“I have this idea… What do you think?”
I’ve likely had this conversation a hundred times now, at my local cafes or over Facebook, and always around October. They start around this time of year, well before November. People begin prepping Pinterest boards and stocking up on caffeine. Their social media fills with writing advice, cute blurbs tagged under “#nanowrimo2016”, vague posts about their big project.
National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. The web writing sensation that begins on November 1st, and always comes with the intent to "get people writing." Your goal with NaNoWriMo is simple: reach 50,000 words before the end of the month. For those interested in the numbers, that's around 1,500 words a day, every day, for 30 days. Some amazing novels have actually come out of the NaNoWriMo scene: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern were both penned in 30 November days, YA author Marissa Meyer has used the month to start novels and novellas for her Lunar Chronicles series. Hundreds of great stories have made it to market, indie or otherwise, with the help of this challenge.
I love all of these books so much.
I still dislike NaNoWriMo.
I really dislike NaNoWriMo.
I dislike NaNo in the way American retail workers dislike Christmas.
For a while, I couldn’t figure out what exactly it was that irked me about the writing challenge, since I had actually done it once or twice. Not in November, though: I had been in the middle of two different novels, in the middle of two different summers. I hit a point with every project where the momentum picks up the right way and I fly with the book, clipping through 1, 500-2,000 words a day. Each time is a delightful, restless, tea-fueled journey where I would write until dawn and exist almost solely on creative energy. Surely something like NaNoWriMo would be up my alley, given my own habits?
But I’ve never joined in on NaNoWriMo or planned a new project around it, mostly because of the things I see NaNoWriMo evolve into, and some of the bad habits I see it create for fledgling authors. I’ve dissected some of these on my personal blog, but I think it’s time we dig into the issue of NaNoWriMo with a little more depth.
So, back to the "I have an idea" part of NaNo. Because ideas are great: ideas are the seeds of good writing. Ideas are not books though, and it’s often difficult to gauge a project’s worth of time based on a few rough character descriptions and a summary you have pulled from an online prompt. Not dogging either (since I use them both, too), but these things do not a book make. These things can lead to a draft though, if you can sit down and write it.
I find the “ass-in-chair-and-fingers-to-keys” part is where a lot of people trip up because they learn very quickly that writing 1,500 words a day isn’t easy as it looks, and it rarely looks that easy to begin with. I know authors that can churn out 2,000 words every day that they write: I know authors who put down 200 words once and awhile. Writing is as personal in pace as it is in style, so the techniques that work for some may not work for all. 1,500 words a day is a skill you learn with time, and not a needed skill for finishing a novel.
“Writing books is easy. It’s only 50,000 words and I have the time.” To which I always sigh. These words always undercut two big parts about the novel.
1. Writing books is the most artistic form of torturing yourself over imaginary people and situations. There are easier ways to entertain yourself, I'll be honest with you.
2. Most books aren’t 50,000 words. We can talk about The Great Gatsby and minimal novel length all we want, but modern novels, especially in fantasy and science fiction, tend to go over the 100,000 word mark and well beyond it. Also, novels do not end after you put “The End” on your first draft. Editing can (and will) take up time.
One of the biggest issues I take with the NaNo mindset is that it’s used as a springboard to “get people writing” without giving people the proper disclaimer that writing doesn’t end or begin with writing itself. Between the planning, drafting, editing, and beta-reading, it’s taken near three years to finish my first novel and draft a second. A month of work stops being a meaningful thing when a project begins to span over years. That doesn’t discount the amazing free-fall of one month, but most writing projects expand well beyond that point, and I’ve watched so many new writers miss that.
“I don’t need to make a plan though. I can wing it.” To which I will tell you no, no you can’t. Some of us can fly by the seat of our pants, but but most of us aren’t organized enough to finish a draft, much less in a month. This is the very mindset that fuels the essays written the night before their deadline, or the millions of half-baked romance e-novellas on Kindle: minimal effort for the same expected payoff. Prep and planning and time can mean the difference between dropping a draft at 5,000 words and pushing over 150,000 words (as much of a pain as the latter is to edit- better to have more than less). When we talk about these successful authors like Rowell or Meyer, who use NaNo to complete drafts, we should also recall that Rowell and Meyer are authors with previous experience. Authors who had several novels under their belt and a grasp of their style/voice. It almost sounds discouraging to use their works as banners for a project that’s targeted at fresh-faced writers. It sells and simplifies a process so much bigger than 50,000 words and a few nightly writing binges. A process that is rarely ever as rewarding or glamorous as the Rowlings and Martins of the world make it out to be. Most all of us can create, but being an actual author is a very different skill.
So, to you all out there, as prepare your outlines, make character sheets, and finalize those writing playlists, you have my best regards for your November drafts. Remember though, that all books are much bigger than NaNoWriMo. If writing novels were as simple as 30 days of work, it would be a much less demanding, selfish, and beautiful act.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.