Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Amateur Nuisance or Useful Tool?

It’s November! (How did that happen?) And as we all know, November is the time for the last of the autumn leaves, the good time change, falling temperatures, Thanksgiving, and most important of all, NaNoWriMo.

image courtesy of NaNoWriMo itself

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an important yearly event in the lives of aspiring writers and those who want a little extra challenge in their writing routine. For those who aren’t aware, it involves the challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Another stipulation of the challenge is that you can’t have started working on it before November, it has to be something new.

I’ve taken up the NaNo challenge several times, and I’m proud to say that each time I’ve “won” it. It’s a lot of fun to write toward a goal, and call me goofy, but there’s something nifty about plugging in your numbers on the NaNo site at the end of each day and having a snazzy graph generated to track your progress. It’s also great to have a whole bunch of your writer friends attempting the challenge at the same time, popping you all in the boat together.

Here’s the thing. There are a lot of people out there who like to criticize NaNo. I’ve heard the argument that NaNoWriMo fills mediocre writers with a false sense of skill and accomplishment, and as a result, it floods the self-published book market with absolute crap every December. I’ve talked to agents at conferences and had them smile wryly and tell me that their slush piles always end up expanding exponentially in December because of it, and December isn’t exactly a hopping month in the traditional publishing world anyhow.

So is NaNo just another happy-clappy tool to encourage writers who aren’t yet ready to publish to go ahead and share their half-baked baby with the world? Possibly. Does this mean that NaNo is a bad thing that feeds author delusions, that has no merit beyond being fun, and that it should be avoided by all serious writers? Absolutely not!

Like I said, I’ve done NaNo several times and won. Have I published any of those novels I wrote in a month? Nope. Would I ever consider it? No way. They were skill-builders, not works intended to shoot me to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. I learned more valuable lessons from attempting NaNo than the work that I produced will ever show.

The most important of these lessons was how to work under a deadline. November 30th, do or die. Most amateur writers won’t have any sort of external deadline imposed on them, but if you’re going to engage in any aspect of the publishing industry, you will find yourself needing to finish the book by a certain time. Working with the NaNo deadline forces a budding writer to look at their story as more than just a flight of fancy to be worked on whenever inspiration strikes. Inspiration is great, but writers need to be able to work with more than that.

Connected to deadlines, the other valuable lesson NaNo taught me was the importance of a daily word count goal. In order to win NaNo, you have to write about 1,666 words per day. And with those days being limited, if you fall short one day, you have to make it up the next day. Starting each day’s writing with a clear goal in mind does wonders for developing discipline.

In fact, NaNoWriMo may be one of the most effective tools for amateur authors to develop the discipline they need to succeed in the competitive world of publishing. That satisfying feeling of plugging in your numbers and coming out with a pretty graph—not to mention the spiffy badge winners get at the end, once they’ve won the challenge—are fantastic carrots to keep you moving forward. The trick is then to continue those lessons of discipline once November is over and no one is providing graphics to mark your writing progress.

The savvy amateur—and even the wizened professional honing their craft—can use NaNoWriMo as a springboard for developing necessary writer skills. With any luck, they can see the finished product of the challenge as what it is—a tidy little first draft/work in progress—and not inflict it on the world until it’s ready. Either way, there’s no harm in a writer feeling the sense of accomplishment that comes along with the skills learned through finishing a novel in a month.

Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. I'm sure you're right about the experience serving as a skill-builder, Merry, but na, no deadline for moi.

  2. If it is a tool to make a writer commit to writing, they should nano every month. But if you are drafting in November and publishing in December, I question the quality. You can slam out a rough skeleton in a month, but it takes time to revise and edit and get other eyes to look at it. Even proofreading takes a couple of weeks. Designers don't send a half-finished dress down the runway. Writers shouldn't send a half-finished book down the publishing pipeline.

    1. In the rush to publish, I'm finding lots of mistakes in traditionally published books. And a few bestsellers could definitely have used a different editor. Oy. Sentence structure matters. Otherwise you have to read the passage several times to understand it. Those are seconds of my life I could have been reading something else. LOL.

  3. I've never done this, but I do see value in the discipline required to write 50,000 words in a month. Hopefully, the end product could be expanded, shaped, and renovated into a marketable novel per the steps Diana notes above. At my age I prefer production to practice, although practice brings rewards of its own. This exercise would no doubt teach and tweak writing skills, and our profession is an ongoing classroom in which we continually learn new things. Good food for thought, Merry.

  4. Terrific post, Merry. I am not doing NaNo for a number of reasons, but I can see the benefits. The only way to improve our craft is to write, write, write, and NaNo encourages that. The mistake that some new writers make is to think that their NaNo project is ready to publish at the end of the month.


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