An Open Letter To Those Considering NaNoWriMo

Dear Potential Wrimo,

It’s now about a week into October and everyone is starting to gear up. You’re probably on a few forums where people are starting to talk about their plans. If you’re not on any forums, or don’t hang out where writers congregate, trust me, it’s everywhere.

For those of you not in the know, NaNoWriMo is the National (well, International now, but the name is stuck) Novel Writing Month. It takes place in the month of November, when writers gather to encourage and occasionally bribe each other to write 50,000 words in 30 days. This shakes out to 1,667 words per day. This is a lot of words. NaNo is not an easy proposition.

A lot of people talk down about NaNo, saying that it’s encouraging quantity over quality, and that nothing that’s produced from NaNo can possibly be good quality writing. Writers these days, they say, concentrate only on the first draft and don’t think about editing beyond that. They cite the flood of first drafts that get sent to agents and publishers in December, directly a result of people finishing their project in November (or just after) and barreling into the next part of the process.
First, don’t ever send a first draft to an agent or publisher. No matter what month it is. Don’t be that person.
Second, yeah, the first draft gets a heck of a lot of the glamour and the discussion of the writing process. If I had to guess why, I’d probably guess a combination of the fact that not all writers have really dug into the editing process (they’re just starting, they keep starting new projects, they have one book they’ve been working on for years because they only grab a few hours every week to write in, whatever reason), while pretty much all writers have started a first draft in their lives, plus the fact that a first draft has a definite endpoint and easily-identified milestones. A first draft, you can celebrate every 5,000/10,000 words, every chapter written, every 10 pages, whatever. Editing? Not so much. Some pages will require rewriting, some will require a few wording tweaks, some will require nothing. You might even be dealing with huge plot changes – adding or removing characters, changing the motivation of a villain, anything. And then when you get to the end of the book, you have to read it over and do it again. So, yeah, the first draft gets a lot more of the glamour. There’s a reason that December, January and May (at least – they’re only the ones I’ve seen so far) have been dubbed NaNoEdMo – the editing counterpart to NaNoWriMo.
Third, of course the first draft of a book is going to suck. First drafts always suck. Blaming NaNoWriMo for that is a little bit like blaming background apps for your phone running out of battery. Sure, they do use battery, and they’ll drain the power faster than if they weren’t there. But it probably also has something to do with the fact that you checked Facebook on it, looked up that thing on the Internet, used it as a GPS and played three hours of Candy Crush.

See, if you ever, ever go and look for writing advice, particularly in the form of pithy one-liners from published authors, probably the single most common piece of advice you’ll get is “Write it, get it finished, fix it later”. Write drunk, edit sober. There are no great writers, only great rewriters. You can fix a bad first draft, but you can’t go back and fix nothing. No, NaNoWriMo won’t produce good work. It won’t produce publishable work. It will, in all probability, produce a terrible draft. But that’s the point.

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about permission to suck. I still believe pretty much all of that post. Artists need to give themselves permission to make mistakes and then learn from them, and that’s hard. Permission to make mistakes, though, doesn’t mean intending to make mistakes. It’s not incentive to write mistakes. But answer me honestly: Does anyone really go into NaNoWriMo thinking “I’m going to write the worst pile of garbage it’s possible for me to write in a month”?
No.
We go into NaNo thinking “I’m going to write something that will probably be garbage”, sure, but we also go in excited. “Some of it may be garbage”, we think, “But this one scene I’ve been excited about since November is going to be fan-flipping-tastic!”. “I might need to fudge a few scenes in the middle because I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” we think, “But I’m so excited to write this one character that I will be basically vibrating for the entire second half of October with pent-up glee.”
This, while it sounds like a fine distinction is a useful one. We expect NaNo writing to suck. We expect it to be rushed and imperfect. This takes all the pressure off the task. It’s going to suck anyway, so you might as well concentrate on the bit where it’s fun instead.

Full disclosure, I will be doing NaNo this year, because I am the sort of person for whom a month-long writing sprint is a fun, relaxing activity to wind down after exams. I’ve been working on a lot of editing this year and while I love editing, it will be nice to take the opportunity to get into a shiny new project and try out some new outlining techniques.

I think we need to stop thinking of the benefits of NaNoWriMo in terms of writing. Yes, a lot of writing gets done in November. But NaNo isn’t actually about the writing. NaNo is, at its core, a social event. It’s nice to win, but it’s even more fun to complain on social media.
That was a bit sarcastic, but honestly it’s one of the biggest benefits of NaNo. You get to write with a whole group of other people who are going through exactly the same thing, which is very uncommon in the solitary hobby of writing. Think back to school – assignments always seemed a little less daunting when you had classmates you could complain with, and exams always seemed that little bit more manageable if you were surrounded by people who were also studying and also struggling. I’m not saying human society is based on schadenfreude, but a problem shared is a problem halved, so to speak. Having a group around to support, encourage, and commiserate with you helps so much. NaNo creates that community.
NaNo also imposes a deadline. If you’re the sort of person who puts off writing because there’s always something more important to do, then a bit of external motivation can be great to get you started. It also helps you break down the task of “write a novel” into manageable chunks. You don’t need to write a whole perfect novel straight away, just 50,000 words of a first draft, and you have this long to do it. It’s hard, but it’s doable.

So, don’t think of NaNoWriMo as a quest to write a novel, exactly. And definitely don’t think of it as an obligation! NaNo is a social event, to talk about with other writers, a place to try out new things, and as good a reason as any to start that project you’ve been excited for but also dreading. It’s permission to write a first draft, with all the imperfections that entails, and it’s a reminder that there is no mistake so large it can’t be fixed in edits.
Also, y’know, it’s fun. And there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun.
Just don’t be that person who sends a first draft to an agent.

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