Why I Love NaNoWriMo — and Why I Don’t Do It Anymore
Oh, October. As we head towards the end of the month, writers all over the internet are gearing up: November is National Novel Writing Month, AKA NaNoWriMo, and that means the time for planning is now. And as I do every year when my twitter list starts buzzing with Nano tweets, I spend a few minutes debating if I want to do it, sigh dramatically, and remind myself that no, much as I enjoy Nano, it is not really for me at this point.
And that’s the thing: I’ve done Nano successfully in the past (four times! 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2007), and I really genuinely enjoyed it, and got a lot out of it. But, well, I don’t do it anymore. So here’s my personal rundown on the good, the bad, and the painful.
The first time I did Nano was 2001 — only its third year in existence. There were no forums yet, no non-profit org, not even a word count validator. But even so, people had banded together to create mailing lists (the one I was on was a yahoo!group for people who did Nano and also blogged — there were only a couple dozen people on it because “blogging” was still a new-fangled idea in and of itself), and even tiny little meetups in major cities. So it wasn’t much, but there was a very small, burgeoning community. Plus I was a freshman in college, and I convinced my roommate to do it, too, and we told our whole hall and kept our wordcounts posted on the whiteboard on our door, and other hallmates left us encouraging messages every day.
So what I’m saying is, even in its infancy, Nano provided a built-in community, something writing often doesn’t have. That kind of support system is something I have learned is really key for me in getting things written — these days I have it in the form of my super rad writing group and a few other crit partners, but if I were just sitting in my living room with my laptop and no one to cheer me on, bounce ideas off, and hold me accountable, well… I might still be writing, but I’d also probably still be starting and abandoning tons of ideas and not really getting anywhere. Community makes a huge difference.
But the biggest thing I got out of Nano was making a real, serious habit of Butt In Chair, Project Open. Back in 2001, I had a giant fantasy project that I’d been working on sproadically for a few years. Writing was always a fun hobby for me, so it wasn’t like I never worked on it, but it came after classes, work, friends, activities, meals, sleeping, etc. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. But Nano got me in gear. Writing was a non-optional, daily activity. I set my computer to open my WIP when I turned it on, and basically never closed it. If there was nothing else I had to be doing, I was writing. And by November 30th, I was done.
And come December 1, my computer started up, Word opened, and … well, my Nano novel was done, so I opened up that fantasy project and got to work. Because 30 days of Butt In Chair, Project Open, had made it a habit — one that I essentially kept up with, writing almost daily for years, and it carried me through three more Nanos and three full trunk novels.
And yet, I’m not doing Nano this year and doubt I’ll do it again, because the truth is that for all the good habits it helped me build, Nano just no longer serves a purpose for me.
Nano is a very good way to learn how to write a messy draft, to shut off your inner editor and get words on the page. It’s a really good starting place for a beginner. But it’s not a great way to learn how to write good prose or a coherent story. The advantage of Nano is that it doesn’t give you time to stop and think; the disadvantage is that a novel written without any pause for thought is going to be … well, not good. And at a certain point I realized that I am actually quite good at writing those messy first drafts — in fact, that’s my favorite part of the writing process — but it’s all that other stuff, the stuff that makes a novel actually good, that I have trouble with. And Nano doesn’t help with that.
There are a few groups that try to do editing months to match Nano, but in my experience, editing doesn’t work like that. One reason Nano works is because it’s such a clear, concrete goal. Editing is a lot trickier. It’s everything from fixing awkward, flat prose to fixing giant plot problems. It’s a lot of staring into space while your subconscious figures out what isn’t working and how to make it work better. It’s moving things around, strengthening conflicts, giving characters better motivations, playing up what’s at stake. And it’s different for everyone, and every project.
It’s really hard to turn that into a themed month.
For me, buckling down on revisions was made harder by the attitude I’d picked up in Nano, too. Getting so many words out a day is addictive, but word count is not the sole measure of writerly productivity. It’s a great habit to get into, but when I was measuring success by a word count, that made forcing myself to stop, to rewrite and revise, to make my novel actually good, a lot more difficult. I find revising much harder than drafting, and not being able to point to look at a word count and say “this is what I’ve accomplished this week!” made me feel like I was, at best, flailing around — and when revisions weren’t going well, and I wasn’t producing any new words because I was focused on making existing words better, I felt like a failure.
That might just be me. But the fact of the matter is, as helpful and fun as Nano was back in the day, it’s not something that serves me anymore. Especially now that I’ve got a pretty rigid schedule — my writing time is a lot more limited, and I don’t want to spend it getting out mediocre words just for the sake of seeing a word count tick upwards.
And then there’s this: I physically can’t do Nano anymore. In the nearly eleven years since I moved to New York, I’ve had two bouts of debilitating wrist pain from RSI, muscle strain, and tendonitis. I did several months of physical therapy for the first bout, and massive pills that made me nauseated for the second. My wrists still ache sometimes, especially when I overuse them at the computer. Since the eight hours a day at my day job are non-negotiable, that means I have to be very careful about my writing, and crunching out nearly 2,000 words a day would leave me in serious pain.
Instead of writing daily these days, I set aside a couple of hours, a couple of days a week. I usually pace at about 5,000 words a week — well below what you need for Nano, but I’d rather take four months to write a decent draft without being in pain than one month to write a messy draft and hurt. I mean, spelling it out like that … duh.
So overall, I would never say that Nano is bad, and I would encourage anyone on the fence to give it a try. It really can be a ton of fun, and a great way to get started if you’re a new writer. It doesn’t serve me where I am in my writing journey anymore — but even though none of my four Nano novels were salvageable (though the 2007 one came pretty close! it was my last trunk novel before the draft that eventually became Bound by Blood and Sand), I don’t regret writing them at all.
This was originally posted on my blog a few years ago. I’m experimenting with Medium. Say hi! Hit the heart button! Ask me about Nano in the comments!