Well, it’s October, and you know what that means: yellow leaves, a chill in the air, and a growing buzz about NaNoWriMo.
If that just looked like a goofy jumble of letters and not a word, allow me to explain.
NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a yearly event where people from around the world dedicate themselves to writing 50,000 words of an original novel during the month of November. If you meet that goal, you’re considered to have “won” NaNoWriMo.
It’s part contest, part social event, part personal challenge.
It’s almost a rite of passage in the novel-writing world.
But is it the right thing for you?
Writers have a lot of opinions on NaNo. There are the optimists encouraging absolutely everyone, everywhere to give it a whirl. There are the skeptics who see it as a little gimmicky and not necessarily helpful. You’ll even run into a few utter snobs upset at the fact that newbies try writing a novel in a month, like it’s making a mockery of their slow-cooked literary perfection. (But let’s be real, you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life!)
So what gives? Is NaNoWriMo the best thing you could possibly do as a writer? Or should you let it pass?
As I’ve been writing for a long time, I finally decided last year to give NaNo a whirl. I won (meaning I wrote over 50,000 original words), and came away from the experience with a whole lot more of my book completed, access to some cool writer-sites and resources, and a lovely travel mug, gifted to me by my biggest fan (who happens to be my husband-lucky me).
While NaNo was certainly valuable to me as a writer, there were some real downsides to it as well. I liked the lessons it taught me, but I don’t like everything that happened to my manuscript because of it.
The truth is, I think NaNo is great for a lot of people. But I don’t think it’s necessarily for everybody. If you’re considering participating this year, whether for the first time or the tenth, here are some things to consider before you join. These are things that I wish I would have thought through, and if I choose to do it again, that I would want to consider before signing up again:
Truth #1: Your writing is going to suck
If you’re completely, totally new to NaNo (or are just plain new to writing!), perhaps the most important thing to understand is that during November, you’ll be fast-drafting.
Fast-drafting a book is where you write down your first draft as quickly as possible. No agonizing over word choice. No editing while you go. The words just come streaming into your head and you jot them down as they arrive.
Well, it’s great in that you make a lot of headway, and that you learn to silence your inner critic. It’s not great in that you need a firm resolve to edit after you’re done with NaNoWriMo.
When you fast-draft, you basically end up rewriting everything during the revision process. Almost all of your words will be scrapped and replaced with new and better ones. That’s okay.
For a lot of writers, the extra-awful first draft (because all first drafts are already awful) is worth it because the excitement of seeing the multitude of pages they’ve written is the motivation needed to know that they can do it. When you get all those words down and saved, suddenly the idea of finishing a novel seems a whole lot less outlandish. And who wouldn’t want that super-confident feeling after 30 days?
But your fast-draft is just that: a fast-draft, and nothing more.
I say all this because every year editors and publishing houses receive unsolicited NaNo manuscripts come December. As in, people fast-draft and then submit their unedited “book,” thinking that’s all that’s needed to win the favor of a publishing house.
Don’t do that. Ever.
Admit that first drafts suck, that at the end of NaNo your book will suck, and then commit to editing.
Truth #2: It really isn’t that hard
Some of you may want to slap me when I say I really didn’t think that writing just under 2,000 words a day was hard.
Granted, I am a person who can get very focused on her writing and punch out a few thousand words in a sitting, no problem.
Also, I don’t work overtime and am not in school and don’t have kids. Some of you do. And I do know that under 20% of entrants actually write over 50,000 words every NaNo, so it’s clearly not the easiest feat in the world.
But it’s not as impossible as you would think either.
For me, writing the average 1,667 words typically took an hour on a good day with no interruptions. Sometimes it’d be more like two hours. And sometimes I’d write a little here and a little there throughout the day to get the word count without having one solid block of writing time.
But the truth is, if you’re truly fast-drafting and aren’t scrutinizing every word or second-guessing yourself, it doesn’t have to be a giant time commitment.
Yes, some things do have to give during NaNo. I will never be one to get up an hour earlier to write (sleep is too precious for me). But I can sacrifice Downton Abbey for the month. And Facebook. And baking. And laundry (we all have our priorities).
An hour a day was very possible. Maybe not long-term, but for a month it was.
If you’re used to writing quite a lot, I honestly don’t think NaNo is something to feel anxious or nervous about. It really can be within your reach.
Truth #3: You can (and maybe should) set your own goals
All that being said, you may be one of those people in school full-time, working full-time, with a family and a dog and who knows what else on your plate.
Or you may be brand-new to writing and aren’t accustomed to the discipline of writing every day.
That’s okay! And that’s a case where it may be better to set your own personal goals for the month: a smaller goal you can start with that will help you feel more confident, not less.
While the basic idea of NaNo is to write 50,000 words, there are some people who get too hung up on the numbers and feel discouraged and put off from writing because they can’t meet that goal.
NaNoWriMo is a great tool, but it’s not something that should turn you off to writing. Adjust as needed, and enjoy the victory of writing 10,000 words, or a short story, or any other writing you’ve been meaning to do, however big or small.
Truth #4: It’s not suited to every writing style or every manuscript
Oh boy, did I ever learn this one the hard way.
Traditionally during NaNoWriMo, a writer is supposed to plan a new novel in October and then set out to draft it in November. You’re working on a brand-new project specifically planned and crafted to be written within a 30-day time frame.
I however, didn’t do that. I ignored the rules and registered as a “Rebel” to the program. And in my rebellious ways I brought to the challenge a novel that I had been working on and planning for over three years.
Yes, I added the 50,000 words. But…
I don’t know if I’ll use any of them.
I’ve written about this problematic WIP before, and entering it in NaNo may have been part of the problem. Why? Because it was a novel that was not designed to be fast-drafted.
I Am the North is complex and character-driven, and is one that I had been carefully planning and writing over the course of several years. Then comes NaNoWriMo. Without the slower pace to plan and develop as I went, (like I normally do) I just kept writing. And like a ship slowly getting off course, I finished up the month miles away from where I would have wanted in the storyline, and in a place where it would be really difficult to steer it back.
The reason NaNo didn’t work magic for me was that I already had a method of writing that worked well for me, but I tried to change it for NaNo, and the adapted methods didn’t work so well for my book.
I really think your NaNo project will be most successful if you design a project that’s meant to be fast-drafted, or if you’re working to develop a writing habit rather than disrupting one that already works for you.
Additionally, I think some genres lend themselves better to being NaNo projects books that are more plot-driven and action-packed may be better for a 30-day fast-draft than a slow, character-driven work that needs time to mature.
If you’re already on the right track with your writing habits, or your manuscript wants to be developed more slowly, then don’t fix what’s not broken.
But if you have a book that’s outlined and ready to be drafted and you just need some extra motivation to make it work, then by all means go for it!
Truth #5: Despite what they say, you probably won’t end the month with a finished novel
NaNo’s advertising tends to revolve around the idea that you’ll end the month with a finished novel.
And you won’t.
True, you may end up with a finished rough draft. But there’s still a long, long way to go with revisions and editing and the like before you’re anywhere close to done.
Further, if you’re looking to publish your book at any point, 50,000 words is a little on the short side for modern adult (and even YA) novels. To give a sense of how many words a novel is, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is pretty close to the NaNo goal at around 48,000 words. The first Harry Potter book is about 77,000 words. The Fault in Our Stars comes in at around 92,000, while Divergent and The Book Thief each total about 144,000 words.
Chances are your book won’t be done at 50,000 words, but even if it is, NaNo is just the beginning to the even longer road of revisions and edits.
Truth #6: It’s really about the camaraderie and fun
NaNoWriMo is a great teacher of discipline, and winning can be a great accomplishment. Several bestselling books began as NaNo projects. There is a lot of good that can come from it.
But for me, what I would miss most about not participating in NaNo is the community.
While I write year-round, there is something especially exciting about November and knowing that hundreds of thousands of people across the globe are celebrating and practicing writing at the same time. There’s an extra boost knowing that you’re not alone in your endeavors and that many others are experiencing the same ups and downs you are.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the fun.
One of my favorite pieces of advice on drafting comes from author Libba Bray:
“Have fun, for heaven’s sake! It’s not brain surgery. You won’t kill anyone if you choose the wrong words. You can just fix ’em later. Writing is power. You are in control of it. You are able to say whatever you need to say, long to say, must say. And that is an amazing feeling.”
So this November, enjoy the journey of writing.
Personally, I still haven’t decided if I’m in or out for 2018. I don’t currently have a book in the drafting phase, and I’m not sure I want to make one up from scratch for the event. At the same time, it was a lot of fun last year, and I would feel like I’m missing out if I’m not part of the celebration!
If you’re deciding to jump in, then cherish the company. Achieve whatever goal you set. And above all, let writing be a source of fun and joy.