Monday, October 17, 2011


14 days!! That's all! Only two weeks until National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, begins on November 1st. The NaNoWriMo website will give you all the details, but the short answer is that NaNo is a month of pure reckless literary enthusiasm, during which aspiring authors (and maybe even a few published ones) attempt to churn out 50,000 words, or the length of a short to midsize paperback, during 30 breathless days at the keyboard. The general idea is that you have a completed rough draft of a manuscript by the end of the month. Those who cross the magical finish line get a certificate, a nifty banner to put on their wall/website/avatar, and - at least in the case of last year - a limited time offer to get a free printed edition of your work from CreateSpace.

All of this sounds great. Spectacular. Marvelous. Just the thing to give a would-be-author the perfect sort of literary head rush. BUT...there is a flip side. (Isn't there always?)

Realistic Expectations?
Over the past few years, many literary professionals have turned up their noses at the whole idea of NaNoWriMo. They bemoan the concept on the grounds that it gives legions of starry-eyed JKRowling-wannabes this notion they can write a novel in 30 days, give it a quick brush-up, submit it and then - voila! - dream come true. Instant epic greatness. Start booking the talk shows now!

((I should pause and say here that there are more than a few published books, including some well-known ones, that were birthed during NaNoWriMo. Go ahead and check out the list!))

The Gold Rush Syndrome
But do the naysayers have a valid point? Unfortunately, yes. Every year there are competitors who go into NaNo thinking they'll have a rough manuscript at the end that'll only want a tweak here and there (something they can surely manage during Christmas break). Then they'll send it out and their work will be snatched up by eager agents and editors because it is the brilliant, fantastic "ZOMG!!!" work that it is.

How does a person get there? Possibly because the story has been in their head for so long that they've gotten to the point of "whattheheck" - that point where you shove back all the naysayers and just DO something. It's a good place to be, of course - but it is not a good place to stay. That whattheheck, cannonball-into-the-deep-end plunge is a transition moment - not a place to camp out. If you stop there, that is when the unrealistic expectations begin to multiply.

But you know what? I don't think most NaNos are like that. Not at all.

The Narnia Principle
Most of the NaNos I know - both personally and through eavesdropping on the NaNo forums - are serious about what they're doing and, as a result, they're willing to take their time. They understand what C. S. Lewis told his goddaughter Lucy in the preface to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - chiefly, that "girls grow quicker than books." Of course, he was talking about how he had started writing a fairy tale for her, only to see her outgrow fairy tales before the book itself was ready. But that's the nature of life, isn't it? Stories grow at a slower rate than girls or boys. They don't mushroom nearly as quickly as the daily demands of work and family. They don't scream quite as loudly as the bills that need to be paid and the household chores that must be conquered.

No matter how you slice it, getting a story out of your head and onto paper takes time -a LOT more time than any newbie (myself included) would like to admit.

Bottom Line?

The upshot? NaNoWriMo is an excellent kick in the pants for anyone who wants that kind of fun, persistent franticness that comes with blitzing your way to a finish line alongside oodles of other crazy writer types. And whether you reach the magic 50,000 word mark or not, whether you end with a completed rough draft or not, it's never a lost cause or a waste of time. Why? Because chances are you'll have written a good deal more than you would have anyway - certainly in November, of all months, with its holidays and   Black Friday and work pressures and goodness knows what else. Real NaNos know that it's not about having a golden trophy at the end. NaNoWriMo is a kick in the pants - the hurt-to-help-you kind.

If you're serious about writing, then steady, disciplined time is what you really need (and you already know it). Time does a lot of magic on its own, if we have the self-control to neither drag our feet nor outrun our opportunities.

Am I making sense? Where do YOU weigh in on the NaNoWriMo debate?


  1. I understand the criticisms of NaNoWriMo. I understand them better since I've actually been querying a novel, because it was really the querying process that made me realize my manuscript still needed a ton of work (and that was after nearly six months of revision). I've seen so many literary agents say on their blogs that the number-one problem they see with most new authors' manuscripts is that they just aren't ready for the submissions process yet. It's impossible to whip out a polished manuscript in thirty days. You need the time to distance yourself from the work and then go over it with fresh eyes (preferably several different pairs of fresh eyes.)

    All right, all right, I'm preaching to the choir. :) All that being said, I've participated in NaNoWriMo every year since 2007. It's an invaluable experience because it makes me get the words on the page. I'm such a perfectionist that I would probably have never written at all except for NaNoWriMo--I'd be so concerned with having the perfect sentence the first time around that I'd never get past the first page of anything. NaNoWriMo is a great tool for turning wannabe-maybe-someday writers into actual writers. :)

  2. You know, I'm glad to hear you say that about querying a novel; because the more I polish/edit my own manuscript, the more I realize how much work needs to be done. I guess it underscores the fact that a manuscript never really IS finished until you've made the edits that the agent/publisher have requested. The trick part is knowing whether your ms is at a "do not send" state of unreadiness or "now's the time" state of unreadiness. It's never going to be picture-perfect when you query it, no matter how pleased you are with your efforts; but knowing the time to send and the time to withhold is not easy.

    At the same time, I know I can spin my wheels HORRIBLY over the details, and get such tunnel vision that I have a hard time finding my way out. I got stuck in the opening five chapters of my first manuscript for literally YEARS, and those opening chapters do not sound like me at all. That's why it's been archived, and I've focused elsewhere for the time being.

    But yes - I totally agree: NaNoWriMo is a great tool, a fabulous tool, so long as you go into it without the rose-colored glasses. :)