The Many Uses of NaNoWriMo (and What It’s Really Not Good For)

Quoth the raven, NaNo More! by Timekeeper Art
sketch by Julie Bickel

You wouldn’t think a call to “Hey, anybody who’s interested, let’s do something this month!” would be so controversial, but you know humans. So I thought I’d lend my own insight on why there might be such varied opinions on the legitimacy and worth of NaNoWriMo and its participants.

What makes my opinion qualified? Well, first I’d say I’m as least as qualified to have an opinion as most of those I’ve seen expressing opinions. ;-) But also, I have changed my views on NaNo over the years, so I feel I have a take from several angles.

I did a whole episode on this topic for To Write and Have Written, which you can see below, or read on for a text soapbox instead.

Is something like NaNoWriMo the best choice for everyone? Of course not; there is no single perfect best-for-everyone recipe in artistic endeavor. But I am first going to argue that NaNo is a good option for more people than is sometimes represented. And then we’ll talk about what it is not and shouldn’t be used for.

First, if you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo (though that is less likely if you have found yourself here at this post), it’s shorthand for National Novel Writing Month, in which creative writers take the month of November to write 50,000 words.

Let’s jump in. Who can benefit from participating in NaNoWriMo, and what can it do for us?

“I’ve always wanted to write.”

I can’t say how many times I’ve heard someone say a variation on, “I’ve always wanted to write, but…” What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t justify the time? What if no one likes it? What if I don’t like it? What if it’s so bad, a meteor strikes the earth?

The first benefit of NaNoWriMo is just the excuse to try it.

In the years since its start, NaNo has become more popular and recognized even in mainstream culture. Now you will find NaNo events at public libraries, coffeeshops, and more. In more typical years, there will be NaNo meetups in most cities, and the online community is vibrant and almost rabidly enthusiastic. If you ever wanted a safe, supportive place to get started, this is it.

Is it an accurate representation of the writing life? No. In normal life, I very rarely have someone ask how my word count is going as they pour my hot chocolate. But we don’t start new drivers on the interstate at night, either. Let people try something in a supportive and enthusiastic venue.

“I really want to focus on this particular project.”

NaNoWriMo offers a completely arbitrary set of parameters to help a creative person define projects and goals. Instead of “I’m going to work on this sometime this year,” we are suddenly faced with goals and deadlines. We have both motivation and external justification to focus on a project that may not be our current breadwinning task. Especially for non-professional writers, NaNo provides an excuse to zero in on something they might not otherwise dedicate much time to. And for professional writers, NaNo is an opportunity to do something different.

“I want to try something new.”

Because NaNo has parameters and deadlines, it’s useful for experimentation, because if it turns out to be terrible, I’ve lost only a month! And since I usually take years to finish novels, a month is an acceptable experiment.

A lot of writers, myself included, use NaNo as an opportunity to “test drive” a new idea, genre, POV, etc. It has a built-in stopping point, it’s a game so we can excuse something new, and the moral support can help while we try something less familiar.

“I want social support as I do this.”

Remember what I said about libraries and coffeeshops and bookstores and other places all cheering for NaNo participants? With thousands of people online rooting for one another, and daily pep talks appearing in your inbox or on demand at the official site, and themed art on thousands of ocial media profiles?

You will never have a more supportive time to try this.

Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, just me and the voices in my head. NaNoWriMo is the one month a year where society cheers publicly for my private writing. Let’s take advantage of that!

I’ve heard arguments that real writers don’t need cheerleading because they write without it. Okay, sure, but I don’t see those complainers showing up at the Boston Marathon to shout at the leaders that they’re not real runners because people are cheering for them, or that NBA players aren’t really enthusiasts because they have fans, or that doctors aren’t really dedicated to helping people if they receive praise. Good grief, we have such a twisted view of the arts.

And if you’re not setting a new record at the Boston Marathon, which is a pretty big deal? If you’re a new runner trying your first 5k, and your personal record is going to be finishing the stupid thing without having a heart attack? That is way more fun to do with people cheering along the course and giving you a medal and a banana at the end.

There’s nothing wrong with cheering for ourselves and each other. And if you’re new to this, by all means, take advantage of that contagious enthusiasm. Writing is hard enough without pretending that we can’t borrow energy when we need it.

Writing is good for us.

Hey, it’s 2020, and most of us have some feelings. We need catharsis. Writing is not just fun, it’s healthy, and this year more than ever.

I recently saw someone refer to NaNoWriMo as “free therapy” and I think that’s great. Because the nominal goal is word count, not topic or quality or anything else, you can do whatever you want, from setting your protagonist in an apocalypse to exploring a perfect beach vacation. Work out thorny issues or enjoy pure escapism. Your choice!

And as a behavior professional, I see a lot to like about NaNoWriMo participation:

  • we have many small goals to achieve (this scene, today’s word count, monthly word count), building a history of success and behavioral momentum
  • we can easily recover from a missed goal (not enough words today? tomorrow exists)
  • we get lots of positive feedback in a timely manner (watching our word count go up on our manuscripts) and socially (sharing with others who praise and cheer)

As long as I keep my goals appropriate to the task (“I’m going to write 500 words in this session,” not “I’m going to write a bestseller”), I can make NaNoWriMo a fantastic tool for teaching myself good habits.

“I want to learn new writing skills.”

One of the criticisms I hear most often about NaNoWriMo is that it encourages writers to be hacks. I want to emphasize that it can be quite the opposite.

There is an idea, cited frequently by opponents of NaNoWriMo, that fast writing is bad writing. This is, to put it bluntly, a dumb idea. Cookbooks are full of recipes which are fast and delicious. We are thrilled when a plumber can complete a repair in 10 minutes instead of an hour or when a typist can get more words in a minute — in fact, we call that a demonstration of skill.

Have you seen speed paints? Speed runs? Who says, “Wow, that guy can beat Super Mario in 90 minutes, what a terrible gamer he must be!”?

There are always times when the words come slowly. God knows I’ve suffered through that word drought on many occasions. Sometimes, stories are hard.

But if you always write slowly, and if it’s because you’re agonizing over each word, editing in your mind, wondering what other people will think, deleting to re-write — NaNoWriMo offers you an excellent exercise in duct-taping the inner editor and freeing yourself to work without interference.

Learning to write well is important. I’m not spending a lot of time on that here because I say it so often elsewhere. Craft matters. A lot.

But writing slowly is not necessarily writing well, and speed and skill are not linked in a zero-sum inversion. You can write well quickly, if you know how to write well, just as you can change a car’s gears quickly if you know how to shift or type your password quickly and accurately if you know how to type.

If you have been practicing how to write well, it’s time to learn how to write fast.

2 shots with a 9mm.

I was a very, very accurate shooter (see photo) but slow, and my fear of being less accurate kept me from being fast enough for competition. So I made being fast the goal. I did not allow myself to assess the groups for accuracy, just how fast I could empty a magazine. And as I practiced purely for speed, the accuracy started returning! Because I already knew how to be accurate, and that skill could come back once I’d acquired the new skill of speed. (In behavior modification, we often remind that while increasing one criterion — speed — we always relax others — such as accuracy. But neither is lost.)

People decide that they can’t be fast because they are afraid they won’t be good, or they’re afraid of comparison (usually with someone who doesn’t know or care), or they just need a way to feel More Dedicated To Their Art, or whatever. If you try to be fast and it turns out you’re not, who cares, you’ve lost nothing. If you try to be fast and you are, wow, you’ve really leveled up.

Let me be honest, I don’t like NaNoWriMo word sprints. I feel pressure. But that is not a bad thing to feel sometimes. Once in a NaNo word sprint, I fell into flow and produced a great action scene which made it into the final book with nary a word change. Sprinting, or even a daily word count, means I don’t have time to overthink and sabotage myself.

Also, learning to work under pressure is good! That’s a useful skill to have. Once an editor contacted me and said she could offer me a place in an anthology from which another author had to drop, but I had to have an original story written to theme in less than two weeks. This year I got an email reminding me of my deadline in three days for a story I owed (and had mis-recorded) to another anthology, and I just nodded like it was no big deal and then frantically came up with an idea and wrote it on time. It’s good to be able to produce on demand.

And I know you can. I honestly believe you can, when you stop interfering with yourself. Let yourself work.

And really, don’t be that arrogant jerk who pretends to identify quality purely by quantity, where if it did not take a long time then it’s terrible. Can you look at a paragraph and know how long it took the author to write it? You can’t. So stop pretending time is a valid metric for quality or enjoyment.

No risk!

Let’s say you do decide to try NaNoWriMo, and you sit down to write 50,000 words in a month, and then you don’t make it. Let’s say you don’t even make it halfway to goal, and maybe you complete only 20,000 words by November 30. What then?

No, seriously, what then? Where is the penalty?

There isn’t one.

The very worst thing is that you end November with 20,000 words more than you started with. There are no evil patrolling NaNo police who take away your previous work if you don’t get enough words or auto-publish your unedited words if they’re not good enough. There is literally no downside to trying this — unless you tell yourself that anything short of complete perfection is abject failure too awful to survive. (If that’s the case, you definitely need to try some sprints and deadlines to shut down that pessimistic inner voice.)

So there are a lot of benefits to trying this ridiculous hat trick. But NaNoWriMo is not a fairy-gifted tool to solve all writers’ problems, and there are some things it’s not good for and common mistakes made with it. We need to be honest about those, too.

It’s not a completed novel.

This is where I do take issue with a lot of the messaging used not only in the greater NaNoWriMo community but by official NaNoWriMo language itself. No, at the end of the month, you have not completed a novel. You have completed a rough draft.

I get it; we want to be celebratory and congratulatory. But it’s important to keep in mind that a first draft is not the end of the process. Writing is rewriting, as we like to say, and calling the completion of a first draft the completion of a novel undermines the value of rewriting.

It’s not a good time to submit a manuscript or self-publish.

Precisely because so many writers do not understand that a first draft is not a completed manuscript, many literary agents close their inboxes every December to avoid the deluge of NaNo projects.

I remember talking so someone, years ago, who was pleased that she’d finished her word count ahead of November 30 and so was able to self-publish her new novel even before the month ended.

You know everything I said about writing speed not indicating the quality of writing? That’s true. But it’s not true of editing; you’re going to need time to actually re-read and evaluate the thing. The bigger the work, the more time you’ll need. You simply cannot revise a novel-length first draft in a day, much less obtain a professional cover, etc.

Publishing your NaNoWriMo project at the end of November is a horror story, no matter what genre you wrote.

Even if you think your project is ready (and if you wrote it in November, it’s probably not), it will have to compete with a lot of traffic and will likely be lumped in with the other first drafts.

I have seen again and again writers posting angrily that their November and December submissions were rejected, often with accusations that the gatekeepers are prejudiced against NaNoWriMo or indie authors or whatever. No, the truth is, those agents were sent a rough draft. It doesn’t matter if you wrote that rough draft in 3 weeks or 3 years, it’s still a rough draft, and that’s not what should be sent to agents or editors. The problem is not how fast it was written, the problem is that it’s a rough draft.

NaNoWriMo is fantastic for getting your rough drafts off and running. It’s nothing about final drafts.

It’s not for playing the role.

All right, here’s where I might sound a little elitist at first glance, but I think if you read carefully, you’ll agree with me.

Sometimes people sign up for NaNoWriMo because they like the idea of being a writer more than they like writing. NaNo offers a venue where they can go through the motions and be addressed as a creator, but where — because there are no NaNo police — they don’t have to actually do the difficult writing part to bask in all the creative energy and enthusiasm. These people end NaNo with few new words.

But if we’re honest, this is not just a NaNoWriMo problem. We all know writers who read tweets about writing, watch videos about writing, talk with writers about writing, read blogs about writing — and all far more than actually writing.

This may be a lack of real interest, or it may be fear. A lot of times we procrastinate because we don’t want to make mistakes.

Let me reiterate: there is no quality bar for NaNoWriMo writing. Especially if you’re trying something new, it’s probably going to be rough. And no matter what you’re doing, it’s going to be a first draft, with all the issues a first draft naturally carries. I am not worried about the quality of product.

I do, however, think that writers should write.

I was invited to join a writing group some years ago. “It’s really fun,” she told me. “We meet and eat, and we talk about what TV shows we’re watching, and we hang out, and sometimes we might write a little.” She laughed.

I politely declined. I don’t want to join a writing group to talk about watching television.

I’m going to repeat that I suspect this is often rooted in fear of failure, and thus should be addressed from that angle (another topic). But that fear isn’t doing you or your fellow participants any good, and this particular coping mechanism solves nothing.

Again, you can participate in NaNoWriMo regardless of your final word count. There are many ways to be successful in NaNo! But don’t sign up just to sip fancy coffee and bask in the atmosphere of being A Writer; have more faith in yourself than that. Sign up to make stories.

I should note that this addresses a very small percentage of participants. But if fear is paralyzing your writing, let’s fix that.

It’s not for avoiding, denigrating, or mocking.

Okay, this is really the same thing — the speaker is afraid on some level. But this time it manifests as someone who denigrates NaNoWriMo or its participants out of that fear.

“NaNoWriMo isn’t for real authors” is a put-down I’ve heard repeatedly. Funny, I would have thought that, say, Brandon Sanderson, who has hit the NYT Bestseller list 15 times and sold several bazillionty books and talked publicly about NaNoWriMo, would count as a Real Author. Quite a few professional Real Authors participate each year. So unless you have an extremely agile definition for Real Authors, this is a silly protest.

What this protest usually reveals is that the speaker believes there is some status to be lost if other people also attempt what he’s doing. That there isn’t enough creativity to go around. Now look, I will freely admit there’s a difference between a first-time NaNo dabbler and an award-winning professional — but the professional loses nothing by the dabbler’s attempt, or by supporting it.

I also regularly hear arguments that NaNoWriMo is a stupid pursuit and the speaker has far too many important obligations to waste time on such a thing. I’ve addressed this before, but the short version is, You are not unique in having a life and responsibilities, and it’s rude to say that none of the other employed people or parents who are doing NaNo can possibly be good at their jobs or their parenting because they are doing NaNo.

Yes, there is a holiday in November. But you know, that holiday exists for all American NaNo participants, so if you just can’t even try because Thanksgiving will come at the end of the month — let’s be honest, it’s about something more than that one Thursday, isn’t it?

I think this is another case where it feels easier to attack other people’s goals than to risk not meeting your own.

Look, I am hosting two complete Thanksgiving dinners this year. During a pandemic. I know I’m going to need to be a little flexible, and I’m prepared to make those decisions as they come. But that’s no reason to say I shouldn’t even try, much less to say someone else is foolish for trying.

Stop bullying yourself and then others. Just set goals you feel comfortable with, and then have fun. We are doing this for fun, remember?

What will you do this year?

I haven’t yet decided what my NaNo project will be! but you can watch me get started on my word count during my November 3 charity livestream, on my Twitch channel. Details to come. Good luck with your own goals!

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