The Problem With NaNoWriMo
National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s commonly know as, is a personal challenge the millions of people world-wide engage in every November. It’s sole purpose is to get people writing. A goal I can fully support. NaNoWriMo has so many great things it can offer aspiring writers; it can help you to build a daily writing habit, grow a community among fellow writers you might not otherwise meet, and (hopefully) get you a finished manuscript of at least 50,000 words by 11:59 PM on November 30.
It’s such an amazing idea. Who doesn’t want to write a novel in a month? I’ve been in love with writing since I was a small person, and I’ve always wanted to see my work published, but for some reason, always lacked the motivation I needed to help see me through it. NaNoWriMo was built for people like me!
Well, if you’re like me, then you’ve join several years in a row only to get about 15,000 – 20,000 words in, and then fall apart. You hit a block, or rethink something and go back, or most likely you are in a time snag and have to miss a day which causes you to get behind and leaves you scrambling to catch up. Here’s the thing, I love writing. I love NaNo, and I love crazy personal challenges, but there are so many things that can go wrong when trying to get the words on the page in so short a time.
Which leads me to the first problem I have with NaNoWriMo…
There’s No Wiggle Room
Unless you’re the kind of person who can create a schedule and stick to it no matter what else may be happening in your life, you will never hit your goal by Nov. 30. November is one of the busiest months of the year for most people. There are family gatherings, work deadlines, tons of birthdays for some reason, and it’s just plain busy. It is far too easy to run out of time and energy. You have to let something go, and it’s no surprise what the first thing to fall off the list will inevitably be.
So, you skip a day. You decide that you really need to bake that pie tonight so that you can focus on other things tomorrow. Good for you! You’re thinking ahead. You set the novel aside for a night and do what you need to. You sit at your computer the next night and realize that now you have to write 3,332 words tonight instead of the daily 1,666. It’s okay. You forge ahead. But then, something else comes up, you need to visit your great-aunt Lucille and can’t get away, and you end up missing a whole weekend… may the gods of writing and productivity be there to help you, my friend, because that word count is slipping further and further out of reach.
If you have to miss a day, or two, or even three, there is no ease built into the system to help you out. Unless by some chance you got 10,000 words ahead in that first week, you’re not going to make the word count in time.
And speaking of the word count…
50,000 words isn’t a novel
I’m sorry. It isn’t. I know a lot of people go back and forth on this one, and there’s always a lot of debate about it at this time of year, but 50,000 words is not really long enough to be called a novel. Yes, there are some novels out there that are in the 30,000 – 50,000 word range, and they’re great, but by and large, it’s just too short. A typical 5.5”x8” printed book has about 300 words per page, on average. A 50,000 word manuscript would only be just over 150 pages (166 2/3, if you’re doing the math).
On the surface, that does seem like plenty, but let’s take a look at some of the best selling books of all time. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has 69,066 words. That’s closer to 230 pages. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the shortest book in the series had 77,325 words; 258 pages. The Hobbit: 95,022 words/ 317 pages. Moby Dick; 209,117 words / 678 pages. Granted, Moby Dick was way too long, but it was still published, and well before laser printers. I’m not saying that you need to be Mark Twain, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, or Herman Melville in order to be published, quite the contrary, but no one walks away from their books feeling like they were too short.
I could go on and on about word counts. E-books have been changing the face of that all well. There’s a reason that industry standards are standardized, and it’s not just so that Random House can make money. Chuck Sambuchino at Writer’s Digest says that for mainstream fiction, “Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for.”
50,000 words feels like a lot when you’re trying to get them all on the page in 30 short days, but if you want your novel to leave your readers feeling like they got their money’s worth, don’t be afraid to aim for something in the 80,000-100,000 range.
But, while we’re talking about word counts, honestly…
Word Counts Are Terrible Things
If you’re writing your novel based on how long it is, I guarantee that you’re not paying enough attention to the story that you’re writing.
The main thing NaNoWriMo is good for is helping make sure you hit that word count, but this also creates a trap. The pressure to hit the word count piles up until that’s all you’re really focusing on. We end up going for the longer version of a sentence, rather than the one we really wanted to say, simply because it has more words.
If you’re writing 1,700 words a day, every day, no matter what, probably only about half of them are actually adding to the story you’re trying to tell. You can write 50,000 words in a month, but you’ll toss out 30,000 of them later in a fit of frustration, and that can be more disheartening than not winning NaNoWriMo. Take heart, even if this happens to you, you’re not a bad writer, you just fell into the word count trap of NaNoWriMo. We’ve all been there. My advice? Just write 20,000 quality words in a month, and save yourself the rewrite.
I know this goes counter to a lot of advice out there, some, that I’ve even given. The best way to be sure that you can write 20,000 quality words in a month is to write 100,000 bad ones first. Practice writing every day, and you’ll get better all the time. The best writers didn’t start out that way. We’ve all heard this before, in this context though, it’s a matter of asking yourself:
“Do I want to win NaNoWriMo by practicing writing? Or do I want to win with a novel I can publish?”
If your answer to that question is the first one, go ahead and ignore this whole section and happy writing! But if it’s the second one, then you need to establish a daily writing habit so that you can improve your skills.
Of course, that’s the next problem with NaNoWriMo…
It Ruins Daily Writing Habits
Now, this isn’t true to everyone. If you are in the habit of working on a novel, writing short stories, or engaging in focused creative journaling, then you’re well on your way to winning NaNo, the word count shouldn’t be a problem, and you’re sure to stay on schedule. In fact, what are you participating at all? You’re already perfect; go write something!
Likewise, for the vast majority of us who don’t have an established daily writing habit, NaNoWriMo can be really effective at building one (at least for the month of November). This is actually one of the best things NaNoWriMo has to offer, but, and this is why it made this list, for those writers who have an established daily writing habit, trying to fit in time to write a novel can throw off their entire schedule and actually be disruptive to their good habits.
For someone who spends time every day writing for work, blogging, reviewing articles, or even just ranting on Tumblr, the act of trying to write a novel in 30 days can throw you off schedule completely. You start worrying more about hitting the word count on a novel that you don’t really want to be writing in the first place, and you stop worrying about putting out quality work elsewhere.
I fell into this trap too.
When this month started, I was all fired up. I knew what novel I wanted to write, I had a solid outline, world history, and character bios; it was going to be amazing. For about the first 10 days, it was. And then I remembered this little thing called “work”.
Part of my job is generating content for this blog. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t doing that. I had several ideas for topics that I’ve been wanting to address, but I kept putting off working on them in favor of my novel. I now have three beginnings to articles that might see the light of day at some point, but not this month, that’s for sure. Why? Because the writing habit I had established to make sure I was generating content that helps people with their writing, which I consider the best part of my job, my favorite thing to do, was disrupted by my need to generate 50,000 words before the end of November.
So, instead of an article on the different types of story structure, or one on dramatic tension in narrative fiction, or even a funny reflective piece on how I got into this business in the first place, you get this ranting article about National Novel Writing Month.
It’s okay, though. So, don’t worry.
I still love NaNoWriMo
There are some problems inherent in the system. That’s okay with me. I’m still going to try and hit my word count on my novel, and I’m still going to throw out half of it and keep writing in December, and possibly January if I continue at the rate I have been. And what’s more, I encourage you all to do the same!
Write all the things!
The real trick to writing a novel in 30 days gets down to motivation, not pressure. If pressure motivates you, great, if it doesn’t try setting some small, attainable goals, that allow you to see the progress your making. Personally, I like to write a scene at a time, and ignore the word count because…. well, see point 3. Word counts do not motivate me, but if they work for you, use them!
I’m going to continue to love National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to keep donating to their programs, and I’m going to keep participating in the challenge every year, because it’s wonderful. Despite its obvious flaws.