Why NaNoWriMo may not work for you

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 Worried 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.










Stop that writing and wash the bin please

I’m writing this at the kitchen table. Ordinarily I’d be writing it on the sofa, because the stove is in the sitting room and it’s snug and warm in there, but Waybuloo is on. If you don’t know Waybuloo then count yourself lucky. It’s a yoga-themed children’s programme featuring wide-eyed elf things that talk a horribly twee toddler-speak (‘Noktok want strawberries for all the cheebies!’) and periodically urge viewing children to adopt the tree pose. The whole hellish concoction is overlain with that ghastly ‘relaxation’ music they pipe into spa treatment rooms. My daughter, who’s two, is entranced by it, and if she’s entranced it at least means I can write this. She’s not supposed to be here, you see. She’s supposed to be at nursery.

We are a family of four, though the fourth member is still internal at 21 weeks gestation. My husband works full time. We have nursery care for our daughter two days a week: Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday she often visits her grandparents. I take care of her on Thursday and Friday. Theoretically that means I have two good work days in a week (bearing in mind that I need to use some of that childcare time to do all the other crap that needs doing in the week: cleaning, batch cooking, taking the car to the mechanic, taking delivery of and stacking logs, going to the post office, going to my midwife appointments, picking up prescriptions, waiting in for the BT guy, going to the hairdresser (sadly infrequent), packing away clothes that my daughter no longer fits and washing new ones, dealing with the endless supply of laundry, mending broken bits of the house like the loo doorknob that’s always coming off its spindle, painting walls, raking leaves, picking up milk and bread and juice and whatever else we forgot to stock up on on Saturday).

Two good work days. Those break down into two mornings of novel writing, as mornings are my best and most productive time, with a walk in the afternoon followed by some editing at the end of the day, when I can insert all those changes that occurred to me while I was walking around. Once I’ve done my blank-page writing, the real coalface stuff, I’ll sort out writing admin: seeing if anywhere I like the look of has opened submissions recently, querying existing submissions if it’s been aaaages, maybe reviewing short stories I’ve not sold yet and seeing if there are any enticing open markets that fit with the theme and word length, editing stories into the right format to submission, writing the accompanying blurb.  I’ll probably do some laundry too, and unload the dishwasher, maybe put the bin out, hoover, and do something crazy like changing the hand towels or washing out the food recycling bin. That’s just the way I roll.

In theory, following this routine I can knock out about 3,000 words of new material a week, plus editing what I’ve got and sorting out the regular plot/character snarl-ups that first drafts create. 3,000 words a week is what I need to do, minimum, if I am going to get Novel Draft 1 finished before the new baby arrives. I can also chip away at my collection of unpublished stories: sending them to beta readers, applying changes, finding new markets and submitting to them, hopefully finding the stories a home and moving them from the ‘Finished’ to ‘Finished and Published’ file on my hard drive. I can keep the house clean, organised and habitable, plan and cook family meals, and enjoy one on one time with my daughter for the last two days of the week, taking her to playgroup and the park and generally feeling pretty content with my work-life balance.

Here’s how that worked out in practice for the last three weeks.

Week 1: Ill Monday and Tuesday with cold contracted from my daughter which stopped me from sleeping, meaning I was able to write new material on Monday but had to resort to editing and admin on Tuesday because your brain cannot do blank-page writing on broken sleep and a 6a.m. wakeup. I can’t even caffeinate, because I’m 5 months pregnant. 1,200 new words written. 1,800 down on weekly target.

Week 2: Clock change. Daughter up at 5 a.m. on Monday because toddlers don’t know or care about pointless daylight savings rules dating from a hundred-year-old war, and why should they? Rose to discover there was no mains water supply to the house. A break in a major pipe meant that our whole neighbourhood, including nursery, had no water. No childcare all day. Managed 1,500 words Tuesday and a further 800 on Weds. 700 down on weekly target, 2,500 down overall.

Week 3 (this week): Out at writing event on Sunday night, got to bed at midnight. Woken at 5:30 by toddler. Brain wrecked on 5.5 hours sleep, able to do some new writing but again reverted to editing after a while. Nursery rang at 5 to say my daughter had been sick, meaning she needed an immediate collection and was subject to a 48 hour exclusion because she had a vomiting illness. No childcare Tuesday. 900 words written. 2,100 down on weekly target, 4,600 down overall. 4,600 is a week and a half’s work. A week and a half lost, out of three.

This is what it is really like being a writer and a mother of small children. The buck stops with you. Your time is, officially, the least important of everyone’s. Your novel, when it comes to the crunch, is less important than washing out the bins, because the bins need emptying right now and your novel is a thing of potential, built on faith, a thing which may at some point be recognised as worth doing but right now earns you no money, no allowances, no reward of any kind. Certainly no respect. Let’s face it, it’s very unlikely to get published. Obviously if we all obeyed that dire warning then no novel would ever be written because the stats are the same for all of us starting out. But as far as the world is concerned you’re on the wrong side of the odds, because you’re just another frumpy mum in leggings pushing a pram in the rain, and everyone knows real writers are crazy clever eccentric men who stay up late being whisky-drinking tortured artistes and look like they have important things to say and also never have scrambled egg on their clothes.

There is no wage, no contract, no sick pay. There is no leverage. If the choice is between your working day and your partner’s, your partner’s will win. The mortgage needs paying. Food needs buying. Someone has to stay at home on a rainy day with a sick toddler and endure 8 hours of Waybuloo, coat refusal, floor cleaning and tantrums over the wrong colour cup.

That’s not to say that this is wrong, or illogical. It is inarguable. There’s no way round it. The mortgage does need paying. Your novel is not, yet, White Teeth. It could be a total pile of horseshit. You are going to have to finish it, against these odds, around being a mother, before you have any chance of your work being recognised as valid. And these odds come on top of all the standard writers’ difficulties: imposter syndrome, self-doubt and the tricky internal voice that Anne Lamott memorably labelled Radio KFKD. When you are a female, unwaged writer with small children, the world repeatedly and forcibly informs you that you are an imposter. What time you have is bought with your partner’s generosity and support, and your family’s. It’s a luxury. It’s the first thing to go when the going gets tough. It takes a loooong time to write a book and you will seem to achieve nothing, in return for this generosity, for at least a year. You feel simultaneously guilty that you have any time at all (you’re just indulging yourself at your husband’s expense!), guilty that you’ve put your kids in nursery to pursue a fantasy (poor kids!), overworked (because you’ll know other mums with an equal amount of childcare who quite sensibly don’t shoehorn two days of work into it and, consequently, have highlights, weekends away and clothes that fit), and frustrated by having the little time that you so desperately need constantly snatched away from you. You have all the pressures of a job, but nothing to show for it. And you still have to do the cleaning. And yet this is the best state of affairs that could exist for you right now. It’s the dream.

The fight must be in your own mind, to prevent these challenges from invalidating you and your work, to keep the flame of it alive even when your writing time is invaded over and over and over again. To carry on believing in your book when there is no evidence – not a jot – that it is any good. When even you often think it may not be. To carry on defending your work time, scrabbling it back where you can; to carry on taking yourself seriously as a writer.  You must back yourself.

If you are lucky, as I am, you will have a few people backing you too. But sometimes it will feel like it’s just you.

Repeat after me:

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

And start again tomorrow.