Monday, November 3, 2014


AS I WRITE THIS, we are three days into the 2014 edition of NationalNovel Writing Month. The purpose of NaNoWriMo (as it is known) is to create a novel of at least 50,000 words in length, which means one has to average 1,667 words a day throughout the month of November.
   So how many words of fiction have I written in the last three days?
   And that doesn’t concern me in the least.
   You see, while I have occasionally signed up for NaNoWriMo in the past, mostly to offer encouragement to friends who were taking their first crack at book-length fiction, I don’t believe I ever did so with the intention of actually trying to churn out 2,000 words a day (which would have to be my goal, as I don’t write on Sundays). And this year, I have come to a conclusion that has been festering for a few years … namely that NaNoWriMo is basically a bad idea overall.
   I feel that way for three reasons.
   The first, and most obvious, is that a novel one writes in a month is almost certainly going to be the literary equivalent of a train wreck.
   Yes, I know … Hemingway wrote TheTorrents of Spring in just ten days. But it’s the literary equivalent of a train wreck as well, and it’s widely believed that it was deliberately created as such. When he submitted that manuscript to his then-publisher, Boni & Liveright, they rejected it, releasing Hemingway from his contract with them. Hemingway claimed that this was never his intention, but the fact remains that The Sun Also Rises, which would otherwise have belonged to Boni & Liveright, was sold instead to Scribner’s—a much more desirable publishing house.
   And yes, I know that there are a few hundred traditionally published novels claimed by their authors to have been written during NaNoWriMo. But of that number, I suspect some were merely begun during the November event, others simply worked on during that time … and it’s entirely possible that a few authors merely claimed participation to gain some word-of-mouth publicity.
   Even if all of those books were legitimately created during National Novel Writing Month, they amount, if my math is correct, to fewer than twelve hundredths of one percent of the manuscripts by participants since the event began in 1999. So at least 99.88 percent of what’s written during NaNoWriMo receives no reaction from legitimate publishers other than a gag reflex, and creating something like that hardly seems like a good use of time.
   The sad fact is that most of the novels written at any time of the year are, from a readability standpoint, rubbish … as are a significant fraction of the novels that are ultimately published. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but it hardly seems as if we need a special event to add to those statistics.
   The second reason I’m not keen on NaNoWriMo is that its primary purpose seems to be the creation of trophy novels: books written so one can cross “write a novel” off one’s bucket list.
   The issue I have with this—writing a novel in order to call oneself a novelist—is that it inverts the proper order of things. The real reason one should be writing a novel is to entertain and intrigue readers.
   Was this the reason I got into fiction? Of course not. I wanted the recognition as much as anyone else. But I quickly realized that one does not gain recognition merely by writing. One gains it by being read, and one does that by creating something that is eminently readable.
   The third reason I’m not fond of NaNoWriMo is actually my primary reason, and this is that the basic purpose of the event lies at odds with a fundamental characteristic common to every successful novelist I have known.
   I’m talking about grit.
   “Grit” is an old-fashion word that refers to a particular strength of character—the ability to devote oneself to a goal that cannot be reached quickly or without sacrifice. In terms of the novel, grit is the willingness to sit down at the keyboard every morning, even though you may have known how the story ends now for months, or even for years. It is the ability to write the book and make it moving and beautiful even though you may be sick of the story and wish it would simply go away.
   And 30 days is far too scant a time in which to determine if you have something like that.
   So if you’ve gotten into NaNoWriMo for the camaraderie, or the novelty, or simply because you don’t care to watch what’s being offered on TV this month, then more power to you.
   But if you truly want to be a novelist, you are better off purchasing a truly comfortable chair, and thinking of November as nothing more than the first month of the rest of your life.


  1. Allow me to disagree. :) If a person doesn’t find value in NaNoWriMo, then don’t do it. But plenty of us find it an honest and good way to get that first draft down - the crappy one, the one with all the typos and rambling thoughts, the one that you fear if you died now someone would come to your computer, read it and then walk away shaking their heads. But it’s meant to be nothing more than a 50,000 word draft. More words wil have to be added to turn it into a novel.

    I’m doing NaNo this year and proud of it. I've written 20 mystery novels and this is the second time I’ve done NaNoWriMo and I plan to give it a permanent spot on my November calendar. No, my book won’t be ready for public consumption until some time in 2015 - but it will be there, a very workable outline.

    What I personally find about NaNo is that my friends and family know I’m doing this - support me in it - and allow me the time to accomplish it without putting extra demands on me.

  2. Of course you’re entitled to your opinion, Tom, but I respectfully disagree.

    Yes, many times the rough draft produced in NaNoWriMo isn’t sun-dipped genius wrapped in a rainbow, but that’s not really the point. The point is to get unstuck, to make yourself write something, because as long as you have nothing, you don’t have anything to work with. A bad rough draft written is a hundred times better than no rough draft at all. Now you can start improving on something. Before, it was just potential and air.

    My first novel—which shall never see the light of publishing day—was roughly 45,000 words and I wrote it in a month or two. And it was awful. I don’t even have a copy of it anymore, I don’t think, but I cringe just thinking about it. I probably committed every first-time novelist error and may’ve invented a few besides.

    Yet it was the key to me becoming a novelist.

    I had to prove to myself that I could indeed pull off writing a really long story. I knew, about 35,000 words in, that I could actually sustain a long story and that I could’ve kept going indefinitely. But until I did that NaNoWriMo-like experiment, I didn’t know if I could. I knew, as a result of that exercise, that I could be a novelist.

    Who cares that it was terrible prose? It showed me something essential.

    And what’s wrong with using NaNo to scratch something off the bucket list? If I wanted to run a marathon and I used some motivating factor to cause me to train for it and run, why was the motivating factor a bad thing—even if my time and performance in the race were laughable?

    To me, it sounds like you’re saying a writer shouldn’t use NaNo because: 1) the resulting novel may not be great, but that’s not really the point of it; and something to begin improving on is better than having nothing at all; 2) it’s not good to write a novel just because you’ve always wanted to, but that seems like a silly objection on the face of it; of course every novelist writes his first novel because he’s always wanted to write a novel; and yes, it’s to entertain, but that’s also the goal of the NaNo novelist; and 3) because somehow writing a novel in 30 days doesn’t take grit, but that’s another one that seems absurd on the face of it—how is it that disciplining yourself to do a really hard project in a really short amount of time doesn’t take grit? Or would delivering a baby over the course of two months take more grit than delivering it in one day?

    Sorry, Tom, I think you’re wrong this time.

    Jeff Gerke

  3. I like your thoughtlines on this. I am not participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Instead, I'm part of a 'MiniWriMo' my writers group is promoting. Our goal is 250 words per day - one page - for thirty days. One of our sub-groups is actually called "250 Words a Day" because if you can write 250 words a day, guess what? You have a 365-page first draft at the end of the year.

    The novel I'm working on in our MiniWriMo is the same one I started in 1990 - yes...24 long years ago. The difference is that now I have a mature plot, an interesting, three-dimensional cast of characters, and world in which those characters will, hopefully, do some exciting things.

    Oh, and that NaNoWriMo I did a few years back? It was good for putting together 50,000 words of what amounts to a narrative outline for the sequel to the novel I'm writing today. So, I wouldn't say NaNoWriMo is good for nothing :-)

    Finally, I believe I qualify in the grit department! Either that or I'm a world-class procrastinator.


    1. Xanthorpe, we sound like birds of a feather.

  4. Thanks, Linda and Jeff! And everyone--I want you to know that these are two dear friends of mine ... people who understand that we can have very different opinions about things and still genuinely like and respect one another. I've said here before that writing a novel is not an activity girded by rules and regulations, and here's the proof of it. So please feel free to post if you disagree (or agree!) with me. I believe we learn more if we see all sides of a subject.

  5. Tom —

    For three years, I've been determined to participate in NaNoWriMo, but have been prevented each year (including this year) because of deadline crises. I think NaNoWriMo is a great concept and I support it.

    You say: "A novel one writes in a month is almost certainly going to be the literary equivalent of a train wreck."

    Here’s my alternate view: I say, the faster you write, the better you write.

    I just finished a nonfiction project that I think is one of the best things I've ever done. I wrote a 140,000-word first draft in five weeks, then took another week to rewrite and tighten it down to 90,000 words. My editors got back to me on Friday, called it one of the cleanest manuscripts they've ever seen, and complemented the writing, no changes in substantive editing, and the copyediting, they said, was light. Hardly a train wreck in my view.

    Why does writing faster make you a better writer? It helps you maintain an intense focus on your story and keeps your unconscious mind ("the boys in the basement") working on the story even when you're away from your keyboard, and perhaps even when you're asleep. Writing fast, you can see the end from the beginning and the beginning from the end, which helps prevent inconsistencies and continuity mistakes. Writing faster keeps you in flow, helps you to get into "the zone." All of this actually improves the quality of your writing.

    Slower, more self-conscious, more meticulous writing only degrades the quality and creativity of your writing, in my view.

    Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451 sold more than 10 million copies, was translated into thirty-three languages, is assigned reading in countless high school and college literature courses, and was written in two intense nine-day writing stints, one in 1951, the second 1953.

    John Steinbeck wrote the first draft of THE GRAPES OF WRATH during a five-month period, from June to October 1938. I don't know how long his first draft was, but the final cut was more than 500 pages.

    Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, 4 billion copies of seventy-two titles sold, and she wrote most of them in no more than two months.

    Ed McBain/Evan Hunter (THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and the EIGHTY-SEVENTH PRECINCT series) wrote most of his novels in one month or less.

    Michael Moorcock wrote most of his acclaimed ELRIC fantasy novels in no more than a month. One of his most celebrated novels, GLORIANA, won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial award. It has remained continuously in print since 1978. He wrote it in six weeks, including rewrite.

    Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the first draft of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (26,000 word novella, 1886) in three days.

    Stephen King sets a goal of about ten pages per day or 2,000 words. This amounts to about 180,000 words of first draft manuscript in three months, and he says three months is the maximum anyone should take to first-draft a novel. Any longer than that, King says, and the story goes stale in the writer's imagination.

    You say: "I suspect some [traditionally published novels] were merely begun during the November event . . ." I think that's understood among everybody who participates in NaNoWriMo. Few novels are complete at 50,000 words. November is just the kickoff for a project that will continue into December and beyond. I think most people who participate in NaNoWriMo think of November as (in your words) "nothing more than the first month of the rest of your life." Or at the very least, the first month of the rest of your novel.

    That's my alternate view. Thanks, Tom, for kicking off an interesting discussion.

    —Jim Denney

  6. You are completely missing the point of NaNoWriMo. It is about actually putting pen to paper (metaphorically speaking, usually, although I do like writing that way from time to time), sitting down, and actually getting something done. It's about finally making the time to write the ideas that have been in your head for a while, or just starting with nothing and seeing what happens, since you don't have the luxury of allowing your inner editor to have a say in the process with the extreme time crunch. The point isn't to have a final product that you would submit for publication by the end of November. 50,000 words isn't even a complete first draft, by most book standards. The point is that you are actually writing, without constantly second-guessing whether what you have written is good enough. Once December hits, that is when you go back and edit what you have, working out the rough edges, taking your product from November and turning it into something worth reading. While I do agree that NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone, you can't really knock it until you try it and you have already admitted that you haven't actually tried it at all.