Why NaNoWriMo is a Terrible Idea, But I Keep Doing it Anyway
Images via Jordan Benton & Ketut Subiyanto
I’ve been a full-time author since February of 2013. I remember the day I quit my teaching job in the middle of the week. It was a Thursday. I walked outside the school no longer employed. I had no idea how I was going to make it work. The air smelled fresher, colors were brighter, and I remember the song that was playing on the radio as I drove away. I was quitting primarily because one of my sons was sick and needed full-time care. I was also quitting because I wanted to be a writer and nothing else. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve never regretted that choice a single day.
I survive by words. I write for my life. I have had to be as creative with finances as I have been with my actual writing. I wouldn’t have made it this far any other way.
I survived in part by my ability to write lots of words quickly and to other people’s liking. So, why would I hate National Novel Writing Month? It would seem right up my alley. The idea is to write 50,000 words in the month of November and/or finish a new novel. I need to write anyway, so why wouldn’t NaNoWriMo be a great idea?
I Hate Wordcounts
This is not unique to me, but my problem with wordcounts isn’t the norm among writers. I have a number of medical issues that come with medications that cause cognitive problems. One of the issues is difficulty with math. More than that, numbers wreak havoc in my head. I become fixated with patterns that aren’t there as I write down wordcount numbers.
Bringing it back to troubles more authors can relate to, tracking wordcounts over time inevitably discourages me. If I have one bad day that puts me behind for a week, I feel like I’m failing all week. NaNoWriMo can drag that feeling out for a whole month. If I stop to edit a long work, my wordcount drops off precipitously. I’m still doing writing work, but by the wordcount metric “I’m not doing anything.”
There is no way around wordcounts though. I'd never hit deadlines if I stayed unaware of how many days I needed to finish a novel and get it to the editor. So I do daily minimums. The lower the better. Once I pass those minimums, I stop tracking my writing for the day. I keep writing, but I’ve passed the minimum. When I start tomorrow, I’ll add 500 words and pass that goal. I have no idea how much I wrote three days ago. I don’t know if I’m having a good week or a bad one. I don’t know which days were my high output days or which ones were not. I have no comparisons — just today’s goals.
Tracking daily wordcounts and a running total for NaNoWriMo is the opposite of my process.
I Schedule My Writing and My Time Off
I use an organizational tool online called Trello. It is primarily a site for organizing teams and groups in shared projects. I do not use it as intended, though. The large categories are boards, the smaller categories in each board are lists, and the categories on each list are cards. You can add details, make comments, and attach files to the cards.
In the corporate setting, a board might be “video projects,” the lists might be each individual project, and the cards would be tasks to complete assigned to individual workers. You then track a project through until completion.
I’m using it wrong, but right for me. I’m using it like Post-It notes on a calendar. My board would be January 2021. Each of my lists is a day from the 1st through the 31st. Each of my cards is a task for that day. So, I’ll have “vampire novel” repeated on 31 lists instead of as a single project. I can move stuff around and reorganize my month.
As a side note, I’m using a board on Trello to organize and catalog all my trunk stories. I’m writing the submission histories of each one in the details and even attaching the stories to their cards so all my work is archived in one place, should I ever need it remotely. That may be a topic for another article.
The point is, as you are reading this, I can tell you what I plan to be writing on any given day as far out as February 2nd at this point. That’s probably insane, but it’s how I know what I need to work on in order to get things finished on time.
I schedule time off, too. At least two long weekends a month. Many writers fall off of writing and feel guilty every day they don’t get back to it. Some writers can’t get back in the grove of writing if they take time off. In November, my plan is to stop writing after November 20th and not start back again until December 1st. In December, I’m stopping around the 19th or 20th and not starting again until the New Year.
Many writers wouldn’t be able to start back up after that long of a break. Instead of burning out, I plan real breaks for myself. I know I’ve planned enough days to get everything done, so I don’t worry about it when I’m off. I don’t have to think about what I need to be writing or when because it is written out and I can let it go when I’m not working on it.
It’s not that NaNoWriMo prohibits any of this. I’m doing NaNo again this year even with my long November break planned. For authors who struggle to produce over a thousand words a day on a regular basis, planned days off don’t lend themselves to success in hitting 50,000 words in 30 days. NaNo is a consistent and relentless push for many authors who participate, if they want to succeed. Any day missing the mark, planned or not, makes the goal slip further and further out of reach.
NaNoWriMo is Not Meant to be Discouraging
NaNoWriMo is not meant to be discouraging, but for many writers, it is. National Novel Writing Month started out as a small grassroots challenge among a close group of authors to encourage each other to start and finish a novel. It grew because it is encouraging for many people, and we need to challenge ourselves in order to grow and achieve. NaNoWriMo has an official site you can join to track your writing, earn badges, buy merch, and buddy up with other authors globally or locally. In non-pandemic years, you can plan physical meet-ups to write together at restaurants, bookstores, libraries, cafes, etc. NaNoWriMo raises a great deal of money for charity as well. It is an inherently good part of the writing community.
For many individuals, it does develop into an unfortunate pattern. They start off strong, fall behind a little, have to work harder to catch up, fall behind again, fail to catch back up to pace, fall further behind, sometimes give up early, and feel they failed.
You could finish the novel on December 7th and it is still a completed novel. The all-or-nothing mindset of a deadline in a challenge often leads to a mental barrier where once it becomes mathematically impossible to finish the goal, it is hard to keep going at all. Why work so hard on the 17th of November if I know I’m just going to come up 10,000 or more words short anyway? I’m kind of tired. I’d rather go watch Netflix if I’m just going to fail. Obviously, this is the wrong way to approach this challenge, mentally. It is about developing a habit of writing consistently every day. However, by design, you either succeed or fail at your NaNo goal. That’s hard to get around. The next year, you can come back to the site and see the failures of previous years lined up back through time. We fall into patterns.
Trying to write through Thanksgiving isn’t always easy, either. I’m not going to dwell on that too much because every month has something that can get in the way of writing daily.
Even for people who succeed, there is often burnout. If you marathon wrote the last 5200 words to reach your goal on the last day, you may not get up on December 1st feeling refreshed and ready to write again. I know a few authors who went through extended dry spells following NaNo. I planned long breaks at the end of November and December on purpose.
We Need a National Editing Month
Many publishers shutdown submissions during and after November because they are tired of reading terrible NaNoWriMo novels. Powering through the first draft of a novel is only the beginning. Maybe it needs more than an even 50K words to finish the story. Writing at a breakneck pace probably means second or third drafts are needed. Maybe more drafts than that. We really need a national editing month where we work diligently on novels we completed in November. Making the novel good is another effort that comes after making it in the first place.
There are a few notable exceptions with NaNo novels. But the overwhelming opinion of the publishers who read many of these creations is that not enough work has been done in the rewriting, editing, and revision phases of the process.
Write your NaNo novel, but then take the time to improve it.
Why Do I Do This Anyway?
Good question. Sometimes, I do stupid things.
I like the community. Many of my author friends give it a shot each year. Even though I am loath to post wordcounts, I like encouraging others and being encouraged. There is real value in finding connection in a creative field that is generally solitary by nature.
I’m often writing that much in November already anyway. When most of my income was from ghostwriting, I was often writing 12,000 words a day on a regular basis. I can’t get anywhere near those numbers today for a variety of reasons, but between 1000 and 2000 is common for me.
In 2019, I was writing the three books of the young adult fantasy trilogy Maidens of Zombie Kingdom on a pretty tight schedule. I didn’t use the official site, but I played along with NaNo anyway and wrote more than one book, well past 50,000 words total for the month. I’d started in October and continued into December to finish those books.
In 2020, I did use the official NaNoWriMo site. I’m also developing Twitch as an author platform for myself, so I've decided to livestream my NaNo writing each day on a new novel called Rise Again, because NaNoWriMo is not crazy enough already. You can see me writing live on Twitch at Twitch.tv/JayWilburn or see writing videos on my YouTube channel: Captain Three Kidneys.
This novel will not be good when I'm done. It will not be ready. Not yet. I have it on my list of things to work on starting in late January. No telling when it will be ready after that.
If you know yourself as an author and you can keep the process in perspective, NaNoWriMo can be very rewarding. You are allowed to set a lower goal that might be more realistic for you. The ultimate goal behind the surface wordcount goal is to create a consistent habit. Regular writing and daily writing leads to better writing and finished work over time. Finishing a story, any story, is an achievement and encourages you to keep going.
There are a lot of reasons not to participate and that is the right choice for some authors. Challenging yourself can be good, and whether you hit the 50,000 word mark or not, every word you write is one step closer to a completed novel. Remember to edit a lot when you’re done and you’ll be fine.
Get Maidens of the Zombie Kingdom at Amazon
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