NaNo or NoWay?

November means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo). You will notice a sharp decline in posted pictures of kittens and puppies, and see an increase of posts that say nothing more than “1400 words today! Woot!”

This is because a lot of writers are concentrating all their energy into this annual effort to crank out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

I am not and have not been a participant in NaNo, but there are authors on staff here who are regular participants. There are others who do not see the point, or even think NaNo is actually a blight on humanity. NaNo seems to be one of those love it or hate it things.

I have always been a NaNo skeptic. To me, it seems like a bad idea to encourage people to put word count over quality. Focusing on word count seems so last century. If it weren’t for outmoded print publishing standards, word count wouldn’t even be a concern. The introduction of modern publishing software and scalable fonts should have rendered the whole issue obsolete. Yet, we are stuck with the remnant effects.

Using the now arbitrary figure of 50,000 words as a the requisite minimum for a novel, NaNo participants are challenged to produce their first-draft novels within 30 days. Mechanically, it’s not a terribly daunting task. If you go at it for eight hours a day and don’t take any days off, you’ll need to produce an average of about 208 words an hour. Keeping that pace means you will type at a speed of between 3 and 4 words a minute. Even I type that fast. Usually.

NaNo has always looked to me like a brainchild of big ink. It makes sense to me that Penguin House Solutions, or whoever they are now, would be most interested in signing prospects who have proven themselves capable of cranking out a halfway decent novel in a month’s time. They need reliable mid-listers – workhorses who can churn out moderately successful titles to float the company while the superstar talent agonize over their blockbuster-in-progress.

Personally, I would rather bob for dog crap in a tub full of rusty razor blades than lift a finger to impress the publishing oligarchy. I know a lot of writers still fantasize about a publishing contract. I am just not one of them.

But according to Wikipedia, National Novel Writing Month was started in 1999 by a freelance writer named Chris Baty. That first year, there were only  21 participants. The rationale behind it?

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get people writing, no matter how bad the writing is, through the end of a first draft. The idea is that many people are scared to start writing because it won’t be any good, and if there’s a time to celebrate length, rather than quality, more people will write an entire first draft, which they can then proceed to edit if they wish.

My favorite part is that they can then proceed to edit if they wish. Okay, so I guess my big ink conspiracy senses were tingling for nothing. Still, I do find it interesting that NaNo’s own website takes pride in pointing out the number of NaNo participants who have secured traditional publishing contracts:

Since 2006, over 100 NaNoWriMo novels have been released by traditional publishing houses. Hundreds have found homes at smaller presses, countless more have been self-published, and many have been printed in novelists’ native languages.

Putting aside the little voice in my head that says, quacks like a duck, I do have a curiosity about the appeal the annual NaNo event holds for some writers and aspirants. Objectively, I would have to admit there may be some merit to the idea that the exercise may work to inculcate the the habit of writing every single day. It may encourage some authors to overcome their inner critics and get past blocks. For those with the self-discipline to take what will most likely be a train-wreck of a first draft and bend themselves to deep editing and re-writing, some few decent novels might even be produced. That is not to say they couldn’t have been produced without the impetus of NaNo.

But it seems to me on some level that the people who participate in NaNo share a trait with people who join a gym. They are people who derive benefit from group activities. People who join health clubs could work out at home, but they don’t. They only get it done (or maybe stick with it better) when they are among others who are doing the same thing, facing the same challenges, working toward the same goals.

Maybe some people just feel the need for more structure in their approach to writing, even if it is an artificial and arbitrary structure with no real consequences or rewards.

Haters will tell you NaNo is bad because there are enough bad books out there already and we don’t need more. That may be true, but there is a flaw in that reasoning. There are already too many good books too. Even if only good books existed, there would be too many for any one person to read in a lifetime. In fact, even if only one flawless book existed, I can assure you there would still be people who hadn’t read it.

I don’t hate NaNo. It’s just not for me. I don’t think it’s bad for literature, but I also don’t think it’s all that good for writers. You know what would be really good for writers? National Novel Reading Month.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

39 thoughts on “NaNo or NoWay?”

  1. I’m with you. I don’t hate it, but I’m not really a join the gym kind of guy (obviously.) I’ve actually tried it and failed miserably. Mainly because of all the time spent updating everyone as to my progress. Talk about a time waster.

    My issue isn’t writing … it’s finding the time to write. If I waited for one month out of the year, I’d only have one book out. Wait … I do only have one book out. Never mind.

  2. Thanks, Stephen. The first time I took part in NANO, I was ready to start a novel and thought I’d try it. I’m not a speedy writer, so I was pleasantly surprised with what I churned out. It took a year to edit and expand the novel, but it’s been one of my best sellers. (I’m using best in comparison to my other books.) I did it a second time with the same results. I already had a novel started with 15,000 words written this time, so didn’t participate. I probably will again – I enjoyed it.

  3. Sorry to disagree, Stephen. I’ve participated in Nano five times now and always enjoyed challenging myself in this way. Also for some writers who take on Nanowrimo its a very social process, and getting to know other writers is always a good thing imo. Getting to know other struggling writers, even better, I think. Also, Nano’s main site will also show you that there are ‘Rebels’ who take the challenge differently and there are graphic artists who create book covers and other encouraging non-verbal aids.

    One other point is that Nano’s official organization ‘Office of Lights and Letters’ is at work 365 days a year to encourage all writers, young and old to jump in and try their digits on a keyboard. And to me that’s very much worth supporting.

    1. I’m not sure we are in disagreement. I wrote about the social aspect of NaNo, and agree that works for some people. That kind of engagement is also available elsewhere, but people find the path that works for them.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

    2. While I agree with Stephen, I also agree with you Kierann. The larger point you make about the NaNo community and the relationships it encourages among writers seems to be a message I hear more and more frequently in the Indie cosmos. Nano is a crazy idea, but a worthwhile one because of the relationships it builds, the social network that emerges. Writers are readers, reviewers, book buyers. There’s the food chain. The good news for me is that I’m too busy writing eight hours a day to grind out 600 words. Damn you Georges Simenon! 😉

  4. Thanks for your view on this topic, Stephen. But, I disagree. NaNoWriMo is great for writers.

    This is my first year as a NaNoWriMo participant and it has spurred me to challenge myself to write more than just short stories (which I already know I can write) and reach for writing goals outside of my normal comfort zone.

    Not only is NaNoWriMo a great vehicle to expand one’s writing horizons, it has other merits as well. I bet you didn’t know that there is another facet to it for young writers and many schools partake in the November challenge to encourage their students to write. Many students that take the challenge become young authors just by participating in NaNo. Judging from the words I see coming from young people these days, they need all the help they can get.

    Personally, I know I will not have a complete novel finished in a month, but realistically that is not the draw or the purpose of this challenge. The end result will be a draft that can be edited later. Period. To think otherwise is setting oneself up for disappointment.

    For us yet-to-be published writers, I say Bravo! to NaNo!

    Quack, Quack 🙂

    1. LOL. Thanks for the quacks, Sherry. Dissenting viewpoints are always welcome here.

      I am sure a number of people benefit from NaNo and that a number of people enjoy NaNo. For some people who have participated, the experience was opposite. I know people from both camps.

      I am glad it works for you. We enjoy having you around. Let us know how you do. 🙂

  5. This is my third NaNo, and I agree, its not for everyone… it’s like the people who say “You have to write in a pristine area dedicated to writing with no distractions…” or “You must have a ritual to prepare yourself for writing.”

    That works for some people. Me? I work full time, I’m always on the go. I write where and when I can for as long as I can… I’ve written on paper, netbooks, tablets, desktops, index cards and paper napkins… I’ve done web publishing for fun and have 2 book projects in the works in addition to my NaNo project.

    I don’t usually worry about word count, but for one month I change things up so that in December, when I go back to the way I usually write, its fresh.

    Change can be good and I’m a tad competitive so word counts for one month are goals, but I’ve done this often enough to know… its not the end all be all… what really counts is writing.

    And as others have stated, its a community thing. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what our region does *after* NaNo.

  6. Thank goodness some folks have already posted the opposing view, EM. For a minute, I thought I was going to have to take you on single-handedly. 😀

    This is my fifth NaNo. I’ve also done CampNaNoWriMo once. Each time I’ve done it, I’ve “won” (and there are *too* prizes, although I admit the policing of said prizes leaves something to be desired…). And each time, I’ve published the result. Some people seem to think they’re okay. 😉

    I don’t really participate in NaNo, other than writing a book at the same time everybody else is. I don’t go to any local events and I don’t post in the forums. So for me, NaNo isn’t a group activity. I use it as a way to force myself to sit down at the computer and churn out a first draft.

    But now that I know the trick, I’m thinking this may be my last NaNo. November is turning into book-polishing-publishing-and-promotion-for-holiday-sales month for me. That’s plenty stressful enough without piling the writing of a first draft on top of it. 😉

    (By the way, I’ve found NaNo to be a great device for weeding out friends and acquaintances who say, “I want to write a book someday.” When I tell ’em about NaNo, if they hem and haw, I know they were never serious. But if their eyes light up, I tell ’em about IU, too. 😉 )

    1. I guess I should reiterate that I do not feel NaNo is completely without merit.

      Even so, there is always room for opposing views. Good thoughts. Thanks, Lynne. 🙂

    1. Well, there’s no penalty for trying something, and it might surprise you. Who knows? I think people who are curious about it should give it a try, but it’s not the only path. 🙂

  7. I did NaNoWriMo five times and it was fun. One NaNo draft became a published novel; I have a few more “on the shelf” waiting to be revised. It’s an interesting exercise that I’d recommend an aspiring author try at least once before completely dismissing. Meeting the word-quota took me between one and two hours a day, which was only a tad more than I was already writing. I may do it again but not in November. I’d pick a longer month without a holiday. March, perhaps.

  8. I must be a slow writer – I’d hate to feel that I had to write 1600+ words a day. I’m happy if I write a couple of pages a day(by hand, narrow ruled paper) which I reckon is only 500-700 words. Given my novels are usually between 90-100 thousand words, there is no way I’d be able to do one in a month anyhow.
    I like to write because I like to write, I don’t need the pressure of “I must do a certain number of words everyday” or for that matter, bring out a certain number of books every year. The latter is one downside of indie publishing – it seems like we are always being exhorted to produce multiple books per year to retain visibility.
    I quite liked the once a year release from traditional authors, it gave you something to look forward to, and time to explore other authors in between.

  9. Haven’t got the time. It would get in the way of my writing.
    However, I know friends who have done it – and spend the next 11 months not writing! Kinda defeats the purpose.

  10. I’ve never tried it, and don’t much go for the idea. We have enough pressure without adding to it. In any case, with programs like dictation it makes it much easier to write many more words in a jiffy—but writer beware of some of the funny (or not-so funny) typos you’ll encounter! And how, please tell me, will we be able to spend the same quality time reading IU articles etc if we’re spending al whole day meeting the quote

  11. (don’t throw tomatoes yet – or block me on social media – read to the end)

    In the past 12 months, I have completed one NaNo, two Camps and am currently doing a lukewarm attempt this November.

    At first, I liked some of the social aspects via the unofficial facebook communities (the selfies’ emotional meltdowns can be a bit much). However, other than the word-counter, I’ve never taken to what is offered on the official website (i.e. forums, emails, ‘cabins’) or local MLS (is that what they are called?). And the ‘prizes’ and merchandise have never appealed to me.

    The hype about quantity and ‘rules’, without a meaningful focus on craft and end-product, makes me feel a bit uncomfortable during the month of November. However, there are ways of getting what you need from NaNo, and you can simple ignore what gets in your way.

    Whilst I got some benefit from interacting on the unofficial NaNo sites, and met a couple of ‘serious’ writers, I quickly moved on to other social media platforms and on-line writers communities; ones (like IU) that give me the support and information I need without the personality and communication ‘issues’.

    Honestly, I’m not convinced that NaNo is that beneficial to aspiring writers, as it sets up bad habits and misconceptions of what writing/publishing is really about. The flood of postings on social media during November may even put some readers off buying indie published books.

    However, its a lot of fun for many (especially children and uni students, who seem to be the target audience). And it can be used as a kick in the pants to start a draft or finish a WIP.

    So, if it works for you – do it.
    If not, unplug during November – imagine how much you will get written or edited by going offline!

  12. November coincided with the beginning of a new project for me so I said I’d give it a try, only that I’m doing it my own way. I usually write 1,000 words per day, except for the weekends. For Nano, I’m making an effort to write during the weekends too, but this is the only difference from my usual writing schedule. I don’t participate in all the social activities and, although I’m registered on the official site, I won’t upload the manuscript at the end of the month since I obviously have no intention to reach 50k. If I write 35k, I’ll be perfectly happy, but 30k will do too. There’s plenty of time to finish the story in December. So this is my Nano.

  13. I must admit I’ve always been intrigued by Nano, but have never done it. As a practical matter, November doesn’t work for me. I have my son’s birthday (which usually involves a party planned by me) and my husband’s birthday and Thanksgiving, and to try to commit to 50,000 words in that month or 1,600 words a day is just setting myself up for failure.

    I think it’s a nice idea to stress the importance of finishing your novel, but doing it as a big group in November is just not the greatest time for me. I often find January to be a month I get a lot of writing done (no holidays and more inspiration with the onset of the new year). Given that my kid’s birthday isn’t going to change and Thanksgiving is unlikely to move, I doubt I’ll ever do Nanowrimo in November. But, I wish all those who participate the best of luck at it.

  14. I was already writing every day when I did my first Nano back in 2004, but I really appreciate the sense of freedom participating in Nano gives me. For one month my internal editor takes a holiday and I experiment with storylines and characters I probably wouldn’t consider during ‘serious’ writing. Strangely, those not-serious ideas have resulted in some interesting stories, or at least the germs of stories, so I see Nano as being a valuable tool in my writer’s toolbox.

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