Writers: Don’t do NaNoWriMo. Please. Don’t do it.

broken typewriter

Let’s say you’re a writer. Perhaps you’re starting out for the very first time hoping to write that novel you’ve been dreaming about for a long time. Maybe you’ve had some writing experience but haven’t really taken the plunge. Today is October 16, and in a few weeks, on November 1, an event that is ostensibly custom-made for you will begin: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). As a writer myself, I have a simple piece of advice for you.

Don’t do it. Don’t do NaNoWriMo.

Before the writers in my audience go to their WordPress readers and unsubscribe my blog, before they unfollow me on Twitter or un-like all my articles, before they send a mob of peasants with torches and pitchforks to hunt me down for speaking this blasphemy, let me explain. Just hear me out.

I believe that NaNoWriMo is a net negative for new writers. I think it fosters inaccurate and misleading expectations of what it means to write a novel; I think its rules, process and philosophy generally thwart, rather than enhance, the creative process; and worst of all I think it has serious potential to suppress and discourage new talent in literature rather than draw it out. Someone who has a serious desire to write a novel and the gumption to succeed doesn’t need NaNoWriMo, and following its rules or grasping for its brass rings–blog badges, social network camaraderie, and the like–is, in my view, more likely to slow a writer down than make it more likely he or she will eventually produce a quality novel. Furthermore, with all the hype surrounding it on social media that’s designed to encourage its participants to success, its eye-popping failure rate of 80 to 85% means it’s making sausage of the overwhelming majority of well-meaning new writers who try it. This is not the way to encourage new writers, but it’s an excellent way to discourage them.

boston marathon

Would you try to run the Boston Marathon tomorrow if you had never gone jogging before today? Of course not. Yet this is pretty much what NaNoWriMo would have writers do.

The best piece I’ve ever seen on NaNoWriMo is this one, written in 2012 on Chris Brecheen’s writing blog. I won’t paraphrase it here, although many of its points are echoed in my own criticisms of the event. For what it’s worth, here they are.

NaNoWriMo emphasizes the wrong thing–daily word count–at the expense of almost everything else.

At its core, NaNoWriMo is about one thing: word count. All of its metrics are based on it. Its premise is that you “win” by writing a work of 50,000 words before midnight on November 30. If you start on November 1, this means you have to write an average of 1,667 words a day. Participants get “badges” that they can tweet and put on their blogs when they pass various milestones toward this goal. But that is the goal: 50,000 words in 30 days.

You’ll note, if you browse the NaNoWriMo webpages, that there are no badges for, say, coming up with a compelling character, or working out a satisfying plot twist, or communicating an emotional idea to a reader. Coming up with the perfect ending or figuring out a character’s motivation don’t result in badges or get writers on the little map that fills up day after day on the webpage showing participants’ progress. What is measured? Word count. Word count. Word count. That’s really all that matters.

In reality, word count is the least of a writer’s worries when coming up with a good novel. Really. It is. Yes, to write a novel you’ll have to get a lot of words on a lot of pages, eventually. But NaNo’s approach is like telling people the most important thing in building a house is to hammer 1,667 nails a day. There’s some vague sense of the requirement that the boards you’re hammering together actually do go together in some cohesive fashion, but this is treated as virtually an afterthought. Oh, yeah. Worry about what the house looks like–or if its doors are straight and its load-bearing walls are competently constructed–later. JUST HAMMER THOSE NAILS!

construction house

Would you try to build a house without a sound architectural plan? Of course not. So why would you try to write a novel without planning one?

Chris Baty, one of the chief architects of NaNo, is in fact openly dismissive of all of that other pesky stuff you need to write a novel–like a good plot. He wrote a book called No Plot? No Problem! and he describes it on his blog as “the NaNoWriMo Bible.” One of his blog entries, vaunted as a sacred text on the NaNo website, sneers at planning as “another excuse to put off novel writing.” Just hammer those nails, man. It’s the NAILS that matter!

NaNo confuses discipline with motivation.

Discipline is the mental wherewithal and self-control to sit down at my desk and write every day. Motivation is the reason why I do it. The two are not only not interchangeable, not even distant cousins; the concepts are utterly alien to one another. Discipline is easy. An armed guard shouting obscenities while holding the leash of a ravenous German shepherd will instill discipline in you, to do anything, in about 0.02 seconds. Ask any Marine drill sergeant. Motivation has to come from within. Discipline is easily understood. Motivation is often mysterious.

But NaNoWriMo has no place for such existential questions. Its wildly unrealistic and naive rules presume, as an underlying base assumption, that if you sit down and force yourself to write 1,667 words every day, motivation for doing so simply springs into being. or can be imposed externally by people on the NaNo forum and the #NaNoWriMo hashtag cheering you on. NaNoWriMo’s model forces discipline upon the writer, and that is one good thing that it does. If you don’t put 1,667 words on the page today, you don’t get the shiny badge to put on your blog. But motivation? That concept is too complex and primal to exist comfortably in NaNoWriMo-world. You’re presumed to have an ample measure of it, all the time, ready to respond to your command like water from a faucet. This is so far from reality as to dwell in the same fantasy milieu as unicorns, Santa Claus and the Republican alternative to Obamacare.

NaNo conceptualizes the process of writing as external to a writer’s life–rather than being an integral part of it.

In its admittedly well-intentioned quest to get writers to find time for writing amidst busy lives full of jobs, kids, holidays and other real-life distractions, NaNoWriMo unwittingly ignores the realities of the commitment it takes to write a novel. By insisting that writers run a grueling and unsustainable super-marathon in the month of November, NaNo underscores the erroneous assumption that writing a novel is something you do outside of your “normal life,” as if it’s an aberration, some external obligation whose time to discharge arrives on November 1 and is mercifully lifted 30 days later. This is the real disservice done to would-be novelists: reinforcing the illusion that writing is something extra, a special obligation detached from (air quotes) “normal” life, where in fact what it takes to write a novel is to make the writing of one part of your normal life–every day, every month, not just November, but all year-round.

antique typing

If you want to be a writer, you must do this every day. Not just in November. Every day. This must be part of your life.

Writers lead busy lives. Their lives, like anyone else’s, are full of jobs, kids, holidays, car repairs, aging parents, illness, money problems, exhaustion. A writer who can fit 15 minutes into her busy day, every single day, all year round, to write one paragraph–to write two sentences–of her novel every day is every bit as committed to writing her novel as someone who tries frantically to cram 4 extra hours and 1,667 words a day into November because, you know, you get the blog badge and get to boast on the #NaNoWriMo hashtag.

NaNo trivializes the writing process.

When it’s all about word count and nothing else–when things like passion, motivation, concept, compelling characters and heartfelt stories are glossed over as “excuses” you don’t need–when it is assumed that novels come from a writer’s fingers pounding a keyboard rather than his or her heart–the whole process of writing becomes cheapened and trivialized. NaNo not only has no qualms about sinking to the trivial level, it fetishizes it. Witness this post on the NaNo website about the things you should have in your “NaNo Emergency Kit.” What’s the number one thing?

coffee

Yes. Coffee. Never mind passion, which is far and away the number one thing you need to write a novel. Never mind a concept, a flame of a story that must get out of you, a statement you must make to the world. No. In NaNo-land, what you need is a coffee maker. The cliché is as vapid as it is insulting, and it reinforces the silly stereotypes that non-writers have of most writers. It also promotes the illusion that the most difficult part of writing a novel is the physical endurance of sitting there at your computer long enough to get it down on paper. NaNo belittles and trivializes the very process it purports to celebrate.

Publishers and industry professionals generally dislike NaNo.

I won’t dwell on this point, because Chris Brecheen covers it quite well in his article. Suffice it to say, publishers are deluged in December with worthless crap that people wrote in November thinking that this was how to write a novel–and we’re talking about the 15% who actually “won,” not the 85% who NaNo brands as losers for not even finishing. While some professional writers have endorsed NaNo, you’ll find a lot more who simply wish it would go away, if they are not (like me) actively against it. If NaNo really was minting legions of great new writers–even indies and self-published writers–wouldn’t the program have a much better reputation than it really does?

Writers do not need NaNo.

And here’s the good news for anyone who wants to write a novel: you can, and if you’re motivated enough, you will. You don’t need NaNoWriMo. You don’t need blog badges or coffee makers or stupid rules about 1,667 words a day, regardless of what the words are or what purpose they serve. You do need discipline, sure; but that will come and is hardly the place where you should start. Start with your passion. Start with a story, a setting, a concept, a character you can’t get out of your head and who utterly enchants you. A novel doesn’t come from your fingers. It comes from your heart. This is the truth, both simple and complicated, that NaNo is ill-equipped to acknowledge. The nonsense happening on the website next month has little to do with creativity. It has much more to do with hype and social connections. Creativity comes from you. You may not be its master, but you are its origin, its genesis. Few of us ever tame it, but getting it to sit still long enough to give you a novel–one that’s heartfelt, well-written, moving, inspiring–is within your power. Right now. Today, October 16. You don’t need to register on a website to do it.

monkey types

Technically speaking, a monkey could win NaNo, if it pounded the keyboard long enough. You are not a monkey.

You don’t need NaNo. Write your book according to your rules, your rhythms, what works for you. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. Writing never is. Nor should it be.

Don’t do NaNoWriMo. Just don’t do it. You’re a better writer than that. Trust me. You are.

The photo of the Boston Marathon is by Wikimedia Commons user Peter Farlow and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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32 Comments

    1. It mystifies me why NaNo is so popular–good social media marketing, I guess. I have several published novels, and *I* couldn’t “win” NaNo if I tried (and I have–I gave it a shot in 2009 and realized how constricting and unrealistic it was). The pace they suggest is completely unsustainable, and the one-month time frame discourages you from revising on the fly or changing course on a story once you’re committed. Both techniques are crucial to writing a good novel. NaNo is profoundly unrealistic about how novels actually get written.

  1. Thank you. You have just given me permission (I know….don’t say anything) NOT to do NaNo. I want to write. I do write. I’m in a big grown up writers group and everything – but I’m not a writer, not yet. I never finish anything and in my universe thats when I’ll shyly assume the writer tag. When I finish something. So, I am going to carry on picking away at my emerging story, shaky plot and all, but I won’t be doing NaNo. (Btw – I did 1800 words yesterday and “won” some chocolate and a thicker waistline)

    1. Fiona, I think you are a writer, but you certainly don’t need an overhyped event like NaNo to demonstrate it. Keep writing. Finish your story. You’ll get there! Best of luck to you.

  2. This article is the biggest piece of crap I ever read. You got everything wrong. NaNoWriMo is the best thing to happen to writers ever. “Nano conceptualizes the process of writing as external to a writer’s life “…dude what does that even mean? I think maybe you need to do some research and find out what NaNoWriMo is before you start bashing it!

    1. Thank you for expressing your opinion. I’m aware that NaNo has a lot of passionate defenders. I think I lay my argument out pretty clearly, among other things regarding the issue of how NaNo encourages thinking about writing as something unusual and above and beyond what a writer should be doing every day. I don’t think I need to restate it here. Since it sounds like you are definitely doing NaNo, I wish you the best of luck and hope that you wind up in the 15% elite of the writers who “win” NaNo and actually finish, instead of the 85%–the vast majority–who try, fail, get discouraged, and are excluded from the back-slapping, high-fiving club of “winners” with shiny blog badges.

      1. Uh, us participants are much more inclined to tell the people who didn’t make 50k how awesome they are for writing something, and encourage them to keep going in December now that they’re in the habit of writing daily… I know for a fact one of the MLs always fails, but somehow returns every year as staff. She must get something out of it.

        Frankly, 50k… it works out to around half an hour of writing a day for me. Then usually I spend another half hour going over what I just wrote to smooth it out into the full manuscript. I find it hard to believe that a lot of real writers don’t get their first drafts done in a month or three. The real timesink for me is editing. A draft done in a month is stinkin’ crap, basically a reallly long outline. I can’t believe there are actually people sending things straight to publishers. T_T I’ve spent about 2 years re-writing and editing the one NaNo novel I’ve done that I consider genuinely good… there’s not a single original word left now that I’m on draft 6-7, and that is how it should be. Maybe next year I’ll be satisfied with revision #8.

        I was writing daily BEFORE I found Nano (which I’ve done for 9 years now). Writing word counts that were probably in the 1000+ range. Someone who’s never written a word and just wants to try? You might turn out to be like my mom, and accidentally a 67k novel in a month the first time you ever write fiction… or…

        My best friend is a really good writer. Miles above most of the Nano crap. Yet she does it every year. Barely makes the word count, and then depressed, puts her half-finished manuscript away and talks about how awful it is, how just opening it makes her remember the negativity of the month. If she were to have written the same novel at one eighth of the speed, the finished first draft would have flawless writing but without the negativity of the competitive speed, the agony of rushing through writing she wants to meticulously craft. As far as I’m concerned, for a writer like her, even though like me–“off season” she writes nearly daily with me–Nanowrimo is a bad choice. She doesn’t write off-season by herself anymore. Only with me. She opens that manuscript and all she hears is the pressure of November. I regret that she found it. It tore a rift between the two of us for one month a year. She devolves into a repressed hole of agonized, forced writing. I open that manuscript and I hear the thrill of November, and I soar.

        My response to this would ultimately be: if you want to write a novel, start writing it. Find your own pace. I probably would’ve discovered I could easily write 5000 words in a day without NaNoWriMo.

        Much like fanfiction, Nanowrimo is practice for real writing.

  3. I agree with almost all your points. I know a couple of real writers take part. One refers to it as ‘cross training’ and another just uses it to ‘blow off writing steam’. I think if I know anything about writing it is that everybody approaches it differently. The NaNoWriMo way is I think unlikely to produce many good novels, but it my be a useful piece in the ‘becoming a writer puzzle’ for somebody — but probably not a very high fraction…

    1. Thanks. Yes, I also know a few (very few) writers who take part, and even they are reluctant to endorse its sillier aspects. One thing I do notice, however, is that the people who are very vocal in singing NaNo’s praises are almost always people who “won” in a previous year. You almost never hear from the people who “lost.” By the statistics I’ve seen, barely 15% of people actually “win.” I fear that there’s a tremendous amount of discouragement roiling around down in that unseen 85%, and the stats alone tell a potent story. If NaNo really was as great as its defenders claim, why isn’t (A) it much more successful than it is, and (B) held in much higher regard by established writers, publishers and industry professionals?

      1. Again, I agree. I guess the people who suffer are the ones with unrealistic expectations — and these are likely to be the inexperienced authors that are the target of the program. The cynic in me says if you need the NaNo scaffolding to get you to write then maybe you really want to be doing something else. I guess we can ask: How many of that 15% would not have written without NaNo? How many of the 85% were drawn in because of it and really just inflate the statistics and were never likely to write much, inside or outside NaNo, and how many have really been ‘turned off’? I doubt this can ever be backed out.

      2. Well said. It seems that most of the people with strong opinions pro-NaNo are the 15% who “won”–and who mostly don’t need it. Then again, my main argument is that the 85% who “lose” don’t need it either, and in fact would be better off finding their own style and their own means of discipline.

      3. Darren puts it very well – I’m pretty sure a lot of people are drawn in by the challenge but have no real aspirations of being writers.
        I’m thinking you, Sean, are waaayy too focused on the percentages. For full disclosure: I’m doing NaNo right now, but I am not here to its cause. I, personally, am using it to put out the maximum amount of material I can withing this one month, even if’s not 50k, just so that I have something to build on afterwards. I am not stopping on the 30th of November and throwing my hands up in the air saying “OK, I’ve done it (or not) and I don’t have to write anymore. Let the Christmas madness begin!” No, this marathon is just a propeller to get me back into a groove that I’d lost in the past couple of years because… well, life.
        But the thing with percentages is that the 15% who “win” don’t necessarily go on to try and publish the Nano novel (properly edited or not), and the 85% who don’t make the deadline don’t necessarily give up, discouraged and despaired by their “failure”, but many of them may actually “not win” because they’ve found their own pace during NaNo and are marching on in it, regardless of what the badges on their blogs or whatever say at the end of the month. In short – the percentages you relentlessly quote mean absolutely nothing in the real world outside of NaNoWriMo, so I don’t get why you are letting it wind you up so tightly and are shoving it down everyone’s throat.
        I do agree with a lot of what you’ve said in your post, but there is so much hate seeping through your words, it’s hard to get over it and listen to the sensible part of you tirade. Throughout, I felt like you are berating me for wanting to try something, whatever it was; it felt very personal, even if I’m not a passionate “WriMo” – it would have been just the same if I were an aspiring scuba diver and you were telling me “Do NOT, for crying out loud, do not go on a diving course in Thailand! You can learn to dive just as well in the Mediterranian or even a pool!!!”. Yes, yes, Sean, I could, but does this mean I should not explore other options?
        What I mean to say is, you do have a point, but your POV is not universal and is only entirely true for yourself. This is your blog and I can’t tell you not to spew all the bile you want on here, but I can tell you, with my best intentions, it is useless to let something like this get under your skin and anger you this much! 🙂
        Wishing you well! 🙂

      4. Thanks for your comment. I think you’ve misunderstood my argument rather completely. It’s clearly not an attack on the people who participate in NaNo, nor am I “berating” anyone for doing it. My purpose is to critique the notion that NaNo is going to take an absolutely raw would-be author, who has the yen to write a novel but has never attempted it before, and transform her or him into a “novelist” with a finished product in 30 days. Is that not the central message of NaNo? Isn’t that what it purports to offer, and in fact why it exists?

        I find it interesting that virtually all of the defenses of NaNoWriMo come from people who implicitly or explicitly concede that this central premise is unrealistic or flat-out false. The argument usually comes down to, “Well, yes, but look at all of these other wonderful things about it…” Many defenses of NaNoWriMo come from writers who have already written and published books–in other words, from people who didn’t really need NaNoWriMo to begin with. Yet somehow, despite the concession that NaNo’s central premise is faulty, a critique of the program is often perceived as an attack on the people who try it, or worse, some perception that by criticizing NaNo you don’t want people to write novels or don’t want them to succeed as writers. As for “bile” and “shoving it down everyone’s throat,” well, that just doesn’t make any sense but I’m sorry you perceived it that way.

        A friend of mine on Twitter put it best recently. He said, “People ask me, as a novelist, what I think of NaNoWriMo. I tell them I think it’s a bunch of hype. Then they get pissed off, because they don’t want to hear that.” Sadly true.

      5. Hi again, and thanks for the reply. I might have been a bit harsh with the “shoving it down our throats” bit, I admit, but there was a build-up moment that got to me, but didn’t mean you were attacking the world at large 🙂 But that’s the thing, different people perceive things differently. With that in mind, I completely agree that “the notion that NaNo is going to take an absolutely raw would-be author, who has the yen to write a novel but has never attempted it before, and transform her or him into a “novelist” with a finished product in 30 days” is an utterly ridiculous one. I guess where you and I disagree is a matter of semantics. You seem to focus on the literal side of this notion, and I tend to dismiss it – precisely because of its ridiculousness – and just take away the idea that you CAN write 50k in a month, and that in effect might (not will, but might) bring you closer to an actual novel. Simply put – it IS all about the word count, and that’s why I’m doing it – to get the raw material out of which I would later mould my novel. Anyone who actually thinks they’re coming out with a “finished product” at the end of this month is either stupid or… no, actually there is no “or”, so I’d still find it pointless to try and point that out to them. But kudos for the altruistic attempt to preserve the feelings of a few fragile may-be-writerly souls.

  4. Thanks for saying this. You’re definitely not the only one who isn’t a fan of NaNoWriMo. I can see where it could be a good experience for some writers, and I support friends who want to participate, but personally…It just doesn’t fit with my creative process. I hated having arbitrary deadlines and word count limits/goals imposed on me in high school and college; a few blog badges just aren’t enough of an incentive for me, now that I’m safely graduated and have the luxury of writing for my own enjoyment, to turn my writing into what feels like a miserable, grueling chore for a whole month.

    But then, I’m definitely more of a “let the juices flow when they’re ready to flow” kind of writer, and I’m well aware that other people have different practices and approaches when it comes to their writing. If NaNoWriMo is someone else’s cup of tea, more power to them! As long as they aren’t pressuring me into participating too, we’ll get along just fine.

    1. Thanks Carly! Obviously I’m not trying to stand in the way of whatever works for the way people write. My article is aimed at the large number of people who aren’t yet novelists who might be tempted to do NaNo, and who try only to find that it’s not for them, but the hype surrounding NaNo makes them feel as if they’ve failed somehow. As I said in reply to Darren, NaNo’s failure rate is extremely high, and it seems that so many of its defenders come from the 15% who “win” as opposed to those who can’t make the deadlines and word count goals work for them. The worst thing would be for those people to get discouraged and stop writing because of the negative impression that NaNo might leave them which is certainly not the only way to skin a cat.

  5. It’s the “Valentine’s Day” of the modern writing world: completely made up and utterly pointless. I have never done, and will likely never do, NaNoWriMo (I don’t even like the abbreviation). Could Cervantes have written “Don Quixote” in one month, while tweeting to his friends about it as he worked? Of course not. Why try to write a novel at break-neck speed? (unless you’re getting paid for it, like Jim Thompson in the old pulp-fiction days)… a first draft should be a solitary pursuit, or maybe something you share with an editor, or one beta-reader. NaNoWriMo has turned the act of writing into just another “look at me” social media gimmick. Skip it. Take your time and write a good book. Or, if you like to work that fast, set your own goal to write a book in one month — and keep it to yourself… we don’t need to “share” everything. Face it: no one cares about your stupid first draft, and if they say they do, they’re blowing smoke up your ass and counting on you to return the favor. Tune out the noise, get serious, and write your own book on your OWN schedule.

  6. Reblogged this on Thoughts from Author Adam Gainer and commented:
    Great analysis on how NaNoWriMo can damage a writer’s mindset on the craft, or ruin their passion all together.

    As stated, it’s not about how fast you put the nails in, and bang out a house that can be blown over by wind from the slightest bit of plot critique. It’s about the quality of the nails, their precision and function within the structure, and the overall appeal of the finished product.

    Once again, great job, Sean.

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