Writers are an emotional bunch!

It’s a bit of a cliché, but when it comes to discussions about the art of writing…it’s also true. And NaNoWriMo – that’s National Novel Writing Month for those of you not in the know – brings out strong feelings in foes and fans.

Image credit: o5com

Aspiring writers love NaNo. It gives them an excuse to set up and stick to a consistent writing schedule. It lets them connect with other readers and writers in their local community during NaNo “write-ins.” It gives them a sense of camaraderie and belonging. And, in the end…it gives them at least 50,000 words – which is, if not a complete novel, a good solid start on one.

NaNo has passionate detractors as well. Some are frustrated at how NaNo primarily targets non-writers, some even calling it an excuse for amateurs to “play” at being writers. Others point out that NaNo writers are unlikely to sit down and seriously edit their work at the end of November – instead self-publishing their 50k on the web without so much as a cursory proofread. And, of course, there’s the friends and family helplessly watching their loved ones typing maniacally away.

Now, it’s not really fair to vilify or exalt NaNo. There’s been quite a few writers who’ve successfully published their NaNo novels – and some of them have gone on to win acclaim, awards, and even movie deals. So clearly it can be an important stepping stone for would-be writers.

Granted, these success stories only represent a very small portion of NaNo writers. But holding aspiring writers in contempt due to their ignorance of the publishing process is elitist and hypocritical – every single published writer has been there at some point. And while it’s definitely true that the ease of self-publishing in recent years has resulted in a lot of poor-quality writing becoming more visible, it’s not really a problem with any direct relationship to NaNoWriMo.

And even if novice writers are self-publishing crappy novels in droves…is it really a problem the rest of us should be worried about? To be honest, traditionally-published hits like the Twilight saga have me much more worried about the literacy of future generations.

NaNoWriMo: The Pros and Cons

In my opinion, NaNo can be a powerful tool for certain people. If you’re the kind of writer who has trouble with:

  • Keeping a consistent schedule
  • Shutting down your “inner critic”
  • Setting aside time to write
  • Or finishing long-term projects

Then NaNo is probably a great choice for you. If you’re serious about getting published or building a career as a writer, it’s important not to see it as a once-a-year exercise. For professional writers, cranking out 1,600 words isn’t remarkable. In fact, for some of us, that’s actually on the low end. (That’s what happens when you freelance and get paid by the word, or the hour.) For serious novelists, every month is novel writing month.

Image credit: Ed Yourdon

But NaNo doesn’t work for everyone. Instead of offering motivation and inspiration, it can merely conjure up anxiety and dread. You might want to find another way to finish that first novel if you’re the kind of writer who:

  • Naturally writes at a slow or inconsistent pace
  • Easily experiences creative burnout
  • Gets discouraged if you can’t reach your daily goal
  • Has a hectic work or social schedule
  • Or has a tendency to procrastinate

If any (or all) of those descriptions apply to you… It’s actually okay. (Even procrastination – as long as you’re willing to pull the occasional late night study session or weekend at the office.) Everyone has their own creative pace. Everyone has their own writing style.

Why I don’t do NaNoWriMo anymore

Personally, I’ve done NaNo three times. I’ve only finished once, with about 70,000 words and 3/4 of a novel under my belt. The pace wasn’t that unusual for me and the quality of the novel wasn’t bad. But I’ve realized over the years that it just isn’t for me. And NaNo might not be a very useful exercise for you either, if you’re the same kind of writer I am.

What kind of writer is that?

For one thing, I write full-time. Writing is my day job. I still blog and work on my own creative writing when I can, but I need days off. This isn’t just a problem for copywriters, journalists, and the like – if you spend most of the day plugging information into a word processor or a database, the last thing you want to do is spend all your leisure time staring at a screen, struggling to find the right words. It isn’t fun. It’s just exhausting. Aiming for a smaller goal (or more infrequent writing schedule) and allowing yourself more quiet time to recharge creatively is probably a better approach.

I’m also not the kind of writer who can script out my stories start to finish. Sure, I try to stick to a general outline so that I know where I’m going with my story. But my characters like to surprise me and take off in completely unexpected directions. My original idea may not be what I end up writing at all. My stories develop organically over time. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s an approach that doesn’t work well with NaNo.

Image credit: Patty Maher

Sometimes, I hit a creative wall and I just need to sit back and wait. Maybe my main character’s motivations don’t make sense anymore. Maybe the scene I thought should happen next no longer progresses the plot. Maybe a minor character has suddenly taken on a starring role.

When these things happen, I may need to take days or months apart from a project before I realize what I need to go back and change to make a story work. With NaNoWriMo, I’m forced to just keep writing myself deeper and deeper into whatever creative dead end I’ve fallen into. It doesn’t make for good fiction. At worst, it makes for a boring or confusing story that can’t easily be salvaged without a complete rewrite. At best, it means I have to cut out chapters and chapters of content that didn’t add to the story.

Personally, I’d rather just let the creativity flow when and how it will. There’s value in sitting down and writing every day, yes. And I recommend that all writers try to do it. But forcing yourself to meet a word limit every day for the sake of quantity, not quality, won’t get you anywhere.


Are you doing NaNo this year? Have you tried NaNo in the past? We’d love to hear your thoughts – we’ll be taking submissions from past and present NaNoers all month. :)