The Journey to NaNoWrimo 2013: The Basics

In a little under two months, National Novel Writing Month will begin. I participate every year, both as a writer and a herder of writers. I started back in 2005, when I thought I wanted to write a novel, had no idea what I was doing, and thought it would be a really good idea to try to write 50,000 words in a month.

I can consistently write a lot more than that each month of the year now, but it doesn't change my love of this yearly event. NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone, and this post is dedicated to explaining what this event is, how to join and participate, and whether or not you might benefit from taking part.

NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone. While I encourage everyone to have a look at it, I do not encourage everyone to try it. It can be stressful. It involves a lot of dedication. It involves adapting your writing style. It involves a lot of things, and the combination of these elements can turn into a disaster for those who don't have the right personality type to handle this sort of event.

Before I begin on whether or not NaNoWriMo is right for you, I want to talk about the program. National Novel Writing Month is the brainchild of the Office of Letters and Light, a US non-profit dedicated to spreading the love of writing and literacy. It has a very successful Young Writers program, and has worked to bring libraries and literacy to places around the world without access to books.

That alone, I think, makes this organization worth having a second look at, even if you aren't into the idea of writing 50,000 words in a month.

The idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple. It is to encourage writers to finally finish a story. Writing a novel is hard. Writing a novella, which is technically what NaNoWriMo has you do, is equally hard. Writing one of these in one month is extremely hard. However, it can help boost struggling writers over the edge. It can help people finish.

Finishing that first novel, novella, or ‘long short story' is a huge accomplishment. It is something every writer has to face. Those of us who have written many drafts and completed the editing process often forget how difficult it is to finish that first project.

NaNoWriMo has an excellent model to help push people over that edge and force the words to get written.

In theory, this is a great idea. In application, it can be a disaster waiting to happen. I really like NaNoWriMo, but I'm going to be honest here. It isn't for everyone. It can do more harm than good. It can be problematic for the real life. It takes a lot of effort, time, and dedication. (That isn't necessarily a bad thing!)

It can cultivate really bad writing habits.

Before you consider NaNoWriMo, I am going to speak about what I feel is the advantages and disadvantages to this program. I'm also going to take the time to talk about the different approaches to NaNoWriMo. In future posts, I will be talking about how to set up a plot line specifically designed for the rigors of NaNoWriMo, though I'll touch on this subject a little later in this post.

I'm not going to try to sell this program to you, not really. If you think you can handle the downsides to working with NaNoWriMo, I encourage you read about the advantages of the challenge. But, I don't want to make it look like I'm trying to talk you into trying this. I'm not.

I'm just letting you know it exists, what it's about, and the good and bad things about it. This is my fourth year as a ML (Municipal Liaison) and one thing I've learned is that the absolute worst thing I can do for a writer is to bully or coerce them into trying NaNoWriMo. Nothing good comes out of it.

But for now, the disadvantages. 

  1. Easy to cultivate horrible writing habits
  2. No quality control
  3. Marathon-style writing, no prior habit development
  4. Disruptive to Real Life
  5. Competitive Nature
  6. Deadlines, Deadlines, Deadlines
  7. Hard to Maintain Motivation
  8. Peer Pressure
  9. Caffeine overdose!

1: Easy to Cultivate Horrible Writing Habits

Just as written. When you have to write 1,667 words every day for a month, including the weekends, it is very easy to abandon all good writing just to get the words written. These bad habits can be extremely difficult to break, and you know what they say about a habit — it takes 30 days to form or break.

Which is the exact number of days in NaNoWriMo.

2: No Quality Control

Quantity trumps quality in NaNoWriMo. While there are people (like me) who focus on quality and quantity, most don't. Worse yet, there are many people who think just because they wrote 50,000 words, it is acceptable to send that material to agents on query.

No. No it isn't. Don't do that. Editors and agents hate NaNoWriMo enough as it is because of the ignorant lovely people who do just this. I don't care how clean you think your draft is. It isn't clean enough for editors and agents fresh out of NaNoWriMo.

3: Marathon-style writing, no prior habit development

Marathon runners train extensively for months before trying to run in a marathon. Writers participating in NaNoWriMo often go in cold turkey. This is a recipe for disaster. Writing 1,667 words a day involves a lot of discipline. Learning that level of discipline while trying such an endeavor for the first time is even more difficult.

I really recommend building up for NaNoWriMo by trying to write a few hundred words every day, just to get used to the idea and level of work involved in trying such a challenge.

4: Disruptive to Real Life

It's obvious. Writing 1,667 words each day takes time. You have to make this time somewhere. Some of us take several hours a day to write this much. It's a recipe for the disruption of your regular habits.

5: Competitive Nature

Year after year, I hear people say how they don't care if they aren't first to cross the 50,000 word mark. Year after year, I see these same people watch others like hawks, and struggle to keep pace with those who write really fast for days at a time.

The competitive element is very real, and it can be an extreme disadvantage for those who aren't motivated by competition or don't thrive when trying to reach a goal — even if they don't get to that goal first.

6: Deadlines, Deadlines, Deadlines

Deadlines scare people. Each day in the month of November, a 1,667 word deadline looms in the distance. This can have a huge psychological impact on participants.

Especially the first time someone falls behind, and the next day's deadline jumps to a higher count than 1,667 words.

7: Hard to Maintain Motivation

1, 2, or 3 days of writing 1,667 words can count as an accomplishment. It is an accomplishment. After the first week or two, maintaining the motivation to do this is difficult — almost as difficult as actually sitting down and writing the words.

NaNoWriMo can take a huge emotional toll on participants who aren't used to this sort of thing.

8: Peer Pressure

In a way, an ML's job is to provide gentle peer pressure to encourage other writers to reach 50,000 words. However, it often works out where all participants are pressuring each other to do more, do better, and do more better. This can become a very heavy burden very quickly.

Regions can have vibrant communities. MLs can provide a lot of support. However, at the end of the day, NaNoWriMo is an event based on the powers of peer pressure to get a huge goal done in a short amount of time.

9: Caffeine overdose

This is a real risk. An extremely real risk. Most people don't realize there is a risk and consequence of overdosing on caffeine. Many participants live on the stuff through the 30 days.

While this section is listed as caffeine overdose, it is extremely easy for someone to do serious harm to themselves. Eating and drinking habits changed. Sugar and caffeine are consumed in high quantity. Sleep is often lost in the effort to reach deadlines.

NaNoWriMo can be problematic for your health if you aren't paying close attention to what you are eating and drinking, and how much you're eating and drinking during the month.

Now, for the advantages. And there are some. Thank goodness. 

These should be pretty self-explanatory.

  1. Development of Writing Habit (30 days to make or break a habit!)
  2. 50,000 words written — woohoo!
  3. Experience handling deadlines
  4. Introduction to a lot of like-minded individuals
  5. Competitive Atmosphere (Some people do thrive on this!)

… for someone who advocates considering trying this, I don't have a long list of advantages. But, I think these advantages are important for those who do go in, get their hands dirty, and get it done.

And there is nothing wrong with not finishing 50,000 words in the month of November, either. A lot of the fun is trying. It's a learning experience.

It isn't for everyone, but for those who are adaptable for this sort of thing, it can be a huge benefit in the long run.

So, now that I've talked about what NaNoWriMo is about, and a bit about the disadvantages and advantages of participating, I want to talk a little about the things you might want to do in order to prepare for November.

For pantsers (those who don't plot in advance):

  1. Write a very basic synopsis of the story. Like a back of the book blurb of what your book is about. It isn't plotting, but that simple blurb can provide enough of a guideline where you don't get lost.
  2. Watch others prepare. Feeling smug is optional — just remember, the plotters know where they're going in advance, and they often do manage to write their 50,000 words each month. I can't say the same for pantsers. (And I'm a pantser, generally…!)
  3. Know at least one main character intimately. It helps. It really, really helps.

Suggestions for plotters (… do I need to explain this?)

  1. Write a basic synopsis — back of book style.
  2. Write a comprehensive synopsis, blurb style, chapter by chapter.
  3. Write an outline (Line point style.)
  4. Create a conflict chart (3 plot points, tension points, conflict points per chapter or scene.)
  5. Create character sheets
  6. Mind map character arcs, plot events, and themes

This is just scratching the surface of what you can do while preparing for NaNoWriMo. I'll be digging deeper as the days go by.

For now, I will leave you with a good luck, and I hope to see you participating in NaNoWriMo in November. I'm the ML of the Montreal region. If you live in an area without a region, or you just want to hang out with us, feel free to join in — we adopt people from across the border and from other places if they don't have a home.

Note: The Canada::Quebec::Montreal region is bilingual (French and English)



Leave a Comment:

Want to Write a Novel? Join the Annual Race to 50,000 Words | Flora Brown | Self-Publishing Tips | Writer says October 17, 2013

[…] is an achievement. Experienced NaNoWriMo writer, RJBlain, gives you the pros and cons at, but will not try to coerce you to […]

2015 NaNoWriMo Masterpost Link Up | With A Free Printable! | Raychel Rose says October 2, 2015

[…] The Basics of NaNoWriMo Series | R. J. Blain […]

Add Your Reply