Writers Wednesday: Why I’m Skipping NaNoWriMo This Year

National Novel Writing Month will kick off in less than two weeks, sending 400,000 aspiring authors, if last year is any gauge, into a month-long wordsmithing frenzy. The annual race purports to be a novice writer’s dream, dangling the promise of publication and literary bragging rights above our procrastination-loving selves. You, too, can have a finished novel at the end of just 30 days’ hard work! All you have to do is write at least 1,667 words per day, every day.

For a writer fast approaching the end of a year-long quest to draft a debut novel, with a very low word count to show for it still, NaNoWriMo should be a match made in heaven. We could all stand a little writing discipline, and NaNo, as it’s affectionately termed, is all about learning to make time to write regularly. At least, that’s what we’re told. Yet the more I think about signing up again this year, the more I realize that while NaNoWriMo might be a wonderful exercise for the right person, I should be sitting this one out.

red pen and ink
It’s Wednesday, writers! You know what that means.

NaNoWriMo is held at the wrong time of year. What cruel mental torturer decided it would be a fabulous idea to sit a bunch of hapless writers down and pester them to type like their little lives depended on it at the start of the holidays each year? November is smack dab in the middle of the Halloween-to-New Year’s rush. That’s when we’re all supposed to be baking up a storm and ordering Christmas gifts and decorating cheeseballs shaped like feathered farm animals, not plinking out 2,000 words daily. Besides, we don’t need any more excuses to give up all pretense of dietary control and dive into the leftover fun-sized candy in between coffee fill-ups.

Everybody is already doing it. How awesome to compete with one’s friends! Let’s all spark literary feuds on Twitter as we boast about our daily word counts! How droll. While the prospect of having others in the trenches with us–misery loves company, I hear–does carry a certain appeal, bear in mind that the fact that everyone else is writing hot now also means you will all quite possibly be overwhelming agents with your pitches around the same time later.

NaNoWriMo’s target isn’t novel length. The NaNoWriMo organization openly admits this in the FAQ section of its website. The official target is 50,000 words. The leadership doesn’t call it a novella, which is lovely, but in today’s publishing world, that’s what it is. Of course one could write more, but if you’re shooting for the minimum word count, it’s good to keep in mind that although you might close the month with 50,000 new words on your screen, you still won’t have a novel-sized product.

In short, you can “win” NaNoWriMo without actually writing an entire novel in a month. That’s what most people will do, if they even make it that far. If you follow the contest guidelines, you’ll have a head start on what could become a novel-length manuscript, but you’ll still have a long swamp to slog through.

Most of the writing will be crap. Certainly, we expect–or should expect–to edit our rough drafts and tweak our storylines. As I mentioned last week, however, many fiction writers are character-driven. They don’t do much to plan out their stories in advance, and NaNoWriMo itself doesn’t offer all that much in the way of structure. Plop folks down in front of a computer for a month-long drafting race, and their stories are likely to go off the rails at some point. A situation like that takes a lot more than a couple months’ worth of cursory editing and rewriting to fix.

An interesting study is NaNoWriMo’s own data on how many of its fiction writers get publish

ed. The contest began in 1999 and officially became a nonprofit in 2005. That means there are 10 years’ worth of publication figures under the organization’s current structure available. In 2015 alone, NaNoWriMo recruited 431,626 writers. So how many of these people got a book deal?

NaNo’s list of traditionally published books, going back 10 years, has 398 entries. Another 212 were self-published. Even if we assumed that some participants who eventually got book deals simply never credited NaNoWriMo with boosting part of their writing process, those numbers are depressingly low, averaging  61 NaNoWriMo participants who published any of their books per year of NaNoWriMo competition. Translation? Based on the 10-year publication average, last year’s participants’ success rate was one in 7,076.

Some agents hate it. Laura Miller’s takedown in Salon a few years ago is probably the most famous reference to agents’ rumored loathing of NaNo books, but she’s far from the only source on this subject. While I’m not opposed to NaNoWriMo in general (Miller’s take sounds positively disdainful at the thought of new novelists emerging from the woodwork), the warning signs are there for those of us willing to heed them.

Literary agent Amanda Luedeke objects to the structure of the challenge. Calling it a “crash diet for
those looking to get into some kind of healthy writing lifestyle,” she says NaNoWriMo sets writers up for failure. The project, she argues, has a way of discouraging writers who follow a slower process or simply have busier lives, while simultaneously encouraging would-be authors to engage in word dumps that are far from being in any sort of publishable state by the end of the month.

It suggests writers will enjoy success as long as they stick to the formula. If you buy this protein powder for three easy payments of $19.99, you can get a rocking bod, too. (Also, you will have to go to the gym and lift heavy things regularly, and skip the junk food, and drink this mysterious clear liquid called “water” a whole lot.)

At first glance, NaNoWriMo is forthcoming: Writers have to put in the work. We’re all on the honor system, but you don’t win by writing part of your story in advance, and you don’t win without hitting your word count goal. January and February, meanwhile, are billed as the “Now What?” months, in which writers are supposed to focus on editing their projects. So far, so good.

In practice, though, most people focus on NaNoWriMo’s big selling point: the prospect of a quick turnaround. The organization itself, meanwhile, does plenty to encourage this. “Write a novel in a month!” the organization’s home page touts.  “We don’t use the word ‘novella’ because it doesn’t seem to impress people the way ‘novel’ does,” the NaNoWriMo website notes. Right, because calling it a finished “novel” is an easier sell, if a rather deceptive one. 

It in

terferes with my writing process.  I’m no gym rat, and quality writing is not a track race. It’s a strategy game. One does not simply sit at a computer and type whatever comes to mind until time is called. Writing well requires deep thought. It demands we take breaks, brainstorm, research, travel, experience. It calls for regular pauses to brew a cup of hot tea and take notes, a walk through the woods, a trip to the shooting range. If we cannot pause and think, we cannot truly push ourselves.

NaNoWriMo has its place. As exercise, as challenge, as goal-metric, it is admirable. The contest attracts hundreds of thousands each year: people who read, people who write, people who want to write more. The publicity it brings to the craft of writing and the efforts it encourages to get young people involved are highly praiseworthy.

It’s not for me, though. Not this year.

What do you think? Will you be taking the NaNoWriMo challenge?

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