National Novel Writing Month is coming up again and, as always, my thoughts about it are generally split as to whether or not this is a good thing. In some ways, NaNo reflects my personal beliefs about how books should be written. But in many more ways, I fear that, ultimately, NaNo may not just be a bad idea, I think it could actually do harm to participants’ craft.
On the surface, NaNo would appear to be an awesome opportunity for writers to get inspired, and push out more words than they normally would. I love their system of “virtual” rewards (Audible does the same thing, and I can contest personally that it works. Before I managed to achieve every single reward available, I listened to far more audiobooks than I do now). All this is great. I think the people behind NaNo have extremely good intentions and I love the professionalism, structure, and sense of community they’ve managed to wrap around something that is so abstract and, for the most part, a very solitary and lonely job. That’s the one thing about writing. Normally, there are no cheerleaders. No coaches. Not even a guaranteed blue ribbon (or any color ribbon) at the end of the race. Even worse, for the most part, any community of supporters you do find, don’t really understand the writing process enough to offer the sort of encouragement that a writer (especially in their early years) needs. They just don't get it. To most people, at least in my experience, writing is a very esoteric process, completely foreign to most other crafts.vEven other writers can fall short in this regard. They are too busy struggling with their own work or they will offer advice full of good intentions, not knowing it's bad advice coming from their own lack of experience. And of course, there are some that simply won't acknowledge or will negatively acknowledge others' success out of vanity or jealousy. Whatever. That doesn’t matter. My point here is, in this regard, NaNo rocks (there are a few other places where a burgeoning writer can find that kind of support, too, and I will get to that in a moment.
So yeah, NaNo is full of all that chocolatey goodness. So what’s the problem?
The problem lies in NaNo’s mission statement. To quote directly from their homepage: “Write a novel in a month!” And, from their FAQ: “You win NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words of your novel between November 1 and November 30.”
This is fine and dandy if you are an accomplished novelist. If you’ve already got two or three novels under your belt, then I would completely advise you to throw yourself at NaNo if that’s what you want to do. Problem is, if you’ve already got two or three novels done, you probably don’t need Nano. I don’t have any figures to back this up, but I am willing to bet that by far the majority of entrants haven’t completed a novel before in their life.
Why is this bad?
First there is a flaw in the entire premise. Unless you are writing a YA novel, 50,000 words is not going to give you a book. At least probably not one that is publishable. The word counts that publishers are looking for when it comes to novels (especially for first-time authors), generally ranges from 70,000 to 120,000, with fantasies claiming the high range, mysteries and mainstream the mid to lower range and science fiction right across the board. So let’s be clear about this. Even if you “win” NaNo, you probably won’t have written a novel.
Not only that, 50,000 words in a month is hard. In fact, if you look at the map of word counts across the map that NaNo have posted on their site, it becomes clear that by far the majority of participants don’t even make half their targeted account.
If you go into something publicly announcing you’re "going to pump out 50,000 words in thirty days and write a novel" and then wind up with, say, 20,000 words and no finished novel in sight, you will become nothing but discouraged. And I’ll tell you right now, the biggest thing early writers struggle against is discouragement. Becoming a good writer, in my experience, requires a lot of patience and tenacity. For me, the drive to continue throughout those early tenuous years, was through experiencing one small win at a time. You need to feel you are accomplishing something to push forward. The “I’m a failure” feeling that constantly plagues even well-established writers is so prevalent in the industry that the last thing it needs is another source.
“Okay," you say, "but I am thinking about this differently. I am thinking I will participate in NaNo, use all their support systems, and come away with a good start on a book that I will finish in the months following.”
Not a bad stance if you can do it. Problem is, even if you manage to make those 50,000 words, you're still really barely halfway through your book (most books, at least). Congratulations! You wrote half a book in thirty days. Except I have to be honest with you, that first half? It’s a cakewalk compared to the second half. I’ve written twenty-two novels now in about fifteen years. I don’t say this to impress you or to brag, simply to illustrate that I have credentials to back up what I’m saying. Winning NaNo is going to put you right in a place many authors know well. It even has a name, "The Muddle in the Middle."vIt’s a bad place, probably the toughest to handle. I still continually struggle with even after having written so many books. I have developed ways of tackling it and I always eventually manage to push through, but if you’re a beginner writer or even if this is your second or third book, you may not have what’s needed to just slam your way through to the end.
Again, I have no hard evidence to back this up, but I am betting that NaNo is probably responsible for many, many half-finished manuscripts now lying dead in drawers or on hard drives today, left untouched since their word count was posted on that thirtieth day.
In this way, NaNo teaches you bad habits.
The only way to get good at anything is to practice. In this regard, writing as many words as possible and aiming for 50,000 in one month is a good thing. Every word you write is a practice word until it’s published, and that’s fine. Practice is great. And I certainly am not trying to dissuade you from doing something that will result in you throwing down words at astronomical speeds. Problem is, that’s not all you’re practicing with NaNo. The big thing NaNo is teaching you is how to write the first half of a book. When, what you really need to practice if you’re trying to be a successful writer is how to start and finish a book. Finishing is important. I try to finish everything I start. It's in finishing where you really learn how to be not just a good author, but a great one.
Before I go any further, let me explain something. On the surface, NaNo and I share one basic philosophy: your first draft should be written fast. As fast as possible. I don’t care if you’re a planner or a pantser or even a penguin (I just made that last one up as a joke, don’t go off Googling what a penguin is when it comes to writing ), writing fast works really well for so many reasons, there's a psychological advantage to it, there are creative reasons for it, there are continuity issues around it, but the main thing it does is that it keeps the right side of your brain (the creative, imaginative side of dreams) running fast enough to avoid being tackled by the “internal editor” sitting at the desk in the left side of the brain. I've heard that ninety-five percent of would-be writers fail to ever finish a novel. It’s that guy, that editor, who's responsible for this. He throws up roadblocks. Questions every word. Tells you they are terrible. Tells you that you are terrible. Don't let him. Keep him back as far away as possible. To do that, write fast, write sloppily, write everything you can and finish your book as quickly as you can. Then, once it’s done, throw it in a drawer for at least three weeks before you go back and second-draft it. That's when you can let the internal editor catch up for a while.
So if not NaNo, then what?
The reason for this post came from a conversation I had yesterday with a good writer friend of mine. They’ve written a few short stories and want to write a novel. “I think I’m going to do NaNo,” they said. And I replied with basically everything I just said.
Then I replied with: “There is a way to replicate the Nano experience in, what I would consider, a much healthier manner.” Now when I say “healthier,” I mean, less likely to teach you bad habits or discourage you. And the way to do it is to run your own little NaNo.
Let me explain.
First off, 50,000 words in one month is a crazy number to expect from any writer. That extends outward to 600,000 words in one year. I am a very prolific writer. I used to track all my words. For two years running, my count managed to hit the million mark. But I was completely insane (still am, just in different ways 🙂 ). Nowadays, as a traditionally published professional writer, I probably hit between 200,000 – 300,000 words in a year (I stopped keeping track after that second million a year mark). So even with all my experience, I would probably struggle to “win” NaNo even if I tried.
If you’re really dedicated to writing and have the tenacity and perseverance needed to finish a novel, I think a much better target count would be 30,000 words a month for three months. This would result in a final novel of around 90,000 words. Even if you fall short by 10,000, you’re still totally within the range of a publishable book.
But what about all the support and cheerleading and rewards that NaNo supplies? How am I going to do this for three months without a life preserver?
You don’t. Here’s what you do. You set up a fan page dedicated for the next three months. It’s basically your contract with yourself, your “I’m publicly promising that I will follow this regiment for the next ninety days” declaration. Post this on the page. Make it sticky. It’s always at the top.
Then you ask maybe a dozen of your closest and most trusted social media friends to like the page and ask if they’ll check it regularly for the length of your personal mission. You don’t need many, ten is great. Even five. The point is that you are promising something not only to yourself, but also doing it publicly. Between issues of pride and wanting to avoid embarrassment, this public declaration will be an extreme asset to your progress. I once used this exact tactic to lose one hundred pounds in six months. When I started, I told everyone I knew what I was planning to do and what my end result would be. They all said I was crazy and wouldn’t make it. In the end, they turned out to be right. I didn’t lose a hundred pounds when that sixth month came to an end, I’d only lost ninety-eight. I missed by two. I thought about cutting off my hand to make up for coming up short but decided I was fine with ninety-eight. Super fine, to be honest.
At first, during those six months, my drive came from everyone around me telling me I was crazy and there was no way I could do it. I wanted to prove them all wrong. By the third month mark, when I was down sixty pounds, things changed. Now I was driven by all of them telling me how amazing I looked and how astounded they were. They started rooting for, So when you pick people you’re going to let access your page, make sure they are the sort of people who care, either negatively or positively, about your writing. You want to make sure you pick people who will come and check your posts often.
This is because you’re not only going to post word counts, but every word you write. Either daily or weekly, throw up a couple thousand words at a time. Encourage feedback (but do not act on it until your second draft—just sock it away somewhere for the time being) and regularly tell them that you’re grateful for their support and how it’s helping you push forward.
I’m sure some of you just rolled your eyes thinking, “I can’t publish my book on Facebook, it will completely mess up any chances of publishing it after I’m done.”
This would be true if you were publishing to the world. I wouldn’t do this on your main Facebook page. This is why I say use a Fan Page. You might even want to make it private. Invite a dozen people and make them you’re cheering squad. Make sure they’re okay reading through the short passages you post during your progress. Most people don’t mind reading small excerpts, but when you ask someone to read your final 90,000 word book, you will find a lot more resistance.
So why is this important?
Because, these people, unknowingly, aren’t just your pep squad. They’re also automatically becoming your beta readers. When you are done, they will have read every word of your book. Even if you make substantial changes in second draft, they have seen enough to review your work on Amazon or Goodreads or whatever once it comes out. And your first ten reviews are incredibly important to the future of your book, and this is especially true if you’re an Indy writer.
So, that’s it in a nutshell. Just run your own little NaNo, only yours will be more a Personal Novel Writing Quarter Year contest instead. So, welcome to PeNoWriQuYe. I know, it’s harder to say, but I think it is a far better approach.
Oh, and earlier I mentioned other places to find support and forums and stuff like that to talk to other writers and get support and encouragement. I don’t know a lot of these sort of places, although I’m sure they exist, but one that immediately pops to my mind is Writer’s Village University. I’ve had a lot of experience at WVU and find all the people there incredibly positive and supportive. It’s run by a guy named Bob Hembree who may be, not only the smartest man I’ve ever virtually met, but one of the nicest, too.
If you do decide doing PeNoWriQuYe, send me an invitation to your page. I’d love to be one of your fans.