - 12:11pm

No mo NaNoWriMo fo me.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 7, 2014 - 3:19pm

I'm to budy working on a play adaption to care much about nano.

thejarquin's picture
thejarquin from USA November 7, 2014 - 10:18pm

I participated in and completed Nanowrimo last year for the first time.  The thing I liked about it was it forced me to treat writing as a job for the first time.  I had to sit down and write every day, whether I felt like it or not.  As writers we have no time clocks to punch and no deadlines we don't set ourselves.  (Unless you have already sold your book, of course.  In which case, you probably already treat writing as a job.)  We sit down to write when that least reliable of all things strikes us: inspiration.  

What I learned doing Nano was that if you actually make yourself sit down and do the work, more often than not inspiration will come look over your shoulder to see what you are working on.  I wrote 5 - 8 hours a day, every day, and without fail at some point during the day the words would start to flow like water.  And sometimes each word resisted me like the most stubborn weed in the garden.  But if I worked at it - just kept pulling those weeds - it would inevitably get easier.

 Nanowrimo also taught me how constant practice improves a skill.  At the beginning of the month it took 8 hours to get to my word count.  By the end it sometimes only took 4.  I had never before worked so quickly or achieved so much as a writer, and the discovery of my own capabilities was exhilarating.  

The third thing I got from Nano was something too often missing from our solitary lives as writers: a sense fo community.  It was incredibly heartening to know that thousands of other writers were slaving away right along with me.  Suddenly I wasn't just some loser alone with my laptop in a coffee shop.  I was one of a worldwide team of writers working harder than they had ever done in their lives, and supporting and encouraging each other along the way.

Was the book I produced my finest work?  No, of course not.  But it was a longer draft than I had produced in the entire year previous to Nano, and subsequent editing has made it readable.  

Nano, for me, wasn't about the words I wrote.  It was about pushing myself, and discovering just what my capabilities are as a writer, and just how much hard work and discipline it takes to discover and utilize those capabilities.  If you already know these things about yourself, then you have no need to try Nano.  But if you've never really stretched yourself to your limits, never really worked hard at being a writer, then I think you owe it to yourself to give Nano a try at least once.  You just might be surprised by what you learn.


Liam Hogan's picture
Liam Hogan from Earth is reading Hugo Nominations November 8, 2014 - 9:50am

I'm aiming to do 50,000 words in November, but not on a novel. Which you'll probably agree defeats the point. But I know that when I do tackle the novel it won't be this way, whereas encouraging me to write more and write more regularly, is got to be a plus.

Currently on target, and put some dents into some short story ideas that have been kicking around for a while. They're unedited, but they're in a good place for that process after November finishes.

Lets see if I can keep it up. Won't consider myself to have done a NaNoWriMo at the end of it, of course, but I'll be happy with a NaWriMo...

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David November 9, 2014 - 11:56pm

I love NaNoWriMo. I've already written 6 novels and for me it's the equivalent of spinning out in an empty parking lot and burning doughnuts. 

It blows out my mental pipe, and pushes me way out of my comfort zone. Normally I finish a novel in 11 or 12 weeks, so the push to crush the deadline healthy for me. I go through all of the stages of novel writing: Glee, determination, doubt, denial, depression, redemption, and relief, and it all happens in two weeks.

Look, you should be writing every day anyway. NaNoWriMo is just that annoying reminder that you're probablt not.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 10, 2014 - 7:20am

Maybe everyone should try it once?  I get why you'd not do it every year if it wasn't working, but it seems worth a go.