Saturday, October 29, 2011

3 reasons I hate NaNoWriMo

[caption id="attachment_1808" align="alignleft" width="180" caption="No, I'm not participating. Should you?"][/caption]

This time of year, thousands of authors are gearing up for a month of uber-productivity. They're canceling weekend plans. They're figuring out how to re-set their alarm clocks. They're shifting work deadlines so they never, ever have to work late. At least not for the next month. And they do these things for a single purpose: to write a novel in 30 days.

Yes, next month is NaNoWriMo. And I hate it.

Sorry, but it's the truth. The mere thought of this causes a Cheney-like sneer to dominate my features. My eyes being to auto-roll at the mention, and I start looking for sharp objects to end the pain. One way or another.

On the surface, NaNoWriMo is a great idea. You join a thousands-strong peer group and achieve the unthinkable; you write your own novel, and you do it in 30 days. No editing. You just write. You shock your brain into a routine that keeps your butt-in-seat, forces you to pound on the keys, and just keep going until you hit (at least) 50,000 words. Then... you win.

All of that? I love. And hate.

I hate NaNoWriMo for 3 basic reasons:

  1. Repeat offenders. NaNoWriMo, at its core, teaches you that yes, you can put the requisite work in to write 50,000+ words. Congrats. You've done it. You know you can. You have what it takes inside you. And you did it in only 30 days. Imagine what you could do with 365 days?

    But you forget that last part. You've somehow become conditioned that the only time you can write is in November, and the only way you can complete a novel is to do it all within a month.

    What are you, Pavlov's dog? You did it! Great. It's time to move on. It's time to incorporate writing into your daily routine. It's time to move from doing a novel activity and becoming a novelist. Did you think high school was so great that you wanted to repeat it again? Of course not. So stop it. Get serious with your writing.

  2. Premature epublication. The writing process is not over when your word counter ticks past the 50,000 mark. That's just the first draft. And since every author will tell you that their first published novel sucked compared to their other works, imagine how terrible your first draft ever really is!

    This is reality. Writing leads to re-writing. Lots of it. And then it leads to editing. Which feeds back into more re-writing, more editing... Rinse. Repeat.

    You are not done when you hit 50,000 words, or on November 30th. But I will bet money that around mid-December, every eBook publishing marketplace will see a new crop of "NaNoWriMo 2011 Winner!" books show up on their virtual shelves. I know for a fact I'll be bombarded with "winners" presenting me audio book-versions of their freshly "completed" books for Hold the fort! NaNo just ended days ago! How did you go through all the revisions, editing, production, design and the rest of the things necessary to create a digital book for publication in a matter of days? Oh... that's right. You didn't. Writing is just the beginning.

  3. Not everyone is cut out to be a writer. I hesitate to use the word most because it assumes I have knowledge of over half the population, and I obviously don't. But I'm going to break my own rule and say this: Most people do not possess the skills to write a cogent novel. And I'll go so far to say that most people could not be taught the skills to write a cogent novel. And of those that do, most won't put in the time, energy and effort to get better at the skill of writing. Like a never-was cover band, they'll continue to pump out the same low-level work and never, ever improve.

If you've made it this far, you're either fist-pumping in the air with me or just looking for my contact info to tell me what a giant douchebag I am. Thanks to the former, and it's under contact for the latter.

Having said all of this, I remain committed to helping indie authors and publishers be even more awesome than they already are. But that presumes a certain amount of awesomeness to begin with. And yes, I can point to a myriad of awesome indie authors. These are the people who elicit a little squee from me when they publish a new book.

So see? I'm not a cold, heartless bastard who's trying to keep you from expressing your creativity. Far from it. I'd just like you to do it better. Much, much better. If you don't know if you have what it takes to write a novel, then I highly urge you to take part in NaNoWriMo this year. Or next. And then once you've learned that you can, it's time to learn the rest of what it means to be a writer today. Because you're just getting started!

Oh, and because someone will ask: No, I've never participated in NaNoWriMo. I'm not a novelist. And I have no desire to be one. My love/hate relationship is much more pragmatic than simple jealous anger.

Let the hate mail begin.


  1. I agree with you on #1. The step after Write NaNo novel is Revise NaNo novel. It is not Write another NaNo novel next year.

    I agree with you on #2. Fervently.

    I don't agree on #3. While I don't think everyone can be a New York Times bestselling author, I do think any reasonably intelligent human being can be taught to tell a coherent, interesting story if he or she is willing to put in the work.

    Liked your post.

  2. Many people do use NaNoWriMo as their only content creation window, and never develop the rest of the skills that rounds them out as a writer (editing, character development, research, plot structure, etc).

    NaNoWriMo does help by providing an external structure and support network for people struggling to get over that first hurdle of just finding time to write. We're wired for goals and milestones, and it helps us stay focused as we're making life changes. Like measuring your weight a diet, or picking a song to play when learning a musical instrument. Unfortunately, like dieting, people often relapse as soon as the goal is met. In NaNoWriMo that means trying again the next November.

    You just get the concentrated dose of this half-assery involved because of your epub involvement. NaNoWriMo does help a lot of people get moving, if they're just using it as a stepping stone in an ongoing process.

    However, since you raised an interesting point I just registered and - we can point them at ePublish Unum, and maybe encourage people to move past the yearly content binge and onto really publishing.

  3. Its a game. Games are fun.

    But on a similar note, why is creating a five-minute, 20 slide presentation and giving it to 700 people you'll likely never talk to again such a big deal?

    Both are practice. As long as everyone remembers that, we'll all be okay.

  4. I agree with you on every point. Particularly on the editing/re-writing issue. Writing 50,000 words might give you a first draft; if it's your first ever 50,000 I doubt I'm gonna want to read it.

    I know a lot of talented and hard working authors and podcasters who are self publishing their work. They treat it as a business because it IS a business. Today's self publishing is not the same as the vanity publishing of the past. Writing a first novel is a huge achievement. But, pushing it out into the market without doing the requisite work in re-writes and editing floods the market with sub-par material that reflects badly on all self publishing authors.

    But, besides the 3 reasons you already listed to hate NaNoWriMo, there is a 4th that you missed; all of the tweets about it. I'm gonna put filters in this year I think. I'm already sick to death of them and it is only 10/29. Ugh.

  5. Evo
    Plenty of valid points there, sir.
    The writing game is one of continued revision, as is everything in life. To remain static is to wither and die.
    I did participate in NaNo 2009 and the novel has doubled in size and been rewritten extensively... and it's still to see the light of day! Perhaps, late 2012.

    Stay Alive - NC

  6. "I remain committed to helping indie authors and publishers be even more awesome than they already are. But that presumes a certain amount of awesomeness to begin with."

    On the basis of those profoundly awful two sentences, I shall not be requiring your commitment, thanks.

  7. Good article. I think NaNoWriMo is a good thing, but new authors need to understand how difficult writing fiction is. Even short fictions requires a ton of work to make it good. If you write 50K words, my hat is off to you, but just like Evo wrote, you are just beginning.

    It's not just revision that's needed. Authors need to learn their craft, and that's not difficult, just time consuming. There are tons of resources out there for new and professional authors alike.

  8. Thanks to both this article and Katie, I'm going to use the month to establish a routine for myself and FINISH THE SHIT I'VE ALREADY STARTED.

    I have three, THREE books that are partly done. Time for a month of hard-core editing and some writing that I can carry over into December. And January, February, March...

  9. Thanks, Holly. It's that "willing to put in the work" thing that cascades all the way down, getting in the way of the learning parts.

    Fantastic idea, Jeff!

    Tyler -- Interesting corollary, but a key difference exists. There isn't a professional analog to the Ignite/PechaKucha format. Sure, some are better than others. But everyone is an amateur. Can it lead to more things? Of course. But those are different things. Still, practice is important. (And to your second comment, GO GO GO!)

    Well said, Sue!

    Good on you, Neil!

    You can find much better literary coaches than me*, Fred. Never said I was one!

    Yes, Leo... there are!

    (* On purpose!)

  10. I was ready to get my panties in a bunch over this, but honestly, I don't disagree with 1 and 2. In fact, whenever I hear people have 'won' 6 years running, I always think, 'So... why don't you just write a book then?'
    But I think you're off-base with three. There are lots of people who do NaNoWriMo with no intention of publicly releasing their writing. They do it as a way to stretch and grow as a human being. Do most people run marathons because they think they have a chance at being the fastest? Do I think I have any actual possibility of being a ballet dancer at 33? No and no, but we still participate in these activities for the experience of it. To make ourselves stronger. To be able to say we've done it. Why piss on that parade?

  11. Very well said, sir, although I disagree on some of your point. You're absolutely right that not everyone is cut out to write, and that too many people churn out a first draft and think they're finished, and that a lot of people condition themselves to only write in November.

    But on the other hand, I DO think it's a great motivator for people who need that swift kick in the ass to get started. If you think of NaNoWriMo as a be-all and end-all, you're doing it wrong. If you're using it as a shot in the arm to make yourself BEGIN the long, long stretch of work that writing requires, then I think it's all to the good.

  12. I know #3 comes off a little harsh, Elizabeth. That's mostly on purpose. I have little to no exposure to those you call out as your example. If NaNo helps them go... go. No parade-pissing intended. I used Warrior Dash earlier this year to prove to myself that I could run a 5K. I'll do it again next year. But neither experience will lead me to believe I'm a runner by any definition! :)

    And nice to see you on my side, Blake!

  13. Yes, there are people who do NaNoWriMo each year, and only write then. But if they are doing it for a hobby, why not? They are willing to put in the time just during November, but aren't willing to do it full time. And some people do attempt to publish their draft without editing it, but that it hardly NaNoWriMo's fault, they are up front that this doesn't give you a book ready for publication. And yes, not everyone is cut out to be a novelist, but what of it? Not everyone can be a great martial artist, but that doesn't stop people from studying martial arts. If painting was limited to those with the aptitude to be great artists, art supply stores all over the country would be shut down. Yet, we encourage people to try their hand at art, but why are people reviled for trying their hand at writing?

  14. I'm not taking aim at hobbyists, Robert. Doing somethings for the love of the thing itself is a fine goal. I dabble in many different things in which I'll never become a pro.

    But there exists a great gap between trying for fun and doing for commercial viability. I never want to discourage the former. And the latter takes care of itself. I just find myself in the unenviable position of dealing with those who don't know the difference. And that makes me cranky. But it only happens once a year. :)

  15. I actually agree with most of what you say, but, all the same, I don't hate NaNoWriMo. In fact, I love it. Proficiency and mastery of a skill doesn't have to be the soul purpose of taking up a craft. I spent over 7 years playing the trumpet in my middle school and high school years. I was a repeat offender, doing scales and random songs chosen by my director although I was definitely not cut out to be a professional musician. I just didn't put in the time or effort for it, and I certainly didn't have the skills or the history to make myself one. That said, those years were well spent. Beyond being enjoyable, I feel certain playing a musical instrument made me more successful in other areas of my life, and their is research that suggests I am right about that. Isn't it possible that engagement in a creative activity--even if one isn't masterful or even proficient --is good for something? Do you have to hate it?

  16. The pursuit of happiness is indeed a worthwhile pursuit, Jessica. And my inner band-geek knows that what you say is true. Sports, music, theater, art... doing those as a child do indeed make you a better person. And picking up a hobby or two later in life is an excellent idea.

    But it doesn't take much looking to see that there are many people in all those leisure activities who have a difficult time grasping reality. Rather than just doing it for the fun, they think "I did it, there for it must be commercially viable". You see it with garage bands, shitty karaoke singers (Ok, that's kind of funny), artists, photographers, athletes...

    Me? I'm stuck dealing with those who think that just because they strung 50,000 words together, millions of people are waiting to read it. Which is why I'll be cranky as hell right around the second week of December. :)


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