NaNoWriMo and Kvetching

Over at her own site, Mary Robinette Kowal notes that at the moment there are some published novelists who are bagging on National Novel Writing Month and calling it waste of time and a bad idea for aspiring writers. She counters this by noting that her novel Shades of Milk and Honey (which is fabulous, by the way) was a NaNoWriMo novel — that is to say she wrote it first as part of the that experience, then finished it and sent it off. So the suggestion that NaNoWriMo is a waste of time and/or effort is pretty definitively rebutted in her own experience.

My own comments to folks, professional novelists or otherwise, who want to hate on NaNoWriMo is as follows:

1. Dude, a program that encourages thousands of people annually to celebrate the act of creating words — of creating their own words — and you want to piss all over that? If you look to the right, I have some kittens you can set on fire while you’re at it.

2. Even if you think it’s a waste of time, it’s not a waste of of your time, so why do you care?

3. Alternately, even if something like NaNoWriMo doesn’t match your own writing process, there are a lot of writing processes out there. So if this one works for some aspiring writers, don’t crap on them for it.

The third point here is especially salient. One of the kvetches I’ve seen from the pro set about NaNoWriMo is that writing a novel only in one month, once a year, is not the way pros do it, and it sets a bad example for up and coming writers. And my own response to that is, well, maybe that’s not how you do it. But you know what, in 2009 I wrote one novel, and I wrote in about five weeks very much on a NaNoWriMo plan of writing a certain volume of words per day, and then for the rest of the year I did and wrote other things. I have to say it worked out pretty well for me. And I’m fairly sure I qualify as a pro. I mean, I’ll have to check. But for now let’s assume I am.

As Mary notes over on her site, one of the hardest things newer writers face when tackling a novel is conceptualizing the idea that they are going to scale a mountain of words in one extended go. Writing a novel’s worth of words is hard, and it’s even harder when you’ve not done it before and you’re psyching yourself out about it. NaNoWriMo offers a way for these writers to take a swing at that process in a systematized fashion, and in a crowd, and both of these things can offer a fair amount of psychological comfort to a person embarking on what is in fact a lonely and arduous process of sitting in front of a keyboard with a goal of about two thousand words a day.

Is it going to work for everyone? No. Is it going to be useful for everyone? No. But it’s going to be useful for some, and that’s fine — the ones it’s not useful for will find some other way to climb that mountain. Meanwhile the skills that those it works for learn — write every day, keep writing, get that story done — are skills that are transferable outside of the NaNoWriMo context and will be a benefit when that new writer, having completed the task of writing 50,000 words in one month, decides to try to write 100,000. In April. Or whenever. Yes, there may be some people who fetishize NaNoWriMo or take less than useful lessons from it (“Novels must be 50,000 words! They must only be written in November!”), but let’s entertain the notion that this will be more about those particular people than it is about NaNoWriMo.

So if you’re a pro novelist or whomever wringing your hands over NaNoWriMo, remember that hands are for typing, not for wringing, and get back to your own work and let the kids have their fun. If you’re a NaNoWriMo participant and you’ve heard the grousing of the pros, ignore it and enjoy your experience of banging out words. In the end, no one cares how or why or under what circumstances a novel has been created, they care about the words on the page. Readers don’t read process. They read novels.


99 Comments on “NaNoWriMo and Kvetching”

  1. Hear, hear! I don’t get the instinct that makes people assume that if something doesn’t work for them it must be A Terrible Idea. If you don’t like NaNoWriMo, then don’t do it, but don’t assault those who do like it, and for whom it could have some benefit.

    Jeeze Louise, let people make up their own minds and even make their own mistakes.

  2. Well said. I don’t know who these snooty pros are (though I did catch a tweet or two from MaryRob this morning concerning NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t look closely at them), but it smacks to me of a kind of literary snobbery whose chief cluelessness is just how stereotypical it is. Oh, look what the hoi polloi are doing. How very unworthy of us. It reminds me of all the folks dogging on Harry Potter simply because it was more popular than [insert favorite book here]. The point is, an entire generation of kids rediscovered reading as a leisure activity, goddammit.

  3. It seems to me that we can only benefit from having more readers who have their own writing experience. To everyone who ever complained that readers buy “crap” (and usually follow that with a “like [new best-selling writer]”) isn’t this basically the antidote? Isn’t this the best way of creating a more sophisticated readership?

  4. Dear writers who mock/insult NaNoWriMo: As someone who was a professional software engineer for twenty years, I presume this means that you will refrain from such activities like installing your own web servers, etc.

  5. I did NaNo for three years. Met the goal two of three years. This year I’m taking a break from it. But one thing I did learn is that I write best when I write everyday. I write 400 words a day now and I’m happy. I thank NaNoWriMo for that.

  6. Thanks John. I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple times now, but November happens to be a terrible month for me. It always somehow ends up being busy at work and my birthday’s in November, so there’s a ton of distractions. But I like the concept enough to try it some time later, probably this spring. It may not work out for me, but there’s no harm in trying and it might even be a bit fun. And hell, if it ends up creating some new awesome books for me to read by new authors, then all the better!

  7. I’ve commented on this subject several times, and my response has remained fairly consistent over the years–no, it’s not for me and I think it primarily gets a lot of people to churn out a lot of crap, which they then foist on agents and editors in December.

    Now, the key word is “primarily,” and I always follow this up with a very important addendum, which is to say: what do I care? It’s not my time or energy. If that’s what you want to do with your time and energy, well, hey, good for you. Given my lifestyle of writing ALL THE TIME for one paying gig or not-paying-enough gig or another, I’m striving more for a NaDoWriMo (National Don’t Write Month). Hell, I’d probably settle for a weekend.

  8. Anything that gets you writing, assuming that you want to write, is a good thing. I have participated in NaNo a couple of years now, and while I never ‘finished’ it did ingrain a writing habit in me. Currently I am averaging about 1500 words a day and NaNo gave me the courage to start a blog. I love to write, have no idea if I will ever make a living at it, but currently I am having a lot of fun just putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

  9. Thanks, John. I’m not the first to observe that the kvetching writers are pretty much like this guy.

    Mark @7, I don’t see that as a downside. Because the nice thing about NaNo is that it gives people permission to churn out crap. Unlike an experienced novel-writer who’s been there, done that, assembled the T-shirt with shaking, bloody fingers, it may be very hard for the new person to understand that some of the frustrations and obstacles are a normal part of the process (as opposed to your Muse’s way of telling you to throw the thing in a drawer and go back to your day job).

    And of course the other nice thing is that it’s a collaborative process; not the novel itself, but since a whole bunch of people are doing it at the same time, there’s a like-minded group that’s willing to bitch and moan and offer advice and suggestions and say “god, I hear you!” when you gripe about how you just want to reach through the page and strangle your main character. That sort of blabbing to non-writerly friends and family leads to situations where an otherwise blameless person is sitting in court, whispering to his defense attorney “Are you sure we can’t get a jury made up entirely of writers’ spouses?”

  10. Most people I know who participate have realistic expectations about the lack of commercial viability of the output. It doesn’t have to be about creating something to sell. It’s just a mental exercise to test their abilities and to have fun. It’s analogous to someone starting an exercise program and keeping a strict schedule at first to get in the habit. When people take up jogging, pro athletes don’t mock them and tell them that they are never going to make the big leagues. So why should pro writers care if the number of amateur writers has increased?

  11. I have have taken part in nano twice and while it may be full of flaws it works for me as an exercise. Like so many other people I can be deflected by life and work and family matters, but mentally setting aside time to write and achieving a target (and let’s face it, 50000 words is not in itself a novel; some are way more than that) it gets me trying to be focused.

    Privately I think nano is more an opportunity to write an extended short story rather than what I might regard as a novel, but as a stimulus to get something done, it’s fine.

    I have sold the odd short story and magazine article but I am certainly not a novelist, but you never know: maybe this year’s nano effort will be the spark that’s needed to make it happen. If not, there’s always next year.

  12. Thank you so much for the kind words about NaNoWriMo. For me, it’s an excellent way to churn out a first draft, or to try a different style of writing or story. Last year I discovered that if I try to suppress my natural sense of humor for an entire book, I will end up crying in the women’s room.

    I’d like to make a point to the people who complain about all the “crap” that gets dumped on editors and agents in December as a result of NaNo. Nobody in the NaNo world is telling writers that their first drafts are worth publishing, or that they shouldn’t do additional work on their manuscripts to make them readable, much less publishable. In fact, the official site puts up a special page, “I wrote a novel, now what?” after Nov. 30th, to direct aspiring writers and encourage them to continue writing, editing and becoming better writers. Nowhere on that page does it advise shipping the ms immediately to an unsuspecting agent without so much as a spellcheck.


  13. #7 Mark Terry: I’ll agree that a lot of people churn out crap during November but only a small percentage of them submit it. And only a tinier fraction of them do so without revision. I don’t actually know anyone who has done that, though from what my agent tells me it does happen.

    The other thing that I’ve seen tossed around is that people who only write once a year aren’t writers. I want to point out is the number of writers who have only written one book, ever. People like Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell (though to be fair, she WAS hit by a bus). Writers like Daniel Keys turn out a novel about every fifteen to twenty years. The point is that I don’t think it’s the quantity of your output or the frequency with which you write that determines the value of the words or even if one should be “allowed” to call oneself a writer. No one is going to tell an amateur musician that she’s not really a musician. Why do some folks think that a person can’t write for fun and still call herself a writer?

  14. I really have to wonder how much truth there really is to the “post-NaNo slushwave” argument. Do we have any pro editors saying that, in fact, they do get a sudden spike of unsolicited 50,000-word submissions in December and January?

    Because otherwise, it sounds like a lot of the sort of shocked-whispers speculation you hear from Old Money when New Money shows up at the country club wanting to fill out an application.

  15. Just a couple weeks agp, I said that I think NaNoWriMo would be a waste of time, but I meant my time. However, I also said something about how it encourages people to write badly, which I soon decided was bullshit.

    I really want to be where I can finish a novel in a month. And at my current speed, I should have about 50,000 words at the end of the month, but that will be only half of the novel, if even that.

    What I should have said was, I don’t feel NaNoWriMo is for me, but if it’s your thing, I won’t stand in your way.

    And I take back the part about NaNoWriMo encouraging people to write badly. I try to get my first drafts as clean as they can possibly be, just so I don’t have to wrestle so much with them later. But I get that other authors are fine with the big mop up job after writing the first draft. And that I can get about 50,000 words of fairly decent writing in a month, surely other authors can too. So that whole thing about NaNoWriMo encouraging people to write badly was bullshit.

  16. I’m completely and utterly unpublished and I still consider myself a writer. I try to write everyday, and most days I do baring life interrupting. This November I just started writing my very first novel. Up to this point I’d only done short works, but I had been urged by the last writer in residence for the Merrill collection to try a longer work. So while I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, I am starting a novel in November.

    I think NaNoWriMo is a great idea. It doesn’t work for me for my first novel as I don’t want the added pressure of an artificial word count goal on top of the pressure of writing a long form work for the first time. I might try it next year for my second, or maybe third attempt at writing a full length novel, and even then it would be to add 50,000 words to what may turn out to be a longer work.

  17. Mythago:

    Not to mention that inasmuch as most publishers won’t touch a 50k manuscript, the entire evaluation process for such a submitted work will be “huh, too short,” followed by recycling and a form rejection slip. Not exactly a time sink, especially when one has assistants for that.

  18. “Dude, a program that encourages thousands of people annually to celebrate the act of creating words — of creating their own words — and you want to piss all over that? If you look to the right, I have some kittens you can set on fire while you’re at it.”

    That says it all. Truly.

  19. In middle-grade (books roughly aimed for readers aged 8 to 12), 50K words is a perfectly fine length for a novel. My two middle-grade books are actually a bit shorter than that. Next year I’m going to try to clear my November schedule and attempt to NaNoWriMo me up a new book.

  20. Thanks for this. I’m on my second year of NaNo and it has taught me a lot about planning to write, butt-in-chair time, and mostly what I’m capable of accomplishing if I try. And for anyone who hates it – It’s not that hard to ignore. Really. I accidentally ignored it for twenty-six years.

  21. Thanks, John. And Mary. For me, NaNo is important in part because it connects me to an enormous community of people throwing themselves into the same struggle I am. I’ve made some very good friends by attending local NaNo events in the past. Everybody needs some friends with similar interests, but sometimes we writers tend to feel like we’re all alone.

    On another note, much of the advice I’ve received from pros in the past has boiled down to this: Let yourself write it badly. You can revise a badly written novel, but you can’t do anything with one that isn’t written yet. Except write it. NaNoWriMo gives people like me permission to let go of constricting perfectionism and just get words down on the page so that we have something to revise later. Not that we need permission. But the encouragement helps.

  22. Thank you, John. This year it seems there’s been a lot of people bagging on NaNo, including a pretty scornful article over at Salon; it’s nice to see such support from someone who is most definitely a pro (I checked for you).

  23. THANK YOU!
    I find these people so SO annoying. There are a lot of people out there who really benefit from NaNoWriMo – among them the perfectionists who have trouble even LETTING themselves write. These “pros” simply do not get that there are tons of people out there who need internal permission to make a mess. It’s not just fun it’s massively therapeutic!

    So those of you who have this writing thing in the bag – zip it.

  24. Mythago & John:
    I really have to wonder how much truth there really is to the “post-NaNo slushwave” argument. Do we have any pro editors saying that, in fact, they do get a sudden spike of unsolicited 50,000-word submissions in December and January?

    According to my agent she does see a spike and dreads it. A lot of people already think that it is okay to query agents without a finished novel, since they only have to submit a partial or just a query letter.The idea they get is that they will have time to polish it by the time they get a response.

    From my agent to the rest of the world: This is not a good plan. Polish the novel first. Then submit.

  25. This is says it all to me:
    “Readers don’t read process. They read novels.”

    I keep trying to think of something to add, but I can’t.

  26. For the NaNoWriMo produces a Huge Burden Of Slush…well it’s been my understanding that kvetching about slush madness doesn’t appear to be restricted to December. So, you know. As a non-pro anything writing related, I’m not terribly impressed with that complaint.

    Isn’t it a well known fact that writers of words in any month tend to produce painful piles of slag?

    I’m of the mindset that encouraging creativity in any form is worthwhile. Now who wants to see 15 months of brag book photos of my daughter?

  27. I’m not a fan of NaNo, mostly because I’m not sure we want to encourage people to try racing through their first drafts to the detriment of almost everything else in their lives, but that’s (a) not any threat to literature, and (b) none of my gorram business.

    I participate in the general “time to crack down and get AIC!” environment of NaNo, though I set much more modest goals (last year was 15K. This year is 8K to finish the novel that I added the 15K to last year).

    I’m pretty certain that even if I had nothing else to do at all, I still wouldn’t enjoy slamming out 50K words in a month. But as you say, my personal work process is not relevant to anyone else’s. If other people can count their daily output in Lake Units, then more power to ’em.

    I suspect that if anyone is sending their NaNo first drafts to editors in December, these are people who would send their first drafts to editors regardless of when they finish them.

    Every NaNo support site I’ve seen has words to the effect of “and then you can rest through the holiday season, and then spend January and February rewriting, and then get it critiqued by your writers group and then rewrite again…” That is, no one is encouraging people to send their hasty first drafts to editors. People are stupid on their own recognizance.

  28. @25 – Mary Robinette Kowal

    I’ve heard that from other people as well, and while I think that’s a valid complaint to make (that people might not know the proper way to go about querying agents or publishers), I’ve seen a lot of people use that to bash NaNo despite the fact that the problem stems from the writer’s ignorance of how to do things, rather than the event itself.

  29. Awesome post. I had no idea MRK wrote Shades during NaNo. That’s very inspiring. :)

    And I have to agree. I’ve won NaNoWriMo several times, and have yet to produce anything even close to good… but I’ve learned loads.

  30. Ah man, the kittens on fire made me laugh. A lot of authors are feeling increasingly threatened by the deluge of self-publishing going on in the wake of the e-market. I don’t really understand why. And a lot of journalists are also clearly and more understandably threatened by bloggers and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen in their profession in the midst of lay-offs and closures, and so feel that the amateurs should perhaps go off and do other things. But largely, it just seems that the event has gotten big and popular enough now that it got a lot more media attention, and the reflex reaction is always that anything popular must be bad for you. And why has it gotten popular? Because for quite a few people, it’s been very effective. And frankly, a bunch of writers getting into the process of writing — without someone playing editor too early to squelch creativity and telling them what magic formula they must absolutely write by — is always a good thing.

  31. #28 E. I suspect that if anyone is sending their NaNo first drafts to editors in December, these are people who would send their first drafts to editors regardless of when they finish them.
    Yes. This.

    @#29. Totally agreed. It doesn’t have anything to do with NaNo itself and is certainly not something that is encouraged.

  32. Somehow, I envision a mining engineer muttering resentfully to himself about all the extra gold ore that suddenly shows up and needs the shiny yellow stuff extracted. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t agents and publishers get into the business to find new, good writing from the morass of bad writing? Having more writing show up is certainly more work, but it’s also more gold at the end. Or am I missing something?

    Jack Tingle
    Who is a execrably bad writer, and writes only for his own amusement, and only when the spirit moves me.

  33. THANK YOU.

    This year marks my ninth attempt at completing a novel during November. I’ve got three wins (made the 50k word goal) and five losses. I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo to complete a novel for publication, I do it for the joy of creating. I currently work in supply chain management for a major university hospital, my job involves a lot of numbers and following law and policy. Not a lot of creativity is allowed— sometimes it’s even prohibited by Federal law! NaNoWriMo is the one time a year when I don’t dip my toe in, but instead dive feet-first into the creative waters.

    Maybe this year I’ll come out of November with something that, after a little polishing, will be worth submitting to publishers. Or maybe I’ll do with it what I did with my 2003 winner.

    Ah, 2003. The year I wrote 50,023 words, printed out a hard copy, deleted all electronic copies, and set the hard copy on fire.

    It was much cheaper than therapy.

  34. Although the supposed intent is to get people to apply arse to chair, if Twitter and FB is an indication, a lot of participants in NaNo are more enamoured with the idea of being NaNo writers than the practicality of completing NaNo work. That a lot of participants get so caught up in the fun of talking about being writers that they actually don’t do much in the way of writing.

  35. Insektor @38: But isn’t it better that they blab about it with fellow NaNo participants, instead of inflicting “I’m gonna be a writer someday” on friends, family, co-workers and innocent pets?

    I mean, really, that’s the thing: it’s harmless. The worse outcome is that some brave agents have to spent part of December as human shields, protecting editors and publishers against people who can’t read directions. (And it’s worth pointing out how MUCH those people can’t read directions, given that NaNo itself cautions people that the end product will be a crappy first draft and, if you seek publication, ought to revise it later on; so they’re not simply clueless about agent procedures but are just congenitally unwilling to follow rules.)

  36. Those who crack on writers and say pros don’t do it that way should look around. One of my favorite writers just reached one million words for the year for the fifth year in a row. And he never writes on spec. While I can’t keep up with reading his output because of so many other things to peruse, I have yet to read a book of his that was badly written. So to say it can’t be done…

  37. I think your take on this is excellent, Mr. Scalzi, particularly involving kittens and fire. Nothing makes me dislike a writer more than seeing the underside of his nose, except perhaps seeing him setting fire to a kitten.

  38. It’s one of those recurring arguments (every year, who’d have thought?) that I keep wanting to tackle, but then I get busy waxing the cats or whatever.

    Mostly, though, a large portion of those NaNoWriMo participants? Also read books.

    And the people who “want to write but don’t have time to read,” well, I met some of them back when NaNoWriMo was still little more than a gleam in Chris Baty’s eye. It’s ridiculous to blame NaNo for their existence. NaNo might just make them slightly more prolific, but, eh.

    Really bad slush submissions aren’t such a big issue, I’d think. Sure, it’s annoying, but speaking as somebody who’s been inside the slush mines before — isn’t that what form letters are for?

  39. Hey, I’ve done it a couple of times, never finished, but had a great time, learned a lot. If nothing else, it makes me VERY appreciative of all youse guys who write the books I love to read. Why would anybody be down on something that brings home how much actual work writing is?

    (#37, 2003 — love it. That could be a novel, too…)

  40. I mostly wish they’d change their rules so that you don’t have to start the novel from scratch. That’s my only kvetch. Because while the first two times I did it, it was with brand new material, about year three or four, I’ve never not had a novel in progress that didn’t demand all of my brain power. 50K new words on the existing novel would be nice, but it doesn’t count towards a NaNo win. (And I’d like to participate since among other things you get 50 percent off Scrivener’s Windows version if you win this year. Alas.)

  41. Pixelfish:

    “I mostly wish they’d change their rules so that you don’t have to start the novel from scratch.”

    Well, you know. If you do it with a currently existing novel you want to finish, it’s not as if the NaNoWriMo police will come to your door and cart you away. Break the rules! Break them, I say!

  42. On the other hand… who *cares* what these people think? Seriously. Putting out 50k words in a month is an achievement that requires a fair amount of dedication, and you’re going to throw it all out because some journalist is prissy on the internet? Do you want to write or not? Worthless criticism is a waste of time, go do something fun and/or productive… like writing.

  43. @37 – LOL! I did the same thing in 2003, my 1st NaNo year! It was glorious. I skipped participating again until this year, when I finally felt ready to try again. It’s going well, btw. Good luck to you!

    Back on topic, I’ve come to appreciate the haters. Now I know who they are, so I will look more critically at their work in the future, weighing the validity of their arguments against their demonstrated ass-hattery over NaNoWriMo.

    I’ve been participating in and covering NNWM 2010 for a Seattle arts & culture blog, and what I’ve discovered is that a LOT of teenagers are participating this year, and for some of them it’s not the first time. Not a single interviewee under 20 plans to submit their manuscript. They are doing it for fun, for love of books, to follow Salinger’s advice to “write what you want to read,” for lots of reasons, and they are AWESOME. Really, these kids, some as young as 12 (!!!) are supporting each other–not bullying each other, or doing drugs, or getting into more creative trouble–but writing and cheering each other on. The NNWM forums allow them access to like-minded teens and adults from all over the world, a huge, multi-cultural network that is willing to provide moral, technical, and research support 24/7, for free.

    And aren’t these the same types who grump and grumble that all the kids do these days is Tweet in netspeak? Shouldn’t these folks be thrilled that teens and young adults are writing 50K *actual words*, full stop? Which is it?

    Frankly, the whole endeavor is fantastic and it blows my mind. If one is hating on this, one is a bitter, angry little troll and I pity you.

  44. John, there are some people with badges, bookmarks, kindles, and showing library cards as ID, outside asking to speak to you about encouraging others to break the nanowrimo law?

    Something about contributing to the deliquency of a writer. Like a writer could ever be in a state of nondeliquency.

  45. Pixelfish @44: don’t think of it as cheating. Think of it as a shameless word-padding technique.

  46. Oh yes, this! I don’t get the hate on NaNoWriMo itself, nor how people can kvetch about how others spend their time. The organizers of NaNoWriMo did a tremendous thing – do a tremendous thing – by putting this whole thing together and giving aspiring writers a place to come together do this thing. NaNoWriMo helped me learn how to write a first draft, and how to have fun doing it.

    Granted, the community that has arisen around NaNoWriMo perhaps, at times, puts a great deal more emphasis on the first draft than is essential, at times eschewing the other aspects of the writing process – like re-writing, editing, pounding one’s head against the keyboard (no, wait, they got that one down), querying, and sometimes, sadly, reading. NaNoWriMo itself is not to blame – the organizers have gone out of their way to make sure the forums include all that helpful stuff, but it does sometimes feel like everything beyond the first draft is peripheral.

    This is likely because it’s quite hard to make a month-long competition based on editing/re-writing/querying. There is a NaNoEdMo, which has a goal of hitting 50 hours of editing time, but I don’t know a single person who’s done NaNoWriMo and gone on to participate in NaNoEdMo.

    Perhaps we simply need more emphasis on other aspects? I don’t really know. Nothing should be changed about NaNoWriMo itself, though; it’s obviously a success, seeing as how even middle schoolers and below are participating. And how could anyone possibly discourage that?

    Anyway, to condense my rambling: I think people upset about NaNoWriMo are silly. And if they really want other people to do more editing, do more re-writing, do more querying, etc, they ought to put the effort they’ve placed into kvetching towards those ends.

  47. Thanks, John and Mary.

    I think after a decade of occasionally award-winning journalism, I can honestly say I am a competent (even sometimes good) writer. But as Stephen King says in “On Writing” (and I’m paraphrasing), the path from being a competent writer to being a good one is to write every day and read every day. I left journalism five years ago (I do marketing for the booze business now, both gateway jobs for troubled but interesting writers) and NaNoWriMo (plus a blog) has helped me get back into the swing of everyday writing.

    I hope to finish the *first* 50,000 of my current manuscript, then return to an earlier, promising project, long after NNWM has ended. I also plan to carefully revise and edit both manuscripts before ever shopping them to agents and/or publishers. i already know I can write. Writing a novel, though… That’s a big mountain, and it’s pretty fun to aim for the top and start climbing.

  48. You just reminded me of Robert Silverberg, or rather, something he wrote.

    Back in the early 1960s, a good part of Mr. Silverberg ‘s literary output was . . . shall we say, adult erotic literature? i read a mini-memoir of that period, and he mentioned that at one point, he was banging out two books a month. I suspect that even today, he could write 50,000 words in 30 days without breaking a sweat.

  49. I’m neither a fan or a hater of the format. I’m sure it works for some people, and not for others — I don’t think it would work for me at this stage in my fiction writing skills, so I haven’t ever considered trying it.

    In recent conversations about it, I made a few comments (all of which were already covered in Mary’s post, so this is just piling on in general agreement):

    1. If you want to learn to write more productively, write more words. The format is less important than the output.
    2. What you’d have at the end of a month of frenetic writing is probably going to need some serious revising. It isn’t the final product. That’s not meant as a negative. Sometimes you need to have something finished to see the flaws.
    3. Most people couldn’t write a novel in a month cold. They have to plan some of the story first (plot, character, scenes). So the “month of writing” should be more like “the 1-3 months of planning and the month of writing”.

    The only comment I’d make against the format would be that I wouldn’t want someone to feel like they couldn’t hack being a writer because they couldn’t hack NaNoWriMo. The two are not synonymous.

  50. As to breaking Nano “law”- there’s even a whole forum for those of us who do it. Check out the NaNo Rebels :)

    I credit NaNo with finally getting me away from the “zomg novel too long” feeling and kickstarting my career. Did I submit my first nano novel? No. But I took the idea and redrafted it and that’s out on submission, along with another novel I started during a nano month. Both of these novels have had full requests from major trad publishers.

    I think NaNo is harmless at worst and awesome at best. There might be the next “whatever author you love” sitting around thinking about writing and then s/he does for NaNo and bam… a lifelong obsession/joy is discovered and we all get something good to read.

    Fortunately, for every pro I’ve seen bitch about it, I know at least 5 more who are not only saying “let em do it” but are participating.

  51. Keffy@42: “Really bad slush submissions aren’t such a big issue, I’d think.”

    Really bad slush submissions can probably be recognized before the end of the first page. If an editor gets all the way to the end of the piece and growls, “this must be one of those crappy NaNo pieces,” whose fault is it that he read it all the way through? Or to put a positive spin on it: it must have been better than most for him to stick with it to the end. And it probably won’t have been submitted in December – it’ll have had some revision if it was that good.

    I think the NaNo naysayers are confusing “being a writer” with “being published” or “being a professional writer.” John pointed out a few weeks ago, and Mary reminded us today, what it takes to be a writer – just put your butt in the chair and write. Getting published is a different matter, and requires additional skills and the cooperation of an editor. Writing professionally takes all of that and requires even more: writing to deadlines, juggling simultaneous projects, managing the business aspects of a writing career – you know, the stuff John complains about but secretly loves. NaNo isn’t going to help much with those, but before you even get to that point you need to have written something. That’s what NaNo is supposed to help with.

  52. Codrus- quibble here… but 1700 words a day isn’t a frenetic pace. That’s like an hour and a half of work, maybe two hours. For a lot of people, finding two hours to write is a challenge. For anyone serious about writing, I highly doubt it is an issue (who works only 2 hours a day?).

  53. Well, I did the short-term, September version one year, when I was young and stupid. It was crap. It was obviously crap. But it was fun to write, and fun to read later, and good.

    As someone whose biggest problem is always “if it’s not perfect, it’s wrong and has to be restarted” redefining “perfect” to be a count rather than content – in other words, permission to write crap, as long as there’s enough of it – really helps. Not enough – I still only write articles, and then rarely – but it helps.

    It also helps if you want to be a writer. I don’t. I haven’t figured out the NaNoWriMo freedom-equivalent for the things I want to be yet.

  54. “One of the kvetches I’ve seen from the pro set about NaNoWriMo is that writing a novel only in one month, once a year, is not the way pros do it”

    I’m with Stan @11 and Constance @48:

    Not everybody wants to be a pro. For writing enthusiasts, NaNoWriMo is just a great big kick of encouragement to get writing, not the path to the bestseller list.

    I do more songwriting than prose writing, and I used NaNoWriMo as an excuse to play the Songwriting Game for the first time. (Created by the Immersion Composition Society, the idea is to write 20 songs in one day.) I only played for 7 1/2 hours, but I wrote TEN SONGS. After a drought of not writing any music for probably a year. Or two.

    And of those ten, at least two are pretty much non-songs (although, according to the game rules, if it has a track number, it’s a song). But two others are songs I really like.

    I have no intention of becoming a professional songwriter. But thanks to a mental tool, a hack, very similar to NaNoWriMo (and thanks in part to NaNoWriMo itself, since it spurred me to make time to play the game), I now have ten songs I didn’t have before.

    Including two I really like.

    This is a Good Thing.

  55. I’ve never done NaNo, because I’ve always been hip-deep in revisions on something when November rolls around, but I love it because it gives me so many more writers to commiserate with! At least for a month.

  56. I love NaNoWriMo. I’ve participated four times. The first year I wrote a 54,000-word story in the month of November, and I paced it to be done right around 50000 words. That rush of oh my god I wrote a book look at it it’s right here on my shelf with my name on it was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had in my life. Did I submit it anywhere? No. I knew that a 50K book wouldn’t sell and I figured it probably wasn’t up to snuff anyway.

    Second try, I got 60,000 words, which was about half the book– I figured I’d try to write something actually novel-length. Hit some major structural problems, “won” NaNo but didn’t finish the book.

    Third try, I got 50K done in November and had a 100K agent-submittable third draft done by… July. I sent it to maybe twenty agencies over the next several months. Nineteen rejected it outright. The twentieth (well, the third, technically) asked for a second look at it and then sent me a “Not quite, but please send us your next work” letter.

    Last year I failed, but only because I found the book I was going to write on a shelf the WEEK BEFORE NaNo started and couldn’t recover. :-)

    This year’s book? I had 8K before November even started, I’ll have 58K by the end of the month, and when it’s ready it’s going to all twenty of those publishers again plus a few more. Maybe this one’ll get representation.

    If not? We start over again in 2011. :-)

  57. Also, the value of something like NaNoWriMo in the classroom is inestimable. You think it’s a great feeling to write a novel for the first time? Wait until one of your eighth graders manages to pull it off. Amazing.

  58. I’ve never understood why people spend their time and energy disparaging NaNo. How can it possibly cause harm the universe for NaNo participants to spend a month engrossed in their writing? I don’t get it.

    As for the professionals, NaNo is exactly the kind of process Stephen King espouses in his book, On Writing. Lock yourself up and get that first draft done, get the story out and down on paper. If it works for him…

  59. I’m a reader not a writer and very glad for anything that means more books will be available for me to read. Publishers sad about a spike? That’s their job; they’ll figure it out. Someone complaining about a writing event, of any size or shape or constraints, smacks of envy and whining to me. Maybe they could find something more interesting to do. Write a novel? Read?

    I rarely comment here, so while I am here, thanks for the smart thoughtful blog. It’s a great part of my busy days filled with high school students, small children, and small town playground politics. Best,Michele

  60. There’s been no difference, really, in terms of critical or reader reaction to novels I drafted in a month (or two, or three) as compared to novels I messed around with drafting for over for more than a year. They seem pretty much indistinguishable to readers (and editors!), and the former process is much more pleasant to me, so that’s mostly how I write now: lots of thinking, fast drafting, put it in a drawer for a little while, read it again, revise as necessary, line-edit, send out.

    I’ve never formally done NaNo, but back in the day I did “novel dares” which served the same purpose: encouraging you to sit down and write the thing already.

  61. @izanobu – Fair point. Let me clarify my thoughts.

    Mostly, it comes down to how many useful words you can generate per day. I don’t doubt that an experienced writer can manage 1700 useful words per day in a couple of hours if they know where they are going with the story, with the rest of a day’s work priming the pump for the next chapter. My own writing is mostly technical writing, which is Not the Same as Novel Writing, but the constraints are similar:
    * I need to generate x number of words per day to get my work finished on time.
    * A lot of the effort isn’t in writing the words, but in revising them so that a large document presents a coherent picture.

    2-3 hours per day to generate words isn’t crazy but might feel that way if you were doing this in addition to a day job. Add in the additional work of reading, revising, making sure the spine of the story still works and is going in the right direction and writing the novel starts feeling like a real job. ;)

    Related point: The process compresses a lot of creative effort into a short period of time, which doesn’t necessarily give an author time to come up with the best story or characterization. That’s closer to my original point: at the end of the month, you have a pile of words that probably have nuggets of useful material, but where significant chunks of it may need to be revised.

  62. Great post and very well said. This is my first NaNo and while I regularly find time during my week to write I’m finding that the process of partisipating is teaching me to better manage my time and focus. It is freeing to just type and not be continually editing pages as I go along. Just like anything it is only as good/helpful as what you take away from it. If you don’t like it, then don’t do it. It’s just that simple.

  63. These people … they’re just practicing. It is near Christmas and they’re just getting ready for the, “Bah Humbug” phase or should that be phrase? Little do they know, that the Ghosts of Writer’s block, past, present and future, have been taking notes and keeping an eye on the kittens.

  64. Johnny Caruthers@53: Or you can be Philip K. Dick and bang out 12 novels in one drug-fueled four month binge and see one of them win the Hugo.

  65. I couldn’t have said all that better myself… do whatever it takes to move your idea towards the bookshelf! I’ve recently formed a regular rhyme writing habit, but still neet to make time for novel writing dangnabit! :o)

    Rhyme Me a Smile

  66. What’s nice about it is that it doesn’t matter if you fail at it. Even if you only get say 20,000 words done, that’s 20,000 words of a draft novel. It’s a jumping off point. Say you only get 5,000 words written because your car blows up. That’s still the start of a novel. Me, I need to pick another month and do it, because November is impossible. But the number one word of advice authors give aspiring authors is always put your butt in the chair and write. That’s what they are doing.

    Agents and publishers do mine slush. If they don’t want to do it, they just close off submissions. They could shut down submissions until January if they wanted. But you can’t entirely expect them to be utterly thrilled that the amount of submissions they may have to go through doubles in a holiday period, especially when it’s probably going to be draft material, not ready to go material. But since the point of the thing is not to have something ready for market but to experience fiction writing, it’s not fair to play guilt trip on the event.

  67. Yes, thank you!

    Miss Snark, I think, once did a contest where she read query hooks and pointed out where she’d stop reading. Often it was in the first paragraph of the query. NaNo may bring on a deluge, but I’d think it’s far worse for the (already overburdened in December) mail-carriers than the writing pros.

    I wrote NaNo speed before I ever found NaNo, and I didn’t wait eleven months to start the next novel. Now I have piles of MSs that desperately need editing. That makes NaNo even more important to me–it gives me an excuse to stop editing and write madly for a month, even though the last thing I need is another novel to finish.

    I shall herewith link my own rant about the stickybeaks, because I can. (I hope.)

  68. Isn’t the key point of NaNo that people are writing for the sheer joy of it, and for the challenge of seeing what they can do in one month? My daughter has done it at least three times (and is doing it again this year), and she loves it–even when she’s howling over it being so hard. What could possibly be wrong with people loving writing?

  69. Unfortunately, every year a small but significant number of Nano writers fall for the blandishments of scam publishers and scam agents, not to mention scam book doctors and scam publicists. Anyone who wants to have their manuscript published should read SFWA’s Writer Beware pages first.

  70. A writer I know, Jim Strickland, did his first novel during NaNoWriMo. It’s pretty darned good. As is its sequel.

    If NaNoWriMo can bring us gems like these, I’m all for it. Even if I simply don’t have time to participate myself.

  71. What could possibly be wrong with people loving writing?

    They’re commoners! Just because they wrote something, they have the gall to think they’re writers!

    The irony of one of the co-founders of Salon setting herself up as one of the guardians of literary excellence should tell you about all you need to know re: NaNo snobbery.

  72. KD wrote in #75:

    I shall herewith link <a>my own rant about the stickybeaks</a>, because I can. (I hope.)

        Terribly sorry, miss, but are you by any chance the owner of this link?
    <a href=""> my own rant about the stickybeaks </a>

        Thank you for a decent rant and a concise summary of why the rules as they stand are actually a Good Thing. One hopes other commenters will take a moment to appreciate it as well; quality rant is rather scarce these days, and gets more so each day.

  73. Thank goodness these cranky “pro” writers pissing and moaning about NaNoWriMo aren’t trying to be filmmakers, or musicians. They’d pitch a mighty fit once they realized how many “amateur” short films and trailers and other such nonsense is clogging up the cinematic pipeline at video sites like You Tube, Vimeo, etc. Also, writing at least doesn’t cost a minimum of nearly a thousand plus dollars for a decent camera or a killer axe plus amps and recording gear.*

    *Of course, I am not saying writing is less of a feat, but at least from the get go, aspiring wordsmiths don’t have to worry about the same type of financial hurdles that aspiring photographers, filmmakers, and musicians have to deal with.

  74. “Even if you think it’s a waste of time, it’s not a waste of of your time, so why do you care?”

    Thank you! That’s exactly what I think – why do so many people actually take the time to tell others NOT to do NaNo or that it’s crap/worthless/evil? Why bother? You do your thing, and let those who want to give the crazy-fun that is NaNoWriMo a try do theirs.

    And for the record, my debut novel is coming out next year (in 6 countries – so far!), and it started life as my NaNoWriMo project for 2007. Anyone who wants to think about that – just take a minute – and see how that’s a LOT of time passing between Nov 2007 and Feb 2011. Most NaNoWriMo peeps don’t think they can actually finish a “50,000-word novel” and get it published in December. There’s finishing the book, for a start. Then revisions. Then, for me, 6 months of finding an agent. 3 more months of revisions with said agent. 10 months to SELL the damn thing. Editorial process, etc. etc. And here we are.

    NaNoWriMo works for SOME people, as you rightly point out – so why not let those people, like me, have our fun?


  75. One of the things NaNoWriMo has taught me in the last five years is that I have a far better chance of writing lots’n’lots of words if I have a very good idea where I’m going with the story ahead of time. Spending the month of October thinking out the plot, working out the main characters and researching (ahhhh, research) the background pretty much ensures that not only will I be ahead of the game mentally before November 1st, but that I’m quite likely to not only hit 50K but write enough to actually finish the dang thing.

    (26K as of this AM, not that I’m bragging or anything. All right. I’m bragging.)

  76. Craig @83: perhaps they’re just taking a breather from the usual habit of bitching about fanfic.

  77. The “permission to write” that NaNo gives to its participants is golden. I had always wanted to Be A Writer, but it took discovering NaNo to get me past the fear of failure. Five years (and five wins) later, I’m a lot closer to being publishable. If (when) I get a novel published, Chris Baty is going in the Acknowledgements.

    To address another point: I’ve played by the NaNo rules up to now, but this year I’m working on a novel I already started. If I hit 50K new words, I think I’ll claim a win anyway, because dammit, 50K words are 50K words. If I fall short, hey, I’ll still be a lot closer to having another finished novel, thanks to the goal and the forums and the camaraderie. I’ve written 10K so far this month — that’s about half where I should be for NaNo, but it’s significantly better than my speed in other months.

    NaNo is what you make of it.

  78. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo and probably never will. But it’s because for me November is a very busy time and there just aren’t the hours in the day to get the word count in.

    Realistically, I probably wouldn’t sign up for it — I’m sure they don’t make T-shirts in my size anyway. And I have looked into the 3-Day-Novel over Labour Day (it’s Canadian) mentioned early, because I like thought of churning out a draft in a Clarion-esque sort of maximum overdrive effort. (evil grin)

    Dr. Phil

  79. If nothing else, I’d like to urge NaNoWriMo.on people who think novels are written when the Muse descend on a cloud of dry ice and sticks her tongue in your ear. (Yes, I’m looking at the people who need to finally get the memo that George RR Martin isn’t anyone’s bitch.) It’s work, folks.

  80. 25k as of yesterday; this post is the best thing I’ve seen today. I’ll add another title to the “NaNo novels that got published” pile: “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen.

    This came up in conversation at one of our writing get togethers last week. The main topic of our discussion was the apparent perception (I say apparent because this is anecdotal, and I have no names), that folks who participate in NaNo aren’t taking writing seriously, or are somehow cheapening or insulting the craft. If there are, in fact, pros entertaining this ridiculous notion, then pardon me if I say poppycock. I can’t speak directly for anyone else, but I take it very seriously. Every project I start in November might be something I finish. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m feeling good about this year.

    To those discussing the notion of “breaking the rules” by continuing something they’ve already started, in my experience that’s the one rule that’s most commonly ignored (I’ve done it also), and the one most people regret ignoring (also me). For whatever reason, I and everyone I know who has chosen to continue a previously started work in November (mine was the previous year’s still unfinished project), have met with our greatest failures in those attempts. For some reason, it seems like trying to continue something in November is a recipe for disaster. That said, if you can pull it off, I won’t tell anyone.

  81. I am full of woe, for I haven’t been able to participate for two Novembers. However, I did manage 145,000 words one November. It was just strange to find out that I could actually write that much—even if the result ultimately was 1.5 trunked novels to add to the Drawer of Shame. But I learned more in that one month than I did in two years of on-and-off random writing. A sustained effort is different from one that isn’t—and it works for some, doesn’t work for others.

    And I don’t understand why pro writers might feel remotely threatened by all this, apart from that a chance to say You’re doing it wrong!! can feel empowering to write. Especially if one knows that someone out there will read those words and get deflated.

    Thank you, John, for re-inflating at least some of those NaNoWriMo-ers.

    I hope I get to heal enough to participate next November. We’ll see. The weekend I wrote 10k in a day filled with incident—that was wonderful. Frustrating to see that the story outline slipped through my fingers like a wet fish, but I never knew plots could to that before to a writer. You’d think that a month where many readers get to know the hell and the ecstasy of the writing process would be encouraging to many professional writers but… I guess not for some.

    If the PTSD and bipolar let up, I’ll try for something coherent next year.

  82. As a current NaNo participant, I’d heard there was some hating going on in the pro circles but I shrug it off and keep going. Here’s the thing, NaNo for me is always fraught with peril. I have a con to run the very first weekend of the month. This year there was the added ‘bonus’ of working the polls on election day (which starts at 5 am when I get up and ride my bike to the polls and ends by about 10:30 pm after we’ve dropped everything off and I pedal back home). So this year, I was expecting that I would flame out early and rededicate myself in 2011.

    Three things saved me:, Write or Die, and a very good friend who looked at me and said, “Yes you’re behind but by god, you are not quitting this year. We’re going to do it together.”

    I was already coming into NaNo with a somewhat structured writing habit – 750 words or more every day. On some days, it was 1500 or more. Write or Die allows me to grind words out when I really need to; my inner editor quivers in fear. And writing with my friend means that periodically we look up at each other, grin maniacally, and shout things like “Zombie cows, yes! Keep that in!” and “Dude, we can go to the pub after this!” along with, “Grey’s Anatomy is on in ten minutes! Finish!”

    We have our priorities in order. NaNo has moments of silly that balance out the serious.

    Some of this will stick. A lot of it will get thrown out and I’ve learned that it’s okay. Whether or not anything gets sent out for publication is up to the whims of fate and the red pen when I settle down to do a line edit. But publishing, for me anyway, is not necessarily the point. I’ve been published (non-fiction and some poetry) and have endured that gnawing sense of being judged for what you just put down on paper. I don’t fear that.

    At the end of the day, as other people have pointed out, it’s the doing that counts. Creating habits and disciplines that work for you. And zombie cows.

  83. Yeah, not sure why it is that it irritates some. I don’t do NaNoWriMo, because November’s a really bad month for me, and I’m more of a novel in 90 kind of writer, but I think that anything that gets a bunch of people who really want to write writing is a good thing. Make it February or March, especially this year when I’ve got a novel due in 6 months and another 6 months after that and I might give it a go.

  84. I’ve never understood why haters think that all the people who participate in NaNo want to be pro and why writing gets to be the only art form where only people who are srs bsnss can participate. I’ve done NaNo 5 of the last 7 years (first one when I was 17!), and I’ve never intended to pursue a career in writing. It’s a fun event and it forces me to dedicate time to one of the things that I like to do that often gets shoved aside for other things I like to do and the sense of community is one of the best things about it. So thanks pro hater for telling me how the “real” pros do it, but since my overly cliche highly mediocre words are probably never going to leave my computer I think I’ll just keep having fun and doing something I like.

  85. A strange and mystic business, writing. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most. And yet in spite of this lack of a continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes — praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs. (John Steinbeck)

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