If you’re not on social media you might have missed it: it’s NaNoWriMo. Translated, that’s National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that you aim to write a novel in a month – first draft, sure, but a novel. That means writing between 50,000 and 100,000 words. There’s a website where you can register, track your word count, connect with other writers doing the same thing and earn achievement badges. At the end, if you make it, you get a digital trophy! There’s a lot of chat on social media about it, with writers cheering one another on, comparing word counts and commiserating.
The thing that NaNoWriMo is great at is motivating writers. We’re legendary procrastinators, most of us. Having an externally imposed deadline and reward structure plus widespread recognition and social support can be an absolute gift. There is no denying that NaNoWriMo works beautifully for many, many people.
Obviously what I’m building up to here is the fact that it doesn’t work for me.
That doesn’t mean I think it shouldn’t be A Thing. I totally do. It’s a tool, one that produces great results for many people. My problem is that those people NaNoWriMo works for are a particular subset of writers with a particular process, and we do not all fit into that mould.
NaNoWriMo works for:
1. The naturally prolific
If your process is to sit down and write massive word counts for solid blocks of time, then NaNoWriMo is right up your street. It also helps if you’re one of:
2. Those with a splurge-and-edit process
We’re all different in the way we write. Some get first drafts out of their heads onto the page in one giant prolific creative outpouring, then spend a bit more time working that splurge up into something novel-y.
3. The pros
You’ve published six novels already and you know yourself and your writing well. You’ve got your book planned out, you’ve written lots of backstory for all your characters and you’re good to go. Let’s do it.
4. Those with time
Retired? Professional author? Bonanza. You can work every day. Or maybe you’re able & willing to make time: you’re a night owl and you can cope on five hours’ sleep! It’s not forever, it’s only November.
Here’s who NaNoWriMo may not work for.
1. Those with processes which are slower, steadier, or require more downtime.
2. Those who tend to edit and structure as they draft.
3. Writers who have to balance their work with demanding jobs, family care commitments, health problems, or disability.
4. Writers who are feeling their way through their first novels, learning and discovering as they write.
OK, you may say, so what’s the problem? It works for some people and not for others. Most things in this world do. Marmite built a whole marketing campaign out of it.
My problem is that the whole NaNoWriMo thing reinforces the ‘ass-on-the-chair canard’ so excellently pointed up in this article by Electric Lit’s writing advice column. There is this strange idea that writing is the thing you do where you write the words on the page. If you are not doing that then you are not writing, so get in front of that computer/notebook/scroll and quill and bloody well make that novel right now.
This is not true. Stories are built in brains. The words on the page are the transmission medium. Writing is not one of those things that you get done quicker and/or better by working harder at, at least not in so direct a way as plonking yourself down in front of a computer and making yourself do words. You can undoubtedly work hard at it by reading widely, doing human stuff, listening to people, thinking, exercising, avoiding procrastination, building a writing routine which works for you and putting lots of lovely influences into your brain. But this is oblique work. It is subtle. It is not of the ‘get a bigger hammer’ school of writing philosophy.
The ways in which people get stories from their brains onto the page can vary wildly. I strongly recommend The Nervous Writer podcast, where you can hear lots and lots of different professional authors being interviewed about how they work. It’s refreshing and inspiring and it shows you we all write in different ways. Some are ‘burst-of-creativity’ types. Some can only do about 1000 decent words a day. Some splurge then edit. Some find first drafts painfully slow. None of these is wrong. They all produce novels.
Around this time of the year, I guarantee it, I’ll start to see writers (especially new writers like me) metaphorically banging their heads against NaNoWriMo. Blank pages and panic on Twitter, contrasting with tweets from those it works for, announcing they’re already 30,000 words down (achievement badge achievement badge achievement badge!) There’ll be the casualties by the end, people feeling glum because they only managed 35,000 words. The whiff of self-doubt hangs in the air. Other people have done it, so why can’t I? Surely if I was a proper writer, I could just sit down and hammer it out?
And who knows the number of people who’ve sat down and hammered first drafts out and then torn their hair out over them for a year before throwing them in the bin. There is no way to fuck a story like writing it without getting it (at least kind of, basically) straight in your head first. NaNoWriMo doesn’t tell us whether that first draft was any good, or how long it took to edit, or whether it was ever published. It just gives you a trophy for bunging 70k words one after the other.
I suppose I’m writing this for anyone who’s feeling a bit despairing: maybe staring at an empty notebook, wondering where everyone else gets the words from, and thinking that they’re not a writer after all. It’s so temptingly simple, so in line with our Protestant-work-ethic culture, to think that working harder will produce better results. If you can’t do it, then (oh God) maybe you’re just a dilettante or a hobbyist. More words per day = a more pro writer. And it looks that way too, when NaNoWriMo is so directly competitive and everyone’s talking about it (and you hear the most from those who succeed, because, y’know, social media).
But if it’s not working for you, all it means is it’s not working for you. You’re better off writing your own draft, in your own time. It’ll all be over in a month, and you’ll be saving yourself a lot of heartache by continuing to do your writing, in your way, and knowing it’s OK. And in the meantime, try to ignore Twitter.