In Defense of NaNoWriMo

In the last week of October, and the last week before this year’s NaNo, an episode of my favorite writing podcast was dedicated to the question of whether we, the listeners and aspiring writers, should do it or not. And the answer was a resounding NO. Tim Clare, the author of said podcast, brought forward an array of arguments to support his advice. Some of his thoughts made me look at NaNo from a new angle. NaNo has been a part of my life for nearly a decade now, so this fresh perspective is a valuable gift and I appreciate it.

At the same time, I was put off by the tremendous one-sidedness of these same arguments. It seemed that Tim was either unaware of, or intent on ignoring all potentially good things about NaNo. And if there were no good things about it, if all it ever did for anyone was make them miserable and prevent them from writing ever again (which is, basically, what Tim believes), it would have died off a long time ago. Instead, it gets bigger and more popular every year.

Tim isn’t necessarily wrong about its potential to harm, but this risk is limited to a small minority of participants: to people who, like himself, have a troubled relationship with writing. There have been other episodes of the podcast where it sounded like such people are the only audience Tim’s interested in speaking to. But this was the first time I felt there was literally nothing in it for the rest of us, not a single thought or word spared. This spurred me to write a response, even though I realize that NaNo has an army of voices speaking in its favor already and doesn’t particularly need me to defend it.

I assume you’re familiar with what NaNoWriMo is. If not, you might want to become familiar with it before reading on. I’ve done NaNo three times, and finished it twice. I wrote about these experiences with my usual verbosity elsewhere; to access these posts, search for “nano” or check out the Library. Those are my “qualifications” to discuss this subject.

I suppose I should also clarify what I mean by “a writer in a troubled relationship with writing” before I move on. All writers face certain common problems that often come down to finding it incredibly hard or downright impossible to actually sit down and write. We develop various avoidance behaviors in response to this and then feel guilty for procrastinating. This guilt, together with the weird sense of not having agency in the matter, when mixed with the insecurities and anxieties inherent to trying to be creative in this day and age, can produce deeply toxic and self-destructive states of mind, to the point of causing or contributing to existing mental health issues. While all writers experience this in some degree, certainly not all suffer from it in the extreme. Those who do, have a troubled relationship with writing.

In the following I’ll summarize Tim’s arguments to the best of my recollection, in no particular order, and respond to them directly.

In most genres, the 50k words required to win the challenge doesn’t make a novel.

No argument from me there. The seemingly arbitrary word count goal is probably a compromise between three requirements: that it’s large enough to definitely not be a story; that it’s doable and not too discouraging in terms of daily word count goals (to be addressed next); and that it’s a nice number (48k, which would make for 1600 daily, isn’t as nice as 50k).

But! The premise of NaNo is hardly to have a finished novel ready for submitting to an agent or publisher by the end of November. Everyone with an interest in writing knows this. It is properly addressed on the NaNo site and often discussed by the authors who give the weekly ‘pep talks’. Some participants may finish NaNo with a 50k draft down to a word, some with a 60k, some with a 40k — but these will all be just first drafts that can later be beaten into the shape of a novel regardless of whether the initial word count met the challenge requirements. It’s not like NaNo falsely advertises that whatever you write by the end of the month will be a novel by anyone’s, least of all, traditional publishing industry standards. It is up to the participant to understand what they’re getting into and moderate their expectations.

The daily average of 1700 words required to win the challenge is not sustainable in the long term. It is too much even for a professional writer, let alone someone who’s trying to do this in their limited free time. Adopting this as a goal even for a month promotes unhealthy habits and constitutes binging.

I have no idea how many words a professional writer can chug out in a day, but the last time I participated in NaNo I typically needed about three hours of uninterrupted time to meet the daily goal. Some days I’d get there sooner, other days I’d struggle. I did need to invest extra hours in it on the weekends to make up for the missing words, or on a rare occasion, to preemptively get ahead of schedule. With a full-time job and other extracurricular activities competing for my free time, 1700 words a day would indeed be tough to pull off regularly. But something between 1000 and 1500 would be doable. And when I imagine having the whole day for writing — I’m entirely sure I could consistently do 1700 and more.

Of course, this pertains to the word count of the shitty first draft, not the polished later and final versions. When revising, I can easily spend three hours fiddling with a single paragraph. Some people are unable to “just write” (i.e. to write shit). They need to make it good or at least decent in order to go on. I’d certainly agree that writing 1700 words of final-draft quality a day is unsustainable. But NaNo isn’t about that, and Tim should be among the first to appreciate it. More on this later.

Forcing oneself to write, even if momentarily successful, is a strategy doomed to fail in the long term. Writing must be a choice; if it’s an obligation, one will find ways to avoid it.

This is true and I have no buts for it.

It is practically impossible to write a good novel in a month. Even if one wins the challenge, one will have inevitably written a steaming pile of shit.

One of the most obvious and forefront motivations for NaNo, as expressed by its organizers and promoters and experienced by the participants, has always been to just write. To meet the lofty daily word count, you have to turn off the inner editor and constantly move forward without looking back. Yes, this will result in writing shit. But that’s exactly the point! And not just any point: it’s the same point that Tim himself relentlessly belabors: you’re allowed to write shit. You’re allowed to play with words, to experiment, to make mistakes and to make no sense. NaNo isn’t about creating a perfect, publication-ready manuscript; it’s not even about doing your best. To the contrary: it’s about the freedom to just write.

This is where I felt that Tim was either dreadfully misinformed, or downright insincere. As a part of the podcast, he created an eight-week writing course: The Couch to 80k Writing Boot Camp. It consists of ten-minute daily writing exercises, and in every single one of them, he encourages the listener/participant to essentially do the same thing one is required to do during NaNo: to shut up the inner critic, put aside any concerns about quality, and just write. Some of the exercises come down to free-writing, where you write whatever comes to mind, free of all considerations, rules and structure. Obviously, writing for ten minutes can’t be equated with writing for several hours to meet the NaNo daily word count, but the exercises share a common purpose, a common spirit, and that is to disperse the pressure related to trying to produce something good. Just like Tim’s own writing course, NaNo gives you the license to write shit. Advising against it on these grounds is pure hypocrisy.

Such shit, moreover, that no amount of editing and polishing is likely to turn it into a decent read. Novels resulting from NaNo, published traditionally or otherwise, are bound to be at least a bit shit.

I don’t have a firm opinion on this. Outside fanfiction, I haven’t read any NaNo novels, and from a few very cursory glances I took at  last year’s candidates for publishing by Kindle Scout, my intuition is that Tim’s right. Not because it’s impossible to revise a shitty draft — anything’s possible with enough time and effort; but because, being utter shit, it may require more time and effort than it’s worth. Sadly, my own experiences with NaNo confirm this.

Among the people who do not win the challenge, many will feel so burned out and defeated that they will not continue writing regularly. In fact, some may be so deeply damaged by the experience that they might not write at all for a long while after.

I’ve no doubt this is true. But I very much doubt that it’s true for a large proportion, let alone the majority of participants of NaNo. One of the reasons I was so upset by Tim’s treatment of this subject is that he made no effort to acknowledge that not all people who do NaNo have a troubled relationship with their writing. He also makes no effort to acknowledge that not all his listeners have a troubled relationship with writing either. In this he makes at least one sweeping generalization: either that NaNo is universally bad, or that people universally do it to resolve their troubled relationship with writing.

As a way of illustrating his opinions, Tim draws an elaborate analogy between a struggling writer doing NaNo as a way to make themselves sit down and actually write, and a married couple who’d grown distant and dissatisfied, taking a month-long vacation together in complete isolation as a way to reclaim their intimacy, which would in Tim’s opinion be a horribly bad idea. For some writers, this analogy is quite apt. But they’re an exception, not the rule! To use the same analogy, what Tim does in this episode is claim that all married couples taking a month-long vacation in complete isolation surely do so because they’ve grown distant and dissatisfied.

The analogy is severely flawed, but it brought me a strange insight: one does NaNo to solve some problem; if one doesn’t have a problem, they won’t be doing NaNo. (For extra clarity: when I say “problem” I mean something like a mathematical problem, such as solving a system of equations, rather than a psychological problem.) It’s a means to a goal, not a goal in itself. Maybe this is a trivial realization, something obvious to most; but it was an entirely new thought for me.

Unlike Tim, I believe NaNo can help achieve a variety of goals possibly as great as the variety of people taking part in it. The most obvious is, of course, to draft a novel; but it can also be to just write, without worrying about quality and looking back; to form or re-form a daily writing habit; to establish some degree of structure and discipline, especially if writing is a hobby; or to simply finish something — to name just the few that readily come to mind. Doubtlessly there are also many people who will do it just for fun, or the challenge, or the bragging rights.

But in general, NaNo is a tool, and like all tools, it’s appropriate for some things, and inappropriate for others. Tim makes the mistake of judging NaNo as a bad thing without taking in consideration the diversity of reasons people might have for doing it. Yes, it might be bad for someone with a troubled relationship with writing, but for someone else it might be exactly what they need.

And now I come to the funny part. I had plans for this year’s NaNo. I wanted to give another chance to my 2012 project, Three Little Fish. Reboot it completely, ignore anything I might have written then and start afresh. But after listening to this episode of Tim’s podcast, I started wondering why I wanted to do it. What problem could NaNo solve for me this year? What did I hope to achieve?

When I did my first NaNo, in 2011, I was in a good writing shape. I wrote regularly and I was able to consistently finish the things I started. But they were just short stories. At about 10k words, The Candidate was the longest piece of writing I managed to finish and I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel. (Well… rather at finishing a novel. By that time I had two unfinished drafts with well over the word count required by NaNo, both stalled at about 90%.) In 2017, I wanted to get back in writing shape after several years of break. Both times I met the requirements for winning the challenge, and both times I found myself in possession of a draft so shitty that nothing short of rewriting at least half of it (and more in the case of Ghost in the Machine) could possibly make it decent. And in both cases I failed to finish the revision despite the apparent “success” of finishing the draft, leaving me with a total of four unfinished novels and as many open wounds.

These days, I write regularly, though not as much as I’d like to. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as match-fit for it as I was in 2011, but I feel good about it, I look forward to it, and I keep showing up for it, even when it gets horribly hard and slow. It’s difficult and slow because I’m not working on anything new: I’m trying to finish one of the four unfinished novels mentioned above.

So what’s the problem I’d be solving with NaNo? That’s what I asked myself after listening to Tim’s misguided arguments. And I couldn’t come up with an answer. Not only would it “solve” nothing: it would add another problem to the top of the existing pile. Do I really need another finished first draft that’s so shitty that I’ll need years of time and effort to beat it into shape (and very likely fail at it)? I’ve proven to myself that I can indeed finish a draft for a novel. I’ve proven to myself that I’m disciplined enough to write even when I don’t particularly feel like it. So what then? What?

The only reason to do it would be the same reason why I write anything: because it’s a great story that no one else can tell. But I don’t need NaNo for that. What I need is writing time and thinking space and a cleaner backlog.

And so, in the last week of October and the last week before this year’s NaNo, my least favorite episode of Tim’s writing podcast, although rife with sweeping generalizations and flawed analogies, managed to convince me that I shouldn’t do it.

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