It’s Book-In-A-Month Season, Fellow Writers [1]

Yes, it’s National Novel Writing Month again. After a two-year hiatus, I’ve decided to take the plunge again, and just three days in I’m reminded of my love/hate relationship with NaNoWriMo [2] and why I took a break in the first place.

First the love.

For all its flaws, NaNo is remarkable at getting beginning writers to stretch themselves and commit an ungodly amount of words to paper—50,000 words at a minimum to “win.” [3] Most of that motivation comes from the remarkable community facilitated by the forums and the hundreds (thousands?) of volunteer Municipal Liaisons organizing local events around the world. If you’re not spending time on the website and attending write-ins, you’re doing NaNo wrong.

My first NaNo, a dozen years ago, motivated me to barf out a shitty first draft of a novel I’d been carrying around in my head for—no exaggeration—twenty years. It also introduced me to an amazing group of people I’m still friends with [4] and was a big part of the impetus to take writing more seriously and get my Creative Writing MFA at Stonecoast.

On to the hate. [5]

NaNo encourages new writers to believe that after completing their shitty first drafts, they’re 90% of the way to the finish line. Just a quick revision and off to the publisher! The truth is, for most writers, they’re closer to 10% of the way there. That shitty first draft is the raw material for a proper outline to a mediocre second draft which, after several revisions, might be ready for beta readers.

Worse, NaNo provides very little guidance or support on how to continue the journey from there, dumping tens of thousands of new writers into the world with no plan beyond waiting for next November to try again. Worst of all, many of the habits it encourages (overwriting, unsustainable pace, word wars, plot ninjas) to hustle writers over the 50K mark are actively detrimental to quality manuscripts.

After accumulating a decade’s worth of shitty first drafts, only one of which I managed to push painfully over the finish line [6], I stepped back from NaNo for a couple of years. I had some paying projects going, and I didn’t want to wallow in bad habits after painstakingly building up something approaching a daily writing discipline.

And yet … I missed it. I missed the people. I missed the frenzy. I missed the pure joy of throwing down words without worrying about whether they were good enough. [7] 

I have a friend, a multiple award-winning, traditionally published writer, who takes a run at NaNo every year but has never finished. She takes NaNo very seriously—too seriously; she doesn’t have a month to screw around—so she’s not nearly reckless enough. She’s not willing to vomit hot garbage onto the page in pursuit of word count, quality be damned. And, as I said, she’s never won. That’s where I’ve been the past two years, being “professional,”which just isn’t the mindset for NaNo. 

But through adversity comes, well, mostly pain, but also adaptation. Though none of my November manuscripts have amounted to anything, I’ve always gained something in the process. Every writing session delivered at least some usable nugget or insight. I’ve learned to stretch myself as a writer. And every year I’ve experienced at some point the writer’s equivalent of a runner’s high. [8]

So that’s my plan for this year. An unprofessional November. A thirty-day affair with bad writing. A caffeine-fueled bender of poor literary choices. A desperate, ungainly writing marathon.

It’s fun. You should try it.


1. Sung to the tune of “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.

2. Pronounced nanoWRYmo, not nanoWREEmo. It’s national novel WRIting month, not WREEting month, whatever that might be. (Achievement Unlocked: pet peeve addressed in a blog post.)

3. That’s less than 75% of the length of most published novels which typically weigh in at 80,000 words (or more). Still a steep hill to climb for a beginner.

4. Facebook friends, because the selfish bastards all left Hawaii for “career opportunities” and greener economic pastures. (Miss you guys!)

5. “Hate” is a strong word—undeserved and hyperbolic. I use it idiomatically. There’s no poetry in a love/maybe-not-this-year relationship.

6. The finish line, in this case, being finished to my satisfaction and landing me an agent. It still hasn’t been published.

7. If you don’t, somewhere in the back of your mind, hear your high school English teacher screaming the equivalent of “don’t run in the house,” you’re probably doing NaNo wrong.

8. I’ve only experienced an actual runner’s high once, ten miles into a half-marathon. It was nice. Joyful, even. But not something I’d be eager to run ten miles to experience again.

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