Saturday Afternoon, 34°F and foggy
Listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer—Tarkus
A confession: The first time I heard about NaNoWriMo I was skeptical. I had been fussing over a manuscript for more than a year and couldn’t imagine what anyone would get out of writing a novel in 30 days.
Then, on November 2, 2007, I made the irrational decision to give NaNo a shot. I won. I now understand that’s not the norm for first-time “WriMos” but I was already serious about writing and had a consistent writing habit.
However, “steaming pile” is not too harsh a description for the resulting manuscript. I disliked the protagonist. There was not enough tension. It was 100% seat of the pants and lacked a few important things, like a plot.
Yet it was worthwhile. Writing that first steaming pile of 50,000 words in 28 days gave me some useful results.
- The demanding NaNo word count goals cemented my daily writing discipline.
- I figured out how to keep my inner editor at bay until she was needed (by nailing her into a pine coffin).
- I learned to keep going without looking back, to trust the story to unfold, to unpack the characters’ experiences, avoid distractions, and trust myself to fix everything in revision.
NaNoWriMo taught me those lessons, and participating year after year hones those lessons and makes me a more creative, more productive and more confident writer year-round. But as a NaNo enthusiast, I get a lot of (typically, condescending) questions about why anyone would force themselves to write 50,000 words of fiction over 30 days when really, they should probably be decorating for the holidays like a rational person. I’m happy to answer those questions even if I’m not so thrilled with the manner in which they’re sometimes asked.
Even though NaNo isn’t until November, I’m thinking about it because I just opened a “cabin” for Camp NaNoWriMo this April. I didn’t know if I should because I’m working on my current novel manuscript during most of my free time anyway, but I decided setting a Camp NaNoWriMo goal couldn’t hurt. The questions I’m addressing below pertain more specifically to the traditional NaNoWriMo, which is a challenge to write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days during the month of November. I’ve completed that challenge every year since 2007.
Annoying Questions About NaNoWriMo
I don’t get the appeal of NaNoWriMo. Wouldn’t a serious writer be writing all the time, no matter what?
I am a serious writer and I do write all the time*, no matter what. This question is akin to asking a runner “What’s the the appeal of a marathon?” It’s a fair question until you add “Wouldn’t a serious runner be running all of the time, no matter what?” With that, it goes from an honest question to an insult by implying runners (or writers) can’t be serious if they choose to participate in a marathon.
Why does a made-up motivational writing marathon matter to you?
All marathons are “made up.” (If they’re not made up, they’re more accurately called “ordeals.”) In the case of NaNo, it’s a month-long holiday of writing that I get to celebrate with other writers. NaNo makes writing my top priority for thirty days. It comes ahead of laundry, of practicing guitar, of pretty much everything I’m obligated to do except for my job. (NaNo or not, I never work on my novels on the job. Yes, I know some writers do. If I’m ever that unserious about my career, I’ll resign.)
While I already have a daily fiction writing habit, NaNo’s word-count goals push me further. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how meeting word-count goals can motivate me to dig deeper into my creativity.
If you require an arbitrary motivational month in order to be productive as a writer, then how serious can you be about writing to begin with?
How serious can marathon runners be if they require a marathon to get running? The answer is anywhere from completely unserious to dedicated, heart and soul. The fact that one enters a marathon (writing, running or otherwise) says little about their seriousness either way. Every marathon is going to have some newbie runners who drop out before they complete the first quarter mile and some seasoned runners who just can’t finish this time. Likewise, every NaNoWriMo is going to have writers who drop out before they hit their first 10k words whether they’re new to writing fiction or are already bestselling authors.
It’s a mistake to dismiss NaNo participants as unserious writers incapable of writing without “arbitrary motivation” simply because they signed up for NaNo. Many, especially those who finish, are already seasoned writers with excellent daily writing habits. But if they’re not? Just as a running marathon can encourage both new and longtime runners to push their athleticism, this writing marathon exists to push writers further in their craft.
Attempting a marathon doesn’t make one a successful runner, but it can be used as a tool in the discipline of running. NaNo is simply an available tool in the discipline of writing.
As for seriousness, there is no scientific way to measure that. I consider myself a serious writer because I write for publication daily, have published a novel, and have completed several others. I have a degree in journalism and a two-decade career that calls for a tremendous amount of writing and editing. I leave judgments about my “seriousness” to my readers.
But why should participation in NaNo call into question one’s seriousness as a writer in the first place? The fact that there are out-of-shape newcomers entering marathons to push themselves into a running habit hardly negates the seriousness of marathon runners in general. It doesn’t even negate the seriousness of the newcomers. Some new marathoners will become serious athletes just as some first-time WriMos will become serious authors. Seriousness isn’t in the outcome, it’s in the commitment. And commitment is precisely what NaNo is all about.
I get wanting to turn your inner editor off and just write, but why do you need an excuse to do that?
I don’t need an excuse. However, I have a powerful internal editor who isn’t easily shut down (I blame journalism school coupled with decades of editing responsibility on the job). The tighter the deadline, the less time I have for my inner editor’s shenanigans and the more motivated I am to keep her nailed securely in her pine coffin. NaNoWriMo has helped me developed the discipline to keep her bound and gagged until I need her to help me edit.
To further torture our marathon metaphor, this is the same as asking “Why can’t runners run long distances the rest of the year? Why do they need a marathon as an excuse to run?” The answer is they don’t need an excuse, but committing to a marathon pushes them further in their chosen discipline.
Do you participate to feel like part of a social phenomenon?
Personally, no. For an introvert like me, writing is primarily a solitary endeavor. The vast majority of my NaNo writing is done alone in my room, or alone at the coffee shop, or on a couple of cross-country flights I have to make for work. (When NaNo coincides with travel, I don’t let that stop me). The local write-ins are productive, and our members are fun to work with, but socializing is the least important aspect of NaNo for me. However, if some more outgoing writers adore the social atmosphere, I don’t see a problem with that. Again, it says nothing about their seriousness as writers.
At the end of the day, how beneficial is it really?
NaNo is, without question, a case of “you get out of it as much as you put into it.” I get a lot out of it because I put a lot into it. Several novels that began during a NaNoWrimo have gone on to become bestsellers, including Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. A major chunk of my novel, State of Love & Trust, was developed during NaNo 2010. Likewise, my friend Kevin Craig’s novel Summer on Fire was initially the product of a NaNoWriMo. The answer to this question is, it has the potential to be extremely beneficial. I would argue much more beneficial than standing around questioning the motives of NaNoWriMo’s participants.
Isn’t it weak to use shortcuts for reaching a NaNo word count goal?
Some NaNo writers have tricks for improving their daily word count, like refusing to use contractions, giving their characters great long titles, or making macros of longwinded introductions which are deployed each time they enter a scene. Personally, I don’t do anything like this because for me that would be excess verbiage I’d need to edit out later. My go-to word goal booster is the character interview because it’s a quick way to get a lot of words written while helping me delve into characterization and motivation.
But I don’t care or judge if others use macros or skip contractions. They’re putting into NaNo what they want to get out of it, and the end result is entirely up to them.
The need to catch up on word count forces me to dig deeper into my creativity. For the novel I’m now editing, this need during NaNo pushed me to compose some epistolary pieces. I love the effect so much that I’ve elected to revise the entire manuscript into an epistolary novel. It’s a major improvement that I may not have stumbled across absent the “arbitrary” pressures of NaNoWriMo.
How many people’s NaNo novels are great steaming crap piles that they never get around to revising anyway?
How many people take years to compose novels that are great steaming crap piles that they never get around to revising anyway? How many people write 5,000, 15,000 or 25,000 words of a novel and then start over, and start over again, and never get through the middle, let alone reach the end? Whether someone creates a steaming crap pile they’ll never revise is none of my business, and that’s true whether they create it over 30 days or 3,000.
Some of us know that a steaming crap pile can be a load of rich fertilizer where a beautiful new story may sprout and blossom.
Wouldn’t it be easier to write at one’s own comfortable pace?
Wouldn’t it be easier to never run a marathon and just walk at one’s own comfortable pace? Sure. It’s easier to avoid challenging yourself. Easier is a choice each of us gets to make in everything we do. But easier isn’t always best, it’s rarely the most rewarding, and it may never result in improvement or growth, let alone mastery.
NaNo is a writing opportunity that will appeal to some writers (and yes, some non-writers). Many writers will never attempt NaNo, and that’s fine. Some writers will try NaNo and discover it doesn’t work for them. Other writers will try NaNo, fall in love with the challenge, and apply what they learn to their future writing.
In any case, absolutely no one is required to participate in NaNoWriMo. It’s entirely optional. Questions about what would be “easier” are moot.
I’ll leave with a question for my fellow WriMo’s: What do you get out of NaNoWriMo?
*As of this blog post, my current writing habit is 2-4 hours most weeknights and 4-8 hours each weekend day.
CC0 marathon image by SCAPIN via Pixabay