In Defense of NaNoWriMo

Right now, many Americans are preparing for Halloween (and/or Christmas: Thanksgiving gets shortchanged). For a lot of people, at least those creative types that like planning things ahead, October is the month for preparing for the entirety of November, AKA National Novel Writing Month (again, sorry Thanksgiving).

To sum it up for those of you that just need a refresher or didn’t click through to the site, NaNoWriMo is a 30-day, largely self-guided challenge supported by online and in-person communities. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a manuscript within the space of November (roughly the length of The Great Gatsby), beginning midnight on the first and ending at 11:59:59 on the thirtieth. You’re not competing for a prize: you’re doing it just to say that it was something that you’ve accomplished and to get cheered on by fellow writers.

As is the case with most things that exist in the age of the internet, there are thinkpieces criticizing it. I stumbled on a few of them as I was searching for a pre-writing exercise for my planned November piece and wound up reading them. The bulk of the criticisms seemed to be along the lines of “nothing but bad writing is produced.” I have yet to see similar criticisms about Milwordy or 3-Day Novel, but I don’t have any thoughts on why that is other than the fact that NaNoWriMo is the most mainstream and accessible of the three challenges: it’s open to many age groups, (writing) career goals, and skill levels; it doesn’t cost anything to participate; it doesn’t have a competitive judging component; and can fit in between jobs, kids, and holidays.

If you’ve read the “about” section of this website, I proudly declare that I participate, even though, as these writers seem to be asserting, I shouldn’t be admitting to it if I’m a true professional. So, in the spirit of preparation for NaNoWriMo, here five reasons that I’m glad I do it and have enjoyed my experiences (and I swear that no one’s paying me to write this):

  1. The challenge.

A lot of these critiques draw comparisons to dieting, marathons, or piano lessons. The logic is that you wouldn’t do those things for exactly 30 days out of the year only to stop for the remaining eleven months. And it’s true that writing for 30 days and then coming to a dead stop afterward isn’t going to make a writing career, and that frequent and good practice is necessary. I’m not going to dispute that.

And really, the comparisons aren’t necessarily bad, it’s just that they’re not quite getting at the point. NaNoWriMo isn’t a diet, it’s the end goal of losing weight and/or becoming healthier. It’s not the fact of exercising, it’s the specific event that you’re training for. It’s not arpeggios and theory, it’s the recital. It’s a challenge, not a way to live all the time. You wouldn’t stop training completely after competing in a triathlon, but you wouldn’t do a triathlon more than once a month at the most. So too with writing: getting into the habit is good, but you’re probably not going at NaNo levels year-round, and that’s ok and probably even healthy. What you do before and after NaNoWriMo is entirely on you: all the event does is set aside 30 days to get the words down and provide immaterial motivation to do so.

  1. The community.

Nerdy people throw the best parties. Sure, I might be biased both in that I enjoy the NaNoWriMo community and tend to prefer quieter, introvert-friendly gatherings, but I really do like the in-person and online events. The only real competition is against yourself, but having other people doing the same challenge is still very motivational. No one’s there to drag you down or tell you that you can’t do it, and having a room full of people that are excited to work with ideas and stories is good for creativity. I used to believe that writing was a solitary activity until I became involved with the Detroit community, and then I was inspired by the sheer fact that people were interested in what I had to say. That’s a really cool feeling, and while you can get motivation from within yourself, sometimes you need a validating push from someone else.

  1. The experimentation.

The biggest benefit to my writing that I’ve noticed is that 30 days, while it doesn’t seem like a long time, is plenty of time to experiment. I tend toward adult or new adult soft science fiction and urban fantasy: these are my comfortable genres, and I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon. But as long as I’m pushing to get words out in 30 days, anything goes, and I mean anything. Is a character speaking to you? Let them loose and see what they do. Never wrote by the seat of your pants before? Give it a shot (unless you’re like me and really, truly scared of improvising, in which case at least have a vague safety net planned out). Taking a break with some fanfiction? Go for it. Different point of view? Sure. Want to try a new genre for a month? Why not? Outside of the deadline and word count goal, there’s nothing holding you back. Your career as a writer is not riding on this. Get as far out there as you realistically can and see where it takes you.

In 2013, I attempted an urban fantasy piece. Outside of barely hitting the word count goal, I fell on my face. I consider it the worst piece of fiction I’ve ever written in recent memory, I’m still embarrassed to look at it, and I can personally guarantee that it will never see the light of day ever again, let alone another person’s eyes. That’s fine: trying NaNo was an experiment in and of itself, and the act of creating got me through an emotional low point in my life. For that, I’m grateful enough.

2014 was much better outside of my attempt at Camp NaNoWriMo (which went even worse than November 2013 in that I didn’t even finish and don’t plan on going back), and I think only half of the reason is because I planned out what I was going to write. I went in thinking that I had an urban fantasy piece: what ended up happening was more of an LGBTQ character study and slice-of-life piece with only a loose narrative thread with a paranormal romance flavor. It was lighter than my usual fare, and I even wrote the entire thing in first person (I prefer third person omniscient, so that felt especially weird). But what ended up happening is that I loved it and am working on revising it until it’s publishable (it is still a NaNo piece, after all).

For 2015, I have something in store that could be classified as religious fiction with some fantasy elements: we’re talking a post-apocalyptic world that’s a (loose) mash-up of Revelations and Ragnarök. So it still probably falls under the banner of “fantasy,” but I’m playing with motifs and ideas that I’ve never really touched before now. I’m not what you would call particularly religious, but I was bitten by an idea and I’m deciding to go with it and see where it takes me (which, at the moment, seems to be a lot of research).

 

  1. The productivity.

Another criticism that I saw a lot was that all you’re doing is throwing words at a page and seeing what sticks rather than creating a story. That’s not necessarily an inaccurate observation, but it’s still a story, and the criticism on the whole seems to come from the wrong place in a lot of those pieces. Yes, the goal tends to be quantity over quality, but it’s down, and in a more thought-out and coherent way than a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters (another frequent comparison). For some people, this is the push that they need to get started on that idea and start taking it seriously, whatever “seriously” means for them.

Part of the reason NaNoWriMo exists is because of a mission to do away with the “one day” novelist—those people that say that they’re going to write a novel one day. NaNoWriMo sets aside not one, but thirty days to get that novel written. Sure, none of the pieces are publication-ready on December first, but no first draft is ready, and NaNo does provide encouragement and resources to people looking to make the writing good after the fact. The point of the event is creativity and the act of creation, which can and even should be exceptionally messy.

 

  1. The motivation.

Above all else, this event reminds you that getting thousands of words on the page is possible. They are far from perfect words, and they probably aren’t even good (ahem, November 2013) but they are there because you put them there. For someone who suffers lapses in motivation, this can be the difference between giving up on a dream and pushing forward. This can lead to a sort of creative inertia: the words are on the page, and the story is visible, so let’s work on editing and revising it to polish it. It gives you a jumping-off point for the next phase and serves as a concrete reminder that you are capable of this. By starting, you’ve done the hardest part: it’s all looking up from here.

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