It’s almost November. If you’re a writer on any sort of social media, you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month. It’s affectionately known as NaNoWriMo and spearheaded by a non-profit company whose founder started with the simple idea of writing a novel in a month. Modern participants do the same thing, specifically striving to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.
In recent years, I’ve come to have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. For many writers and non-writers, it’s an awesome event. For others, I think it’s counter-productive, and may even turn some people away from writing.
I have six different years logged on my NaNoWriMo account: three are successes (at least 50k words in the month) and three are failures. I’ve participated more times than that, but I either didn’t track progress or they got lost in some revamp of the website. (Fun fact: one of those failed projects was a very early idea for Razor Mountain, the novel that I’m currently preparing to publish serially, years later.)
I am a planner, so I’ve come to realize that my success in a project like NaNoWriMo is mostly dependent on whether I’ve put together a decent outline before November. The best I’ve done without an outline is something like 10k words before the story stopped dead and I realized I needed to rework what I had written to have a path forward.
However, an equally important factor for me is how much free time and energy I have. Over the years, I’ve done NaNoWriMo when I was single and when I was married, when I did or did not have a job, and before and after I had kids. I’ve observed just how much my living arrangements and family situation can affect my ability to dedicate a month of evenings to a single project.
At least one year where I failed was the result of falling behind in the first week, and realizing I simply didn’t have the time (or energy to write) that I would need to continue, let alone play catch-up.
NaNoWriMo was built to encourage people to write. It is especially focused on new and inexperienced writers, even people who have never tried to write fiction before and don’t think they can. The promise of NaNoWriMo is this: you don’t have to be an expert to write a novel; you just have to keep writing one word after another until you’ve stacked up 50,000 of them.
For some, this is a revelation. Writing has a certain mystique (that many writers are happy to encourage) as a process that requires some particular innate talent or even some important credential like an MFA. The truth is that anyone who is literate enough to put words on paper or screen and persistent enough to put down a lot of them can write a book. NaNoWriMo doesn’t claim that book is going to be a bestseller (or even close to publishable), but for some folks, the experience of simply writing a book is enough, even with nothing more expected beyond that. And plenty of people have gone on to do the work, past November, to get that novel published.
The event has developed a huge community, with hundreds of local groups across the globe alongside geographically dispersed virtual groups. Those who are unsure of themselves can search out one of these communities that fits their needs and helps encourage them.
NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that does great work with a small team. In addition to the online events, it facilitates a Young Writers program that encourages kids to write.
What May Not Work
NaNoWriMo has expanded exponentially since its early years, and tried to provide more options than the “traditional” November event. There’s the project planning NaNo Prep in September and October. There’s the editing and revising “Now What?” series in January and February. There’s Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July, intended to be a less structured way to work on writing projects. Even for the November event, the website will happily let you set whatever word-count goal and timeframe you want for your project.
There’s clearly an ongoing effort to expand the brand here, but NaNoWriMo remains known for one thing: writing a 50,000-word novel in November. After all, it’s built into the name. As much as they’re trying to encourage a variety of options, most people will get involved in the “real” NaNoWriMo, and that has a structure that is going to work well for some people, and poorly for others.
Many will come into the event with little or no outline. If they’re planners like me, writing a whole novel like that may feel impossible. Some will find that they don’t have the time or energy to write 1667 words each day, and feel like setting a lower word count goal is cheating.
In short, a lot of people will fail at NaNoWriMo for a lot of different reasons. If they’re new or inexperienced writers, they may not even understand exactly what those reasons are — especially if they are seeing forum posts and tweets where other writers seem to be having great success and a good time. They’ll just think they’re bad at it.
NaNoWriMo is all about encouraging people to try writing, but in these cases it is very possible for new writers to think “this is what writing is like,” and get burned-out. There are as many different ways to write as there are writers, and some of those ways just don’t jive with “50k in November.”
Don’t Take This Too Seriously
I don’t want this to read like I’m ragging on NaNoWriMo. The organization does a lot of great work. They’ve probably encouraged hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t to try their hand at writing a novel. They try to demystify writing for young people, and help them tell the stories that matter to them. They’re clearly trying to cater to a variety of writers with different styles and techniques.
NaNoWriMo has gotten huge. It’s hard to miss it if you’re tuned in to writing stuff online. I worry sometimes that people who don’t fit NaNoWriMo will be turned off by it; that they won’t realize they don’t have to follow prescriptive writing advice or a monthly goal to be a “real” writer.
If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, I encourage you to do so, if not this year, then next. Even if you think you couldn’t possibly write 50,000 words in a month. Just take it one word at a time.
But if you discover that you can’t do it, or it’s a terrible experience, that’s okay. You’ve learned something about the kind of writer you are. Try it again next year. Prep differently. Or do your own kind of NaNoWriMo with your own goals and limits. To succeed at writing in a way that works for you, you don’t need a website that tells you how much to write and when. You need to find something internal that drives you to write. Then it’s just a matter of putting one word after another.