Well, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and as you can find on their website, https://nanowrimo.org, it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the “transformational power of creativity.” In simple terms, several thousand writers around the world come together, online or locally, and write a 50,000-word novel during November each year.
NaNoWriMo is the support of a community for an intrinsically individual endeavor, and it works. Every year, thousands succeed in making their goals. Several hundred have been published, after a solid editing. Most are not—or not yet. But as NaNoWriMo says in their mission statement, that isn’t always the point. The point is “the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.” And that’s a mission I completely support.
I am here posting about it by virtue of having volunteered for the local region called “Kansas:Elsewhere” on the forums. Such volunteers are called MLs, or Municipal Liaisons, which means that I coordinate with entities who want to host writers, and monitor the regional forum. If you live close to Wichita, Salina, or Kansas City, Chanute, Emporia, Lawrence, Manhattan, or Topeka, you may find a livelier bunch there; my region is composed of areas so widespread and sparsely attended that no separate group has yet been created for them. But we still have community online, and many public libraries have volunteered their spaces. I would encourage those interested to check the schedule online. You may be pleasantly surprised at the writing events taking place nearby over the next month and a half.
But why do NaNoWriMo at all? Why commit to 50,000 words, and why try to write that much in 30 days? Will not the necessary speed result in less useful material than a more reasonable approach? How can a serious writer commit to such a goal? How does anyone have that much time?
I hear many plausible arguments against NaNoWriMo, but I find there are reasons for participating as well. Here are some of my favorites.
1. Writing only improves with practice. Some have estimated that a million words must be written and discarded before a neophyte author begins writing well. Whether you believe that estimate or not, some portion of your work will always be bad, and will have to be removed during editing. NaNoWriMo gives you a massive chunk of words in a short period, and the mental space to write badly with impunity. Perfection comes from editing, not from drafting.
More, art needs errors to improve. Biological systems do not grow linearly, and our minds are no exception. We must allow time and space for mistakes, admit our faults to correct them. Perfection comes through practice, not from doing a thing well once.
2. NaNoWriMo lends impetus to finish a project. It is not just writing daily, but writing toward a deadline. The consequences of failure may be only personal, but it is enough for me to write even on the bad days during November—and believe me, over the years, there have been some doozies, such as the death of my grandfather during the month, or the suicide of my little brother two weeks before, or just the absence of my husband to military training or deployment. It is difficult to replicate this tension, this stubbornness outside of the month. I have tried. But the combination of the community of other writers, and the arbitrary endpoint, is enough. And I am grateful for the push to write even when I least desire it.
3. When you are forced to write quickly, you learn things about yourself, and your work, that you would not otherwise notice. Going back to my first point, you will notice when you begin to repeat yourself. You may notice pet phrases. You may notice that your story limps when you become heavy-handed with your theme, but flies when you write action and suspense.
Then there are the more entertaining aspects of speed drafting, as the scrambling mind produces surprising connections under pressure. Dialogue can seem to manifest out of thin air. A boring scene grows teeth, as the characters reveal tensions and conflicts you did not consciously plan. Nothing magical about it, these wonders occur when the story is so present in your thoughts, so constant in your attentions, that the brain accepts character and world as truth. You know these people, these places, as if they are real. At those times, the story lives, and even if you end up discarding pieces later, the familiarity does not go away.
Contrarily, that understanding may also cause you problems—but useful problems. Many times, I have found errors in my plot during the month, usually with the tender subtlety of a brick wall. Writing at my usual plodding pace, the issues are veiled for longer, and I waste more words on dead ends. When the plan doesn’t match the characters or world, your mind will recognize this—but only when you know your story intimately.
Intimacy is a matter of time spent together, without the pretense of perfection. NaNoWriMo will give you that.
4. Besides the list of published books drafted during NaNoWriMo, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, there are those who habitually write more than the 1,667 words daily required to win NaNoWriMo, ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 words daily. Stephen King wrote The Running Man (under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) in a week. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes book, A Study in Scarlet in just three weeks. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his most famous work, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in three days. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, a 245-page book, in four weeks.
Speed drafting need not produce an abysmal result, whether you write professionally or not. 50,000 words, or 1,667 words daily, is not impossible either, particularly if it is only for a month. The question, as with anything in our lives, is whether you consider it important enough to try.
Personally, this is my twelfth year participating in NaNoWriMo. I have failed 3 times, and reached my 50,000 words 8 times. In the last eleven years, I have finished drafting 7 novels, and I have 4 drafts unfinished, one of which I hope to complete this year during November. I have finished as little as 23,000 words during the month, and written over 82,000. I have participated while pregnant, and with small children. Out of the country, or in graduate school. Alone, and with family.
NaNoWriMo helped me finish my first novel. NaNoWriMo taught me that plotting helps, and the community gave me countless tools to explore the process of writing. NaNoWriMo is the one time of the year I always write, however much or little I write for the rest of the year. NaNoWriMo helped me draft the novel I hope to publish soon, after a decade of learning the craft. NaNoWriMo is how I encourage other writers to learn their craft as well.
A few questions I get asked frequently, before I close.
Is it possible to participate in NaNoWriMo and not write 50,000 words? Yes, but unless you are registered as being under 18 and enrolled in their Young Writers Program, you won’t be recognized as a winner on the site for less, even if you reach your goal. However, that’s still a good portion of words completed. (If you want to go above and beyond, many veteran writers go for far more than 50,000—some working on multiple projects during the month. I am not usually this crazy dedicated.)
Is it possible to attend Write-Ins without participating, or without registering? Absolutely—the more writers, the merrier! However, not being registered means you may not be able to see or comment on events in the regional forums, and you miss out on the community online.
Must it be a new novel, specifically, or are other projects welcome? Certainly. There is an entire section of the forum devoted to NaNo Rebels, whether they write poetry, memoirs, plays, screenplays, short stories, non-fiction, or anything else. As with the first question, winning may go unrecognized, if you complete less than 50,000 words, but if you are a Rebel, you probably don’t care anyway. (Technically, I will be a Rebel this year because I will be continuing the novel I started last year, although none of the 18,000+ words completed will be part of my word count.)
What constitutes a win? What do I get? Um, bragging rights? Some years one company or another offer rewards to those who can verify a win, whether that is a discount on a writing program, a free copy of your book, or books about writing. These things change every year, but what is certain is that you’ll come out of the month understanding more about writing, having done more writing, than you ever have before. For most of us, that’s enough.