Tuesday, November 13, 2007


by Marcus Sakey

This being November, it's time again for a little exercise in insanity called NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month. To quote their website:

"National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly."

I've had a lot of people, especially students, ask what I think about NaNo, and it's this:

I think it's a terrible idea.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing inherently evil about it. The organizers are very upfront about the fact that since all that matters is output, you'll mostly be producing crap. However, they argue that you'll also produce some pieces of value, and that you'll overcome the mental block that's preventing you from writing a novel. So in theory, come December, you could take a break, look over what you've written, and attack it fresh, keeping the good parts and dumping the junk.

Except I don't believe it actually works that way. I think that unless you are a professional who is doing this on something of a lark, like my friend Joe Konrath, what you'll end up with is 50,000 nigh unusable words and no skill set to improve them.

Look at it this way: would you participate in National House Building Month if you had to live in the result? Of course not, because a house takes care to build. It takes time and skill and forethought and consideration. Could you slap something together in a month? Sure. And in theory, you could come back and fix the leaky roof and sinking basement later.

But the truth is that once you've laid a foundation, even a rotten one, it's hard to change. Moving walls and adding stories isn't easy. And if you're going to take the time to do that part right, why not take the time to do it properly in the first place?

Whenever authors talk about how difficult writing can be, people have an urge to say, "Yeah, but you could be digging ditches." And they're right--being a novelist is a very pleasant way to make a living. But I've dug ditches, and while I'd rather write novels, it's not because it's easier. More rewarding, definitely. But not easier.

If what you want is to spend a month toying with your creativity, then by all means, go with NaNo. It's a charge, I'm sure, and there's a terrific community around it, and when you're done, you'll have the joy of printing out something you've written that's two inches thick. All of which is groovy.

On the other hand, if your goal is to write a novel, then don't kid yourself. A month's worth of coffee and sore fingers ain't going to do it.

But hey, that's just my opinion. Anybody have good luck with NaNoWriMo?


Jude Hardin said...

It's been a while since I've read the rules, but I think you're allowed to have an outline and character sketches. It's only six and a half pages a day, so if you have all your ducks in a row I can see how you might be able to produce a worthwhile first draft in 30 days.

It's not the way I choose to write...but good luck to all the participants.

Pete said...

The NaNoWriMo novel I wrote in 2005 is now in its second draft, and my wife (a tough critic) actually likes it. So it's possible to get something worthwhile out of the experience, but only if you have the diligence to do some serious rewriting afterward. Not one of this year's participants will finish November with a book that anyone (not even their mothers) could stand to read - my novel, as of 11/30/05, was certainly no exception.

NaNoWriMo can get you moving toward becoming a serious writer, but it's only a very tiny first step.

Martel said...

I did NaNoWriMo unofficially in June of 2005. I started with nothing. No idea, no outline, no characters, etc. Just a blank Word document. I wrote 50,000 words in the allotted 30 days but of that, maybe 5,000 words were worth anything. The rest was crap and will never see the light of day unless someone prints it out after I die.

I wanted to try it to prove to myself that I could write something that was more than 2,000 words long (which at the point was my longest short story) and to see if I could meet the deadline. So from a production stand point, it was a good idea.

I thought about attempting it again this year, but as it is now the 14th and the document I started on November 1st only has about 1,500 words in it, I either have to write like a maniac or admit defeat. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Marcus Sakey said...

I can see the value in doing it if the point is what you did, Martel--using it to push yourself past a mental block. And there is some validity in learning that it's possible to just sit down and write. Gotta give both of those a thumbs up.

But I'm still not convinced. ;)

spyscribbler said...

I think it's fabulous. First, I saw a ton of high schoolers and college students. Yay for them! Maybe they won't become novelists, but everyone who takes music lessons doesn't become a musician. They DO become more appreciative music lovers and supporters, though.

NaNo is, most of all, a lesson on how to be a writer. First,they learn how to sit down and write every day. Secondly, they learn how to face all the mental demons inherent in writing a novel. (His book teaches nothing on craft, but he really GETS the mental game of being a writer; it's got some gems of advice in it!)

He pushes the "write crap" bit to an extreme, because a whole lot of people (well, me at least) get a bit nervous (okay, convinced) at some point that their WIP is the worst gawddamned thing ever written, and are tempted to give up.

But getting to the end is the hardest part for a beginning writer. How many writers do you know who have fifty beginnings and zero endings? And once they've finished enough novels to be experienced, they're gonna be fine.

Besides, 1600 words a day is not that ambitious for someone who wants to write professionally, imho.

No one expects to have a polished novel at the end. You have a first draft, or at the very least a clearer idea of your story. If you don't have the experience, like JA Konrath, to do it right, then you were probably going to make a mess of it anyway. (Maybe that's just me: my first story took me 8 months and it sure is an embarrassment, LOL.)

But let's take the worst case scenario, and it gets thousands of people writing bad novels who will only ever be amateurs, where's the harm? That's thousands of people writing novels as social "fun," thousands more supporters of the art of novel-writing.

Amen to that.

spyscribbler said...

Yikes, didn't mean to go on! I suppose you can guess I have no trouble turning out 50,000 words in a month ... *blush*

Marcus Sakey said...

A fair and elegant retort, Spy.

I certainly don't look down on people doing it, or think that the thing is evil. I'm just pretty dubious about it as a way to write a novel. As a creative exercise, sure. As a way to prove to yourself that you can reach the end, or as a venue to toy with characters, I can see. But a successful novel takes thought and structure and consideration, all the things NaNo explicitly asks you to put aside.

Mark Terry said...

I suspect its real value (if it has any) is it gets people to sit their ass in a chair and write every day, which, in my experience, is 90% of the battle.

I've never participated and it seems unlikely that I would. But this month I used it as something of a goad. I'd been very distracted by, well, life, and I was really dithering around on novel projects and jumping from project to project and thinking about NaMoWriMo convinced me to get back to my 5 pages a day on a single project that I've been doing for years.

Mark Terry said...

That is to say, for years I've been writing 5 pages a day. Not, for years I've been working on a single project.

Jeez, I are a profeshional righter.

Jeremy James said...

Glad to see someone with real talent agrees with me. I took a lot of heat for a similar post I did on Oct. 10th on my blog (www.authorjeremyjames.com).

Keep up the good work!

Daniel Hatadi said...

I think NaNo is about as useful as Karaoke. For most people, it's a fun way to get together and play at being a singer or a writer.

For a very few more dedicated types, I think it can be put to good use. Think of the singer in a band that wants to practice some stage craft in an environment that won't soil the band's reputation.

Of course, I'm saying all this because I'm still working on the first draft of a novel I wrote 30K of during last year's NaNo. And I'm glad I did, because it's a damn sight better than my previous effort, my trunk novel.

Dana Kaye said...

This is my second year doing Nano and what I've learned is that it really amounts to a very detailed outline. The first time I did Nano, I planned and plotted which helped me produce far less crap, in fact, I probably used about 50% of the 50k words. This year, I didn't plan anything, but it has given me a chance to get to know my characters and figure out my plot. Sometimes plot lines and twists work in the outline but once you get to the writing, you realize they don't. By churning out a very fast, very rough draft, it gives you the opportunity to see what works and what doesn't.

I've always been a fast writer but do tons of drafts. Maybe next year, my goal should be to take a year and write a first draft worthy of submission...or not.

Clare2e said...

It's late to post a comment on this thread, but I saw the invite for non-futile NaNo experiences. My first year, I finally finished a first draft of an MS that I continued editing afterwards. That MS eventually got me an agent who's trying to sell it. No luck yet, but the editors aren't complaining about the quality of the writing, just the premise. (Oops)

I'm not saying that's the usual, but NaNo works that way for me, as a spur to the ass, since I loathe doing first drafts and my writing really happens in the iterative editing. This year, I'm finishing a first draft of another WIP that I have an editor asking to see once it's done, a status only achieved months and months after the frenzy of NaNo's passed.

At worst, I figure any participants who simply revel in cranking out crap aren't reading less or less passionately as a result of the exercise. I'd like to hope they'll feel more engaged with fiction (both their own and other people's) because of it.

Martha O'Connor said...

I finished my really, really shitty first draft of my new novel in last year's NANO. (I ended up having to cut most of it, but it was stuff I had to write--a personal obsession of mine that I just had to get out of my system.) That said, I spent months and months and months rewriting it. Due to all the personal stuff going on with me, I didn't participate in NANO this year, but I think it's a good way for me to get words on the page.

However, I have no illusions that such a draft is anything more than a super-detailed, sentence-by-sentence outline.

Hope things are good with you. ~M.