14 October 2009 ~ 26 Comments

Writing a novel? Don’t do NanoWriMo

November is coming and that means NanoWriMo is closing in fast. If you are interested in writing a novel and have never tried, you probably think NaNoWriMo is just the ticket to give you the jumpstart you need.

Don’t do it.

Writing requires steady, consistent effort. Blasting through a novel at over 1000 words a day means that you will get a lot of crap and at the end of the experiment you will have 50,000 words, far too short for any market today. 

Some writers liked the sense of cameraderie they can get from NaNoWriMo. Most cities host writing events and there’s plenty of fanfare as people kick off their novels in coffee shops and bookstores.

Don’t get sucked in. Writing is a solitary effort that pays off when you pay close attention to what you are doing. Guaranteed that a lot of those attendees busily typing away for the cameras are not concentrating on the words but rather are thinking, “hey wow! I’m doing it! I’m really writing a novel!”

So you want to write a novel? Bag NaNoWriMo. Instead, use the Jim Van Pelt method:

250 words a day.

That’s it. If you write 250 words a day, at the end of a year you will have over 90,000 words. In other words, you will have a full-length novel. Now, if you are a beginner, that novel might not be any good. But you will have thought about those 250 words and done your best to make them count. Those 250 words will, if you are consistent about writing every day or on a regular schedule, out-do any day’s work on a NaNoWriMo binge.

250 words a day gives you room to do research. It gives you time to read the authors you love so you can look at how they line words up and get to the root of what you love about their work. 250 words a day will give you breathing room and let your writing improve.

250 words a days is all you need. NaNoWriMo? Just hype.

26 Responses to “Writing a novel? Don’t do NanoWriMo”

  1. Fred Stanton 14 October 2009 at 5:45 pm Permalink

    I disagree conditionally, and I’ll tell ya why: There are many people who keep telling themselves they’ll write a book someday. However, because writing’s a solitary activity, it’s all too easy for everyday trivia to pull one away from a project after a chapter or two. NaNoWriMo is a tool to get people motivated to set aside those distractions and actually write. It doesn’t matter if someone’s never written before, it doesn’t matter if someone’s got a bunch of short stories published, tackling a long project takes daily discipline. NaNoWriMo, in my view, can be a first step toward developing that discipline. The social element of thousands of other people doing it at the same time provides encouragement and reinforcement.

    A second important element of NaNoWriMo is daring to suck. Writing fifty thousand words in thirty days means the internal editor has to be shut up, or at least bought off. Shutting up that internal editor is important if one’s going to complete what one starts. “Dare to suck” is a common bit of advice I hear from writers.

    I did NaNoWriMo three times, which turned out to be one too many. Once you’ve got the discipline to start a novel, and to ignore your internal editor and see it through to the end no matter how bad that first draft is, you no longer need it. I view NaNoWriMo as literary training wheels: Mighty helpful when you’re just learning to ride, but you won’t need them forever.

  2. MEPatterson 14 October 2009 at 6:17 pm Permalink

    I totally agree, Patrice. To be fair, there’s certainly some value in NanoWriMo for those who don’t know if they even like writing. I would say that if this whole “writing” thing is a question mark for you, sure, give NaNoWriMo a chance.

    But if you know that you WANT to write a novel, and you already have the desire to write, then listen to Patrice. You’ll get a lot better results using the JVP method, and maybe even something someone else would want to read…

    Now, off to do my 250 words…

  3. jne4 14 October 2009 at 6:20 pm Permalink

    Hmm . . . I believe I agree with you down the line, Patrice, except that NaNo has its uses for a “serious” novelist:
    1. It’s fun and social
    2. It will get you writing.
    3. You can write at any speed you want, actually.
    4. The pledge and many of the other will keep you writing.
    5. It’s a great way to get used to writing at speed instead of at a meticulous, constipated, tortuous dribble (like I often do).

  4. Ray Claus 14 October 2009 at 7:18 pm Permalink

    I guess I’m not quite sure what your gripe is against NaNoWriMo. Is it that people are trying to write a “valid” 50,000-word novel in one month, and that’s too few words, in too short a time, to be any good? I’d agree with that. I’m planning on taking that challenge, more for the discipline of writing every day. They say on their site that 50,000 words is more a novella than an actual novel, and I’m certainly not expecting my effort to be a final, publishable draft (far from it), or even a full novel. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sitting down and writing some most every day, for about 20 mins to 1.5 hrs, and have produced between 250 to 2000 words. I don’t think 250 words per day would be sufficient. Yes, you’ll have a 90,000-word novel at the end of a year, but as I’m sure you’ll agree, a first draft is far from a final draft, so at 250 words per day, it’ll take several years to get a final draft done. Yes, maybe the 1700 words per day that the NaNoWriMo challenge averages may be too much the other way, and may give some young writers false impressions about the quality of their work (quantity does not equal quality), but I think the site’s administrators do lis the disclaimers, and if one goes into this challenge well aware of the caveats, I think it can be beneficial.

    If you still disagree or have any rebuttals, I’d be glad to hear what they are.

  5. Stewart Smith 14 October 2009 at 8:51 pm Permalink

    I’ve done Nano and I sat beside James Van Pelt last July up at the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction and listened to him say 250 a day. Who’s right? Both. Nano is like climbing Mt. Everest. It proves you can do it if you have to. Do it once and you never have to do it again. I got a lovely little novel out of the experience, but I agree. It’s too short at 50K words. But, now I know I can do it. So I’m doing another, longer one. Van Pelt says he’s tried everything he can think of and finally it boiled down to 250 words a day. He can always do that. 250 words a day is success. Anyone can do 250 words a day, especially someone who’s already done 1667 words a day for a month. You can even do 250 words on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Think of Nano as free writing, if you have to. Oh, by the way, there was no planning on the Nano novel. It was pantsed all the way. Quite a scary and heady experience at the same time.

  6. J. Kathleen Cheney 15 October 2009 at 1:15 pm Permalink

    I think my problem with NaNo is that I’m always already working on something. I have other deadlines (personal ones, but deadlines) I’m trying to meet, and putting everything on hold for a month to work on a novel (or waiting until November to start) seems…artificial.

    I do understand why some people might want to do it. It’s just not for me.

  7. Jim Van Pelt 15 October 2009 at 10:57 pm Permalink

    Wow! I didn’t know a writing technique that works for me could generate so much interesting discussion. LOL.

    For me the key is to write everyday. The 200 is an intentionally low minimum so that I have no excuse not to write. Many days I write more because 200 words is barely enough for a decent dialogue exchange or to set a scene in motion. I found if I set larger goals (like 1,000 words a day) that I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think I had enough time to do it. It’s possible for me to do 1,000 words in 40 minutes if I’m really rolling, but I hardly ever really roll, so a thousand words could take two hours. It I didn’t have the two hours, I’d skip the writing session.

    I’ve written a minimum of 200 words a day every day since September 20, 1999. I’ve been way more productive with this regimen than I was don matter what I tried in the 10 writing years before that.

  8. CupofDice 16 October 2009 at 7:33 am Permalink

    1. Who said you had to win? Maybe it’s the discipline people are going for.

    2. What if that first time writer is pretty fast?

    3. YA at 50k is acceptable. MG is below that.

    4. 1.7 is very realistic, especially when you are in a contest and can worry a bit less about the overall product.

    5. SECOND DRAFTS!

    :D

  9. Patrice Sarath 16 October 2009 at 8:10 am Permalink

    Jim, thanks for checking in! I appreciate it. Jim Van Pelt, everyone! Award-winning author and all around great guy. Commenters, please listen to Jim. He knows whereof he speaks.

    Although I understand what people who are NaNo supporters are saying, I would like to point out a few things. Some of you have heard them from the facebook discussion where this is also taking place.

    NaNo devalues the writing process by favoring quantity over quality. Yes, the website does provide many disclaimers and it does say that this is just a way to get the internal editor to shut up. However, as I have said before, we don’t have National Play the Violin Month, or National Oil Painting Month. We know it takes a long time to master those arts. So why do we think that writing a novel can be done in such a gimmicky fashion?

    I think that it is noteworthy that working novelists and short story writers Don’t. Do. NaNoWriMo.

    Okay? Please, if you can’t listen to me, look at the evidence.

    Carry on!

  10. Ray Claus 16 October 2009 at 4:58 pm Permalink

    Patrice,

    As you say, “WORKING novelists …” What about novelist wannabes?

    There isn’t a National Play the Violin Month or a National Oil Painting Month because I guess no one has thought of implementing them yet. But why not? It sounds to me like you may be equating WORKING on something during a period of time as equivalent to LEARNING and PERFECTING such a discipline. For example, what if there WERE a National Play the Violin Month, for all those people out there who have been saying, “Someday, I’d like to learn how to play the violin”? Of course they wouldn’t learn everything they need to know about how to play the violin and become instant masters in one month — that wouldn’t be the point. But if instead people could use such a month as an incentive to get off their duff and try practicing a violin an hour a day every day for a month, at least they’d get a taste of what it’s like, and perhaps begin the discipline of practicing every day.

    If you professional, experienced writers don’t want to use NaNoWriMo — fine. No one’s forcing you to. But if others may wish to take on the NaNoWriMo Challenge, why should that bother you? You are of the opinion that people should not partake in the Challenge — fine. But why can’t you accept that others may be of the opposing opinion?

  11. Patrice Sarath 16 October 2009 at 5:26 pm Permalink

    THIS has gotten out of hand. Write how you wish to write! Go forth and NaNo! Have at it!

    My God, all I did was offer a counterpoint to the NaNo overhype and provide some really good, serious writing advice, and you kids are acting like I’m taking away your toys!

    Write, just write. How ever you do it. Write. Stop posting here. Just write.

    But if a ONE of you comes back and says “HAH! I finished my NaNo novel and I’m publishing it through iUniverse or Publish America!” I swear I will not be responsible for my actions.

  12. Shlomi 23 October 2009 at 10:16 am Permalink

    One more comment (after you cried ‘uncle’): NaNo has a MINIMUM of 50,000 words. But there’s nothing preventing a person from taking up the gauntlet and writing more. The Austin NaNo group has many writers who write more (I’m editing one that came in at 81,000+ at the end of the month, and has grown to 120k).

    Why can’t we do both? A 50k jumpstart and 250 words a day to polish it off?

    Just sayin’

  13. D 30 October 2009 at 4:01 pm Permalink

    Shlomi is right. OLL doesn’t tell anyone they have to quit at 50,000 words. 50,000 words is the minimum required to “win” NaNoWriMo.

    Fred Stanton is also right. The two main reasons people who want to write don’t are (1) because they can’t commit and (2) because they want a first draft to be perfect. NaNoWriMo defeats both of these obstacles. Maybe… well, probably… your NaNo novel will suck (at least the first draft will). Most definitely, the 50,000 word goal is too short to be a true novel.

    But the pros, I think, outweigh the cons, unless you depend on writing for your income and you’re broke. NaNo is extremely fun if you enjoy writing, and it gets people writing, which, last time I checked, was still the single most important part of the writing process.

  14. D 30 October 2009 at 4:10 pm Permalink

    And a brief follow-up, because I commented before reading the entire thread (sorry).

    There are working writers who do NaNo. A few, after strenuous revision, have actually published the books they drafted during NaNo, and not necessarily with Publish America.

  15. Patricia 20 December 2010 at 11:04 am Permalink

    Every writer approaches the craft differently. Some painstakingly chisel away at a few hundred words a day, while others produce a waterfall of verbiage in a short time span and revise it later. A first draft for a novel of about 100,000 words is doable in about a month, but whether the result will be workable depends on talent and fortitude. Of course, a first draft is not likely to be publishable material, but that’s where rewriting comes in.

  16. Patrice Sarath 20 December 2010 at 12:58 pm Permalink

    If I’ve learned anything, it is that the ways we get words down are as unique as each writer. I’ve done my time of chipping away at a draft, and also the high-speed wordcount that I term, “writing with my eyes closed” (because I’m going so fast, there’s no time for second guessing.)

    I’ll never be a NaNo enthusiast (my reasoning still stands), although I understand a bit more why people use it as a tool.

    Welcome, Patricia! Thanks for commenting.

  17. Julie 26 October 2011 at 5:45 pm Permalink

    Thank you! Every time I do Nano I forget halfway through what my plotpoints are! Very inspiring. Slow but steady…

  18. Patrice Sarath 26 October 2011 at 7:12 pm Permalink

    That’s a good point — while writing a first draft without the internal editor is useful, we have to remember that we’re not just piling up word count.

  19. Simone 26 November 2013 at 8:20 am Permalink

    Thank you Patrice. I have attempted NaNoWriMo three times and finished it once – and I have to say, it has resulted in the worst crap I have ever written with perhaps a few glimmers of brilliant but ultimately unusable prose. When I finished NaNo in 2011, I didn’t write anything for over 6 months afterwards, it made me hate writing that much. I thought maybe I just had a bad attitude and attempted it again this year, and it sucked the life out of me creatively. Writing wasn’t fun, and I found myself checking my word count after every page, then every paragraph, then eventually every sentence. I found myself finishing chapters in a half-assed way just to finish it and get the next chapter going so I could just keep pumping out the words.

    I even found the NaNo events to be awful – it was basically a bunch of writers who got together to have writing races. The people who finished these activities with the highest word count were hailed as the most prolific writers of the group, and I remember thinking, “I can’t write anywhere near that much. Maybe I just suck at this.” Maybe it’s me, but I never really clicked with the writers I met at NaNo events – it felt cliquish, pretentious and unfriendly. I was actually shushed a few times when attempting to be social. Lol!

    By the time I hit 21,000 words two weekends ago, I realized I hated almost everything I had written and was seriously considering giving up on my dream of being a writer altogether. I told this to another writer-friend of mine, and he said, “Why are you doing NaNo again?! It always results in you writing shit and you end up thinking you suck as a writer when really it’s an event that encourages quantity over quality. Stop. Just stop.”

    Anyway Patrice, I just wanted to thank you, because I thought that perhaps there was something wrong with me. :) I will try Jim’s method, because it’s exactly as he said – I used to set a 2000+ word/day for myself and end up skipping it because I just don’t have it in me (or have the time) to write that much. 200-250 words is doable for me and will set me up for success rather than failure. :)

  20. Patrice Sarath 26 November 2013 at 8:33 am Permalink

    Yes! See? This is what I mean.

    Anyway, I’m so glad that you decided a more measured approach works for you. No one should think just blorting out tens of thousands of words per day is going to equal usable prose. And I’ve always been suspicious of the “quantity vs quality” approach that NaNo seems to espouse.

    Go you, Simone! Here’s to loving to write again.

  21. Simone 27 November 2013 at 4:37 am Permalink

    :) Thanks Patrice. I sent my 65,000 word manuscript to my writer-friend after I finished and “won” the 2011 NaNo, and he said it sounded like two separate novels. He recommended I cut an entire section about some characters that seemed to suck the life out of the manuscript (I agreed) and my manuscript ended up being 35,000 words after the cut. At that point, I was sick of the story (as I’d been living it for hours a day for an entire month), and there were bits and pieces in the remaining pages that had hints and foreshadowing of the other characters I had cut, so I ended up dropping the story altogether. So there was an entire month’s worth of writing wasted. Well, I guess it wasn’t entirely wasted – it taught me what doesn’t work for me. :)

    NaNo kind of reminds me of something I really dislike about our society – the mass-production of junk. ;) I really felt it this year when I found that, after my initial burst of creativity and enthusiasm in the beginning, I found myself wallowing in literary doldrums. What came after that was filler, dross, and I began to question whether or not writing was something I should even be doing. I felt more like a word-production assembly line than a writer, and I eventually fell behind by day 12 (after being consistently 2 or 3 days ahead up until then).

    There were some people in my region who had hit the 100,000 word mark by the 10th. It makes me wonder what the quality of that manuscript is like. I mean hey, maybe they’re all experienced writers who happen to be extremely fast typists. :) Perhaps they wrote detailed outlines in advance and planned every minute plot point in their story, but if that’s not the case, it makes you wonder how some of those manuscripts will turn out.

    Anyway Patrice, your article took a lot of weight and guilt off my mind and has renewed my hope that I can still be a writer without taking part in NaNoWriMo. ;) I had it in my head that if I could do this, I would be a “real writer,” so thank you for clearing that up for me. :) The cool thing about setting a low word count limit for the day is that I will have time to read (which I see as “Gym for the literary muscles!” Lol!), something I haven’t done much of in awhile.

    I understand that NaNo might work for some personality types, but not me. I think I’d rather cannibalize my own head than try NaNo again. LOL! Nom nom nom!

  22. Patrice Sarath 28 November 2013 at 7:31 am Permalink

    Thanks for leaving me with that image, Simone! Ick!

    One of my writers group friends (yes, Nicky Drayden, I mean you) swears by NaNo. And she is a very good writer who is prolific and well-published. HOWEVER: Nicky’s NaNo novel is not as good as it could be, and I blame NaNo for that. Nicky’s worst is better than a lot of people’s best, so it’s not like it’s dreck, but still.

    So if NaNo can bring out the worst in as talented a writer as Nicky, then I think it needs to be approached with caution.


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