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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.