NaNoWriMo: the good and the bad

On the stroke of midnight, hundreds of thousands of people around the world will begin a quest: to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. For these people, November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo for short.

seeded_50000My experience of NaNoWriMo goes back to 2010. I ‘won’, which means that shortly before the end of November I passed the 50,000 word mark and completed my novel. Here’s my experience from that busy month of typing.

This is a bit of an exaggeration for a few reasons. Firstly, very few people would consider a novel to be 50,000 words. Unless you’re talking children’s or young adult fiction, 50k gets you a novella. And ‘completion’ only refers to a first draft. One could debate whether word count alone is all it takes to call something a first draft.

To accept the challenge, you sign up with all the other ‘WriMos’ at the official NaNoWriMo site. To complete the challenge, you need to average 1667 words a day and then submit your manuscript digitally to verify that you hit the target. No one else needs to ever read it and the reward is bragging rights and (in 2010) some printing offers and software discounts (including the incredible Scrivener). It’s simple to get started and there are loads of forums and blogs to help you through it.

I didn’t outline my story. I had a rough idea what would happen and dived straight in. This might seem rash considering the time limit, but NaNoWriMo’s co-founder Chris Baty documented a similar approach in his book No Plot? No Problem! (buy No Plot? No Problem on Amazon) and the art of ‘pantsing’ – writing by the seat of your pants – is a common tactic among WriMos. Some, aiming for word count over a cohesive story, just go wherever their fingers take them as they type. So-called ‘plot bunnies’ can appear and guide their stories off on strange new tangents.

So, while numerous books including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants have started life during NaNoWriMo and some participants aim to spawn a work worthy of a film deal, others just write for the sake of writing. I was somewhere in between.

The main pro of NaNoWriMo is that it gets you over any fear of word count. It’s also not bad for making you write; 50,000 words in a month takes discipline. But it doesn’t require talent and 50,000 words later you can end up with a load of drivel. While I like to believe there are redeemable ideas in my story, I was churning out over 1,000 words an hour near the end. My stream of consciousness lacked finesse to say the least. Also, if you finish your story at 35,000 words, you need to keep going. Scenes become longer. Bloated sentences are an advantage. Exposition and flashback become a necessary diversion. By the end of the month, you can end up with a story that is way below the potential of what you can write, which could be very off-putting.

I enjoyed my experience, but I can’t say I was satisfied by the output. If you care about your writing and want to try NaNoWriMo, I would recommend a few things:

  1. If you’re someone who likes outlines, start with one. The rules of the challenge allow you to outline before you start your draft on the 1st November.
  2. I’m not sure I’d use the month to bring a pet project to life. You might be frustrated by the lack of care you give it
  3. Write a story that you know will take at least 50,000 words to tell. The rules of the challenge don’t require you to finish your draft, just hit the word count
  4. Some WriMos use tricks like banning contractions to up their word count. Remember you’re doing this for personal satisfaction not to compete with other people. Write on your terms
  5. Don’t worry too much if you fail as long as you’ve advanced your writing. If you write 25,000 usable words in a month, you may find that your personal achievement is just as great as someone who’s written 50,000 of randomness just to take part

About Matthew

Matt likes writing, fancy chairs and procrastination.

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