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Monday, October 1, 2012

NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Really, Really Ugly

Should I participate in Nanowrimo?

As with anything, your mileage may vary.

Ah October.  The sweet smell of stockpiled peanut butter cups. The ridiculous ass early Christmas season commercialism.  The warm afterglow of the all-state champion cheerleader orgy that marked my birthday. And the beginning of the perennial Nano wars, where writers grab their "weapons" and spill endless ink and pixles in The Great Struggle(tm).

This is a writing blog, so naturally I have to weigh in on National Novel Writing Month and not a personal journal where I would reveal that the all-state champion cheerleader orgy this year bore a disappointing resemblance to cleaning linoleum on hands and knees for visiting family. In fact, my all-state champion orgies have had, pretty much as far back as I can remember, a regrettable lack of existence.

Chris, as a writer, would you recommend I participate in Nanowrimo?

Can I please not answer this. It makes people I respect and love very angry.

Hey Chris, should I do Nanowrimo?

Please don't make me say my thoughts. They are complicated and nuanced, and the fans of Nanowrimo are......um.....not always. At least not about Nano.

I have a question Chris. What do you think about Nano?

Please don't make me answer this. There's pluralism but folks won't get past that. They won't even read all the bullet points.

Chris, I'm a new writer, and I want to do Nano. What do you think.

Nuuurg.....come on. Can't you ask someone else?

Maybe before tens of thousands of writers, all calling each other "novelists," gather online I might get through to one or two of them.  Because honestly, no one who is sold on Nano is going to take any advice not to do it...from anyone....ever.

But maybe––just maybe––I can at least help people who are still waffling make an informed decision. And maybe nuclear test monkey fighter pilots led by Matthew Broderick might fly out my butt. (Did I just make a 28 year old pop culture reference about a terrible movie? Oh yes.) Perhaps this will be the year my mailbox doesn't become digitally stuffed with haterade because I didn't immediately call Nano the greatest thing since sliced bread.

I have friends who do Nano, and sometimes we discuss its merits and flaws, and I always tell them the same thing, and with facial expressions and body language they get that this is a NUANCED position for me. Most of them are the kind of writers who can handle Nano.They are experienced writers and they understand how Nano fits into a broader mosaic of writing. They know what they're getting into, and they can handle themselves. They've been writing for years. But they are not the average example of one of the 200,000 writers who sign up (and the even more who write alongside the official event).


Chris, should I participate in Nanowrimo?

Look over there. A unicorn!

Should I participate in Nanowrimo?

Sigh! I'm not getting out of this one am I?

Okay okay.

Look, if you have already done it and you know it works, you should do it. You should do things that you know work. If you have never done it before......especially if you are a new writer?

Yes yes, I know. That's not very nuanced of me.

I can see I'm not going to get through with just these answers, and it really is a little more complicated than just that, so let me go into more depth.  Besides, it's a good question that deserves a serious (if long) answer.

The Fucka Long Answer With More Nuance Than You Even Want:

I don't hate Nanowrimo to the very core of its Novembery being or hear it spoken and experience a knee jerk urge to grab my chainsaw/shotgun gunblade thing and hunt the "novelist" who are super proud of their very very very rough draft.  Honestly, it's not all bad. I can't say that there aren't some writers who can do something wonderful with that extra kick in the ass that comes from a sense of camaraderie. I also can't say that I don't know dozens of writers who swear by it, a few I would call serious, and at least one professional--this is in addition to hundreds of published authors on record as publishing their Nano books (which you can see right on their website). However....

"If you look at trending patterns, the more serious and experienced a writer is, the more likely it is that they are going to treat Nano with caution or ignore it."

Writing in Nanowrimo is an extraordinary task for which Hercules himself would pat you on the back and say "Dude!" in that way that conveys multiple levels of testosterone-brother admiration in just one syllable.  Diving into it unawares isn't much different than running a marathon without first training, and every year I see tens of thousands of people kick off on November 1st like they decided the New York Marathon was a brilliant first day on their fitness program because Couch to 5k is for fucking whimps and what could possibly go wrong?

And like jogging long distances, many athletes and especially long distance runners, would caution people from trying to suddenly run dozens of miles without first working up to it and/or understanding how a long distance run fits into any kind of workout routine or fitness program.

This analogy is particularly apt because running a marathon is a lot like writing 50,000 words in only thirty days--with a little more sweat and energy gels.  You can find people who do it.  Even people who poo-poo the idea that you shouldn't. They tell you they can "just do it" all up and down the internet. But then, you notice something as you shift to the opinions of people who KNOW what they're doing. Medical professionals warn against it, professional runners think it's really ill advised, and health and fitness sources list tons of bad things that can happen if you chose to ignore such advice.

Such advice is cheerfully ignored. And every year there are thousands of injuries because of it. And some of those injured never run again.

Just like running marathons with no training--just doing Nano without regular writing is a recipe for trouble. It's very difficult to actually pull off. It can cause (mental) injury. It can lead to a crushing sense of defeat. And what's worse, if you pull it off, you have to face a whole new set of challenges that are actually even more difficult.

But just because I don't think people should hop up and run marathons doesn't mean I'm against physical fitness.

Lemmie say that again because I've already started hearing from people who think my objection to Nano means I don't think they should even try--just because I don't think people should hop up and run marathons doesn't mean I'm against physical fitness.

I'm sure none of us will drop dead by the end of this.
Cause that never happens...right?
Already done Nano and love it? Enjoy.

Understand how speed drafts fit into the wide diaspora of writing process and you're okay with that? Enjoy.

Know that if you don't finish, you're still a writer? Enjoy.

However, even though I know Nano is a popular event among aspiring writers, I implore people who have never had any real experience writing a high word count every day not to participate or at least to lower the word count or in some other way practice self-care. I wish I could tell you they always listened. But we don't live in the magical sugar cane land of rainbow unicorn farts and candy corn mountains. Instead, Charlie gets his kidney cut out, and what I have is a collection of friends and acquaintances in various levels of existential crises about whether they're even really writers and how impossible writing can be. They burned out like shooting stars and slammed into the unforgiving wall of Nanowrimo.

Because of Nano, there are some people out there who AREN'T writers anymore.

In case that didn't land, let me say it again in bold:

Because of Nanowrimo, there are some people out there who AREN'T writers anymore. 

So when the argument rings kind of close to "it's better than not doing it," I have to be honest and say, "I'm not so sure about that."

I know a lot of writers--many are casual, amateur, unpaid, but are writers nonetheless. I know many professional writers and published authors. I know a couple of people you'd probably recognize if I tried to drop names (which I won't out of respect). The point is that--with unerring consistency (not universality, of course, but predictable consistency)--the more serious and professional and "real" a writer is about writing, the more predictably their opinion of Nanowrimo "red shifts" towards the negative or at least highly cautious. Obviously there are some starting writers who hate the idea of Nano, and there are some famous published authors who endorse it (even best sellers), but if you start lining everyone up, you notice that the pattern is pretty apparent.  The more serious and experienced a writer is, the more likely it is that they are not only going to think Nano isn't a good idea, but will even actually treat it with circumspection.  Even Stephen King--who has been called a billion nasty things, but never, EVER "too slow"--suggests taking three months to draft a novel.

If you want to do anything in a way that will make you hate it, try overdoing it all at once.  It works for ice cream, learning piano, exercise, and--surprisingly enough-- writing too.

You can even see this yourself if you're curious and/or don't want to take my word for it.  Google "Nanowrimo" and just start reading links. Most fans acknowledge the "bad points." Most naysayers acknowledge the benefits. Everyone seems to have a pretty good inventory of the pro/con report in their head; it's just a matter of which side of the scales they emphasize. Around page four or five, you'll notice that the content starts to shift from constant praise to the occasional criticism and then to the constant criticism. You will ALSO notice that--IN GENERAL--the quality of the writing goes up remarkably the more critical the writer is.

Why do so many good and experienced writers slam Nano? Why do so few like it. Maybe it has to do with a "culture" that the Nano event has created and what comes out of that culture. Maybe it has to do with how unbalanced the final cost/benefit analysis can be. Maybe those who've been doing this for decades have a few nuggets of wisdom that drop from their mouths during their gum-toothed rants about the good old days.

Maybe, and I know this often hurts young writers because they always think they're the exception to good advice (be it read prolifically, write daily, or kill your darlings), but maybe they know what they're talking about.

The Good--And For Fuck's Sake, YES, There is Good!!!

Nanowrimo has legions of fans.  (Some of them are quite rabid, and will be hunting me down for writing this. Fortunately the Writing About Writing compound has lots of secret passages and a hidden concrete bunker.) You will be in good company. You will have cheerleaders. (But not the hawt threesome kind, sadly.) You will have motivational speeches and articles. You will have your very own Rob Schneider saying "You can do it!" (And with where his career's been lately, you might even get the actual Rob Schneider.) If ever there was a moment to sit down and hammer out that novel that's been percolating in your head, this is arguably one of the better moments to begin.  This is half the impetus for getting MFA's and joining writing groups--to have encouragement.

Nano is a great time to establish good habits of daily writing.  If you have to establish that habit to come to the page even when you don't want to, what a better time than when there are thousands of people around you chanting "Write...write...write..."?  Writing takes a sincere and dedicated daily effort.  Writing 50,000 words breaks down to 1667 words every day. You could absolutely do worse than to sit down every day for a month and try to write like that. You might even discover what just about every writer will tell you about the magic that happens when you write at the same time every day. Even if you can't maintain this breakneck pace, just writing every day is a wonderful habit to establish, and given the encouragement of this particular month, it might be a great time to start.

Nanowrimo gets people writing.  The world over, folks who have never written more than a dreadfully long paper in college about the political science of cellular mitosis, or something, suddenly come to the page. Getting people writing is a good thing. They learn how much catharsis and pleasure there is in the simple act of both writing and creation in general. Writing is a lost art, and writing well is under-appreciated. For every book published, there are hundreds who think doing so is no big deal, and this is the chance for them to put their money where their mouth is and find out that it's really a tremendous amount of effort. If nothing else, they will emerge with a newfound respect for those who do go through the full process.

It's about the writing.  Even though nearly 20% finish Nano, of the 200,000 or so who start, only a couple of hundred ever lead to a published book.  (And even fewer to a published book that isn't self-published a bit hastily.)  You do the math.  If this were purely a matter of chance, you would have a 1 in 10,000 chance of EVER getting a book deal.  And it's not pure chance; most people who publish a Nano book are very experienced writers and usually already published going in.  Would you put in an entire month of hard effort on any chance so low?  Of course not.  And despite pleasant delsutory fantasies of instant success, at some level many writers in Nano seem to know this.  So very quickly Nano becomes  ONLY about the writing. Writing is the meaningful part of the art of writing.  Not publication.  Not readings.  Not book signings.  Not fame.  Not fortune.  Not blistering hot groupie threesomes. Just the writing. It's nice to have an event that focuses on that part.

Some people find it amazingly useful with their writing process.  Remember, in writing you do whatever works. For some people--not many but some--the process of sitting down one month to crank out a draft works very well.  They may do daily writing, but when it comes to some of their longer creative efforts, they are wired for the power sprint.  So the structure of Nano really suits them.  At a certain point, all advice must be tossed out in favor of what works, and if Nano truly works for a writer, it works.  Period.  End of discussion.

No seriously.  End of discussion.  You can go to the next point.

Nanowrimo gives people permission to write absolute crap.  If there's one thing Nano excels at it's the production of crap. Even other crap looks at Nano crap and thinks "Well, I'm not that bad." Nano drafts are like your steaming pile of first draft shit took its OWN steaming pile of first draft shit, and then smeared itself across a hundred or so pages and became your "novel."  First drafts suck. They ALL do. Please don't feel like this is particularly mean criticism of yours and how can I say that when I've neverevenreaditohmygod!  Mine suck too. First drafts that people took some time writing even suck, so Nano are kind of extra sucky.

But that's what's GREAT about it!!!!

So many writers have this terrible habit where they sit in front of the blank page paralyzed with fear that they have to write something good. An event dedicated to the permission to write total crap can actually help those writers just move past that expectation.  "Just keep writing" is the basically the mantra of the first draft, so anything that gets people realizing that they aren't going to be pumping out Shakespeare--or even Lustbader--with a first draft is probably a good thing.

Yes I've done it.  I've "won" Nano five times (every time I attempted). I do see the benefit. There are many other articles here about the good aspects and even some advice. I will probably do it again this year in form--though my novel is already started, and it won't be done by Nov 30. If the "evil Chris" who lives in the basement is too difficult a metaphor, yes, I do have conflicted feelings about Nano, and that means that some of them are good.

I do get that it has some wonderful qualities. I just also see the fallout when people can't or don't understand how uberfast drafting fits into a bigger picture or what happens to their self esteem when they fail or their motivation when they overdo it. Strictly speaking, as advice to starting writers, I would caution against it. More experienced writers know what they're about.

The Bad

It's only one month.  You can't really improve at something that takes regular, dedicated effort by doing obsessively for 1/12 of the year. You wouldn't only work out for one month a year and expect to stay in shape. You wouldn't only sculpt for one month and expect to be a sculptor. You wouldn't only take pictures for one month and expect to be a photographer. You can't only write for one month and expect to be a writer.

The take home message here is NOT "don't bother," by the way.

It's "keep going."

KEEP GOING! (Even after Nano)

It's November.  I don't know who picked November, but they MUST have a sadistic streak. It was probably the same person who thinks that "NaNoWriMo" is a fucka creative name for the event and not just one more tragically horrific decision. November is a month for swallowing your hatred of family, cooking eighty course meals that no one will ever compliment, restraining the urge to kill people who start playing Winter Wonderland, and dodging the winding lines of more-white-people-than-normal at Starbucks. To add writing a novel to everything else that goes on in November is criminal.

People think they're done on Nov 30th.  Nano's official organizers and most of its strident apologists seem to be aware of the fact that a draft hammered out in 30 pulse pounding days isn't really a novel (though they have no qualms calling those who finish "novelists.") They acknowledge that it still needs work: more drafts, revision, an army of monkeyspank pedants combing it for its every grammatical error--but not before MOAR DRAFTS!!! But the culture of Nano does not seem to know this. And of the 40,000 or so "winners" of Nano, 37,328 of them will treat their draft like it's a finished manuscript and not the literary equivalent of a doodle. It's not "the official party line." It's how the Nanolings are actually acting. It's like the Christians who say they love Christ's teachings but then want the death penalty and think poor people need to stop being lazy.

People think they've written a novel.  50,000 words is not really a novel. The Catcher In the Rye is one of the shortest books you're likely to ever read and that is 73,404 words  (Nearly 50% more than Nano output.)  It's a little over 100 pages in most printings. Any shorter than that, and they call it a novella and don't publish it--not until/unless you are one of the best selling authors of all time. It's nothing personal; novellas are a tough sell financially--they take up WAY too much space in an anthology and sell poorly on their own because people judge value by size.

Modern adult novels are usually more like 100,000-250,000 words (which is roughly between 200 and 800 pages) Y.A. fiction notwithstanding.  Longer and they break it up or pare it down.  But the trend of novels in the last 60 years (since Holden Caulfield was losing his foils and his grip) has been books getting longer and longer. Today's audiences want to get lost in their escapism, so while there are a few novels these days closer to 100,000 and 200 pages, and even a few that are still as short as Catcher, industry trends tend towards bigger being better.  50,000 words is basically a novella--especially by modern standards--but they don't call it National Novella Writing Month, do they?  No they don't.

So...is a 50,000-word, extremely-rough draft actually a novel?  Are these people novelists?

50,000 words is absolutely arbitrary.  Putting your idea into a 50,000 word container is completely arbitrary. Your idea might be a ten page short story or it might be a trilogy. Trying to fit it into 50,000 words so that you can participate in some national event is a terrible injustice to your creative vision. Why not make all songs exactly five minutes long. Oh sure, Elvis's "Party" is going to have some filler and "American Pie" might need to be done in allegro, but "those are the RULES!" Make your story how long your story needs to be. Forget the official line.

Speaking of questionable rules, they have a lot of them!  For a completely arbitrary event, in a completely arbitrary month, with a completely arbitrary goal, they sure do have a lot of rules. Then again, maybe they're just continuing the "arbitrary" motif with some fucking arbitrary RULES. Start fresh. Don't write non-fiction. If the whole point is going to be "just write," why bother with a bunch of rules that discourage all kinds of "just" writing? Why not keep going on the novel you're already writing and just try to do 50,000 words of it during November? Or write a few short stories? Or write on non fiction? Or write a poem a day. Well because those are the rules.  If they're wondering why writers are not "grokking" the little disclaimers about Nano not being the end all of writing, it might be because right when "Do whatever works" would fit into their ideology perfectly, they go and lay down a bunch of conditions.

You shouldn't need it.  If you need Nano to write 50,000 words, you should be focused on writing outside of NaNo. It's the same reason you don't need an MFA to give you permission to write. Writing is a solitary activity. At the end of the day, the only person who can cheer you forth and kick your ass is you. You really have to learn to find this motivation from within. In the final analysis, it's always just you and the page locked in an eternal primordial struggle like a couple of old gods. If you can't write a chunk every day without some national event spurring you forth, then that event is just an affectation that you've fetishized and what you really need to be working on is cultivating your own discipline and motivation. And there are books that can help you do just that.

It's not that the event isn't good and the ass kicking that works isn't good. It's just that eventually even Dumbo had to learn he could fly withOUT the feather.

The structure and culture of Nano undermines the need for sustained effort.  Nano creates a culture for writers–whether it intends to or not and whether it (quietly and grudgingly) acknowledges its place in a larger mosaic of writing or not. No one thinks running one marathon a year (and doing nothing else by way of training) would be smart or help improve anyone's running performance or fitness because any marathon information will underscore the need for pre-event training, general health and fitness, and a sustained engagement over one's career. Any specific event will caution runners to be prepared, and any fitness information will include the fact that you have to keep at it as a lifestyle to get a real benefit.  With Nano, these ideas are an afterthought. They are a disclaimer at the bottom of the page in the fine print. "Oh yes, by the way, you should probably keep writing even after Dec 1st if you're serious about this whole writing thing voidwhereprohibitedmaycausenightsweatsandanalseepagekthnxbai."

It emphasizes one part of the process--word count--over everything else.  Word count is king in Nano. It's emperor. It's supreme commander. All else is an afterthought including quality, revision, research, and even reading, which are major parts of writing. It's no wonder that everyone happily applies the sobriquet of "novelist" after they have produced 50,000 words of excreta. Go back to those same forums on Dec 1st, and you will see oceans of folks talking about "cleaning up and submitting" their novels, switching off readers to get them ready for publication, looking for editors, and how they're starting a new novel right away. They haven't learned how drafts fit into the process.

And it can actually be harmful for writers not to understand all this.

The creative process isn't ever so clean.  Ask any writer if their process is as smooth as 1667 words per day, and you will get a lot of laughter. Even people who do have word or page counts for their daily output know that their creative process is going to come in like a puppy through your roomful of carefully laid out index cards. Sometimes you delete your last ten pages because not even you know where the fuck you've wandered off to. Sometimes you get a lightning flash for a totally different project that you have to take some notes on so you can come back to it later and that sucks up most of your day.  Sometimes you catch a wave of inspiration like a surfer catching a tube, and you grab the nearest thing with caffeine in it, stay up all night clacking away, and have 10,000 words in front of you when you stumble to bed at seven the next morning.  That's just how this shit sometimes works.  Sitting down at the same time can help you with your creativity, but once the juice is loose, you have to be willing to let your muse lead in the dance.

80-85% failure rate.  Nano gets really excited about its success rate. The "unprecedented" numbers of "winners" most years fall between 15 and 20%. Awesome right? That's like almost a fifth! Let's turn that around. 4/5's of people are NOT finishing. If four fifths of people weren't finishing a marathon, would they call it a great success? It might actually be a little closer to the first three or four episodes of a season of American Idol. This is 160,000 people every year. And my heart just breaks for them.

And that's what leads to the really really ugly...

The Really, Really Ugly

It burns out genuine creativity.  If you want to do anything in a way that will make you hate it, try overdoing it all at once. It works for ice cream, learning piano, exercise, and--surprisingly enough-- writing too.  And just like people who make a New Years resolution and spend 6 hours at the gym on January 2nd and get lactic acidosis, the whole activity is sullied. Thousands--perhaps tens of thousands--of writers walk away from Nano with a strong distaste for writing in their mouths. They think it has to hurt. They think they don't have what it takes. They think they're doing it wrong if it doesn't eclipse their life and sap their will to live. They see it as a chore. It is a daunting word count that takes hours to meet, and it can bleed all the joy out of writing. And yes, as a "real" writer you have to write when it hurts, write when it's a chore, and keep at it when it isn't fun, but there's doing it and there's overdoing it. You go to the gym for an hour even when you don't want to, not for four hours of lifting more weight than you can handle. When you force yourself to do some writing--any writing--in a given day, you can do a couple of pages of free writing as long as you keep with it, not six and a half (double spaced) pages that HAVE to be part of an ongoing plot, which you might not even like anymore or may technically have finished 10 pages ago and now you're just doing jazz hands to hit the word count.

It makes writing suck.

Nanowrimo culture seems to make its goal trying to irritate working novelists.  The official site has been changed, and maybe the culture will follow but there used to actually be considerable  CONTEMPT for working writers and the full-fledged writing process. This year phrases like like " don't be one of those writers who obsess over quality" and "be able to say 'oh, I've written three'" are finally off the official description. And it was a few years back they took out the bit about "mock real novelists who dawdle." (Yes, that really used to be there.) Is it any wonder that actual novelists don't have the highest regard of an event that produces (at best) the first, really-rough, super-shitty draft of a NOVELLA and then prances about with it and demands the same accolades from the world as those who have spent their lives doing things like "obsess[ing] over quality." These people aren't novelists anymore than someone who runs 20 miles once is a marathoner.

It instills a sense of failure.  Much like those who finish a marathon have almost always trained in distance running, almost everyone who finishes Nano has some experience in writing daily. Those who don't, usually don't finish. They have NO IDEA what they're getting into and how quickly three or four hours a day can impact a regular life (no matter how doable it looks on paper). And then they end up in this weird situation where they think they've failed as a writer or aren't really writers. They think because they couldn't keep up with the absolutely batshit pace of 50,000 words a month that they don't deserve to be writers.  I am absolutely comfortable calling myself a writer, and I might write 3/5s that in a good month (even with word dumps like this article).

Worse, if they finish, they then hit the cold reality of what they actually have: a month's worth of freewriting that isn't even at the quality of most first drafts. They not only won't get published but they won't get published after a "clean up" and they won't get published after "some polish and a professional edit." They might might might might MIGHT get published after two complete rewrites, and three or four more drafts on top of that. And if a writer doesn't understand what the problem is here--that they need to writing second and third drafts before revising--they may think that they're just not cut out for writing.

You're going to get hate mail, terrible criticism, and rejection as a writer (including people on social media who will trash you without even reading anything but your articles' titles) but there's no sense taking part in a whole event set up pretty much specifically to INDUCE a soul crushing sense of failure on four out of every five who take part--at least all the ones that don't really understand how robust the writing process is and how much they haven't failed.

Let me say that again: "They HAVEN'T failed."

They HAVEN'T failed.

Publishers are reacting to Nano...badly.  If you read the submission guidelines for major publishers, and even several small presses, they have begun to mention Nano submissions by name. And what they say is: "Don't send us that crap."  I can even tell you unofficially (shhhh) that there are a couple of major houses in the big five that usually take a small number of unsolicited manuscripts, but they won't even LOOK at anything that isn't from a previously published author during the months of Dec-March. I know agents who won't read submissions during winter and several more who strongly advise their clients to wait until closer to summer to start shopping for publishers EVEN WITH SOLICITED MATERIAL. It's that bad. The deluge of shitty books that come out of Nano is affecting the industry. They look nervously at the calendar like Eddard Stark and say "Winter is coming!" in that meaningful voice. Nano might mention that "you're not done on Dec 1st" but the writers aren't listening. Enough writers aren't listening that the industry itself is starting to CRINGE at the arrival of winter. Maybe Nano might want to switch to 14 point font for that disclaimer or something.

Sean Bean stars in a new series about a publisher who walks to work on Dec 1st.

People are making money off of wannabes.  The Nano org itself is a non profit and participating is free, but look around. You will see a lot of opportunities to spend your money. I'm not just talking about thermoses and sweatshirts either (though you can get those too). There are novel writing kits, manuscript helpers, tools, a camp, and all kinds of things you might think will help when you realize that 1667 words a day is actually kind of hard. It doesn't take much to be the writing equivalent of that person who buys a track suit, designer jogging shoes, a fanny pack, a hydration hat, an ipod armband holder, and six "workout albums" and then goes jogging twice.
Wow, this is actually hard!  Time to buy a guitar.

But it gets even worse than that. Dec 1st, the predators come out to play. They promise the moon, and tell you that your steaming pile of fast-as-you-can excrement has a lot of promise. ("Oh it's good...it just needs a few suggestions and some editing. I can do that for $5/page." or "Hey, this is good.  The publishers might not take a chance on it, but if you self publish, it will sell." Only $500 for a startup package.) When what they really should be saying is "Go write the whole thing again, and then treat that like it's your first draft. We'll talk when you're on draft two or three." These folks are the scum of the earth, preying on people's desire to BE writers and sucking off their hard earned money by pretending that these manuscripts don't need anything more than a copy edit to knock the socks off a publisher. They aren't much different than those "acting academies" that convince thousands of wannabe actors every year that they really have "the face for the camera" and all they need to make it is a few lessons on lingo and some head shots. They scam people by playing on their ego that their writing is brilliant.  And Nano has drawn the scammable like moths to a flame.

And non-profit doesn't mean no one draws a salary. Let's just say that.

~Neo Voice~  "Disclaimers.  Lots of Disclaimers."

Here's the bottom line: you would do better--much better--to pick a more reasonable and maintainable word count and do that every day, even after November is over.

Ultimately the problem with Nanowrimo isn't an ideological disagreement with its good parts.  The good parts are good!  There's a whole section of them!  (Seriously, just scroll up to remind yourself.) But its fans and the culture of the event smooths over the hugeocity of the faults. If you told me all the good parts of ANYTHING, and conveniently left out the bad parts (or just blew them off with a shrug), you could make it sound good.

That's basically what politicians do.

But understand, the difference between saying: "I don't enjoy relaxing in my car listening to music or talking for hours," and the phrase: "I hate being stuck in traffic jams."  And I'm not saying I don't want my financial paperwork to be in order if I say: "Audits suck."  And just because I like meeting new people doesn't mean I think Alzheimers will be awesome. Context. Context. Context.

You can't just casually acknowledge the downside of Nano with a dismissive wave.  ("Oh SURE you have to revise. Duh.")  It's like casually acknowledging the downside of herpes.

Hey, Simplex 2 has been known to increase people's sex drive to help propagate itself.
You like sex, don't ya??
Okay, that one was way over the line.

Nano gets people writing. Many have written a book that they wouldn't have otherwise. It gives people the push they need. Writers who knows what they're getting into and know that they don't have a "novel" when they're done handle it just fine. And anyone who finishes a 50k word manuscript should be proud and will probably be high on the act of creation for a long time to come. It's a great time of encouragement.

But what happens when this stuff falls apart? The problem is this positive fanaticism exists in a contextual vacuum, blind to the faults that too many of its fans would have you ignore. Like religion, Nano has entered the part of the brain in its fans where the slightest criticism is tantamount to blasphemy. No one can be cautioned--even by those who've seen a couple dozen writers give up on writing because of what diving into Nano did to them.

If there were five or six NanoRevisionMos and three NanoPracticeMos and a NanoEditMo, and September as NaNoPlanMo then they'd be more realistic.  If people knew that writing (maybe just not quite 1667 words) was something most writers do every day of every month, and not just in November, that it's destructive to the craft to value word count over every other aspect of the process, and that you need to wake up on December 1st and keep right on going...  If the "pep talks" one could find online were not mostly dedicated to "keep going" and more (perhaps most) of them were about how failure is really not a reflection on anyone's ability to write...  If they acknowledged that the exercise of Nano was in and of itself pretty arbitrary and silly to begin with....  If people treated Nano like it were one spoke on a very large wheel instead of the One True Way™....  And if folks weren't making money on the dreams of people who want to be writers instead of just telling them to get their asses in the chair and keep going....  I might not warn people off of it for the sake of their desire to write.

Experienced writers aren't saying "don't bother."  They're saying "there is probably a better way to go about doing what it seems like you want to do. I know that way. I will tell you. All you have to do is listen."

What happens next is that the inexperienced writer acts like William Wallace when he finds out Robert The Bruce betrayed him at Falkirk. "How could you harsh my squee. You....MONSTER!! My sandcastle!  Thou hast SHAT in it! You have lost a friend this day!!  FREEEEEEDOOOOOOM!!!!"

I don't want to see people NOT write. I want to see them keep going. I want to see them get better. I want to see that novel not just gather dust at the back of some drawer and never gain them anything more than the bragging rights to say they wrote it. I want to see them have the same faith in their ability to sustain that effort, revise, and become better writers that they did in their ability to hit word counts. I want to see their self esteem grow to other parts of the writing process. I want to see them learn that other aspects of writing are just as awesome as that feeling of finishing something monumental. Maybe that means not biting off more than they can chew or burning themselves out, or maybe it just means on December 1st they keep right on going. That's what I want.

The world needs your novel. Not your novel's proto-first draft. Or worse, a chunk of it that you now tie to your failure as a writer.

But I'm sure that despite the fact that my worst objection is what the event can do psychically to writer and their creativity that I can look forward to having fans, who want Nano to be awesome despite all evidence to the contrary, to hire ninjas to kill me.  My words are high treason in the cult of Nano.

But hopefully if I haven't talked anyone out of it, at least they might go into the bad and the really really ugly with their eyes open, not hate themselves or quit if they fail, keep going after its over, and for god's sake don't let anyone scam them out of their hard earned money.

The Hella Trite Recap

And if my nuanced answer with all its disclaimers and begrudging acknowledgements is way TL:DR for you, just remember (if you're not already writing every day, haven't done it before, and are just getting started as a writer) the Darth Vader answer to "Should I do NaNoWriMo?"

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  1. I have been teaching Creative Writing for over 23 years. Nanowrimo has destroyed more writers than it has created by far. Thank you for being blunt.

    1. I've seen it happen to probably fifteen or so. At least half a dozen of them never really wrote again. :-/

  2. If people stop writing after NaNoWriMo, they weren't really writers to begin with.

    This article makes me happy because I know that people like you will never truly understand or enjoy NaNo, and that leaves more room for the people who can truly appreciate the challenge.

    1. My reply to this is 10/12's entry. It can also be found in The Mailbox section of The Reliquary as "NaNoWriMo H8er!"

  3. Great article. I've decided to do NaNo for the first time and you have just burst my happy bubble, you devil you! Just joking, nope- no delusions of Grandeur here. For the last 11 months I've written 500-1500 words a day at the same time each day. Writing is hard, editing is worse, and don't even talk to me about rewriting (it's a sore point). At the end of the 30th day, people should be under no illusions- it's going to be a fugly mess. It won't even be worthy of the lofty title 'first draft'. If you Practice, have patience and persistence , then maybe you will become a writer. I'm not there yet, There's so much to learn, figured Nano would be a good time to keep practicing ;)

  4. I'm glad that you didn't mince words on either the good or the bad side. Good article.

  5. Hi Chris,

    As someone who is one of the Nano fanclub, this is probably the best "anti-Nano" article I've seen. Although I don't agree with/believe all your points to be completely accurate, I think some of your negatives are very valid - I hadn't even heard the burnout angle before, but it's true (I myself experienced this a couple of times). While I think that Nano is something that everyone should *try*, in the way that a writer should try a bunch of different methods and styles and so on to find what they like, I don't think that, even with its increased flexibility in regard to the rules, it's something everyone should *do*.

    Thanks for the well-written article.

    1. You're very welcome, and thank YOU. I got a lot of crap for this article, so hearing a "this-is-good-even-though-I'm-a-fan" is actually quite refreshing.

  6. I used to be a NaNo fan, then I took a writer's block to the face. Now, I want to say that I had previously written a novel--erotic fantasy romance--but it took six months and I loved doing it, despite my jerkass boyfriend at the time trying to get me to stop lol. I wrote a lot of fan fiction between then and NaNo. I'd bogged down in 2006, and thought I'd give it a try.

    Things went well, and I finished, but then subsequent attempts to write just fell flat. I couldn't do it. What seemed like a 50k word novel was really a 50k brick monument to writer's block. Only this year--2013--have I been able to break through it. I won't ever do NaNo again. Mind, I approached it as "let's see if I can do this and maintian some level of quality and a good plot with engaging characters" and not "Write ALL the crap!" but yeah :D

    So, anyone considering NaNo...keep in mind you could be faced with a 7 year's writer' block.

    --Sheila from Facebook

  7. Hi Chris! This was a really fantastic article about the pros and cons of NaNoWriMo. I've never seen the points laid out like this before, and it was an entertaining and informative read. I first tried NaNoWriMo about seven years ago and that year was the only year I was able to finish it, despite feeble attempts to recommit to it year after year since. I've given up on it, mostly because outside of NaNoWriMo, I've been able to complete two books, each taking about a year and a half each.

    While NaNoWriMo is a problem for all the reasons you've listed, and I realize that the first NaNo book I wrote was terrible and will never see the light of day again, psychologically it did more for me than I ever thought possible. After completing NaNoWriMo, I found myself with evidence that I could finish a 'book' and that perhaps I did have the ability and drive to become a 'real' writer in the future. For that reason alone, I think NaNoWriMo could be a great tool for amateur writers - if they can finish - to give themselves enough hope and reason to keep writing because they already know that they can do it, that they can finish a book.

    Thanks for listening! I love your blog and I have been reading posts all morning.

    1. Glad you like it.

      I wish it was a less common experience to see young writers try NaNo, fail, and then decide they aren't "really" writers. If that were the case I could probably endorse it. But you make some good points about sticking with it being a good portent.

      Just stick with the sticking with it! :)

  8. NaNo works for me, when I can be bothered. But I don't really want to be a 'real' writer, I just enjoy writing something long. For me, NaNo is a great nose-to-the-grindstone motivator, because wordcount is all that matters, so I can meander or skip scenes because I don't want to write them, and just have fun. So ... it works for me, but I'm not saying it's for everyone by any means!

  9. I've been doing NaNo for many years now, and it's taught me a lot of things in the process. It's taught me that I can write that much (and more), and helped me find what works for me as a pace for sustained writing. It's taught me that I find writing much easier if I've planned the story in advance, so while I might be knocking out the draft in a month or so (I'll go past the end of November if the story demands it) I'll actually have been working on the idea for much longer. It's not taught me that I work better to a deadline, because I already knew that, but it's taught me that I shouldn't get hung up on making chapter one perfect because I'll probably have an idea during chapter ten that'll change it anyway, even with all my planning. It's also made me some good friends who are always happy to listen to a story idea or unpick a thorny plotting issue.

    I may never be a published author. That's something to work on in the other eleven months, anyway. I do NaNo because I find it fun, and that's why no criticism will ever stop me doing it, even though I'll acknowledge that much of it is true.

    I'm with the person up there who said it's something you should try, rather than something you should do. If you think it might work then go for it. And no one in my local area thinks they'll come out of it with anything other than a crappy first draft, because I'll kick them in the head if they suggest it :)

    1. Yeah, I think the problem is probably with those who think Nano is do or die. But I've seen this ONE event break so many young writers (some with talent) that it's really hard for me to recommend it at all to people just starting.

  10. The main problem I found with NaNo wasn't that it ended on the 30th of Novemeber... it's that it started on the 1st.

    Anything you did before then doesn't count; in fact, you are meant to do the entire thing, so even if you do 50,000 words in November, taking your total to 60,000 because it was something you'd started before... you didn't win NaNo.

    This meant that I got excited about writing a novel, got inspired, had ideas; and actively avoided writing anything for the last 2 weeks of October.

    By the time November came around, I wasn't as enthusiastic, and a lot of the momentum had gone.

    (Yes, there are "bad NaNo-er" groups out there, but there's still the problem that you are breaking the rules by writing in October!)

  11. I will admit, I've "Nanoed" before, many times. But the only time I did it according to the rules I instantly despised the result.

    I use Nano as a way to schedule my writing, which I do all the time. It's a way to have camaraderie as well, to make friends. And I use it in the vague hope that I'll find some people who want to be real writers and are willing to meet up once or twice a week to just write. It's good to be culpable to someone. They call us "rebels." We're just there to write, not to write a "novel" in a month.

    The one time I DIDN'T use NaNo like that, I started to write a story I'd been contemplating, one that is very important to me. And what I did to it in just one week of trying to keep up NaNo pace made me HATE it, with a passion. I STILL have not written that story. I've had to revise it in my head so much that it is a ghost of what it once was.

    I do hate that NaNo has affected the industry. My professors told me not to bother submitting in December.

    So, my 75k rough draft has some way to go? Well, that's alright. I haven't even gotten to the first draft yet.

  12. Thank you, Chris. Seriously, thank you.

    I read this for the first time when you posted it a couple of years ago, and I was one of those people that had tried NaNo and failed. I thought I wasn't any good, and that I would never be a writer. I tried to write the same book again the next year and failed again, and I stopped writing. It wasn't fun anymore. I didn't like writing, and I thought it just wasn't for me.

    Then I read this. And because of you I decided to do 500 words a day every single day. That's not even a page unless there's a lot of dialogue. I finished my book (in June hahaha) and I went back and rewrote and revised it and then polished it so many times. And it took almost a year, but I didn't stop. NOW I'M GOING TO BE PUBLISHED! I'm in the initial stages with PRH.

    You got me to believe that Nano was the problem, not me. You got me back into writing. Thank you thank you thank you.

  13. I'm glad you wrote this. I'm one of those writers who got destroyed by going too fast. I burned out hard in 2011's NaNo.

  14. I will say this. I have done NaNo. Won once, bowed out once. I plan on doing NaNo this year. I do not PLAN on 'winning'. I use NaNo as, in essence, a one-month break from my current WIP that allows my mind to run hog-wild. The idea will, doubtlessly, be relegated to the "backburnered" folder on my laptop, perhaps never to know the sweet light of day again. I will also say this. I admit the good of NaNo. Hell, my significant other's NaNo piece from a number of years ago was picked up by a trad publisher, albeit a small one. My current WIP is one 'gee whiz' idea I had for NaNo over a year ago. I'm still not finished with draft one. I participate in a writer's group and NaNo is brought up often. I believe your points are completely valid, although I do think you missed one thing, one thing that has soured me on NaNo something hardcore: the community, especially on the Facebook group, is the definition of an echo chamber. Your "novel" is amazing and anyone who tells you otherwise is a dreck-swilling scum monkey who deserves to die in not one, but TWO fires. Something as simple as pointing out that you probably shouldn't make jokes about word count or rip other authors IN YOUR DAMN 'NOVEL' will get your metaphorically crucified. "No!" they say, "Publishers will love it! And if they don't, well, they just don't get your art." NaNo's obsession with encouragement leads to people intentionally not dissuading others from doing objectively stupid things for fear of 'bringing down the mood.' That was the one thing, I think, your article could've touched on more. Otherwise, I thank you. Signed~~That Guy Who Is Most Certainly NOT a Novelist.

  15. Just saw this article a couple of years late! It does try to be balanced and does raise some good points. I've done NaNo for a number of years, and it gives me a fresh rough draft every year. I published one of my NaNo novels and am preparing another. To be fair, it takes me about two years to go from that first draft to a final product. But as someone said, you can't edit a draft that you didn't write.

    NaNo is about building confidence, proving to yourself that yes, you can write, and the social aspects help a lot with that. Some people find that no, they can't write or don't want to write, and that's valuable in its own way.

    It is tough for new writers, but it's tough for new writers on their own, too, and I think the support structure of NaNo is valuable for them. In our group (Honolulu) we tell participants that they are all winners if they write even a couple of words, because that's a couple of words more than they might have otherwise written. The main thing we encourage is to write a little each day, and then whether or not you reach 50,000 words is less important. Building the writing habit is an indicator of future success.

  16. Hello, I'm writing a (French) blog about writing and I'm making an article about NaNoWriMo. I find what you wrote very relevant and I would like to quote/translate part of your article to share the pros and cons of NaNo, along with my own opinion and experience. Would that be OK with you?

    1. Absolutely. My only request is a link back to the source. :)

  17. I find that friendly competition is a great motivator for me, and Nanowrimo gave me the confidence that I can write faster than I thought I could. But yeah, it's troubling how some people believe that speed/ wordcount is everything, or that they don't need to edit their first drafts... And though Nanowrimo was good for me overall, one negative side-effect is that it made me a little too obsessed with speed, and I was feeling awful for not being able to write 1000+ words everyday anymore, despite that, compared to my life in the past, I now exercise much more often, have a much healthier social life, and spend much more time reading books and writing reviews for these books.

    Another side-effect of Nano, was that I learned to value my fiction work more than my nonfiction (blog posts and book reviews). I realized that I enjoy writing nonfiction just as much, and am gradually developing more respect for it; I don't have to treat my blog posts and book reviews as mere "casual fun." Blog posts and book reviews all take a lot of time and energy too.