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NaNoWriMo? It's Not For Everyone

Even though this admission makes her feel like The Grinch, Tayari Jones will not write a novel this month.

Sometimes I feel like the only novelist who does not spend the month of November cranking out a novel in thirty days in celebration of NaNoWriMo-- National Novel Writing Month.

Just writing this post makes me feel like a literary Grinch, but I must admit that I have never been even tempted to NaNo. One reason is that my birthday is in November and the last thing I want to do on my birthday is to slam for an arbitrary deadline. The second reason is more artistic. I am a slow and deliberate writer. (When you think Tortoise and Hare, the Tortoise leaves skid marks on my back.) I cannot imagine that a novel I could write in thirty days would be any good to read, nor would it be any fun to write.

I know someone will comment with some notable masterpiece written in three weeks. (Just as I am writing this, I think I remember someone saying that Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written in twenty-three days or something.) But I know how I write and it isn't quick.

I understand that imposition of a deadline as a way to motivate folks to actually sit down and write, but for me, art doesn't really work that way. The idea of writing a novel in a month is really attractive for obvious reasons-- just think, you could be a novelist before Christmas!

But, sadly, really exploring an idea and developing meaningful characters and plots can take time and a lot of it. IMHO, word count is not necessarily the best way to measure progress on novel. I prefer to judge myself based on the time I spend at my desk. Although it takes a certain word count to make a completed novel, counting words isn’t the most accurate measure of art. I believe in setting goals, but these goals should be reasonable and healthy.

I love all the NaNoWriMo enthusiasm, really I do. But you may also be setting yourself up to fail and feeling like a failure is not inspiring. To my mind, NaNoWriMo is almost like going on a crash diet to fit into a special dress. You spend days eating nothing but cabbage soup and Dexatrim and feel proud of yourself for dropping ten pounds in ten days or whatever. But have you been properly nourished? Have you learned any new sustainable habits? Nope. Why not? Because you made the whole enterprise about fitting that dress, not about changing your life.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of the month of November being devoted to novel writing. I love thinking of thousands of people sitting at their computers and notebooks thinking hard. What I worries me is the idea that a novel should be finished at the end of that month. Let us devote November to novel writing, but let us focus more on trying to structure the month in such a way to be nurturing to our artist-selves. Maybe you will spend the month just daydreaming. Or someone else will hire a babysitter one afternoon a week to get some quiet time. Someone else will spend the month reading novels in translation. Yet another person may volunteer her month to reading friends' drafts. You get the idea. There is more to writing than just word count.

Spend November being a more dedicated artist, whatever that looks like.

SheWriters, let’s NaNoWriMo in our own art-nurturing ways. What can you do this month to make yourself a better writer? RELATED: Novelists - Struggling or Not group NaNoWriMo group

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  • Kristen Elise

    You're not alone.  If I force myself to stick to a word count, I end up with that many crappy words.  I typically use NaNo as an opportunity to kick my own butt in my own way.  OK, it's November and I need to edit (not write), so I'll create NaNoEdMo for myself, set my own (realistic) goal and stick to it.  

  • Lauren Mead

    I agree that NaNoWriMo doesn't have to be all about word count.  When I wrote my first draft of my first novel, all I thought about was getting to the end, but what I realized later was that it is more important to consider the intricacies of the plot.  I ended up having to go back and completely re-write it.  So I love the idea of dedicating November to working on novels in any capacity--not just writing for the sake of a finished manuscript.  

  • Claire McAlpine

    NaNoWriMo is SO the right thing for you have done Edith! You're finding your mojo :) it's going to change all your future blog posts too, no more self doubts! I'm so pleased you've gone in and found the magic.

  • Edith O Nuallain

    Interesting post and perspective. There's so much of what you say here that I agree with; indeed I felt the same way 12 days ago! But now, 11 days into my first ever NaNoWriMo, I have to say that, in my humble opinion, the best way to approach NaNoWriMo is in the way that suits you as a writer. So if you write slow, then write slow. Forget about word count. You're only challenging yourself anyway. And to be honest it seems to me that the best part of it is the daily writing it calls us to do. I'm rather hopeful that after 30 days of being inspired to sit down at my lap top and write for a minimum of one and a half hours, that I will continue my new habit. As for the standard of what I'm writing -- well I don't have a problem writing a 'shitty first draft', actually I find it very exciting watching my previously planned plot and structure develop and follow its own inclinations. The whole experience is truly one of the most exciting I have ever had! And I am equally excited about revising and editing my mss in December and January! However it's not for everyone, and it was almost not for me too. But I'm so glad I jumped in, eyes closed, throwing caution to the wind! As for next year - will I do it again? Probably, but I shall begin my planning and research a little earlier this time, maybe even outline my scenes and spend the month creating said scenes. But each to their own. Enjoy your writing your way this November! :)

  • Claire McAlpine

    I'm starting on a new creative project with my daughter, it's a collaboration entitled A Silent Education, I write the words and she illustrates, I'm inspired by all those people out there doing NaNoWriMo, but it's not for me. This is our November project and what I know I can manage and it's so much fun to be doing it with my 10-year-old daughter! AND importantly, she's now stopped asking for her own blog - for the time being anyway.

  • Elissa Field

    I've been skimming NaNoWriMo posts, and Tayari, this one comes closest to how I write, and therefore my natural skepticism of this November tradition. I've had new discoveries on stories I've lived years with, so can't imagine the idea a book is really written in a month. On the other hand, I've been drawn in, the way one gets drawn into excitement while lining a parade route, or the toughest stretch of a race. I guess I am what is dubbed a rebel or cheater, in that I want to go to the party to see what the rumble is about, even though I'm not technically attempting a draft in a month. What I have is two existing drafts -- one that agents have asked for, but kids/work keep always just out of reach of fully revised to the point I almost lost interest. Instead, I've been deeply engaged in finishing a much newer draft, also approaching that 90% finished state. Where the concept of NaNo touched me was over the summer when I stumbled on a couple NaNo "summer camp" prompts. My kids were home with me for the summer, a client project and teacher planning nagging for my attention -- but every so often, a NaNo word-sprint challenge would appear in my twitter feed. I felt no compulsion if it didn't jibe with me -- but sometimes it would ask an odd question (your character is at the moment when everything could change - now write!). An idea would spark hard enough to drown out those other priorities and, for 10 minutes or 20 or 30, I'd be lost in looking at a scene I'd known for months, but seeing it from a different angle. In this way, as with any writing prompt or challenge, I think there is great creative potential in the NaNoWriMo activities. What I think captivates people most is the camaraderie, and that I enjoy. There's something nice to have a reason to log in and cry, "Did it!" So, while I remain in the slow drafting, even slower, careful revising category, I feel a certain kindred fun with the whole NaNo crew. I think what we all agree is taht there is no one way to do it, and it's fun to know there are others out there sharing excitement in the written word.

  • Elizabeth Hilts

    A number of my writer friends do this, but I cannot imagine doing it myself—for all the reasons you cite.

  • Sandi R. Sams

    Tayari, I have to agree with you. And say that NaNoWriMo is part of the reason that my novel is NOT yet finished. I had started my novel Willa in 2005... then after a disturbing personal situation and a battle with chronic bronchitis picked it up again in 2007... seeing the NaNoWriMo ads decided to take the plunge... it was "Now or never." I was writing like mad. I knew my character and knew what she was going through... I just needed to spill her out onto the page. Deep into the well that I knew would take tons of editing to finally get it right my computer crashed, big time. Turns out that I got a virus from the NaNoWriMo website. When I finally got my computer back I was disheartened, to say the least and terribly upset that the catalysis for my getting moving again writing my novel was also the mountain that fell and crushed it... but I was determined to finish. I had printed out much of what I had written... a hard copy for safe keeping... but I had only days to input it back into my computer. Without a scanner or flash drive to suddenly input it, I had only one solution to retype the whole thing in less than 3 days. Then i found a couple of files that had not been destroyed by the purge and inserted them into the mire, and I admit I may have entered some of the stuff more than once just to gain the 'required' word count, after all, they were going to scramble it anyway weren't they?
    I felt so disgusted by the whole thing that I chucked the whole pile of hard copy aside somewhere and to this day have not found them. Their somewhere in the stacks.
    But I began again in the spring of '08. I took the trip my character took in my first draft... only to find out that the idea that she had to chuck her vehicle off the side of a mountain and walk out of the mountains of Penn, to safety.... was not a viable thing to do. NO ONE walks along the roadside in those mountains. I stopped once... then began again, and again, and again.
    So, I totally agree with you... that NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. I need time to step back and look at what I have and what my characters are doing. I need time to regroup and mull it over. I have rewritten one scene so many times... It troubles me. If I spent that much time on each scene... I will have to live 10 lives to complete this. I may not write slow... but I need a LOT of time to work something into a good story.

  • Penelope L Mace

    Ahhh editing.. yes... as someone said there is no such thing as good writing, only good RE writing and I am looking forward to that on this nano. I just needed a reason to force myself to get the voice and do it.
    Keep it all going, all.

  • Lexy Harper

    I, too, decided against NaNoWriMo. I had to be sensible. The thought of joining my fellow writers on the 50K word quest was seducitve, but I would have been fooling everyone except myself. I write at the drop of a hat and the last thing I need is another manuscript to add to the six complete but unedited ones I already own. Given a choice I would rather write a new one than edit one of those six. Yes, my problem is editing, not writing.

    So, I'm having a NaNoEdiMo and have set myself the task of editing my first book, Distant Melody (95K and completed in 2006). It has been good so far and I have wondered if there are any other writers out there who are editing, not writing, this month.

    Good luck to all, whether you write, edit or take a break in this special month of November.

  • Penelope L Mace

    It's just another kind of challenge to me. But I do respond well to deadliines. I write for my job and have to face deadlines so it's natural to me. I'm enjoying it. For sure this novel draft will need work in Dec and subsequent months, but they all do. (and anyhow I like cabbage !!)

  • Amy Newman

    "To my mind, NaNoWriMo is almost like going on a crash diet to fit into a special dress. You spend days eating nothing but cabbage soup and Dexatrim and feel proud of yourself for dropping ten pounds in ten days or whatever. But have you been properly nourished? " Amen to this.

  • Penelope L Mace

    Lois -- welcome to novels and third person good luck - I am proceeding on as well - I find like you good exercise to get moving.

  • Lois Roelofs

    I've just discovered this discussion and it's just what I need to get back on track. I decided to try the November novel this year for a distraction from a family illness. I've had to take a few days off, the family illness is turning out much better than expected, and I look forward to getting back at it again today. Lots of "words" to catch up on, but I found that just letting the words flow (I had 8575 in four days), was great in forcing my "editor" to disappear. And, since I usually write first person memoir, I've chosen to write "highly fictionalized memoir" in third person, so I see the November novel as simply a good writing excercise.

  • Katherine Jenkins

    Hi all, Just thought I'd join in on the discussion. A new friends are doing the NaNo WritMo. I'm happy for them actually...I think it's a good way to get going. However, I challenged myself to writing a blog post every single day for the year 2010. I'm currently on 311. Writing every single day has proven to be extremely beneficial. I committed to it and since that commitment was over a long period of time, it has become a habit. During this year, my blog was discovered by a published writer who introduced me to my agent who got me a book contract. I've been working on my book and my blog Lessons from the Monk I Married steadily over the course of two years. But the book came to me in 2004. I believe that everything happens in due time. I support those who hope to jump start their writing by participating in NaNoWriMo, but I think ultimately writing is a way of life. It is something that takes hold. It becomes like breathing.

  • Penelope L Mace

    Hi again, all - agreed as to acceptance being good but with caveats. I guess I tend toward a bit of OCD - I do work out and run a lot and hold myself to a lot of standards, for example, going back to the body analogy. Relaxing is key for crreating art of any kind I think. It is often why writers take to drink and dope, to try to get to that place of a child just creating for sheer joy of it. Anyone else recall that? I do - being maybe 8 or 9 and writing a play or story just because it had to come out of me and get onto the page, not caring who liked it or if it "got" me anything.

  • Korani Connolly

    Thanks Surviving the Draft, acceptance in all its forms and in all aspects of life, including writing, is a big key for many people. Fighting ourselves doesn't help anything or anyone but acceptance can lead us into flow.

  • Surviving the Draft

    @Penelope, I wonder if not being so anxious about your pace would actually improve your pace... It's a radical thought. but there are people who say that accepting your body leads to bad habits... but you could also say that the body freak-out leads to unhealthy behaviors when the damn breaks. I say, just give it a shot of thinking what whatever you do is good enough. Just to see what happens. It's a bold experiment...

  • Penelope L Mace

    Surviving - hi - I see your points and think it works for accepting one's body but as far as writing for some of us acceptance would mean never turning anything out ! I admit it - I am driven to produce. After years of semi-forced giving up on my writing I am trying to make up for lost time. I like programs or etc that help me get moving. I don't expect a totally finished novel at the end -to me writing is reallly always RE writing anyway - but it's a way to open the gates and just see what flows. BUT always each person or writer has to do what feels comfortable for her.

  • Surviving the Draft

    I was just thinking we should start a movement for "process acceptance." We should build it on the model of body acceptance. Haven't we all read those studies that say that almost all women feel dissatisfied with their bodies? It seems like most writers feel that they don't write often enough, or well enough, or literary enough, or fun enough, or fast enough.. whatever. I wonder how it would be if we could learn to be sastified with the way we do what we do.... Just a thought... And even if we just do it for a month....

  • Judith van Praag

    Hi Tayari,

    In 2003 someone at a Dorothy Allison workshop mentioned NaNoWriMo. Dorothy thought it might be a good way for whoever was up to that. I wasn't. I've been writing non-fiction, and if I attempted fiction, it was a slow process,I didn't see how I could write a novel period, let stand in 30 days.

    A few weeks back a large number of professional writers/ authors in Seattle embarked on a novel in a day project. To me that seemed an insult to the craft. But hey, it was a fundraiser, so what the heck.

    In the memoir I've been working on there's this one character who seemed to want to tell his own story. And so I decided to give him a chance. On the first of November he and I got a go at it.

    To say I'm starting from scratch is hardly true. There's about 15 years of research involved in the history and as many years of character development, trying to get to know these people who have played roles in my life.

    That preliminary work helps me jump start the scenes. And although there's a lot of detail, fine tuning will happen later, next month, next year. Twice a day the past six days I've written hard and fast for one whole hour, whether you call it automatic handwriting, going with The Flow, or writing done the bones, I'm getting the big gestures down. Big gestures and quite a few surprises. Surprises I doubt I'd have come up with the way I was agonizing about getting it right before. To each her own. I'm trying out what might work and loving the development I see as I proceed.

    With 12,968 words at the end of the 6th day and a growing understanding of my characters' ways, I'm pleased and dead tired. Can barely keep my eyes from shutting.

    Good night!

  • Mary Kennedy Eastham

    What I use NaNo for is to up the ante on my writing.I write every day and work on my own self-imposed deadlines, I guess you could say, but I'm not 'fast' the way someone like my fave poet Lyn Lifshin is or that Vampire chick Stephanie Meyers is. I'm slow and steady, caring probably too much for every word. But I'm proud of that fact about me. I'm proud that I'm a wordsmith, actually I call myself a Word Actress, who like a sculptor gets everything down to its finest shaped moment. I'm only the first week in on the NaNo and I'm way off on my word count, a friend is sick back East, and needs my daily support, I've got four Golden Retrievers who can be very needy, I've got other writing deadlines..blah...blah...blah...but already I've come up with a few tweeks for my novel Night Surfing that is getting me really pumped to keep on going. So that's how NaNo has worked for me in the last three years. I'm into it on my own terms and that's fun...

  • Roxanne

    Thanks for sharing this well written post on NaNoWriMo. It isn't for everyone. I'm a slow writer, too, so it seemed like a recipe for disaster. Quite frankly I tried for many years and failed. However, it took a while for me to figured out that failing at NaNoWriMo was the best thing that ever happened to my writing. I learned so much about the issues that were holding me back and how I write best.

    Really, that's what matters. Knowing what serves you best as a writer. I've read your work here and on your blog. You are an amazing writer. It sounds like you've certainly found what works best for you.

  • Z.K.Golden

    Wow. I did not even know about "Nanowrimo". While I agree that thirty days is a short time to write a masterpiece, it sure will be an interesting challenge. Or maybe I can just continue editing the one I finally finished (and trust me, it took a heck of a lot longer than a month). I really enjoyed reading your post. Very informative. Thanks bunches.


  • MDTaz

    I, too, am a slow writer. Some bloggers spit out their posts in a jiffy. I toil over mine for hours, and rework them before posting. I like how it lets me live with the story. But slow-writing has its drawbacks: I started a novel several years ago, I've got an outline and I've written two dozen chapters that have been reworked and edited and are in pretty good shape. But the fifteen chapters, um, I just lost my steam. I've not returned to the manuscript in 2 years. I decided to try using NaNoWriMo to spit out the crappy first drafts of those last chapters. Just to jumpstart me forward and get this thing finished.

    I have to say, though, the idea of starting from scratch with NaNoWriMo would be a bit intimidating. Bon courage to those of you who are making up the entire story as you go.