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NaNoWriMo – Pros and Cons

I finished my fifth NaNo (short for “National Novel Writing Month,” where people from all over the world sign up to accept the challenge to write fifty thousand words on a novel during the month of November). Out of the five years I’ve done this, this is the first time that I’ve barely stretched across the finish line on the last day, crossing the 50K mark around 9:30 pm yesterday. I ended up with 51,553 words by midnight and the marathon ended. Every previous year, I hit that before or around Thanksgiving.

So after five years of doing this, what do I see as the pros and cons to it? The day after is a good time to reflect on this.

First, let me dispel what some claim are cons, but are not. So we can get those out of the way.

Fake Con 1: All these people writing crap will flood the market with it, thinking it is some kind of masterpiece.

Some will put them out on the market, when they are not ready. And it can add to the noise of publishing. But when you factor in how much noise is already out there, percentage wise it will not add significantly to it. And the fact is, cream will rise to the top. Even if everyone who participated in NaNo self-published their work, it wouldn’t prevent readers from finding what they like. There is a natural weeding out process that takes place through reviews and such. It has always been hard to get noticed as a new writer. This will not make it much harder, if any.

Keep in mind that the biggest majority of NaNo participants will simply file away their manuscript, and it will never see the light of day again. Their goal wasn’t to publish a novel, but to either prove to themselves that they could write a novel in one month, or they are simply working on their craft. They know they are not good enough yet but this is concentrated practice time. Only a small percentage of NaNoers will ever send that to an editor/agent, or throw it on the market via self-publishing. And an even smaller percentage of those will actually be something that readers want to read, and will start buying.

Fake Con 2: Anything written in one month has to be crap. It takes months, if not years, to write a truly great novel.

Experience says the opposite. While you will find some literary masterpieces that took years to write, like the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, there are others that were written in weeks, and became best sellers and/or classics. Dean Wesley Smith speaks to this much better than I could on his blog post titled “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Speed.” The fact is many classics and best sellers have been written within a month or less.

I’ve seen those two thrown out as to why NaNo is bad, but they are baseless. Myths that some writers believe, but Myths all the same. But onto the pros and cons. First we’ll attack the cons.

Con 1: Not getting to the 50K goal can make one feel like a failure as a writer.

This happens when a writer or a region totally misses the point of NaNo. They see the 50K as the line that says, “I’m a good writer,” so if you don’t make it, you think, “I’m a horrible writer.” No, the 50K goal is simply a challenge, a motivation to do one thing: stop worrying about editing and write, freeing the creative mind. Having that goal, that deadline, allows one to push themselves and see what they can do. And many are often surprised.

But there is nothing magical about being able to write 50K words in one month that makes one a good or bad writer. The majority of people who crossed the 50K line last month won’t publish what they have, because it is crap. And they know it. Those who don’t know it will find out soon enough, probably the hard way. But there is a lot of crap people have spent years pouring over as well.

The problem results when in the heat of the month, the regional leadership, or the writer, sees that 50K mark as a validation of their writing skills and ability. Let me say this: speed has nothing to do with the quality of your work, whether it took two weeks to write it, or ten years. So anyone going into it with this mentality will set yourself up for failure, because you had that nagging feeling in the back of your head that says you’re not a good writer, and this proves it. Hogwash.

It proves one of several potential things. You’re method and style of writing isn’t fit for working in a month time frame. You tried it, didn’t work, move on. Or too many real life events kept you away from the computer. Some unavoidable, some not, but stuff happens. Bottom line, you didn’t have the approximately two to three hours a day (depending on typing/writing speed) to invest in getting to the mark. Or you ate too much on Thanksgiving, sending you into a state of shock, which you just pulled out of on November 30th.

Con 2: Seeing the 50K as THE goal, and nothing else matters.

The message at times can seem to be just that. Getting to 50K is the end all and be all of what NaNo is about. Do it anyway you can. Some may even “cheat” by copy/pasting, or just typing eileis.  s eiels is els e seis se eis as fast as they can. If you “cheat,” you’re only harming yourself. It means you’ve gained nothing from the month long effort, for which the 50K goal is designed to spur the writer to achieve. NaNo would be a total waste of your time.

What that also means is if you don’t make it to 50K, say you reached 30K, though you didn’t reach the group goal, you still have 30K of a novel written! You still enjoyed the benefit of pushing yourself, despite time limitations. You still got in at a minimum 30K more words of practice, if nothing else. Your time wasn’t wasted because you didn’t reach the 50K. Yes, you’re name won’t be on the list. You won’t have the “winner” plastered on your progress bar. But you know what? All of that is designed to get you to do one thing: write. You did write, and so you have won where it really counts. The point isn’t to reach 50K, that is a goal to spur you to write. If you didn’t write something, then you’re a loser no matter what the progress bar says, and if you did, you’re a winner.

Those are the main two valid cons, and why people might decide NaNo is not worth it for them. The really big logical fallacy happens when that person, taking their limited experience, decides that NaNo must be bad for everyone else too.  Let’s say this person is simply not a “fast” writer, in that they have trouble spending more than an hour a day on their work, and stare at the screen the majority of the time. So they think everyone else who writes must write the same way, if they produce decent work. This is because they’ve bought into the “fast equals low quality” myth.

But every writer is different. Every writer will approach writing in different ways. So it is impossible for one writer to say that they way they write, the speed they write at, and claim it is the only or even best way for all other writers, or even a majority of writers, to follow if they want to produce “quality” stories.

So, what are the pros I’ve experienced or seen?

Pro 1: It encourages you to write.

When approached in the correct way, the main thing NaNo does is help people who might be future writers, to actually sit down and write something. The first novel I wrote, I did in a month without ever knowing anything about NaNo. It just happened. I’d never done anything like that before in my life, back in October of 2005, but when I finished that rough draft, I knew then that this is what I wanted to do. And I’ve been working on it ever since.

With motivation to reach a goal and the support of other writers, people will be stretched to do more than they ever have before, and potentially discover that this is what they want to do. Even if they don’t make it to 50K, they may have never written anything as big as 20K previously, and find they love it.

Pro 2: It gives a writer motivation to practice their art.

And the one true fact that applies to all but some prodigy kids, is writers have to do one thing if they are to be writers: write. And write a lot. The general figure is that most authors won’t reach professional levels of writing until they’ve written one million words. Because that’s how much practice it tends to take for most people. Some may take fewer words or some may take more. But the more you practice, the better you get if you are seeking to learn from your mistakes and take guidance. And that is true even if you’re a professional writer with three million words under your belt.

Pro 3: Many discover their creative side is able to produce some really good stuff.

While all writers are different in how they approach things, there is one area that is limited to our physiology. We have a creative and critical side of our brain. And the fact is, for a majority of writers, the critical side will get in the way of the creative side.

There are writers who work best editing as they go. Through whatever training, life experiences, or just the way they are put together, they can switch to the critical thinking mode without disrupting the creative mode’s flow and rhythm. But based on what I’ve read, these folk are not the majority. From several different authors and how they worked, from several editing books I’ve read, they are practically in 100% agreement that these two modes should be separated if we want to free the creative mind to do its best work.

Problem is, either because it seems right, or because they’ve been told it is “the right way,” many people assume that they should write a scene, then go back and edit it, rewrite it, polish it, before moving onto the next. But not realizing this, they stay stuck in that process, taking years to write it, and maybe even give up on it and toss it in the drawer, never to be pulled out again other than to show relatives what you did.

NaNo can help those folks discover whether they really are edit as you go types, and have not bought into it without critical thinking. For what you’ll discover is that when the goal is to attempt to write 50K in a month, and you’ve never written that much in a year, is that you can’t afford the time to let the editor in the door to review what you’ve written. You’re onto the next scene, the next chapter. Then you get to the end of it and look back and say, “Wow, that’s actually pretty good. A bit rough, needs some editing, but the plot is so much better than anything I’ve written to date.”

Someone in that state finds out that their better mode of writing is to let the creative side of the brain free reign for a month, free of the editor sticking his nose into everything, with the promise the editor can dig into it uninterrupted by the creative side later on. Or it may be total frustration, and the writer is feeling horrible because they are leaving crap back on page 21 and it is bugging them to no end, that they can’t write page 25. Then those people discover either they are locked into a belief system that says it has to be done that way, or have done it that way for so long they find it hard to change, and/or the way they write best is through edit as you go, and this NaNo proves that for them.

In either case, NaNo can be a big help in either showing a writer that they can be much more productive and write better stuff by leaving the editor out of it while writing the first draft, or that they need that editor and can’t do without him/her.

Those are my main pros, cons, and even the fake cons thrown in for good measure. I probably haven’t covered them all, these are the main ones I see. What are pros and cons you’ve seen or experienced?

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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14 Responses to NaNoWriMo – Pros and Cons

  1. The one I experience is the real con #1. Seeing so many others write so much and win (I know people for whom 50,000 wasn’t even enough…they kept going and wrote like 80,000 in one month!) is just plain depressing. I feel incredibly small and inferior.

    I signed up officially in 2008 and got stuck on about Nov. 4th and then subsequently became so depressed that I didn’t write at all for almost a year. This year, I didn’t sign up, but I wrote down my word count when NaNo started. I checked it again at the end of the challenge. My word count for the month: 13,277. That’a barely a quarter of what it takes to win.

    So here I am, wasn’t even supposed to be participating and I feel like a loser. It’s very hard not to compare myself to others when they are all shouting their impressive word counts from the rooftops. I am happy for all of you who made it. Good for you. I wish I could do it too. Oh well.

  2. R. L. Copple says:

    I understand, Caprice, what you’re saying. For some, it’s hard not to compare. Because every writer is different, I look at it more as working to beat my personal goals. It doesn’t matter how well I do compared to this person or that person.

    We have one guy on our region who does over 300,000 words every November. Have no idea how he does it. Must not have a job. Assuming he’s not cheating (and I’ve been told that he’s actually writing stories), he’s a combination of a fast typer, knows exactly where his story is going (or doesn’t care), and has hours every day to write.

    I’ve participated in our on-line chat for our region last year and this year. We have “word wars” where a bot starts us and tells us when to stop, then we report our word counts. I rarely “win” those. I’m usually toward the bottom of the pack. While I might write around 420 words in 20 minutes, several have hit anywhere from 600 to 800.

    If I compared myself to those people, those word wars would be downright depressing. But I’m not them. No writer works at it the same way, so it is pointless to compare yourself to others.

    And as I stated, how fast you write has no bearing on the quality of the work you put out. I know you are a good writer. Best to trust your voice, write at your own pace, don’t worry about how good or bad it might be (we aren’t the ones who get to decide that anyway, our readers do), and write what we can.

    The bottom line: You wrote over 13,000 words, and that’s a win in my column. Writers write, and that’s what you’re doing. Work with what you have, not what others have, and put in whatever work time you need to move forward.

    Dean Wesley Smith puts out around five novel a year, but he says his writing speed is about 750 words an hour. I write faster than he does. Yet he puts out five novels a year. But he does it for a living. He spends his day doing it. He makes a point in that post I linked to that if you spent only 15 minutes a day, each day during the year, by the time you finished the year, you would have written a novel. And one a year is what many in the spec. fic. industry consider a good pace. So someone doing it professionally, who has all day, they can certainly write several books a year without breaking a sweat. They’d have to waste most of every day not to.

    So keep trucking. How fast you write has no bearing on the quality of your work or how good a writer you are. That you produce, and what you produce, does, no matter how quickly or slowly it takes you.

  3. R. L. Copple says:

    I mean to add something more. Last year, I reached 102K. My best NaNo so far. Then this year, it is followed with my lowest NaNo ever. Previously, I think my lowest word count for NaNo was around 64K.

    Because I did so much worse than last year, theoretically I should be really bummed that after such a great year, I barely rolled my broken wagon across the finish line in time. Who knows, next year I may only make it to 30 or 40, and fall short.

    But this works for me. It won’t work for everyone. But it did get you to write, and that is a good thing.

  4. Hi, Rick!
    I began participating in NaNo in 2003. So far, I’ve “won” five times and didn’t participate twice. (I almost started to say, because I was “really writing” those two years. Oops!)
    I “cheated” this year–by using the NaNo graph to clock how many words I was able to decipher each day of the first volume of “The Gryphon & the Basilisk”–which was originally typed and then poorly scanned into a computer file decades ago. Using the graph really helped me get through a daunting project.

    My winners and my reactions go as follows:
    “Life Tides” This was supposed to be an actual romance set in Ocean City, NJ, but after the first two days, I still hadn’t gotten my MC out of her hotel room–and not for the reason you’re probably thinking. On the third day, I started again, keeping the title, and wrote about 60,000 words of creative nonfiction about my family when I was growing up. Some day, I’m going to revise this and look for an agent.

    Next up was “Marooned”, set in my Narenta universe but a stand-alone. I clocked in just over 50,000 words and had written 16 or 16 out of 22 projected chapters with a tight outline of the rest in the final days of NaNo. Come, Dec 1, I stopped. I few months later, I struggled through another chapter or two using the outline and then wrote the very last scene. This book still lacks its critical ending.

    The next year I won, I believe was “The Peace Bride”–fantasy set in a different world than Narenta. I barely wrote 50,000 words and came to a screeching halt on Nov 30, with only a few vague notes for the rest. I went through what I had written in Dec, and discarded probably a third of it as not fit for man nor beast. Oddly enough, the early part of this book is some of my best writing, but it went downhill quickly.

    Then came “The Gryphon and the Basilisk, vol.3″. (I already had written the earlier part years before in either longhand or on a typewriter. I wrote something like 60,000 but did not reach the end of vol. 3 by Nov. 30. I tried -very- hard to come up with the last part of the 3 volume story directly after that but could not figure out which of several options my main characters should use in order to resolve all of their conflicts.

    A couple of years ago, I wrote a Narenta spin-off set in its past, which I cheerfully titled, “Da Boid, Da Tree-Rat ‘n Da Loser”. Rather like “The Peace Bride”, some of my best writing is in this book. But guess, what? Yup, no ending. I quit on Nov. 30

    I don’t expect to do the real NaNo again, until I come up with at least 3 book endings. I have no idea when that will be. I, seriously, think I need help.

    Now I am very frustrated about not finishing those NaNo books I started, but I in no way, shape or form regret having started them.

    Under the Mercy,
    SherryT

    p.s. How long are Dean Wesley Smith’s books?

  5. Rick says:

    Maybe you can do something along the lines of what I did.

    In the 2006 NaNo, my first novel, Mind Game, turned out just around 52K. (It got bigger in edits) With time left, I dove into its sequel, Hero Game, and finished 15 chapters in it. NaNo ended, and that book sat half-finished until last year.

    In 2008, I finished another book before Nov. ended, so dove into a spin off idea that evolved while writing that story. Wrote four chapters on that one before NaNo ended. So last year, I decided to spend NaNo finishing up those two stories. One was about halfway done, the other barely started. Both came out great, and that’s when I wrote the 102K.

    So maybe you can do something similar. Take the stories you need to finish, and do them either for the official NaNo, or your own personal one. See how much of them you can complete.

  6. R. L. Copple says:

    Sherry, forgot to answer your last question. I’m not sure how big his novels are. He’s written a lot of Star Wars, Star Trek novels, and probably some other shows, as well as his own work. The best way may be to do an Amazon search and look in the info section, they always tell how many pages a book has.

  7. R. L. Copple says:

    Caprice,

    I thought about what you were saying when I was checking on this post by Dean Wesley Smith. Titled:

    Dare to be Bad

    Both the post and the comments are illuminating.

  8. This year was my first Nano. One of the reasons I decided to do it was that I wanted to get over my “block” against writing a sci fi story (mine is a YA). I’m a huge sci fi fan, and have read sci fi since I was a child, but I’ve never written even a sci fi short story. Devoting the month of November to working on one was a huge help.

    I did do a fair amount of planning (for me), and sketched out characters, setting, situation, main conflict, and major plot points. Even thought the writing didn’t exactly go according to plan, having done all this in advance was a huge help.

    I wrote about 26000 words in 3rd person before I realized I needed to write in 1st person. So I went back and revised. I still managed to hit 50K (and the end of my novel), but now have to go back and revise.

    Last year I didn’t do Nano, but wrote a first draft (15000 words) in October, then spent the entire past year revising, and ended up with a 40k MG that I have just started to submit.

    I signed up for an online editing course to take place in January, so maybe I’ll get this year’s revising done sooner — but even if I take the entire next year to revise, it’s fine with me.

  9. Rick says:

    Congratulations, Margaret, on your progress and success.

    I also plan out my characters and major plot points before starting. And like you, they usually change significantly by the time I reach the end of the novel. Introduced this year another character that I hadn’t planned on, and he becomes a key figure in resolving the plot. As a matter of fact, there is only one novel I’ve written for NaNo that went *almost* according to plan, and ended as I had envisioned it. The only significant change was one of my characters decided to get pregnant and introduce a new wrinkle into the story. But otherwise, it went exactly as planned.

    I have to plan out at least major plot points, or I’ll sit staring at the screen instead of writing. That happened some this year because I failed to figure out some areas before November, and then realized I didn’t have enough story to reach 50K, so had to think up more delays and events to happen *naturally* (that’s the hard part) to break 50K. I finished the story yesterday evening, and it landed at just under 55K. Generally my stories get bigger in edits, so I’m hoping to get it up in the 60K range at least by the time I’m ready to shop it.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  10. Well, I guess I should mention that I am an edit-as-I-go type of writer and that those 13,000 words were what I considered “ready” for public consumption. Those 13,000 words ended up as chapters 7-10 of a work in progress and have already been posted both on fanfiction.net and my own domain. Is that daring to be bad? I don’t know.

  11. R. L. Copple says:

    If I understand the “Daring to be Bad” as Dean puts it, yes. His main point there is what many writers do is edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite, over and over again because they want it to be perfect, to shine. To have no flaws. Consequently, they tend to never send the work to an editor, agent, or get it out where readers can read it.

    Dean realized this through some contacts with professional writers early in his career. He’d been a rewriter, and routinely had trouble selling his work. But he was encouraged not to spend so much time rewriting. So he started, back sometime in the 80s, to write the first draft. He then sends it to a beta reader. He gets it back, fixes only the typos and grammar errors, but changes nothing else. Then he sends it to an editor at a pub. house repeating to himself, “Dare to be bad.”

    Some writers have a little more edit time than he does, but the fact is, when he started doing that he started selling his work, and could make a living off of it. He discovered that when he rewrote, he edited his voice right out of the work, and that’s why it wasn’t selling.

    Other writers may take a little longer to edit, but the point being, you’ll never make it perfect, and if you do, there’s a good chance you’ve made it worse, not better unless you really know what you’re doing, which usually takes having written around one million words or so. “Dare to be bad” means sending your work to the editor/agent/public knowing it isn’t perfect, that you may have a plot hole, “As you know, Bob” dialog, etc.

    While you may edit as you go, it sounds like you are cutting off at some point, and putting it out for people to read, knowing that while it is as good as you can make it in the time you spent on it, you likely didn’t catch everything, and that’s okay.

    You know, I notice this is lots of movies and TV shows. I happened to watch some show on Sy-fi (or however they’re spelling that) which I think was called “Space Patrol.” Basic idea, a cop show in space. But while they had sophisticated entries with sliding doors to get into a building, their space ship “hatch” looked strangely like car doors. lol. I guess if I were a sophisticated type, I would have been thrown out of the story and stopped watching.

    And the recent Star Trek movie–it had so many plot holes you could have used it for a colander. But people loved it and it made a lot of money.

    But writers? “Oh, that teen is talking like a kid, I can’t read this!” Or a critiquer who list such reasons as why “readers will not read past page 1″.

    I’m not saying one shouldn’t be concerned with these things, and make it the best you can within a reasonable time frame, but the general public is, by and large, more forgiving on these kinds of things than us writer types. They simply want a good story with fun/interesting characters. And what we realize we did do wrong in one book, we can focus on making it better in the next book rather than worrying about “fixing” the first one.

  12. Rick, you wrote,
    “unless you really know what you’re doing, which usually takes having written around one million words or so.”

    I wrote a blog entry a couple of years ago, called something like 918,000 Words. I”m over a million, so it’s out of date now. The entry was mostly for my amusement as I added up how many words were involved in each of my novel and short story manuscripts, dating from as far back as 1979.
    If you’re really bored, you can look for it here:
    http://narentantales.blogspot.com/2008_05_01_archive.html

    Take my word for it–I do not know what I’m doing. If I did, I wouldn’t have so many unfinished manuscripts.

    Under the Mercy,
    SherryT

  13. Rick says:

    Well, that is a general average. For some it may take fewer. Others it may take more. But I would caution you on deciding that you don’t know what you’re doing. Part of the deal with practice is that it becomes second nature to do the right things. The more you do it, the more you discover what works and what doesn’t, the more your stories improve. And the more you don’t have to “think” about it. Like a pianist who practices hours and hours, they see notes on a page or hear the melody in their head, and their fingers know what to do without the pianist thinking, “Okay, now hit a C cord, and do an arpeggio here…”

    And you already know what I think of the stories you’ve published to date. You can only get better! All those unfinished stories could simply be practice, or maybe some of them you’ll go back and finish when inspiration hits. You never know. But from what I’ve read, I think you know more of what you’re doing than you think you do. And a lot of that is due to the near one million words you’ve invested into your writing development to date.

    BTW, with this last NaNo novel, I’ve estimated that I have somewhere between 600K and 700K. I’ve not sat down to actually add it all up like you did. I might be surprised.

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