THAT is the question.
I swear I’m not being vain, I swear I’m not being vain, I swear I’m not being vain…
How many more times do I need to say that to myself before I’ll believe it?
It was so late at night, and there I was staring at the NaNoWriMo webpage as I had done every night in November. I copy/pasted my work and waited for the page to load and show me how far away I was from the deadline. Many late nights before, so many cups of coffee, more than a few writer’s blocks that I stumbled upon, and a bonus trip to the emergency room with a severe anxiety attack later, the heat from my laptop burned my fingers as I clicked “Submit”.
I remember looking on my profile and seeing all of my other failed attempts. My first full draft of my novel, “In Spirit” was completed on October 29th, 2015 at 2:22 AM– almost three years after my first attempt at NaNoWriMo. My novel had drastically changed in the three years prior to the completion of that first draft; I found myself at such a high writer’s block that I felt too small to scale it. It had its benefits; it gave me to time to rethink it, which gave me the time and space to go back further and could propel myself up the wall. But the thought that I couldn’t get a novel done by the deadline weighed me down. Was I just not disciplined enough? Was I not a good enough planner?
Or just not a good enough writer?
Every November, NaNoWriMo–short for National Novel Writing Month–has its official online challenge: complete a 50,000 word minimum novel by November 30th and all the internet glory shall be yours. No cash prizes, but at least a chance to put up a banner and win a few other prizes (though most you have to pay for–half price, at least with a lot of them). You build a profile, announce your novel, and you set about the business of writing. No rules about what to write–only a word count that meets or exceeds the minimum. It’s mostly honor system; there is an option to copy/paste your progress and the website updates your word count for you, or you can go by whatever your word processor says. The only time you’d have to officially check your word count in is when you want to confirm if you’ve met the minimum or not as the deadline approaches. No guarantees of getting published (though a good amount have gone on to be published; one of the notable examples is “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen) or world fame, except over the internet (even that’s not quite guaranteed).
So…to NaNo…or not?
Well, though it’s only August and the OFFICIAL challenge is three months away, it’s still a good time to comb over some pros and cons over this highly popular challenge. Even if you’re not hot on the idea now (or too busy being too hot because, well, SUMMER), November will come around, and maybe you will too.
So here are some of the pros of NaNoWriMo:
1) Community: the whole idea of the site is to bring people together to focus on their writing. Most of us don’t write for a living–or if we do, chances are, it’s not the writing we really want to do. This means for most of us, we don’t see people in our day-to-day lives who go through what we do. It’s hard to talk about how hard writing can be or sprout off about our new ideas when Sally just wants to stare at YouTube videos in the break room. NaNoWriMo brings you together with like-minded people where you can be each other’s soundboards. There are forums–some made by the NaNo team, and many started by other writers that promote discussion and support. If you need help addressing a plot hole, overcoming writer’s block, want to find inspiration for your novel, or just need a listening ear, someone will be around to hear you. Even better: many cities host events called “write-ins”; groups of writers will plan a physical meeting in their city to meet other writers as well as use time to focus solely on writing together. Writing is usually a lonely process; NaNoWriMo helps make it a little less so.
2) Accountability: going somewhat hand-in-hand with community, NaNoWriMo provides something writers don’t usually have to deal with unless they have an editor: the responsibility of getting your writing done when it’s supposed to get done. A lot of us tend to put our writing goals off because we keep thinking “I can do it tomorrow”. The problem, of course, is that in the end, there isn’t a tomorrow–only today. NaNoWriMo forces us to live in the now and write as if there won’t BE a tomorrow. Watching your word count grow or stagnate can help push us forward with our goals if we want it bad enough. We can’t become legendary writers, remembered for millenia after death if we don’t sit down and write.
3) Pep-talks: ever wonder what the big name writers go through when they write? Wish one of your favorite writers could sit next you, pat you on the back and say, “You’ve got this”? Well, NaNoWriMo asks big name writers like Amy Tan, Dean Coonce, and many others (including past NaNo winners) to write letters of support of how they get their ideas, how they got through their dark days, and about what works for them to get their novels written. It’s so lovely opening your e-mail and knowing there’s a vote of confidence and that there’s hope.
4) Set time to write: you don’t actually NEED permission to write, but for those who need help keeping their time organized, knowing there is a whole month set aside for a writing challenge helps people prioritize time strictly for writing. It’s almost like the Christmas season; it’s a whole month that helps put you in the mood to write (or if you’re one of those people who get crucified for playing Christmas music in November, it’s a great distraction until Christmas season actually begins). It gives you permission to be excited to write. ‘Tis the season to be writing–fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
5) Badges: NaNoWriMo wants to keep people excited to write and wants to celebrate every victory it can. Hit 5,000 words? 10,000? 25,000? There are badges for that! Did you go ten straight days writing? Badge! There are even those you can award to yourself: are you a planner, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser, or a plantser (combo of the previous two)? Badges for those! Writing is a challenge with or without NaNo, and taking the time to acknowledge your victories–big and small–helps give you the courage to push forward to the 50,000 word count.
6) Self-affirmation: this may be the most important one of them all. Win or lose, knowing that you even dedicated any time to make your writing dreams come true is a win in and of itself. Many people just look at it as a fun challenge–which it is. But for many of us, writing is intrinsic to our identities; what are we if we don’t write? Life often gets busy and other priorities take center stage and leaves us wondering when there will be enough time in the day to chase our dreams. Even if all you write is one word, it’s one more word you’ve written than before November. You prove to yourself what you are capable of–and it’s usually more than we expect of ourselves.
So I’ve waxed poetic about why NaNoWriMo is worth it, but it would be irresponsible to neglect some of the pitfalls and challenges it brings.
So now here are some cons of NaNoWriMo:
1) Quantity over quality: in a sense, it’s also a pro because the whole idea of NaNo is to make sure that a novel gets written. Too many people get caught up in the fame and fortune that could befall us that we forget to write, and NaNo forces us to get our novels written. The problem, however, is that the challenge only addresses the word count. You could probably copy/paste one word 50,000 times, and you’d still win the challenge. Writers might feel pressured to meet or exceed their word count without really thinking about if the words they’ve chosen are the right ones. Of course, the editing process takes care of getting rid of extraneous words and ideas, but with this approach, it means there’s just going to be more brush to clear down the road. In my own writing, I could glance over the chapters and could tell that a lot of the stuff I wrote was rushed and forced because I was trying so hard to meet or exceed my daily word count. I expect that stuff is going to get changed, rearranged, or flat out cut out from my novels–but it’s going to be more work after the draft is done resting.
2) Writing under pressure: deadlines are a fact of life–writing or not. But people have what Rebecca Miller called “personal velocity”; they have their own speed. It’s been known to happen that people could get whole novels written in as little as a few days, but some can take several months or even years before getting a draft completed. Stephen King in his non-fiction book On Writing (future post on that to follow) usually gives himself about three months to write his novels in order to keep his time balanced; it’s long enough to give the story time to unfold (he’s very big on slow builds for that King style tension), but not so much that he loses interest in the story. Some stories just take longer to unfold on the page than others. Whether it’s due to writer’s block or other life commitments, for some people, a month just isn’t quite long enough to get a novel written. If people had unlimited time, maybe they could get their novel out, but, of course, it won’t make you a winner for the challenge. It can be disheartening when you fail to meet the deadline year after year as I have. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer–but it doesn’t exactly boost your confidence, either.
3) Badges: the badges are still a pro, but they can be a distraction during the challenge as well. Instead of focusing on the writing, people may be too distracted by the well-intentioned little bells and whistles on the site. It’s all well and good to pat yourself on the back–just remember to take your hands off your back and put them onto the keyboard again.
4) Plagiarizers: I want to believe most of humanity is comprised of good, moral people. And I do. The forums on the site provide that community we all need, but when talking about your writing, there’s the temptation of spilling your guts out to a fellow writing about your idea. There is always going to be a risk that someone is going to hear your ideas and steal them without giving you credit, but the risk is higher on the forums because there is so much exchange of information. Thankfully, this risk can be reduced or eliminated if we’re just careful about what and how much we share. Once at a writer’s meeting, our Thorn-in-Chief was talking about his novel, The Boy with a Torn Hat, and I asked him a question about whether something had actually happened or not. In true Thorn style, he turned to me, smiled and said, “I’m not going to tell you”. Not only do you prevent people from stealing your darlings (before you murder them, of course), you also elevate the intrigue of the person listening to you, making it more likely that they’ll be more excited to get your book when you get it published. Speaking of:
5) No guarantee of publication: this was a question I often got asked over the years when I did the challenge, and there is nothing quite like that self-consciousness when you have to tell people that there won’t be many tangible rewards for our labor. The whole goal of NaNo is to get you to write your novel. While there is support after the challenge is over, there will not be a line of publishers threatening to break down your door unless you allow them to pay you for your writing (unless you lined them up beforehand). NaNo is there to encourage you to give your novel life on the pages; but after that, you get sent home with the baby, and now you have to prepare it for the world.
6) Comparisons: the good news is that NaNo can help you make writer friends. The bad news is that you’ll get front row seats to their growing word counts–which may grow faster than yours. Like with any other social media, there is this desire to compare ourselves to other people and wonder how they have everything so perfect and you don’t. It can be inspiring to see how fast people can write because it helps you see that the challenge can be met, but it can set unrealistic expectations. As stated above, everyone has their personal velocity–and just because your friend wrote over 2,000 words a day and you’re barely making the 1,667 word count, it doesn’t mean you can’t win the challenge OR that the words you get onto the page aren’t good enough. If meeting the deadline matters that much to you, you still have until 11:59 PM November 30th to get the novel written; you are not any less of a good writer just because you needed the whole month while your friend only needed about half the month. It’s just more emotional burden on you as a writer, and most of us have enough of that already.
In the end, it’s just a challenge, and as with every action hero, it’s only “should you choose to accept”. It’s up to you whether you believe you’re up to it and whether it’s worth it. Is it worth it, after all?
In my humble little opinion?
I think so.
Postscript: this is NEITHER an advertisement nor condemnation of NaNoWriMo or its creators and participants. All of the above is MY opinion based on MY experiences.
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