This blog was featured on 09/01/2016
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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  • Joan Dempsey

    Wow, don't you just love all this talk about writing novels! The novel is alive and well and being written in a million different ways. Thanks for playing Grinch here, Tayari, and provoking all these comments. Write on, everyone!

  • Mona Fitch-Elliott

    This is great perspective. Thanks. New to all this, it took me awhile to understand what NaNoWriMo even meant. I am slow like that. But that's okay, because I had to find out! So anyway, it is a daunting idea to write a novel in a month. I don't think I could do it. So far its taking me years to write one - albeit I have had monumental distractions. But the pressure is good; concentration is good. I have built up some momentum lately, maybe I could finish (a draft) a novel in a month. That might very well be doable. But I really like the values Tayari Jones has shared in her commentary on NaNoWriMo. I am thoughtful about my plot and my authenticity and my imagery and my words. I write in my head for a long time before I write on the page. A month is not long enough. But it is a great time to focus and get more done. A frame for some focus.

  • Tina Deschamps

    I just spent seven years writing my first novel. I view NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to draft part of my next. Fifty-thousand words is only half a novel anyway, for me at least. I agree that it can be art-killing to take the word count too seriously. However, it can also be the push a perfectionist needs to get that crappy first draft out of her head and onto paper. That's the approach I'm taking at least.

  • Penelope L Mace

    Hello, I see your points and have never done this before but I am finding it good for now at least. The good part is just opening up log jams, getting stuff going. Will it be print ready on Nov 30? Hell no is my guess but the point is to go - stop self censoring, stop obsessing - I do too much of that - imagine perfection.
    Sure it's not for everyone jst like writer's conferences are not - I for one usually find them a waste of time.

  • Julianne McCullagh

    I too, am a slow writer. Sometimes, painfully slow. I took the challenge because I am in the habit of editing thoughts before they are even formed in my brain, let alone loosed on the keyboard. I have no expectation of finding anything resembling a novel by midnight Nov. 30. What I hope I find is a kernel or two that come to light because this NaNoWriMo challenge inspired me to open the editor's gates and let some words, and hopefuly, stories, out. I hope I stick to it, even if its to find out what I'm thinking.

  • Linda Chavis

    I feel so much better cause I dropped out after two days..way too much pressure..whew

  • Surviving the Draft

    What I'm hearing here is great. It seems like most people are adapting NaNo to meet their own needs. This is my basic point about process. Like @Kimberly said, the question is "are you nourished." I think people should do whatever works for them. But the reason I posted it was that NaNo is NOT for everyone and those who don't NaNo need to know they are not alone.

    Now Miss @Vicki, you know I am not trying to rain on anybody's parade. As a matter of fact, if it starts to rain, I will be the first one there with an umbrella for you! I want you to SURVIVE THE DRAFT.. however you make it happen. This column is for the people who try and cough up a novel in a month and end up feeling terrible. I have a friend who says that NaNo gave her the worst writers block of her life. I'm trying to be there for those folks. So if you are zooming along, don't let me stop you. I am all about surviving the draft.

    The real key is to know yourself and try and figure out what you can do to have a more productive writing LIFE, not just a heady break-neck month.

    If I can use the diet metaphor one more time.. I think word count is like counting pounds. Yes, it measures something... but what about measuring inches lost? What about checking your blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. It's got to about total fitness!

    But, if what you're doing is working for you... go for it!

  • Daphne Uviller

    Brava, Tayari -- my feelings exactly, including the Grinchy bit.

  • Vicki T. Lee

    Oh come on Miss Tayari ... don't rain on everyone's parade. It sounds like this isn't the forum for you and that's okay.I can relate. I tend to go back and edit before I get off the first page! UGH! Crazy habit I picked up writing for newspapers. No time for going back once deadline hit. So I'd get that opening the way I wanted while I had time to try and be Polly Perfect! And I do that now ... re-write before I've even gotten the story out the gate! :) Actually I wish I had taken the time to pay more attention to this coming so that I could start with everyone else. But since I know about it now, I'm just gonna see how productive I can be before the end of the month. I think it's excellent if someone is actually focused enough to complete or come dangerously close to completing a novel in a month's time. I love the enthusiasm! And as busy as most people are with not only writing but all the other responsibilities they may have, I'm sure it's gonna be quite an accomplishment for those who actually make their goal! In my case, I love the challenge of an intense focus on my writing. I tend to be a procrastinator and I absolutely MUST have accountability. So, forging ahead to complete a piece for a contest or NaNoWriMo gets my juices flowing!
    So .... I'm off and writing! Whether I make or whether I don't I'm gonna absorb the challenge! Happy writing! :)

  • sunipa basu

    I'm in the same boat, I write very slow with a number of revisions. That is just the reason I entered. To watch what happens if I write without revising, whether, as promised, I'll be a different writer after the experience. BTW, my birthday was yesterday, and I logged 2000 words. A superstition that what you did on your birthday, you'll do through the year!

  • Maggie Secara

    All you have at the end of 30 days is a first draft, not a finished novel. Anyone who thinks what they have is finished and publishable just because they typed THE END is being very foolish. Anyone who thinks that's the goal, is not paying attention. I finished last year, and I did like a lot of what I had written, Then I spent another 6 months revising and expanding it..I didn't call it finished till the end of June.

  • Shonell Bacon

    Well, personally, I've done NaNo for the last six years, but I never set out to write a full novel in that time. I've never written a 50k novel, ever, LOL. And I think Gillian is right about how one chooses to approach NaNo. For me, I'm a pretty deliberate writer, too, but much of that deliberate "writing" takes place in my mind as I replay and revise and edit a story's movie and etch out the outline for said movie. By the time I actually sit down to write, I've written the story at least three or four times in my head, so the actual act of writing is merely me transcribing the visually written story. Amazingly enough, November is also my most productive month out of the year, and actually all the other months benefit for me having participated in NaNo. With other writing obligations and editorial work and doctoral work and life work and 50-11 other things I try to accomplish, they always get done and get done well in November, and I take the things I learned about myself, my writing, and my habits, and use them through the year to be more efficient in other areas.

  • Gillian Ramos

    It all depends on how you approach NaNo. Some people know at the beginning of the year that they want to participate, so they spend those early months doing research and planning; come November, they sit down and get it all on paper.

    With enough advance planning - and the NaNo rules do allow all kinds of notes and outlines - you don't have to go at a breakneck pace to finish. Throughout October, the OLL interns run word sprints through Twitter. You get anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes to write as much as you can to get into the habit.

    Like anything else worth doing well, it takes preparation and practice. I can understand why the event wouldn't appeal to a lot of people, but I don't think there's any reason to pooh-pooh it. All we're doing is working on a draft, not a perfect final product.

  • Martha White

    The diet metaphor rings true. I couldn't have said it better, myself. By the same token, thirty days of having no time for self-editing during the creative process can be very freeing. So can turning off the computer and taking out a pencil and pad. I spent a week on an island writing retreat a couple of summers ago and was amazed at how much I could write without the electricity to power a laptop. All editing was put on hold until later -- which allowed me to write through to an elusive ending. NaNoWriMo might have similar advantages -- but I agree with Tayari that it's not for me.

  • Teri Carter

    Your comparison to NaNo being like a crash diet is spot-on. I write a first draft relatively fast -- whether long or short form -- but it takes time to figure out what my first-run is really about. Time can mean a month. Time can mean a year plus. Because it takes walking around with it for a long time to know what my story is really "about." So NaNo is not for me either. And with the holidays coming, this time of year is stressful enough, especially for women!

  • Elle Evette

    As an unpublished writer of terse short fiction and poetry, I find NaNoWriMo a push in the right direction for me since it provides a spirit of community and the novelty of a deadline. I don't see what I'm writing as anything I would ever consider publishing, instead its like a first draft or a long writing exercise/drill. Even if I don't reach the goal of 50,000 words I'll still be happy with the results since I've already been given so much insight into my characters and into the plot. The 50,000 word goal has definitely made me reluctant to push the backspace button so its almost like a very long free writing exercise. So for me as a new novelist, its definitely something that's helping me grow.

  • Barbara Plotkin

    Thank you Korani!

  • Lisa Davis

    Thank you for posting a different and important point of view.

  • Korani Connolly

    I love your I also love Barbara's response. I agree that nurturing our writing and ourselves is not mutually exclusive. I love to dabble and ponder and take time with my writing. Then again I also love the thrill of settling in to a task and going for it. (But I'm a Gemini so one twin loves to zoom and fly, the other one to crawl and ponder and daddle about). As in all things, its what works for you. I've mostly had it with deadlines and have no desire to put pressure on myself to do anything. But I have huge admiration and respect for all and any of us who are committing to our writing in whatever way. Let's just keep writing, keep loving what we're doing, keep sharing and keep inspiring each other.

  • Elizabeth Munroz

    I didn't know people took NaNoWriMo seriously. I thought it was just for fun, (and a little push into getting serious.)

  • Cindy Kiel

    I'm editing book one of a work in progress with half of book two complete. Thus, when Nanowrimo arrived this year, I really, really wanted to hammer out a 50K book with another novel idea I have in mind but I don't want to lose momentum or focus on the works that are so very close to completion. Add to this a full time day job and mother of four and the thought of trying to do it all makes me feel paralyzed instead of hopeful. Thank you for injecting a bit of sanity into my reasoning process. I think my goal this month will be to complete my edit of book one and draft of book two. Technically, these don't qualify for Nano, but I now feel I have the freedom to give myself permission to participate in novel writing month by setting my own rules instead of thinking I am only participating in the celebration of writing if I follow contest rules set by others.

  • Suzanne Linn Kamata

    I'm totally with you on this. I actually have three drafts of three different novels. My goal for November is to get through a round of revising one of them.

  • Karen Burns

    I agree, Tayari! The best part of writing is....writing. Why rush it. All the other parts--seeking publication and then promoting the book--are not so great, imho. It's the writing that is wonderful. Let's savor it.

  • Olivia Boler

    I agree with you regarding setting yourself up for feeling like a failure. Thank you for articulating that.

  • Barbara Plotkin

    Sounds like a great plan, good luck!