Five Reasons not to do NaNoWriMo

Ah, October. The month of pumpkins and black cats. But if you’re a writer, October is also the month before NaNoWriMo; the month to decide if you’re in or out; the month where people all over the interwebs start throwing around advice and opinions on National Novel Writing Month, the November event where people commit to trying to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Some writers love it. Others hate it. A few proclaim it a blight on the face of the professional writing world.

I’m going to be upfront: I love NaNoWriMo. I love the concept of it, I love the story of how it first came into existence (spoiler: college guys wanted to pick up chicks), and I love the way it’s grown from humble beginnings into a huge, international event through sheer energy and enthusiasm. But most of all I love the environment on the NaNo forums and web page, and the connections and encouragement you get there, with hundreds of thousands of people all striving for the same goal in a non-competitive way.

But that doesn’t mean NaNoWriMo works for everybody. And if you do NaNoWriMo for the wrong reason, chances are you’ll hate the experience.

Here are five reasons not to do NaNoWriMo.

1. Because it will be easier to write my novel when I’m part of a group.

The great thing about being part of any writing community, including the NaNoWriMo one, is that there are other people there with the same goals and dreams and oddities as you. Hanging out on the NaNo Forums is almost like going to a writing convention without the need to buy tickets, leave the house, or even get out of your jammies.

But here’s the sad truth of the matter: A group won’t help you write your novel.

Being part of a group of writers can be encouraging, but no one else is going to do the writing for you. Every year, thousands upon thousands of NaNo participants spend more time writing forum posts asking for encouragement, or bemoaning their lack of progress, than they do working on their novel.

It won’t be easier to write your novel when you’re part of a group. You may get more encouragement and feel more engaged in a writing community than usual, but you will also have a great many more distractions and chances for procrastination.

NaNoWriMo might be for you if you enjoy discussions about writing and enthusiastic encouragement between sessions of writing.

2. Because I’ll be able to focus exclusively on my novel for a whole month.

Life happens. All the time. And those of us with jobs and families and friends and hobbies and other commitments always struggle to put aside time for writing. As much as it would be nice to think that with NaNoWriMo comes the freedom to put life on hold and write all the time, nothing else in your life actually changes.

Plus, November in the USA is a month full of preparation for Thanksgiving, when hordes of interstate family members arrive on your doorstep demanding sacrifices of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie and then complain incessantly about the quality of the food, while preventing you from doing anything you would prefer to be doing. (Disclaimer: I’m Australian. My understanding of Thanksgiving is based entirely on bad sitcoms.) So not only will you not have more time during November than usual, you may actually find you have less.

If you can’t focus exclusively on your novel any other time of the year, you won’t be able to focus exclusively on your novel during November. Expecting the world to miraculously make more time for you because you’re writing is just setting yourself up for misery.

NaNoWriMo might be for you if you regularly schedule writing time for yourself, or you’re able to replace a usual activity with writing for the month of November.

3. Because I’ll write 50,000 words in a month, instead of my usual two or three thousand.

That’s great! Best of luck with that. I mean it. Just tell me one thing: How?

Firstly, unless you’re willing and able to completely change your life, your priorities, and your commitments during the month of November (which some people do), it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to increase your writing output by 2000%.

According to the “rules” of NaNoWriMo, you’re supposed to start a brand new project and write 50,000 words to “win”. But there’s a little-known secret about the rules.

No one comes to your house to make sure you’re following them.

If you want to keep working on your current project, go for it. If you want to set yourself the goal of writing more or fewer than 50,000 words, no one can stop you. You have the power to use the benefits of NaNoWriMo to your advantage, without being constrained by the rules.

Chances are, if you normally only write a couple of thousand words in a month, you won’t write 50,000 words in November. So don’t set yourself up to fail. Instead, look at your usual output and your schedule for the month, and design your own stretch target.

NaNoWriMo might be for you if you usually write close to 50K words a month, you’re willing to make major life changes during November, or you’re happy to ignore the arbitrary 50K target and aim for your own stretch goal.

4. Because in December, I’ll be able to get published.

No. Just… no. And this is the reason many authors, agents, and publishers despise NaNoWriMo. In all fairness to NaNo itself, the website is very clear on the fact that the work you do in November is not going to be ready for publication on December 1st. But every year, a slew of NaNo manuscripts are self-published in the first couple of weeks of December, and literary agents are inundated with poorly written query letters.

Firstly, let’s just clear one thing up. Unless you’re writing MG or (possibly) YA, your 50,000 words does not a novel make. An adult novel is rarely shorter than 80,000 words. (Yes, I know there are exceptions. They’re exceptions.) So the first thing you’ll need to do when you “win” NaNoWriMo is to finish writing your novel.

Secondly, perhaps there are people out there who can churn out an entire novel in 30 days and have it be perfect. But I’ve yet to come across one. What you’ve got at the end of November is a first draft. The first draft needs to sit and fester a while. Then it needs to be revised, possibly rewritten, and edited. Possibly more than once. Only after that will it be ready to seek a home somewhere.

There are many novels out there, both self-published and traditionally published, that started their lives as NaNovels. But they weren’t published in December of the year they were written.

NaNoWriMo might be for you if you realise that writing for publication is a long-term goal, and you’re prepared to put in more work after November has been and gone.

5. Because you want to pick up chicks by telling them you’re a novelist.

What do I know? Maybe that is a good reason.

What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Have you done it before? Will you be participating this year?



Filed under Writing

35 responses to “Five Reasons not to do NaNoWriMo

  1. Hi Jo! I started a new novel last year with NaNo and wrote my 50,000 words. It was great. I also spent all of October outlining the thing and it is the second novel in a series, so I already had the characters (even though the second novel takes place ten years after the first.) I want to start the third novel now (I haven’t finished the second yet, I must add…I just got the first one published.) I could have never done something like this when my kids were small. But one has moved out and the ‘baby’ is working full-time, so I find myself alone a lot of the time. And I have to make it my top-priority. I couldn’t write at that pace all the time, either. It burned me out. But the story flows because I had it in my face the whole time. And I don’t live in America anymore–a lot of writers complain about Thanksgiving.

    • Congrats on last year’s result! I think you’ve made a great point about not being able to do NaNo “properly” when your kids were small. The only time I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo was back before I had kids. Every year since then, I’ve had little ones and I’ve not managed more than 20,000 words maximum. So you give me hope that in the future, I’ll be able to really work on 50K again.

      Best of luck with NaNo this year!

  2. I did this a few years ago and I got distracted by my procrastination. Since I can’t seem to write more than one 500 word blog post a week, I might bow out this year too.

  3. I like the idea of NaNo, though I don’t think it’s something I’d ever do. I wrote about it here:

    “…smack-talk and muffin crumbs on our keyboards—would have rightly horrified professional writers. We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.”

    This does sound like fun. Other than college students, though, it’s not something most people could fit into their lives.

    • I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it every time I’ve done it, even though I’ve only actually “won” once. The first year I did it, I signed up on the 8th of November and completed 50K on the 28th. In that time, I was working a full-time job 6 days a week, 10 hours a day. But I somehow managed to get there. The trick for me was to fully utilise my days off and put off as much of the housework as I possibly could. (I wrote 12,000 words on one of my days off.)

      Since having kids, though, that’s been rather different. Sadly, Mums don’t get sick pay or time off.

  4. Yeah, I’ve done it five times, though on one I bailed almost immediately, and you’re mostly right on all these.

    My most definite agreement is that the group won’t help you write the novel. First of all, every minute you spend on the NaNo forums is a minute you’re NOT WRITING. Second, if you hook up with some real-life friends to try it, you’re headed for some unhappiness, in my experience. One of you will get ahead of the other, and the one who is behind will feel like a failure, and the one who is ahead will feel like you’re dragging them down with all your lameness. I’ve been in both positions, and it sucks. And finally, only YOU can write that novel. Surrounding yourself with a bunch of other maniacs doesn’t change it.

    And yeah, November is probably the worst month ever to try this. Even December with all the Christmas holidays would be better because of the extra vacation (and extra day), and February would provide a nice trade with two days less but without four or five days of family-mandated travel. Not to mention that you’ll probably get sick in November. It has happened to me in every single one of my NaNo attempts, even the one I bailed on after three days.

    And yeah… you don’t have a publishable novel on December 1st. You’ve got the first half to two-thirds of a very rough first draft. So, on the one hand, you’ve merely vomited into a bucket without even filling the damn bucket, but on the other hand, that’s more than you had in October.

    The main thing NaNo is good for (and perhaps I’ll have do my own list of five) is to give you that kick in the pants to actually make the time to write. To do that, you have to give up some things, and NaNo tells you that you can give those things up for just a month. In December, you get to ask yourself what you like more, the writing or the distraction?

    I hadn’t planned on doing NaNoWriMo this year, mostly because my original schedule called for me to start my next novel draft on October 1st. But now I’m two months behind schedule and trying to catch up. Maybe I’ll be ready by November, in which case, I’ll be doing NaNo. But if I’m still behind… well, maybe I’ll be proving that December is better after all.

    As for picking up chicks… heh, yeah, that kind of works actually. The only problem is that once you’re a novelist, there’s no time for chicks. Unless they’re good beta readers. 😉

    • Glad to hear I’ve hit on some points that you’ve experienced as well, Dan. The best thing I got from my first NaNo was the understanding that I could just write and turn off my inner editor. Word wars were fabulous for that — and if I’ve managed to schedule myself some writing time these days, I still set myself up word wars and compete with myself. That just works for me.

      I completely agree in regards to NaNo giving you “permission” to make time to write. I think a lot of people forget to do the reflection in December and weigh up which they preferred best, though.

      Haha. And really great to hear that you can pick up chicks by being a novelist. 🙂

  5. Maybe October should be “National Novella Writing Month,” and people should try that out first to see if they’re ready.

    • I think there’s something like that in August? Or April? I don’t know, the NaNo people run so many events these days, I can’t keep up. But it’s not a bad idea to shoot for a novella the first time doing NaNo!

  6. looseleafbri

    I am going to do it! In spite of the fact that I have less time in November because I am leaving the country (I have to write 2000 words a day). I look at it more like a challenge and a spurring on to get me to finish something. If I don’t finish or don’t hit 50,000 then I will keep working towards that. I just need a jump start on actually writing and to stop worrying if its any good or editing before the story is finished. My novel idea is not necessarily publishable but it will be fun to write 🙂

  7. changeforbetterme

    This will be my first year to try NaNo, if I get 50,000 words great! If not, that’s okay too. I live in Canada so we have our Thanksgiving this weekend, November is empty of Holidays here. I had never expected to have a novel ready for publishing, that just goes against common sense. But I thought it would be fun and to just challenge myself. If I don’t like it I can stop and still be proud of myself for trying. It’s a no pressure thing for me. It won’t make or break me. I hope haha!

    • Just hold on to that attitude through November, and you’ll be fine. One of the reasons some writers dislike NaNoWriMo is that “losing” can break the spirit of people who go into the event with too many high expectations of themselves. So as long as you remember it’s supposed to be fun, and you’re writing to make yourself proud, I’m sure you’ll have a great time.

      Best of luck! I look forward to hearing how you go.

  8. This November, I’m just going to be trying to finish the novel I’ve been working on since last November, so my hat goes off to all you NaNoWriMoes out there. I just wanted to say you shouldn’t doubt your #5: the only women I’ve ever met who are impressed by novelists are usually more interested in the novels they are writing than in yours, anyways. There are a lot easier ways to pick up chicks, such as listening to what they say instead of droning on about your novel.

    • Ah, you are obviously a gentleman, Evan. Any man who would rather listen to a lady than use a cheap pick-up line is alright with me. 🙂

      Best of luck with finishing your novel this November!

  9. I participated in NaNoWriMo last November for the very first time. Having never written a novel and aspiring to do so most of my life, it was the incentive to dive in and do it I needed. The support and information on the forum is absolutely fantastic to keep you going. I learned so much from others there and I learned so much about the whole process and what I’m capable of that I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I’ve since found the intestinal fortitude to go on and self publish my own book, but that book had nothing to do with the manuscript I produced during NaNoWriMo. It was one of the most valuable experiences of my life and I wouldn’t change it for a thing.

    Will I participate this year? No. The reasons aren’t limited to, but do include, severe burnout when it’s over. This doesn’t mean someone else will experience this, but I found it detrimental and it took months for my writing to recover. This is most likely due to the pressure I put on myself for perfection which is NOT what NaNoWriMo is about. I also have a manuscript that is going to demand almost an entire rewrite because my focus was more about word-count and less about the direction of the story. That one is my fault and I chalk it up to inexperience.

    I think the wisest words to come from your post, and one I concur 1000000% (if that were possible) is DO NOT even begin to attempt to consider publishing your manuscript in December. Or January. Or even February. I don’t care if you’re Shakespeare reincarnated, there is no way you have a clear vision of your completed manuscript after pounding out 50,000 words or more in 30 days. The most crucial and most difficult part of the writing process, in my opinion, is allowing that manuscript that you’re so in love with to cool. When NaNoWriMo is over, put that manuscript away and forget about it for at least 3 months. Don’t even peek at it. This allows you to have a fresh eye when you begin the task of crafting it into your masterpiece. Self-publishing or standard publishing isn’t a guarantee to fame and fortune, especially if you turn out a sub-par manuscript. There is a sister event in March called NaNoEdMo, much akin to NaNoWriMo, to assist with the first stage of editing although I’ve never participated.

    I’d encourage anyone who wants to have some fun cranking out a novel draft to participate, but they need to heed the pointers you’ve laid out here. I will say when I hit that 50,000 word mark I’ve never felt such exhilaration at an accomplishment in my life. Hop on, have some fun, meet some great folks through the forum (just don’t let it distract you from your writing time), and best of all experience the crazy roller coaster ride at least once. I may pony up next year and give it another go myself.

    Great post!

    • “When NaNoWriMo is over, put that manuscript away and forget about it for at least 3 months.”

      This is the most important advice, I think. I usually suggest a year, which causes people to look at me oddly, but I think it’s the best approach. After all, Joyce Carol Oates always waits a year before editing, and she’s written over a hundred books, so clearly it isn’t slowing down her output. 🙂

      • Mine’s still sitting, both on my hard drive and in my head. It’s reforming itself into something a little more interesting and cohesive. I know every writer has their own way, but letting that manuscript cool really is critical to puting your best work out there. I agree with you 100%!

      • Great advice, Anthony. Of course, it requires an awful lot of patience… 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Jean. I had a very similar reaction to my first NaNo — it was a great incentive to finally dive in and write the book that I’d been wanting to write for years. As a motivational tool for aspiring writers, it’s fantastic. Sadly, the burn-out factor is all too common as well.

      “I will say when I hit that 50,000 word mark I’ve never felt such exhilaration at an accomplishment in my life.”

      So. Very. True. I remember the moment I made my 50,000 words on that first novel. It was 2:00am, my husband was asleep, and we both had to get up for work at 6am. I wanted to shout and scream and dance around the house, but didn’t want to wake him. So I did this silent dance around the room, and spent the entire rest of the night stting in front of my computer grinning like a loon.

      Congrats on your self-published book, and best of luck with your next project!

  10. I’m a big fan of Nanowrimo; unfortunately your points are so flippin true. When it comes to writing, I’m a newbie. I use whatever I can to improve my writing.
    When used properly, Nanowrimo is a decent tool for aiding in pumping out a first draft. One thing I learned from using Nanowrimo is to write first and edit later. Trying to do both during a first draft can create writers block sometimes. It has helped me to practice writing so many words a day. Of course, I normally don’t crank out 1667 words a day, but I can do 250 to 500.
    Too bad people try to use it as a shortcut, and it’s not helpful to other writers who have a better understanding of the novel writing world to suffer because agents and publishers are getting annoyed by Nanowrimo.
    Now, I’m in active father, husband, and employee, so my time is limited, but I also have dreams. I’m willing to have my aspiration creep along until my children have graduated from high school (I have 6 years left).
    I sincerely appreciate your post, because your message needs to be shared. It is my goal to become a professional novelist, and the road ahead of me looks damn near impossible, but it’s what I desire to do. Posts like yours help to remove illusions that might place blinders on the eyes of new writers. The path is hard enough to see without the aid of visual noise. Lucky for me, my Nanowrimo group emphasized the finer points you mentioned when I first started and they stuck with me. 50,000 or not, it can be a good month for writing. June and August are available too, for those who can’t do November.

    • Hi Brian. Welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comment. You were very fortunate to have a great NaNoWriMo group who put you on the straight and narrow when you started out. And you’re so right about NaNo being a tool for writing a first draft. I learned how to turn off my inner editor during my first NaNo experience, and that’s something that’s really stuck with me. The experience was worth it for that alone.

      Best of luck this November!

  11. I have aspirations (most likely of the vain kind) of merely increasing my output in November to something reasonably approximating my best month of 2012 so far (around 10,000 words). Recent history (with the last several months averaging around 2,000 words for a whole month) suggest this will be a substantially difficult goal for me. 50,000 words? Fuggedaboudit.

    • In short, I’m not participating in NaNo this year (and I have yet to participate since I first learned of it). I’m hoping to feed on the enthusiasm for writing in the general ether to do better, but I’m not optimistic.

      • Just because you’re not aiming for 50K doesn’t mean you can’t sign up for NaNo and track your word count there, though. If you want to, you can still participate in the event without abiding by their arbitrary target.

      • I’d never considered signing up with the full knowledge that I’d “fail” in the sense that I knew i wouldn’t reach the 50K goal. I may have to think about whether there’s any benefit to going through the sign-up process. Either way, I’m with all those NaNoers in spirit, at least.

    • Well, you’re a full-time employee, full-time Dad, and (it seems) at least a part-time home renovator. So 10K words sounds like a pretty audacious goal to me.

  12. Pingback: Five Reasons to do NaNoWriMo | Making It Up As I Go

  13. I am almost certainly going to try this year.

    One of my biggest potentially less than ideal writing habits is to “just do a little tidying” while I am writing, which always risks turning into full-on editing. If I am forced to write more every day than I usually do for a whole month, I might be able to get into the habit of leaving all the editing for later drafts.

    • Learning how to turn off my inner editor, and write my way to the end before revising, is one of the best things NaNoWriMo ever did for me. As an author friend said to me: Image if marathon runners stopped after the first kilometre because they weren’t happy with their time, and just kept running the beginning all over again?

  14. I am considering it. I don’t have any kids, and I’m working as a woefully underemployed freelance writer, and head of a “digital publishing company” that doesn’t legitimately exist outside of my blog yet. This leaves me with lots of time — sort of — and I think I can convince myself it would be an act of professional development. But, being October 12, I should probably actually consider what to write about?

Speak to me.

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