NaNo No More: Why I am not NaNoing this November (even if I AM writing a novel!)

Long-time Phoebe-readers might remember that I participated in–and won!–NaNoWriMo last November. Those who are generally familiar with me might know that I attempted it other years, too, in 2002, 2003, and 2006. With each passing year, the contest becomes more and more ubiquitous. It seems that now, in 2010, it’s pretty much requisite that any professional and blogging author must have a publicly-stated position on the whole thing. While I’m not quite a professional myself, I thought that I’d throw my two cents in.

Having won NaNoWriMo, I hope to never participate, ever again.

A brief history of my interaction with the program: I learned about it in 2002, from future-hubs Jordan. We were knee-deep in the process of falling in love, and he thought he might participate. I thought it sounded romantic and fun, and being a romantic and fun person, joined in. It went well–for about ten days, while the future-husband was sick. I worked dutifully on my story, semi-autobiographical fiction about teenage girls at summer camp. Then he got better and I got distracted by making out.

The next year, I was a college student, but decided to try again. Novel died on the first day.

In 2006, I was preparing to go to graduate school and starting to Take Myself Seriously as a Writer (note the capitals; they denote gravity). I tried again, using DarkRoom to pound out about 42,000 green-on-black words of almost completely autobiographical fiction. But the thing was, even though I read the NaNo message boards about increasing one’s word count, I had no idea how to write a novel. Mine was a mish mash of flashbacks and angst and it was really terrible. I had no idea where my story was going. About a week before November’s end, I realized how much I hated writing it. It was making me unhappy. This is what I wrote about the experience, on the day that I gave up:

According to the website there are already 2,400 winners of 2006′s National Novel Writing Month. I won’t be one of them.

It isn’t for lack of writing: in the sixteen work days I spent working on my novel, I produced 41,501 of the 50,000 words required to be consider a winner. I typed, handwrote, took notes, laboured, sweated, whined. I consider November to be a successfully productive month, even if I’m only four fifths of a winner.

(Generally, I have realized that part of my dissatisfaction of NaNoWriMo is that it’s a quantitative goal, rather than a qualitative one; on the forums of their website, participants harp about the rules–like when they call people who include sentences from their own previously-penned notes “cheaters”–and trade word-count inflating secrets like including the lyrics to songs and detailing every item in their characters’ grocery carts. The goal isn’t to produce a novel, and it’s definitely not to produce a good novel, but rather to produce a single cohesive work of no particular quality that’s at least 50,000 words long. I’m not entirely convinced that doing this, alone, is a really good use of time, just as I gave up on my systematic reading of the Modern Library’s One Hundred Greatest Novels of the Twentieth Century when I realized that I wasn’t enjoying a good chunk of the books I was reading. Although doing these things might seem impressive, in a sense, they’re not qualitative goals. They won’t make you more intelligent or happier, even if the numbers might look impressive.)

My novel’s not finished though; I haven’t even reached the climax. And the problem I increasingly saw as the month drew to a close was that there was no progress towards the summit of the story. In fact, there was hardly even an incline. The only action driving the story was the relationship between the Main Character and her Love Object, a repetitive, obsessive interaction with no real motivation other than sex and assumed cuteness. There’s no depth to the story, only teen angst. For me, as the writer, teen angst got old really fast. I can only imagine how it would feel to a reader.

All that was true, or seemed mostly true. But I’m a Capricorn, and a particularly stubborn Capricorn, at that. I. Hate. To. Fail. And so my near-win on NaNo kind of bothered me, deep down, even though I still wasn’t sure it was worth doing.

Anyway, I went to grad school, wrote poetry, read YA novels with amazing children’s lit professors, and somehow in there figured out how to write a book without writing one at all. I wrote my first in the summer and fall of 2008, my second in the spring of 2009. I edited neither, but I found that simple quantitative goals–usually between 500 and 1000 words a day, though sometimes more–actually worked for me. Of course, I also figured out other things about writing–that, to use NaNo terminology, I’m neither a plotter nor a pantser. I’d call myself a resolute day dreamer. My novel’s ending, basic plot, and key scenes are always all planned out in my head, and as I write, I figure out how these pieces fit together so that, by the time I’m about halfway in, I know how the entire book should go. I don’t write down any of this, but kind of shimmy the plot around one of those slider-puzzle things. I brainstorm on long walks or car rides or during conversations while writing, and while writing regularly and fairly steadily.

So. Last year. 2009. I figure, I already know how to write a novel. Why not NaNo?

You know the end of this story: I won last year. I ended up editing my novel and querying it, and while it didn’t sell, I learned a lot and liked it okay. However, you don’t know the middle of the story, which was sobbing to my husband–for no particular reason–about how stressed out and exhausted I was sometime around Thanksgiving. Writing The Stone Sorter was sort of a miserable experience for me.

Having written other books, before and since, I know that it’s sometimes annoying and sometimes drab and sometimes a pain. But it’s never otherwise been miserable.

Now, editing? That’s miserable. Inevitably, I reach a point in editing where a beta says something completely valid and I’m overwhelmed by my own feelings of inadequacy–mostly related to my ability to do the work necessary to implement changes I know are needed–and become Sobby Stupid Phoebe.

But writing? Writing’s supposed to be fun, mostly, and certainly not miserable! I’m supposed to be allowed to watch my characters live and breathe and, if necessary, take a break from the daily grind to figure out whatever is necessary to make that happen.

And there’s just not room for that in NaNoWriMo for me. It’s an unforgiving, unrelenting pace, and it’s not natural for me. That’s not to say that I’m a particularly slow writer. This past year alone, I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 130,000 words. I’ve discovered that I can finish a novel and get it edited in approximately four months, if I hurry. That’s incredibly fast! Faster, certainly, than what some publishing contracts dictate.

The other night, I asked some of my writer friends on twitter if they were NaNoing, and if not, why. A lot of them seemed sad not to participate–they noted that they had revisions to do, or were knee-deep in another project, or had too many family commitments in November, and then appended frowny faces to their tweets. I empathize. Not playing along does feel, in a way, like you’re being left out of this cool club of hypercreativity. All these people doing word wars and word races and talking about their plot points on facebook and elsewhere.

But I don’t really think we need to feel sad. Having won–and finally gotten the NaNo albatross of loser guilt off my back–I can’t help but think that writers should know, and honor, their own processes, and their commitments to their other books or to their real, non-writerly, lives. And so that’s why I’m not NaNoWriMoing this year–and why I probably won’t, ever again.

I still might use those of you that are as an excuse to word race, though. NaNo or no, I do have a book to write!

18 Comments

  1. Interesting to know how it went for you. I’ve never NaNo’d and I probably never will. I just don’t have the ability (or the time) to commit myself to that kind of a pace. But I have completed a novel, so I don’t think I’m missing out on anything.

    good luck with your new project.

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    • Thanks, Angie! I probably agree that, as an exercise, it may be more useful for those who haven't written a novel before and may not be inclined to otherwise, as at least it's getting them to write. :)

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  2. This year, I am … doing something which looks superficially, to the observer, like NaNoWriMo. Even back when I first saw it, I was repulsed by the whole idea of putting down drivel just to do it, and the forums were only fun the first year. But I do like having the macro goal and the knowledge that I have company, if I am being hermetic (as in tightly sealed in Ziploc, yes!) and ignoring it. If I can't do it in a reliable, steady manner, then I stop, no hard feelings.

    And 1.66k / day is a manageable pace for me. It's not a slap-dash, let's-sacrifice-quality speed. So what I am hoping is perhaps I can get myself back into the habit of having a daily routine, which has been when I work best.

    … well, okay, it's a manageable pace when I am trying not to write humor. Dangit, dying is easy, comedy is hard!

    Sidebar: I was at a convention with probably close to a thousand writers-and-industry-folk this past weekend. The only time I heard NaNoWriMo mentioned was when I mentioned I was using it to start my next project. Four days, a boatload of (often OMG-that's-! professional) writers, no NaNo.

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    • Yeah, the forums were a big part of my reason for not participating. Lots of "advice" on how to do things like insert whole songs to up your wordcount, or use chapter titles (which I did, last year, and which were terrible), little emphasis on actually finishing a *book.* Anyway, I hope it helps you get back your mojo! What's good about it is definitely the emphasis on regular writing, since that's what you gotta do to write a novel.

      And, yeah, I meant to mention that no one in the MFA program seemed to know what NaNo was, either. The ubiquity which I referred to is mostly online/on the blog-o-sphere. Which makes sense; it's mostly a net phenomena.

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    • Grrr. That’s “when I am not trying to write humor.”

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  3. You know, I really don’t like NaNo and I haven’t for a long time. I think of it as the Valentine’s Day of the writing world– if you’re truly committed to writing and finishing a story, you’ll do it any day of the year, not just pound away at it and try to cram the process from start to finish into one measly month. Beyond that, it was incredibly frustrating for me to be part of the Sacrifice people make just to work on writing. It wasn’t like it was one time or two, it was a whole MONTH of being blown off, and for what? For a shitty would-be novel nobody ever finished. And now that I work in shipping, it’s twice as frustrating to deal with friends of mine who participate in NaNo because my free time through November and December is so limited by having to work overtime.

    So I salute you for kissing that sucker goodbye.

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    • I think that’s a great metaphor for it, Nikki! Your whole comment reminds me a bit of this. Writers don’t really make great friends (poor Jordan has to hear me babbling about the writing world, and books, and agents, and my book, and plot development, SO FRIGGIN MUCH) so I can understand your annoyance at being suddenly paired with people who were once not-writers and who suddenly are.

      I honestly still don’t know why they picked November for the whole thing–whose time isn’t limited in November, thanks to Thanksgiving? I’ve always maintained that August should have been National Novel Writing Month. It’s a day longer, has no stupid big family holidays, and no one’s got to worry about school then.

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  4. i love this. i am actually a big fan of nano, for myself, and i like to encourage writers to at least try it, but i also believe it really boils down to what works for the individual writer. my blog has been a little too "pro" nano lately, so in today's post, i'm going to link to yours for a different view. :)

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    • Aw, thanks, EJ! I'll go peek at it.

      I think it's a worthwhile thing to try–it definitely tests writers of all sorts and can kind of help you see your writing habits on a micro level (and see the right approach for writing novels generally–the long, day-in, day-out slog), even if it doesn't work well for an individual writer. I hope your book goes well this year! I'll keep an eye out on your blog this month for your progress.

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  5. I like Nano because it gets me motivated and because I like the competition. However, I’m still editing and revising my Nano from years past. The one thing I’ve figure out is that Nano creates huge literary messes of such a size that even the mere thought of revising it makes you want to stab your eyes out with a number two pencil.

    There is no quality. However, I love the story. I worked hard on it. It’s my third Nano win (and my third book…so third time’s a charm, right?)

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    • I’m so glad NaNo works for you, Valerie! I agree that the competition can be inspiring (these days, I get that from my crit group–we’re all drafting novels right now which makes things rather interesting), but I also found it sometimes-defeating, particularly since so many people on the message boards are superfast drafters who get out not one novel a month, but one a week or some such. I don’t know how people do it!

      All long drafts are hard to revise, though, aren’t they? But I’m glad you’re proud of your book, and I hope November is fruitful for you!

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  6. I’m reminded of youth group revival camps. “We had 52 kids accept JEE-sus, Amen?” Two weeks later, it’s like 50 of them never existed. You never see them again.

    I wanted to word race with you guys last night, but I fell asleep. It was miserable. I think I need to blog about what a slug I was yesterday.

    PS. This post makes me feel smug about “always knowing NaNo was a waste of time.” :P

    But not really.

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    • Hehe, the youth revival camp bit made me laugh. I failed last night, too–only got about 400 words in, around 2 a.m. But if you want to write sometime today (at a reasonable time, too!) feel free to IM me.

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  7. I'm sitting here writing a novel in your comments when I should be writing my own novel. ;) Because yes, I am doing NaNoWriMo, and it's not about the community or competition for me.

    The short version of what I think of it is that I agree with the original creator's attitude on it: Have a goal, write to it, and don't let your worry about it being drivel keep you from producing something fun, that you enjoyed. Push yourself, but turn off the angst. When you've reached your goal, enjoy your accomplishment. Then let your work, and yourself, breathe. And THEN attack your work as an editor and whip it into something you're really proud of.

    I think that's in line with the advice I've read from pretty much every successful, published writer. The fact that NaNoWriMo involves a fixed number of words doesn't bother me — I know any novel of mine will be longer than 50k and I know that when I'm in the flow, being as I should be, I write fast enough to write well over 50k in a month.

    So doing NaNoWriMo is a way of making myself do what I keep telling myself to do anyway, no more excuses, no more putting it off. And the technology engages me. ;) Having a place to go to update my word count and look at my stats (and other people's stats) engages me. The forums, I find, are just like any public forum for not-yet-super-successful writers: full of conflicting advice, egos, spastic energy, and people at various stages of their not-yet-widely-published writing journeys. Public writing forums have never been useful to me, so I never expected NaNoWriMo's to be any different. ;)

    I mean … writing is all about doing what works for you, not about following other people's rules.

    And the heart of NaNoWriMo — as defined by its creator, not by its denizens — fits with what works for me when I'm functional and productive.

    So I like it. And when I fail at NaNoWriMo, it IS because I am failing at being me. Success is a sign that I'm closer to winning at my life goals, not just at a wacky community writing competition. ;)

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    • Hey Crystal–I'm glad it works for you! But I guess my beef with NaNo conceptually is largely in the specifics, which are extremely arbitrary in terms of pace. And while most writers will say, yes, have a daily word count, be constantly adding to it, etc., I don't think I've ever read any author that advocates a specific pace, with an end goal that is distinctly not a novel (agents these days are complaining about getting lots of 50,000-word adult novels, which is entirely too short!). And many many authors will stop to edit while writing–here's Maggie Stiefvater's response to her NaNo experience, which I found interesting. I know that I, for one, need to do some shimmying and editing while writing; not hardcore revisions, but I need to feel free to correct small, niggling problems as I write, and I don't really want to keep it all on one messy file etc etc as it goes against my process; I need to feel that my drafts are clean in order to be able to tackle revisions. I have enough messy drafts that I know I'll never touch to know that.

      So I'm down with the basic message: write daily, or at least, write regularly. Form a writing habit. Love that part of it. But I think that all the other up-your-word-count stuff can actually take people further from creating a "novel" than they might be at a different pace, and it's all sort of underlined in the forums that I find the thing, as a whole, pretty alienating.

      I do miss their word counters, though. Those were spiffy looking. Maybe i should look into an app for my blog. Hmm. Anyway, best of luck this month!

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  8. So far, after two full days of NaNoing, I am loving it. I really hope to keep this attitude for a lot of the month. I’m enjoying my novel and I’m having a lot of fun writing.

    But the biggest difference between the experience that I’m having as a NaNoer this year and the experience you would have is that you would have spent November writing either way. I have never written anything (aside from Academic papers) of any considerable length and I have never completed a work of fiction that went on for more than three or five pages. NaNo is my excuse to write. I needed one.

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    • Also, heh, first Jeff comment here. WEIRD.

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    • Yay, I’m glad it’s working for you, Jeff! (Though I must warn you: beginnings are so much more fun than middles. I look at my wordcounts when I quit NaNo–sometime around 10k, 3k, and 42k–and they’re all points where more development and planning help. Beginnings are awesome because you’re introducing characters and conflicts. If it starts to hurt sometime in a week or so, just push through it!)

      Yeah, I think it’s great for illustrating How One Does long-form fiction: butt in chair; fingers on keys. The reality of that is something that a lot of non-writers don’t contemplate, so I’m glad NaNo is there to demystify writing, and provide a community for that. It’s sort of like take-your-inner-writer-to-work-month! Anyway, I hope you keep up the habit, this month and beyond.

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