National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is an event that happens every November. Writers all over the world (It really ought to be called International Novel Writing Month) hunker down with vast quantities of their preferred stimulant, and attempt to crank out 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days.
I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo three times and hit the 50,000 word target twice. On one occasion, the short novel I wrote led to me getting an agent. On another occasion, I almost had a nervous breakdown. My experiences of NaNoWriMo are so varied that I feel the need to make a list of pros and cons to decide whether I’ll ever try it again.
- It forces you to write. I’ve lost count of the number of times would-be writers have told me that they don’t have time to write. When you’re doing NaNoWriMo, that excuse flies out the window. No more squeezing your writing in around the edges – if you’re going to write 50,000 words, you need to aim for over 1,600 words a day. There’s no way of getting it done without devoting big, generous chunks of time to your craft.
- It discourages perfectionism. Perfectionism is the enemy of the first draft. It slows you down, causes you to go over and over the same paragraph until you loathe it, and suffocates you with self-doubt. When you have no choice but to write quickly, you’re much more likely to switch off that inner editor and get words on the page, where they need to be.
- You can make valuable connections. NaNoWriMo is surprisingly sociable. You can use the forums on the NaNoWriMo website to connect with potential beta readers, or people who share your interest in a particular genre.
- You will hopefully end up with the beginnings of a novel. 50,000 words is generally considered too short for a novel aimed at adults. But depending on what you’re writing, when you hit that target you might only be 10,000 or 20,000 words away from a completed first draft (no problem for someone who’s just written 50,000 in a month), or you might be about halfway through. There’s still a long way to go before you have a finished product on your hands, but a huge amount of the work is already done.
- The sense of achievement is fantastic. There’s a reason why hitting the 50,000 word target is referred to as “winning” rather than “completing”. It really does feel like a victory. It gives you bragging rights, an excuse to go out for drinks or dinner, and something to put on your CV. It can also really strengthen your identity as a writer.
- Not hitting the target can be very discouraging. While hitting that all-important 50,000 word target can do your self-esteem the world of good, not hitting it can be hugely disappointing. It can even make you feel like all that hard work was for nothing. On the year when I didn’t manage it (I wrote about 40,000 words), I really did feel like I’d let myself down. In retrospect, this was ridiculous. 40,000 words in a month is brilliant!
- You may find that you don’t have enough story for 50,000 words. Some stories aren’t actually meant to be novels. Most of the time, if you find that the plot you’ve outlined won’t provide enough “meat” for a novel-length work, it’s easy enough to rework it into a novella. But with NaNoWriMo’s intense focus on word count, it can be tempting to keep stretching that story out, focussing on quantity rather than quality. This is definitely something to avoid. Like my Nan always said “Stories are like penises. Length doesn’t matter, it’s how it makes you feel that’s important.”*
- Focussing too much on word count may screw up your pacing. Once again, the pressure to write a certain number of words in a certain amount of time causes problems. If you are behind on your word count, you may find yourself padding out your writing with unnecessary description, boring internal monologues or random dream sequences (I’ll admit to doing all these things) in an attempt to catch up easily. This can really slow the pace of your novel.
- Stress! Attempting NaNoWriMo may cause any of the following side-effects: Anxiety, frustration, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, overeating, relationship break-down, a belief that a true artist must be forever alone, shouting at pets and a determination never to write again.
- Sacrifices. NaNoWriMo is challenging, but it’s do-able. What isn’t do-able is NaNoWriMo, plus work, plus taking care of loved ones, plus a vibrant social life, plus a spotlessly clean house. Something’s gotta go, whether it’s going out with friends or ironing your clothes. Be warned that people may have a hard time accepting that you’re prioritising your writing over spending time with them.
So there you have it. I’ve laid out the pros and cons of NaNoWriMo but the final decision of whether or not to participate is, of course, a very personal one. Some people don’t work well under that kind of pressure, while others thrive under it. If you’re participating this year, I’d like to wish you the very best of luck. As for me, I’m enjoying my year off! But perhaps I’ll get back on the horse next year.
*To be honest, I don’t actually remember who said that. It wasn’t my Nan, she was super-Catholic.