The Great and Terrible NaNoWriMo

Last month was National Novel Writing Month, and you can find out more about it at their website. I think that it’s a great program, a lofty goal, and a fun project for any writer to try. I heartily recommend making a donation if you are able.

I also think there are dangers to doing the NaNoWriMo, at least serially. I want to outline them here, but first some history:
My first NaNoWriMo was exhilarating. I had a novel which had been floating around in my brain for a good long while, and with dedication and some very long nights, I put it all down onto paper. I promised I would edit it up in December, and I sort of did. I was also quite exhausted mentally, and editing fell by the wayside as new ideas moved forward.

My second NaNo was nerve-wracking. Having pushed through and won the previous year, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to repeat the process. And I was so busy that November! Still, I set aside time every day, disappearing into my room for long stretches of time, and I put my certificate on my office door.

My third NaNo was easy. I wrote an escapist piece of self-starring science fiction. It had good bones, but by that point I knew how to get things done. It was perfunctory. I didn’t revisit the story for six months.

My fourth, and last, NaNoWriMo was two years ago. I tried to write a novel I had wanted to write for a year, a daring adventure and political intrigue caper. And I did, but there was no magic to it. I felt no thrill at hitting the 50,000 word mark, no joy at seeing the “Winner” on my home page. And my story, to my dismay, was not particularly good.

I have friends who use NaNoWriMo to get through their projects, and they are successful at it. I have friends who can’t get past 20,000 words after a month. 1600 words a day is a tough quota if you aren’t writing on a regular basis, but it is doable. Here are my personal issues with NaNoWriMo.

Learning the tricks
My first problem with doing multiple NaNo’s is that my writing became more about utilizing the “short cuts” I learned than telling the story. My characters would talk about everything except the plot. There would be side adventures to the grocery store, tangential essays on the nature of unrelated matters. My writing morphed after four novels from tight to meandering. My characters stopped doing things!

That’s because when you have to write 1600 words a day, you have to find filler on the days when you can’t write – you graffiti that writer’s block! Filler is fine, and fun to write, but if you are not careful your writing will turn into nothing but filler, with very little story.

There’s also the desire to win. I’m competitive. I don’t like admitting defeat. For me, I recognized that my desire to complete the competition was negatively impacting what I was saying.

So you complete the novel – you wrote 50,000 words in a month! Maybe with even a day or two to spare! Good for you! Now you want to decompress. My third NaNoWriMo, my decompression lasted six months for that project. I couldn’t look at my writing. I couldn’t make myself sit and put the words down. Poetry, goofy things – I didn’t stop writing, but I found my brain unwilling to revisit old projects, or start new ones in depth.

The second danger would be burnout. For me, the mental energy of writing a whole book in a month balances with the backlash which follows on December 1. I needed a break, but as any writer will say, writing is something that must be practiced regularly or we fall out of practice. I fell out of practice, and it was difficult to get back into the swing of things.
I have come to the conclusion that NaNoWriMo is great for a year or two – it’s a challenging exercise (1600 words a day!), a practice in making good habits (writing every day!), and a wonderful environment with an engaging and active writing community. The forums are full of helpful advice, tips, encouragement and positive energy.

And I think that if you have a loose marble of a story bouncing around in your head, the NaNoWriMo is a great way to get that marble out of your system – like a “writer’s cleanse.” It might not come out polished, but the goal is to put something on paper.

However, I am not convinced that doing the NaNoWriMo repeatedly doesn’t lend itself to some bad habits over time. As with any event where quantity is the goal over quality (though of course quality is desired as well), there are pitfalls.

My advice? Be mindful.

I started this blog with the intention of doing NaPoWriMo – and writing a poem a day was a bit more freeing because poetry does not require a quota of words. It was a bit more challenging because it requires, at least, a quota of ideas. I haven’t decided if I am going to do it again, though given my enjoyment of challenging myself, I probably will. Four years from now? Well, we’ll see.

Now, go and write!

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