NaNoWriMo Backlash, or Why One Month Isn’t Enough

Thanks to a Facebook link, I just yesterday became aware of the NaNoWriMo rebuttal site NaNoWriMo No Mo even though the site’s been around for a couple of years. It’s a one-page refutation of NaNoWriMo as a habit. I want to make that clear. The No Mo site isn’t arguing that no one should ever do NaNoWriMo, only that doing it every year is counterproductive, especially if you’re not writing in the interim.

If you want to play piano, you don’t dust off the keyboard just one month in twelve.—NaNoWriMo No Mo

I have many friends who love NaNoWriMo, but I fall very much on the No Mo side. If you’re going to make writing a career instead of a hobby, pulling a marathon once a year isn’t the best way.

NaNoWriMo No MoThe best way to build proficiency in any art is consistent practice. We often call writing a “craft,” and I suppose in some ways it is. Almost anyone can be taught to write well enough to get by in business, for example.

But novel writing is an art.

If you were a dancer, or a pianist, or a sculptor, you would practice every day. Every single day. Every day of the year.

When Malcom Gladwell in Outliers describes the 10,000 hour rule — the idea that to master a thing you must spend 10,000 hours at it — he is presuming that those hours are spread over the years of one’s life, not all clustered in the autumn.

I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. If I spent an hour a day writing (not an unlikely estimate) from the time I was eight (that’s about the time I wrote the oldest short story extant in my juvenilia), then I racked up my 10,000 hours by the time I was 35. Interestingly, that’s a few years before I finished the first version of Alara’s Call that was worth showing anyone. But I’m pretty sure there were plenty of days I spent more than an hour writing.

“Winning” NaNoWriMo (Can you “win” something that thousands of others also “win?” Seems to me it’s more like “achieving” NaNoWriMo) requires writing 50,000 words in the month of November. That works out to 1,666.666… (infinite number of sixes) words per day, or 1,923 if you take Sundays off. For me, that’s about three hours of writing. One of the reasons I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo is that I’m not willing to eliminate what I’d have to (like knitting and hubby time, not to mention nonfiction writing) in order to spend three hours a day every day on novel writing.

As a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, I participate in an accountability group called Novel Track. The minimum goal for Novel Track recognition is 10,000 words per month, or 333.333 (infinite number of threes) per day in a 30-day month, or 384.6 words a day if you take Sundays off. For me that’s about 30 minutes of writing, though it doesn’t include the time I spend on nonfiction writing (like this post). I can do that, and I can do it every day, barring Sundays, all year, every year. (Actually, I even write a little bit on Sundays. I’ve been advised that the Sabbath was made for writers and not writers for the Sabbath.)

As Tim Ward pointed out about this time last year, lots of NaNoWriMo novels never get finished. Sure, you hear about the ones that win book deals, but how many languish? More to the point, how much time did those authors put in December through Octofinisho editing and polishing? That’s where the hard work of authoring is done.

I don’t begrudge those who find the camaraderie and deadline pressure of NaNoWriMo inspiring. I know several writers who work consistently through the year and just use NaNoWriMo to give their productivity a boost. But I fear that too many people get clobbered by that pressure and give up, when a slow and steady approach might have brought them to the level of mastery.

I could go on about goal-setting and consistency, and maybe I will. But for now, I just want to reiterate something I said over at Tim’s post: “For me, every month is novel writing month.”

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

20 comments on “NaNoWriMo Backlash, or Why One Month Isn’t Enough

  1. Well, there you are: all the reasons why I’ve avoided That Strange Month With The Stranger Acronym altogether. (It fits one disgruntled military officer’s complaint about military GNATs: Garish Name Acquisition Techniques. 🙂 I owe that one to an old READER’S DIGEST, “Humor in Uniform”.) And, despite the privilege of having such an intense guest blog here, the 10,000-Hour Rule is a big reason why I’m rethinking what I write about. If I spend time mastering one thing, that’s time I can’t spend mastering another thing which in the Grand Scheme of Things will be more important.

    Thanks for the splendid post!

    • Yep! I spent a lot of time mastering grammar, which makes me a good copyeditor, but I probably should have focused on storytelling. Ah, well. There will just never be enough time to study all the things I want to be expert at.

  2. Reblogged this on Tales of the Undying Singer and commented:
    Well, there you are: all the reasons why I’ve avoided That Strange Month With The Stranger Acronym altogether. (It fits one disgruntled military officer’s complaint about military GNATs: Garish Name Acquisition Techniques. 🙂 I owe that one to an old READER’S DIGEST, “Humor in Uniform”.) And, despite the privilege of having such an intense guest blog here, the 10,000-Hour Rule is a big reason why I’m rethinking what I write about. If I spend time mastering one thing, that’s time I can’t spend mastering another thing which in the Grand Scheme of Things will be more important. Thanks for the splendid post!

  3. Last year, I got a productivity boost out of NaNo, like you said, and ended up writing more like 70K. But then I had to throw 20K out once I got the book to Beta readers and discovered just how meandering a large section of my word count had become. (I blame the large doses of cold medicine I had to start taking about halfway through NaNo 2012 when I got a whopper of an upper respiratory thing, probably brought on by a lack of sleep!)

    So yeah, I think I’m going to have to be more the tortoise than the hare as I continue to write. Since I’m about 25K into my 5th book at this point, I don’t feel too worried that I have anything to prove, not even to myself.

    Thanks for the great thoughts!

    • Your comment about lack of sleep and getting sick is important: Spending enough time on writing to generate 1600+ words a day requires neglecting a lot of other things. When one of those things is your health…well, that’s just counterproductive, as you discovered. Thanks for sharing that experience.

  4. Last month was October. There was no hype. There was no camaraderie. Yet I produced 20,000 words of 2nd draft quality, good enough to share publicly but not to sell. I got over 4000 hits on that beginning of a novel (9 chapters). I am not burned out. I am excited about where the story is headed. I am not dreading the inevitable fix-it time, because I fix AS I GO. I may not ever do the super-polish on this one, as I have doubts about its salesworthiness (the plot is not terribly original), but that is not unlike a lot of NaNo writers who throw away their 50K of dreck and never do anything with it because it’s such a nightmare.

    I know someone who gets super family support for NaNo. Her husband gets takeout or cooks himself AND he watches the kids for FOUR HOURS A DAY, every day, for the entire month so she can write. Heck, if mine watched the kids for four hours a week, that would be serious motivation to participate, but I don’t get that. Like Kristen, I have to work in writing around all the rest of my obligations: cooking, shopping, laundry, school commutes, weddings, funerals, birthdays. Now, offer me a way to reduce those other obligations (hire me a maid, cook, or babysitter) and then I’d reconsider the merits of NaNo.

  5. NaNo is a self motivation tool, nothing more. If somebody’s using it like a club to prove you don’t qualify as a novelist unless you use this tool, they’re doing it wrong.

    I participated in NaNo2k4 and ‘won,’ finishing a rough draft of a novel for the first time. It was very helpful to me for self confidence and to prove to myself that it could be done. But as you’ve already published novels, I think the primary advantages would be moot for you.

    NaNo is a very nice tool for those who need it. From what I know of you and your work, you don’t need this tool (and you certainly don’t need others bludgeoning you with it).

    • A very small minority use it like a bludgeon. More often, it’s all in a sense of fun and, like you said, self-motivation. It’s ME that feels “left out” and somehow less because I have never been able to write that fast. Ever. No one is pointing fingers and taunting, “Slow poke!” but I feel that way of my own accord. I post the No Mo symbol and comment in places like this as an emotional backlash, to remind myself I am NOT a “loser” because I can’t write 50K in 30 days. I can’t do a lot of things, but my competitive side doesn’t like to let go of this one. I have to hold myself back from snarky explanations every time I mention, “No, I’m not participating.”

  6. I’m participating in Nano this year, but the reason is because I’ve got a book started and I want to propel myself toward finishing it a little faster. Nanowrimo just provides that motivation. It’s going to be a rather long book. There is no way it will be finished at 50,000 words, or even 60,000. This dampens the whole “I won!” excitement factor just a little, because although I’ll be glad to meet that goal, I’ll be fortunate if I can bring this book in under 120,000.

    I do intend to publish it–

    I’m not terribly inclined to take Nanowrimo seriously otherwise. I’ve ever been caught calling it Na-na-na NO NO! (LOL)

    Caprice, don’t feel bad about it not being a good fit for you. There are plenty of other better choices of things to do with your life during November. Really. 😉

  7. NaNoWriMo would never work for me. Even in rough draft I can’t write a scene until I have completed some amount of research. Historical fiction can’t really be written off the cuff unless you’re already an expert in the time/place/world.

    Protagonist sits on the ________ and drinks his __________ ??? – Does he have furniture? Or does he sit on the floor? What does he drink? Would he sit in the presence of his guest? Would the men and women eat together? Would they talk while eating? – you know the drill. It makes me wish I were writing contemporary fiction or fantasy so I could write off the cuff or just make it all up as a go!

    I am encouraged by your goal of 10,000 words per month. I participate in the Magic Spreadsheet groups. (um, until the last few weeks!) You have to write a minimum of 250 words per day – every day. You get points for how long you can go without breaking your consecutive string of days. It’s fun, challenging and has also provided some online camaraderie.

    In recent weeks I have failed to do even that much but it seems like the right sort of pace for my genre, personality and my life/context. Now to figure out how to get back to it.

    • 250 words a day is a good solid goal. And I hear you about the research. Believe it or not, we have to do a fair amoubt for fantasy as well. (Spent almost a whole afternoon on the relative merits of crossbow vs. longbow…)

  8. […] For a good read on why NOT to participate in NaNo, and the pitfalls you may experience check out my friend Kristen’s blog here. […]

  9. I’ve never done the dreaded N-word thing, but it all boils down to motive. I applaud those who can do it, and who do it for the “boosts” and for the right (and write) reasons — but 50,000 words is not a novel. That’s only half to 2/3s of a novel, to me. I remember one of my great yarns that’ll never see the light of day — it was 60,000 words and I wrote it in about 3 weeks. When I went back to it, it was appalling (that’s Imperfect Active Indicative, not “passive” by the way) how truncated it rolled out. I ended up expanding it by a least another third. Now maybe some authors can say it, and say it superbly (that’s a detested adverb, even a [gasp] -ly one) in 50,000 words — but I don’t think that qualifies as a novel. A wonderful start to build upon, yes — if one approaches the dreaded N-word thing with the right attitude, to learn discipline, focus and verbal economy, by all means take the plunge.

    • I don’t think any but the newest newbies think 50K is a finished novel. Most NaNo-ers see it as the rough draft — a nugget to build on.

      We all have one of those early mss that just need to stay in the drawer…it’s part of practicing. 😉

  10. […] Last week I warned you that I might go on about goal-setting and consistency. So here I am. […]

  11. I do Nanowrimo because I find it really fun! I like the excitement of the community and makes November a fun month. I haven’t gotten to 50,000 and I am not worried about making it.

    I am always writing but it is fun having a challenge of writing 1666 per day but I don’t put my health and sleep last. If I get there, I get there and put a sticker on my chart and if I don’t, I can look back to see where I went wrong.

    Also just because someone doesn’t have their 50,000 published, doesn’t mean anything. I never want to be published, writing is my hobby and I don’t want it become my job. I write for fun and find that Nanowrimo is fun.

  12. Sounds like an article by someone who tried NaNoWriMo and failed.
    People do it for fun. Serious writers, as you say, write all year round. They don’t wait for the first of November to do what they love. I know people who are now selling the books that became an idea and then a draft during NaNo. No one seriously thinks they’re going to come up with a masterpiece by the end of the month. I think you’ve missed the point of it.

    • You are correct that I totally don’t see the point in it.

      You are incorrect that I tried it and failed. I never tried it because I don’t see the point in attempting to double or triple my daily word count for purely arbitrary reasons.

      I don’t deny my NaNo loving friends their fun. (Did you even see the part where I wrote “I don’t begrudge those who find the camaraderie and deadline pressure of NaNoWriMo inspiring.”?) I just hear too much pressure being put on people to participate. No one should be pressured into feeling they have to do this thing, any more than they should be pressured to run a marathon or climb a mountain. We are all free to pursue our writing in our own way.

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