Friday, September 27, 2013

Why NaNoWriMo is a Crock of Shit

I am not angry. What I am is sad, and disappointed.

There are likely some people here who really like NaNoWriMo. The sort of people who think an entire month dedicated to writing a novel is peachy keen, and the sort of shin dig that anyone could get down with. There might even be a few readers here that came with pickets and vitriol, just looking for a place to point their fury. If you find yourself in one of these two camps, chances are I'm not going to say anything that will affect you in the slightest. That's fine. You are not who this warning goes out to.

This warning is for all those who have been stirring over their stories for months, maybe years, looking for an outlet. People who have always wanted to be a "real" writer, and who want to make themselves and their stories a part of something bigger. For those people who are the prime targets of NaNoWriMo, I ask you to please step back from the ledge. Take a deep breath, and look at what you're jumping into.

Sure it's pretty... but what, exactly, is down there?
What NaNoWriMo Is

For those of you who don't know what NaNoWriMo is the acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it has taken place every November since it began in 1999. At first it was just a handful of students getting together to drink a lot of caffeine and write novels, but since then it's grown into a huge deal with thousands of participants.

Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? On November 1 participants register on the site, and then begin writing their manuscripts. In order to qualify an individual must work on a new fiction story that reaches at least 50,000 words by November 31 at one minute to midnight. If a participant finishes his or her story then that person is deemed a winner, and the manuscript is put up for everyone to read. Sounds just dandy, doesn't it?

What's Wrong With It?

The answer to this question is simultaneously nothing and everything. For those writers who are comfortable treating it as a fun challenge, as a literary exercise, NaNo can be an exciting thing to do. It's sort of like running a marathon and trying to beat your best time. For a lot of other participants NaNo is like trying to run a marathon without any sort of training or conditioning, and with more than just personal achievement on the line. From my perspective it's the latter part that's the problem, and needs to be eliminated. Let's put Nano's faults in an easy-to-read list, shall we?

#1: Chasing the Word Count Rainbow

1,666 words, and you can take the leg cuffs off.
I know a lot of folks who have tried to complete NaNo. None have, and each and every one of them cites the same reason; the ridiculous word count. I think the author Maggie Stiefvater put it best in her series of blog posts about NaNoWriMo here. To sum up the half dozen posts there, she found that no matter how many words she put on the page, she didn't like what was there. She started chasing a certain number of words rather than using those words to build a narrative. It's a bit like trying to build another floor onto a building without considering the purpose of that floor. Just build, and keep building till you hit 50 stories and call it quits.

The issue here is that 50k is kind of an arbitrary word count. Some stories are going to just barely make that. Other stories though are going to blow past the limit long before they're done. If the writer is focused on the word count, and he or she plans only for that 1,666 words per day, then what's going to happen when the date comes and there's more story to tell? Those writers are going to fail the challenge, and through no fault of their own. What if they get sick? Have to work overtime? A parent goes into the hospital? Too bad, so sad, you still can't claim a purely fictional prize which becomes more important the more work that goes into it.

#2: The Deadline

Most people I know have no idea what goes into writing a novel. It's some mystical process they're in awe of, but are completely assured they're talented enough to achieve. Like people convinced they'll win in a fight, even if they have no training or experience beyond being a Bruce Lee fan. Anyone can tell a story, after all. What's the big deal?

That pretty much sums it all up in a nut shell, I think. A single month to write a novel sounds great, and even assuming the 1,666 words a day is all you need to get from "in the beginning" to "the end", it's a ridiculous amount of time. Some authors, some very few, very select authors can write a rough draft in a month. Because that's what NaNo is; a rough draft. The deadline doesn't give people the time to go back through and edit chapters, fix inconsistencies, dust up the grammar, and all those other, little details. Also, woe be to the author who needs to delete even a single day's work with such a stringent time limit imposed. There's no time to smooth the story out, delete unnecessary chapters, or add more exposition in the places you really sort of need it. Lastly, while you might start off strong, you're probably going to be out of breath in no time unless you don't have a day job and you're really, truly dedicated to your novel.

#3: The Spirit of the Whole Mess

This third entry is not the fault of the contest itself; it is rather an unfortunate outgrowth of the nearly cult-like loyalty the idea has drawn. When NaNoWriMo was first created it was a way for friends to get together and write novels. It worked, at least in a way, because some of the original pool finished the project. Written directly in the rules, the event is supposed to give those who think it would be fun to write a novel and excuse to do it.

After all, if you wanted to make money you'd rob a bank.
That's fine. It's a little touchy-feely, and more than a little hobbyist, but that's fine. If all someone wants to do is write a book with some friends, enjoy the experience, and maybe show the manuscript to a publisher or toss it up on the Internet, then who am I to judge them for that? I can safely say I wouldn't judge them... if not for the money. The very real, and the very theoretical money.

For many people NaNoWriMo isn't about having fun. It isn't about the creative experience, or honing their craft. It isn't even about the story. It's about money. Because, to paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, a lot of people don't see books as works of art or worlds to be enjoyed; they see them as means to an end. For every one person who promotes NaNo because they think it's fun, or because it's a great creative outlet, there are five entitled pricks who are absolutely convinced all they need to do is slap some words on the page and they'll have movie deals, royalty checks, and all the pussy or cock they can handle. Then, just to add insult to injury, writers are encouraged to buy merchandise to support the whole, staggering endeavor as it balloons into ever-grander proportions.

What's Wrong With it, You Ask?

NaNoWriMo, at the end of the day, doesn't help you become a better writer. It doesn't teach you how to improve your plot, get out of the passive tense, or to understand that there is no "right" length for a chapter or a book. It doesn't judge you on whether you write pointless, incestual sex scenes, or if you're blatantly yanking published characters and putting Groucho Marx glasses on them. It doesn't, by and large, make you any money, or earn you the sort of discipline and contacts you need to really become a professional novelist (sure, there are published NaNoWriMo authors, but if you compare the number of "real authors" to the number of participants, you'll see some depressing data). Mostly, NaNo is just giving you the excuse.

I say this here and now, with all of the sincerity I can manage. If you need an excuse to write your story, then you my friend are not a writer.

If it takes an annual ritual to get you to sit down at your computer and put words on the page, if you require the sympathy of temporary Internet friends or a four week writing group, and if you're too embarrassed to take the plunge without a herd of lemmings hoping for a real shot at hacking it all around you, then you should find another calling. Writing is about telling stories, and the craft of drawing in the reader. It's about the frustrations of late night ideas, little notebooks crammed with diagrams and character names, and the thrill of seeing a world come to life in your mind. It's about the unique magic of making something that people you have never met will read, and which will play a symphony on their heart strings. You don't need a special month of the year to write. You don't need more time off from work, or a cushy loft with high ceilings. If all you have is excuses why you haven't, then this year maybe it's time to put up or shut up.

As always, thank you for making The Literary Mercenary your go-to place for rambling on writing. Keep in mind that unlike NaNoWriMo, I am not a non-profit and thus need to earn a living and pay taxes. This blog runs on Google AdSense, and on royalties from book sales. For more about your author follow me on Facebook or on Tumblr. If you have any questions, concerns, or would like to see me cover a specific topic then please leave a comment, or contact me on one of my social media outlets. If you're curious about the stories I've told, a complete list can be found on Goodreads.


  1. Thanks for this Neal. Every year I look at NaNoWriMo and think 'Maybe'. But then I see the anguish some of my friends go through and think 'Na'.

    It's a race with no rules other than finish and some of the stuff I've read from it is just...awful.

  2. I disagree. Sure, Nanowrimo might not be for everyone, but I don't think that it's inherently bad.
    For a more complete rant

  3. I've used it before to complete projects but not to write an entire novel. It can be useful to learn some discipline.