7 Things I Learned from National Novel Writing Month

November is only a month away, and that means another National Novel Writing Month. For anyone who might not be familiar, Nanowrimo is a yearly online event where amateur and professional writers try to bang out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, in between carping on the Nanowrimo forums about how they shouldn’t have taken on the unreasonable task of banging out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The point of the exercise is to free yourself from the constraints of your “inner editor” and embracing the joys of the berserk and uneven first draft. A lot of beginning authors struggle with trying to be perfect the first time. Nanowrimo combats that with a big word count requirement, an inconvenient deadline, and hordes of other poor saps doing the same thing.

I’ve been participating in Nanowrimo since 2004, and have had a love / hate relationship with it since day one. I briefly earned my bragging rights in 2007 when I landed an interview with Nano for writing 10,000 words in a day, and even got a photo of my smug self on the front page. In the years since then, the “10,000 word day” has become dirt-common, and now people are on to writing 20,000 words in a day while dressed in a chicken suit typing on an Apple II in the middle of Times Square at midnight. On mushrooms. The bar for getting noticed on Nanowrimo has risen somewhat.

Since I’ve been at it for long enough that I consider myself a salty old Nanowrimo veteran, I now have my process down to a science:

  1. Swear that this year I won’t be doing Nanowrimo this year because I have no use for it
  2. Do it anyway
  3. When my friends ask me why I’m doing it again, swear devoutly this will be the last time
  4. Quote Godfather III (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”), goto 1

The truth is, I participate every year because it’s a lot of fun. There’s something exhilirating about a deadline that doesn’t involve paying the rent or a pissed-off client. It’s nice to shrug off responsibility and just write like a maniac for a few weeks. But beyond the heady rush of plowing through a dreadful first-draft novella in a month, there are actually a few valuable lessons to be learned from Nanowrimo.

1. This is your big chance not to care.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Seth Godin: “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” A lot of writers I know will do anything they can to keep from actually finishing a project. They write a paragraph, then go back and edit. They write a sentence, then go back and edit. They write one word and down Jagermeister until they wake up in a dumpster not knowing their name. They agonize over insignificant plot points. I know one damned soul who’s been typing his character names into Google for the last ten years, making sure that his super-original names aren’t duplicated anywhere on the internet. It’s appallingly easy to dwell in this hapless creative purgatory forever, slouching toward perfection and never getting any closer.

Nanowrimo can help you Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Writing Crap. If you’re going to make the deadline, you won’t have time to fart around. This is your chance to pump yourself up with a do-or-die attitude and learn just how useless a first draft really is.

Granted, this isn’t exactly a spectacular lesson, since it amounts to “I learned from Nanowrimo the basic premise of Nanowrimo,” but still, it bears mentioning. Moving on.

2. Good novels need planning. This is no time to plan.

This is a bit of a sweeping generalization, so I’ll amend it to say that my novels need planning. Some people, apparently, can just bang out a draft that has a strong opening, a clear plot, a taut second act, and a finale that brings together every element into a satisfying payoff. In six years, I’ve never come within spitting distance of doing that, and I suspect these people are some kind of genetic supermen, or possibly reptoids from the planet Smartron V.

Quality takes time, preparation, and hard work. Nanowrimo is more about gleefully building a mountain of chaff and separating the wheat out later on.

3. You’re capable of great things.

One of the big roadblocks so many writers run into is the lack of time. Jobs, kids, social lives, dentist appointments, fatigue, and let’s face it, Top Gear is hardly going to watch itself. Nanowrimo is an opportunity to put aside as many responsibilities as you can, stay up too late, drink too much coffee, and write more than you’ve ever written before. Write dialogue that makes you laugh out loud! Close nagging plot holes at two in the morning by the sallow light of your Macbook! Brag on your word count like it means something! Out of nowhere, add zombies to your novel in the second act, just because you can! Ignore the bleating taunts of your unsupportive peers and family members! Take on something unreasonable and impulsive and by God, finish it. Feel good? Yeah, you know it does.

4. Excuses are eternal.

Every year I participate in Nanowrimo, I see a lot of people give up, both strangers on the forums and people I know personally. The number one excuse is always the same: November is too busy. It’s the holidays. Thanksgiving is coming up. Family is visiting. I’ve got this killer hangnail.

I’m not saying that people don’t have time obligations, or that the holidays aren’t frantic. Our lives are busy. I get that. But here’s something I’ve seen probably a dozen times: the guy or gal who complains about how inconvenient November in particular is, and announces their intention to write their one-month novel in January. Or May, or June, or whenever. Then, by the time Mythical January finally rolls around, they’ve forgotten all about it. “I want to do this, but November is too busy” has become code for “I never really intended to start in the first place.”

Waiting for the perfect time to write — some magical time of the year when you don’t have a job, a life, and other things to do — will just leave you waiting forever. If you’re going to commit to writing, then why not make a commitment at the worst possible time? Think of how easy the rest of the year will seem by comparison.

5. You’re still on your own.

This is the tough one. One of the big selling points of Nanowrimo is that you’ll be working alongside thousands of other people, all struggling along to make their Great American Writing Dream come true. While this sounds appealing in theory, in reality Nanowrimo is highly unlikely to abrogate the built-in loneliness of the writing process.

For example: a couple of years ago, I announced my intention to give Livejournal another shot, and asked some of my aspiring writer friends to participate with me. Four agreed to participate. Of those, three signed up. Of those, zero updated their word count. Although one announced he was waiting until January and wrote his book then — oh wait, no he didn’t.

I say this without rancor, because it’s extremely common. You have to be in this for yourself. You can get a little support from the forums and the ambient feeling of community that comes with knowing other people are struggling along with you — but it’s a largely useless feeling, like the vague nausea that informs you not to buy sushi off the deli counter at the supermarket. You’re still going to be by yourself, plugging away at the words on the page, frustrated and isolated and wrestling with doubt, because that’s what writing is. Nanowrimo is no antidote, and reaching out to your buddies may end up just another source of frustration.

That said, I’ve been very fortunate to have supportive people cheering me on during Nanowrimo — but those people generally weren’t writers, and they sure as hell weren’t Nano participants. The people who said they’d participate and then didn’t basically vanished for the duration. Because that’s what you do. Tilt your ear to listen for your “writing buddies” and there is only the howling wind of guilt, shame, and sixty hours of Rock Band 3.

So, just don’t worry about it. You’re on your own, and that’s okay, because that’s the way it’s got to be.

6. Your novel might be finished, but you’re not.

A few years back, while I was browsing the Nano forums and basking in the sublime, worthless glow of my own purple bar (the icon you get when you cross 50K), I saw one author breathlessly anticipating the dump trucks of cash they’d now be raking in from their finished first draft. This demigod of writing had banged out a whopping 150,000 words in a month. Look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair! Only when you actually looked upon his works, ye mighty, it was twenty-six chapters of people eating dinner, with agonizing paragraphs devoted to every meager forkful. No one responded to his post, either because no one had the heart to tell the poor clod how publishing really works on planet Earth, or they just assumed it was sarcasm.

Don’t get me wrong. Successfully thrashing out a novella in thirty days is awesome, and can be a lot of fun. But it isn’t an end. It’s a beginning. If you think your first draft is worthy of publication, there are two primary possibilities at work: you’re some kind of Martian super-genius, or you’re living in deep denial. Most likely, you have a lot of editing ahead, in which you will learn just how frustrating and useless a first draft can really be.

But that’s a December problem, really. Nanowrimo is all about running across a sun-dappled dewy meadow into the loving arms of your crapulent first pass. Enjoy it. Burn in the fire of your love. You’ll be filing for trial separation soon enough.

7. Nanowrimo is only useful for so long.

This is another broad generalization, so again, I will just append “for me.” Some writers might participate in Nanowrimo every year and learn something new and amazing every time. I’m not one of those people. For me, the primary lesson of Nanowrimo — that you can, in fact, finish a draft — holds value the first time. After that, it’s redundant. That’s not to say that Nanowrimo still isn’t fun — it can be a complete blast. But it really is only the first step on the terrifying, winding stair that leads up to actually finishing a book.

Some people will tell you that Nanowrimo isn’t even useful the first time, and that you not only needn’t bother, but shouldn’t. Laura Miller got lots of pageviews around this time last year by declaring that the world doesn’t need more novels or novelists. I’d argue that the world doesn’t need more trollish pop-culture pundits, either, and yet they keep showing up. But screeds like Miller’s actually do serve a valuable purpose: this is exactly the sort of dismissive attitude you have to learn to shrug off.

So if you are doing Nanowrimo this year, I wish you the best of luck. Go nuts. Write crap. Have a good time. We can even be writing buddies if you like. Just don’t talk to me about January.