In Defense of NaNoWriMo.

(Before I begin, a note: There are any number of writers who don’t like NaNoWriMo because it’s not compatible with the way they work. However, they don’t dump on the program or its participants. The following is definitely not directed at them.)

We’re in the thick of NaNoWriMo now; I’m well into Draft Zero of my new novel The Perfect Candidate. (I swear—despite the title, it has nothing to do with politics. OR DOES IT? AHAHAHAHAHA *sob*)

Something that rolls around every November as predictably as NaNoWriMo itself? NaNoWriMo haters. Again, I get that NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. But it’s not enough for these detractors not to do it themselves; they don’t want you trying it either. I read these rants the way I might keep poking my tongue into a sore spot in my mouth; I know it’s going to be annoying, but I can’t make myself stop. 

I don’t want to call out specific people, so instead I’ll address some of the most common complaints I see every year. 

1. “NaNoWriMo tells you it’s OK to write crap! Why in the world would you want to waste an entire month writing crap!? That’s no way to learn how to write a novel.”

Not true. NaNoWriMo’s organizers don’t encourage you to write crap. But they emphasize that your first rough draft is going to be just that—rough. And that’s OK. 

Embrace the messiness—try adding plot lines and characters you might delete later on, just to see what happens with your story. Silence your Inner Editor, they tell you; there’ll be eleven other months to fix whatever’s wrong. 

That advice got me through my first NaNo novel—the very first novel I ever completed—in 2011. Up until then, I’d write a novel by getting one chapter down and then tweaking and revising that one chapter over and over until the story lost all momentum and I abandoned it. 

During NaNoWriMo 2011, I taught myself to look at just enough of my previous day’s work to reorient myself in the story, and then I’d ignore it while I focused on the next chapter. And then the chapter after that. And so on. Bird by bird, as Anne Lamott would say. And before I knew it, I’d written an honest-to-God novel.

Yes, my first NaNoWriMo drafts were—and are—terrible. My characters blunder around a lot until they grab hold of the plot. I make continuity errors. (The protagonist of my current NaNo novel has changed hair color twice already.) I write a lot of redundant, awkward crap. But at the end of the month if all goes well, I have a complete novel draft to work with. I cannot revise a novel that exists only in my head. 

My first NaNo novel wasn’t good even after I revised it substantially. My next few efforts weren’t great either. But I studied craft books and sought feedback. 

And my sixth NaNo novel, Tidepool, had strong enough bones that after a Pitch Wars mentorship and several revisions, it found a home with a publisher. Do you think I wasted my time? My writeup in Publisher’s Marketplace says Nuts to you. 

2. “I think it’s just terrible that only people who get to 50,000 words are called winners! You’re not a loser just because you didn’t meet someone else’s arbitrary goal.”

Absolutely right! And nobody involved with NaNoWriMo would say otherwise. In 2017 I got deathly ill from the flu in November and didn’t come close to writing 50K words. And yet I didn’t get taunting emails from NaNoWriMo organizers asking me how it felt to be such a pathetic failure. They congratulated me on how far I got and encouraged me not to give up just because the challenge was done for the year. 

No, I didn’t unlock the fun video of the NaNoWriMo staff applauding me, nor did I get any of the winner goodies. But nobody made me feel like a loser either. And I took what I’d written and finished that draft for Camp NaNoWriMo the next year. 

3. “Why in the world do they hold it in November? That’s already a short month, and with Thanksgiving for Americans and the kickoff for the Christmas season, it’s insanely busy!”

It sure is, and I believe Chris Baty himself has said that’s exactly why he chose November. If you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to learn how to make the time to sit down and write even when life is exploding all around you. I had an appendectomy in the middle of November 2014; I still won NaNoWriMo that year. 

4. “50,000 words isn’t really a novel; it’s too short.”

Yeah, that’s fair. While a few famous novels really are that short, and 50K is an acceptable word count for some books for younger readers, most YA and adult fiction novels need a higher word count to meet industry guidelines. 

First of all, you don’t have to stop at 50K words; some NaNoers surpass 100K during the month. I’ve never done that myself, but it’s possible. 

And even if your draft ends up barely over the 50K line, that’s what revisions are for. My first drafts tend to be extremely sparse. When I revise, I go in and add tons of description so my characters aren’t just floating heads exchanging dialogue in a blank void. I add backstories. I add necessary info and worldbuilding that I blew past in the thick of NaNoWriMo itself. Tidepool, for example, ended up at 76K words, which is well within industry standards for adult horror novels. 

A too-short first draft is something that can be addressed during revisions—but you’ve got to have a complete draft first. 

5. “Agents and editors really hate NaNoWriMo because in December they get flooded with terrible 50K-word manuscripts!” 

I’ll grant that the previous arguments had some valid points. This one is just silly and kind of mean. “You don’t want agents and publishers to think you’re stupid like all those other NaNo wannabes, do you?” 

NaNoWriMo organizers outright tell you to leave your novel alone for at least a couple of weeks before you start editing, and to never, ever submit your Draft Zero anywhere. I back up my NaNo draft one last time on November 30 and then don’t even look at it until after the new year. 

As for agents and publishers complaining about getting sub-par NaNoWriMo manuscripts, well. That reminds me of the cab drivers I sometimes got in DC who bitched about how much they hated driving in traffic. Getting unpublishable manuscripts in the slush pile strikes me as an occupational hazard for anyone whose job involves receiving manuscripts for review. 

And if someone gets overenthusiastic and wings their NaNoWriMo Draft Zero off to agents and publishers on December 1, so what? Then they’re gonna get an obviously-needed lesson in not sending their stuff out before it’s been thoroughly revised and truly ready to query. It’s a tough business, dude. 

Again, I certainly don’t expect everyone to embrace NaNoWriMo the way I have. Writing is an intensely personal thing, and everyone has different methods that work for them. 

But I just don’t get writers who are anti-NaNoWriMo to the point that they want to dissuade other people from even trying it. I disagree that it’s no way to learn how to write a novel; it was exactly the way I needed. I took a few tries to write a publishable novel, but I’m still in pretty good company. Most writers have at least one or two “trunked” early efforts in their past. 

So I’m telling you: Pay no attention to the naysayers behind the curtain. If NaNoWriMo sounds intriguing to you, then go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose except your status of “Always wanted to write a novel, but never has.”  

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