I have to be honest, I was always on the fence with National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. Having worked as an editor and writer before the event became mainstream, I thought it odd that people needed one dedicated month to write a book. I thought, you either want to write a novel or you don’t. Why do you need an artificial deadline of 30 days? Then a writer friend did it and it sounded intriguing. It’s a way to avoid procrastination. Get what you’ve been thinking about done. Join a team, just do it, like a sporting event. You put yourself through a workout of creating a 50,000-word story to see if you can. So during 2014, I dove in.
I finished that book or “won” as the NaNoWriMo community puts it. A couple of years later, I did it again and “won.” Since then, I’ve edited both of these novels and they are finished. One even placed in a first novel prize contest. But I have to confess, both times the experience left me cold, in fact, a little depressed. While I made brief writerly friends during the process and the community was incredibly supportive, I ended up feeling empty. Here’s what I learned about why the event isn’t for me.
1. You Write Fast and Carelessly
I’m a writer. I love language. I love words. I love to revel in words, whether when reading them or writing them. I love living inside what they help me imagine. But because I had the pressure of writing a novel in 30 days, I often wrote weak sentences and lousy logical situations I wasn’t proud of. That didn’t propel me to go on. In fact, it made me cringe the entire time. I wasn’t able to revel in the imagination of words for a long enough, leisurely time. I felt bad about myself.
2. Afterward, I Had to Edit More Than I Otherwise Would Have
Because I wrote as fast as lightning, I wrote more than what Anne Lamott calls that “shitty first draft,” I wrote a “garbage draft.” I have since written two novellas and while those drafts took two or three months to write, they were cleaner and more finished. They had more care and thought in them earlier on. Because of that, they required fewer passes and less cutting and rewriting.
3. I Wasn’t Driven by Inspiration
During NaNoWriMo, I was driven by a deadline and though that may have led to some condensed creativity, it didn’t lead to those unique ideas, poetic turns of phrases, clever plot twists, snappy dialogue, and all else that brings layered texture to a great story. The language was mostly mechanical and the events were on the page. The characters weren’t especially alive or multidimensional, the setting wasn’t rich with meaning, the plot not fully fleshed out. Had I more time to think about it all, I would have written with more focused intention and joy.
4. Ideas Have No Time to Ferment
One thing I’ve learned about writing is beautiful writing takes time. We edit and create while driving in a car or showering or weeding the yard just as much as when the laptop’s open, but because you’re throwing words on paper during NaNoWriMo, there’s no in-between time to literally daydream about the story. You have way fewer, if any, of those “a-ha” moments where you realize how one action point fits into the whole plot or why a character should say something or even what the final sentence of the book should be.
5. It Encourages the Myth that “Everyone Has One Good Novel in Them”
Anyone who’s experienced at writing knows it’s incredibly difficult. It takes time to outline a great story and write it, which, of course, is usually more than 50,000 words. It takes long blocks of deep quiet concentration. It takes tenacity to revise over and over and over again, even when you’re sick of the story. It takes stamina to send your work out to the world and bounce back from constant rejection. For probably every 10 submissions I send out, I get one accepted. Writing is agonizing, solitary, psychologically-challenging work.
But NaNoWriMo’s main message makes it sound easy. Organizers say “the world needs your story” so why not take this opportunity to start sharing it with the world? Well, yes, but there’s a mountain of revision that comes after that month of the first draft, which is not often talked about. Agents have said they get flooded in December and January with half-baked NaNoWriMo novels that aren’t anywhere close to being ready. There’s this idea that once you finish the draft, the story will magically come together and people will magically want it. Experienced writers know this is not the case.
If You Want to Do It, Go for It, But Don’t Worry if You Don’t
I hate to sound like such a scrooge, but these are my true feelings. NaNoWriMo has become the “participation award” of the modern literary era. And some folks I know simply write the novels for that participation, for the fun, in which case, the event has fulfilled its purpose. Also, some novels have been published by traditional means to acclaim, which also means success. I just hope people go into the challenge with realistic expectations.
Moreso though, I hope people who feel guilty about not doing it know that you don’t have to join an entire country during one particular month of the year (which very inconveniently includes Thanksgiving and its associated travel/rest days by the way) to write a novel. It you have a story to write, know that you can write it any time of the year, at any writing rate, whenever you want. If it matters, you will anyway. And if it’s not the most pressing thing in your life, well, that’s okay too.
A couple of years ago, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). With focused vigor, I dove into writing a 50,000-word story. It was an intense, frustrating, and ultimately, rewarding journey. I got to live in my story for 30 days. Set in Paris, about a cool botanist, secretive and suspenseful, with plants at the book’s heart, I wrote the tale I wanted to read. But it wasn’t easy, and there were several things I could have done differently. Here’s what I learned about the process.
Last November, I “won” National Novel Writing Month by writing 50,000 words of a novel draft. But I still wasn’t satisfied with my protagonist’s name, a name which I’d used as a placeholder in my rush to finish. I knew what kind of person he was, I’d already written a character bio of him, but I didn’t have a strong name that matched his personality. So in early January I decided to change it. The hunt for a solid name that had rhythm, meaning, and suitability to the story began.
I combed baby name and ancestry sites for ideas. I came up with several first and last name combinations that I adored one day and dismissed the next. I did this on several occasions, taking notes on the various spellings of names, fiddling with last names as firsts, objects as names, etc. Each time I landed on a strong combination, I’d hope my fondness for the name would last for more than a day. It didn’t. Finally, I got frustrated. I knew what I needed to do. It was what I’d been trying to short cut around. I needed to write character bios for my protagonist’s parents.
I only wrote a few paragraphs on each one. But working out the mother’s background, her personality, her job, her interests, where she’d been born and raised, and how she’d met my protagonist’s father, opened the lock of frustration. I did the same with the father’s profile. I didn’t focus so much on what they looked like, but rather who they were in terms of personality. For instance, my protagonist is a botanist so his father is also a plantsman. Did he marry my protagonist’s mother because she was a naturalist or because she was the opposite, a city person? What was their ethnicity? Where did they live, and where did they meet? Are they conformist-types or trailblazers? Once I answered these kinds of questions (and often the answers were inside what I’d already written), I knew the kinds of names these two people would have named their son. There were still a handful of choices, but I was no longer overwhelmed. I was able to choose a name that I liked and still like. The last name came from their ancestral background, the first name from a personal taste born of ideas, experiences, and worldview. A reflection of them. Like couples in real life.
I believe what Henry James said, that character equals plot. The plot develops from a character’s personality and hence, choices. Now that I not only know my character’s personality, but also his parents’ personalities, I understand his thinking more clearly and can better maneuver him through his world. A world of revising 50,000 words.
When I’m pressed for time, I put tasks off until later. So I’ve decided to do what I do when I’m convinced I have no time to garden in my yard. I think, “I can’t weed right now, I’ve got to take make dinner. Besides, the garden is a mess. I need a bigger chunk of time on another day to clean it up.” I trick myself. I promise myself that I’m going to work for a small amount of time: 15 minutes, a half-hour, hour, etc. This gives me a hard stop in my head. I promise myself freedom. I give myself an out. “If I weed one-sixth of the garden and the rest is still a mess, that’s okay. I accomplished a goal.”
How It Works
The trick works. I always focus for the allotted time. More often than not, I go beyond the allotted time. A half-hour passes and I’m on a roll. I’m into it. I’m cleaning up the weeds and seeing bare dirt and I want push on. I want to make at least half the border look good, then I’ll go in. And that is what I do. I’m not going to say, “And then I cleaned up the entire border and I’m awesome!” I do just the secondary, slightly bigger goal and that’s it.
You’d be surprised what can be accomplished in an hour. I know this from working as a professional on the clock. Sometimes an entire garden can be cleaned up. Sometimes not. The point is to set the bar low and either reach it or go beyond it. The task transforms from being overwhelming to doable. In pieces, it’s downright manageable. And often, because it was simpler and more doable than you thought, you end up inspired to do more the next day.
Just Do Writing
Writing is different. You have to psychologically be in a quiet space. It’s harder to transition into as I talked about here. But I find, even if it’s opening a story I’ve already written and tweaking it, that if I try working on my writing for a short time, I accomplish goodness. Even it’s a little something. Then I have the words staying in my head. Later, I get new ideas. I get back into living in the story. I’m more apt to say to myself, “OK, you have an hour before lunch, let’s just dive in and start typing. See what happens.” It’s almost the National Novel Writing Month approach. Just do it! Don’t procrastinate because it won’t be good. Dive in and see what happens. I finally bought in to that approach this last November. What happened was I finished the draft of a bad clunky novel. But I accomplished that. Now my goal is to revise it whenever I have a free 15 minutes, half-hour, or hour.