My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Sunday, November 3, 2019

"I Hope You Play" (Inktober vs. NaNoWriMo)

I'm still recovering from fires and all the packing/repacking process, so I thought today I might "splat" something a little personal and stream-of-consciousnessy that I've been mulling over for a couple of years now, as I watch the transition from Inktober to NaNoWriMo happen like listening to someone in a Ferrari grind their gears.  

To the best of my knowledge, no visual artist does not kind of dig Inktober. Whether professional, amateur, or that liminal space between, all artists (at least all I've come in contact with or know of) seem delighted with the idea of an entire month of sketches, quick drawings, and not even messing with color (unless you want to!)

Writers have no such consensus about NaNoWriMo. While you might find a bigger pile of professionals on the distrust/don't like/wary side of NaNo, we are more like the "Great Taste"/"Less Filling" commercials from the seventies. Why, some bloggers even go so far as to metaphorically represent their internal conflict with the metaphor of an evil version of themselves that lives in the basement and enjoys the event. Unlike visual artists, the writing community is deeply divided. There are knife fights. People die.

It's not just that writers are more contrarian. We don't just like picking fights. There isn't a major contingent of writers who are perpetually hangry. There really is a difference.

It's pretty easy to feel the shift in energy as the October calendar page falls away and the jacks o'lanterns get tossed into the green waste. For beyond a few cosmetic similarities, these events couldn't be more different.

Inktober is play. Artistic and creative play. It is whimsy. It doesn't take itself seriously. Its webpage is is filled with ways to do it half pace or even just once a week. It's okay to skip pictures. Every rule has a "But you know...whatever!" caveat. Draw some pictures (or don't). Have fun. And perhaps most importantly of all, the artists seem to know that they're just messing around. It's practice. It's fun. They're playing. There are rules, but they are more like the rules of a board game; the point is still fun. If something they draw is to be their next masterpiece, they don't imagine that they're just going to color in their sketch, make a few changes, and frame it up. They fall behind or quit all the time and think themselves no less artists.

If Inktober were a character in a science fiction show, NaNoWriMo would be its twin from the mirror universe with a goatee. NaNo is super serious. NaNo doesn't smile. It is rigid. It's filled with rules. It requires a serious commitment and unbelievable discipline every day––a pace not even every working writer regularly hits. You have to start something new. Fifty thousand words (which, while nothing to sneeze at, is quite a bit shy of a novel) The alternative pacing versions are at best "house rules." You sign up all official-like, track your progress, and you "win" or don't. A lot of self-worth gets tied into success. Writers have decided they're not writers because they couldn't keep up with NaNoWriMo. It is HARD, and you have to be hard to win.

The end of the month may be the worst. The work itself is not treated with whimsy and fun that is likely no more than practice (or at best a rough sketch outline of a future draft). Writers are quite serious about their "Novel™" and its potential and ironclad destiny to be published, some going so far as to begin shopping for agents, submitting manuscripts to publishers, and investigating self-publishing. Instead of treating their adrenalinated month as a zeroth draft––the literary equivalent of a sketch on graph paper––the end product of NaNo is given perhaps the most serious gravitas of all.

Instead of being like play, most folks approach NaNo like professional decathlon training.

I know some of you have already begun NaNo. (This post is scheduled for Nov 3rd.) And I know that I'm probably not going to talk more than a couple of you out of being as serious as Voldemort at the end of spring semester. But if you'll permit me to whip out my country guitar, strum out some chords in B-flat and get a Lee Ann Womack twang in my voice....

I hope you give yourself permission to go slower. I hope if you need to take a break, you know it doesn't have to do with your worth as a writer. I hope you don't take the whole thing too seriously. Give it what you can, and enjoy the rigor and discipline if that's your thing, but it doesn't have to break you. God forbid you let not "winning" NaNo affect your validation as a writer. I hope you approach with whimsy the writing which you are spitting out at bullets-in-the-final-reel-of-a-Terminator-movie speed. Promise me you won't fall in love with that silly proto-first draft or lose your sense of how much work is still to come on December 1st.

I hope you approach your writing with the ludic whimsy that is so important in any such act of frenzied quality-over-quantity creation. Gods I hope beyond hope that you have FUN with your writing and maybe even let it surprise you. (I do really hope that on December 1st, you keep writing.)

But mostly, I hope you play.


  1. I do NaNo almost every year since I first heard of it (I think it was 2000 or 2001). I've "won" maybe 4 times. I don't beat myself up too much when I can't keep up because it does help me keep in perspective what I CAN do. I CAN write 2,000 words a say, but I have to sacrifice love, life, and liberty to really accomplish it. I can't juggle FT job, home, kid, friends AND that kind of pace. But the push to try helps me reengage with my 200-1000 words a day and not beat myself up that I don't break my neck trying to do everything poorly. I'd rather do less and do it well.

  2. Around this time of year, the UK sees numerous animal welfare ads reminding us that "a puppy is for life, not just for Christmas." So let it be with Nano if you do it. I did it once, two years ago, and "won" by spewing out 80k words that have a vague sense of cohesion. A novel it ain't, but a potential idea worthy of more work. That hasn't happened yet because I returned to focus on my magnum opus.

    Nano isn't for me. I prefer a gentler pace, even though retirement gives me oodles of time. I write or review or edit or tinker every day, and read most days. That steady progress has (I think) improved my writing far more than Nano ever could.

    There's another aspect of Nano you didn't mention. As a "winner", you get invited to buy stuff. Until I unsubscribed, I got bombarded with exhortations to "purch the merch". This took the edge off winning.

    To anyone embarking on the good ship Nano this month, I'd say treat it like Inktober. It's play, it's sketching, doodling, whatever. If you generate something you can carry forward, brilliant. You've got your puppy: now nurture it.

  3. I don't NaNo, I've never NaNo'd but, whenever I tell people I'm a write it's "Do you do NaNo?"
    The worst effect of the event I've heard of came from an editor for a mid rank publishing house, words to the effect of 'From the Beginning of November until the end of March every submission goes in the bin, none are even looked at because the vast majority are unedited NaNo projects."
    I treat my writing as my job so I dedicate eight hours a day, five days a week (I'm pretty flexible about my working hours) but I do it because I love it. I mean, if I wrote two and a half thousand words consistently every day I'd have a hundred-thousand word manuscript in a little over a month but I don't have those words every day and even then there's editing and revisions to consider. I have two Works in Progress I want to have ready for submission by June/July but I'm not imposing NaNo like rules on myself to get them finished.
    I don't like NaNo, I don't like pushing anyone to burnout levels of creativity and, if the statement from the editor is even partially true, I don't like the idea of manuscripts that people have put their lives into being tossed aside because they were submitted just after NaNo.
    My main advice to people setting out to write is 'Be kind to yourself', I don't feel that from Nano, so I don't do it.