I think humans have a tendency to name things and make up random holidays. Throughout the year you can find instances of this. Did you know that January 10th is “Peculiar People Day?” Or that October 28th is “Plush Animal Lovers’ Day?” How about August being “National Catfish Month?” A lot of these days and months have multiple names to them. Personally, I think there’s a government committee somewhere whose sole purpose is to make these things up.
At any rate, this obsession with naming led to November being called “National Novel Writing Month.” It’s rather nice having a month dedicated to the art and craft of writing, specifically novel writing, but for most people, this month passes by unnoticed. However, the Office of Letters and Light decided to create something special. They made a contest also called “National Novel Writing Month,” affectionately dubbed “NaNoWriMo” (pronounced “NAH-no-RHYME-oh”.) It challenges would-be novelists to write 50,000 words, the minimum requirement for a novel, in 30 days. There is no cash prize and there are no judges to evaluate your work.
The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get writers to stop agonizing over perfecting each passage before moving on, to break the rut of perfectionism and procrastination that dogs the heels of authors. In order to help writers complete that first draft, the emphasis is on quantity, not quality. Now, granted, a writer could just sit down and type the same sentence over and over until they reached 50,000 words, but NaNoWriMo offers little incentive for such a path. With no cash value and no one reading your work beyond the snippets you choose to post, there is no reason not to sit down and write. All you have to enter is the number of words you wrote, and, at the end of the contest, an on-site word validator proves that yes, you actually did write that number of words. If you reach 50,000 words, you get bragging rights and the satisfaction of reaching your goal. And if you only wrote, say 30,000 words, or 20,000, or even 10,000, you still have more done now than you did at the start of November, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.
My friend and fellow writer Foxglove Zayuri was the one who told me about NaNoWriMo in late October 2010. It was about a week before the contest started, and I had been feeling like a failure as a writer because I had gotten so little accomplished over the years. I had a handful of short stories, none of which were very good, a half-finished screenplay, a few incomplete fanfics, and lots of underdeveloped ideas. The story with the most prose on paper was for a tale I’d started back in my freshman year of high school called Moon’s Fire. It was about a young girl who makes a bargain with a golden unicorn to save the life of her dying mother and ends up going on a quest to fulfill her side of the bargain. I wrote 30 pages for Moon’s Fire before my inspiration faltered and the story has been sitting with its face to a brick wall ever since.
Bottom line: I wanted to write, but lacked the discipline necessary to keep up with it. Most of the time, my modus operendi was to write what I felt like when I felt like it, which meant, at that rate, I’d probably have one of my projects finished by my eightieth birthday. So when Foxglove told me about NaNoWriMo, I signed up for it before interia could drag me away from this golden opportunity. The project I chose to work on during National Novel Writing Month was The Mariner Sequence – Book 1: Ravens and Roses. It was the story with the most fleshed-out plot, the most alive characters, and was holding my creative interest.
I ended up accomplishing more in that single month than I had in the previous five years.
The Office of Letters and Light also sponsors Script Frenzy, the April cousin of NaNoWriMo that challenges the writers of movie screenplays, television scripts, plays, and graphic novels to write 100 pages in 30 days. I also participated in Script Frenzy (also known as “Screnzy”), entering my graphic novel Astral Rain. While the script is nowhere near completion, I did meet the goal of 100 pages. I plan on using next year’s Screnzy to make a significant dent in Astral Rain, or perhaps finish it altogether.
There has also been a recent addition to the NaNo and Screnzy family: NaNo’s little cousin Camp NaNoWriMo. Like the November edition, Camp NaNo challenges writers to complete 50,000 words in a month and tracks their progress, although it lacks many of the bells and whistles that November NaNo has, like the forums and other networking goodies. I personally do not find such bells and whistles helpful; in fact, they are a distraction more often than not from the all-important business of writing. The good thing about Camp NaNo is that it allows you to participate in the National Novel Writing Month any month you want! The Camp just opened up on July 1st, and there will definitely be an August edition. (That’s why I decided to do an entry on NaNo now, just in case any of you were interested in participating!) Whether this will continue into the fall remains to be seen, depending on how much support the Office of Letters and Light receives.
So, what are the basic advantages and disadvantages of participating in the National Novel Writing Month contest?
The PROS of NaNoWriMo:
1) It sets an impartial, external goal.
This was a very important component for me. I find it difficult to set goals of my own because I either make the goals so easy that it’s no challenge or I set a reasonable goal, but find excuses not to reach for it that day. The longer or more often I put off writing because I had work or was too tired or I needed to clean the gutters, the less I felt like writing and the less I got done. It was too easy to rewrite my own goals. But if a friend tried setting goals for me, I became resentful of them “interfering” with my life and would refuse to do what needed to be done out of spite. But the goal of set by NaNoWriMo is impartial and set by a (mostly) faceless external contest. There was no one to rail against, everyone else participating had the same goal, and the challenge gave me the motivation I needed to work.
2) No one is evaluating the quality of the work – it just needs to be written.
Every contest has a level of competition and there are inevitably winners and losers. However, since NaNoWriMo has no cash value prize at the end and there are no judges to rate you, the only way to tell a “winner” from a “loser” was by how many words you wrote. This took a huge amount of stress off my mind and allowed me to start writing without editing my work as I went along. Unlike a traditional writing contest or sending a manuscript in to a publisher, no one would ever read what you wrote. So I could write scenes as they came to me, explore various alternative scenarios, write about whatever scene interested me that day, and generally have a good time without worrying about other people would think of it. If there was a particularly good section I wanted to share, I could, but it wasn’t required. I could write my rough draft without fear of prejudice and worry about editing later. This quantity over quality approach was very helpful to me.
3) The steps necessary to reach the goal are doable, and usually reasonable.
If you write 1667 words a day, then, in 30 days, you will have 50,000 words. (If the month has 31 days, like July, then you have to write 1613 words per day to reach the goal.) That’s roughly two and a half to three pages, single-spaced, give or take a paragraph. While different people have different writing speeds, if I don’t get too distracted, I can write about 1000 words in an hour or so. Spending two hours a day writing two and a half pages…that doesn’t sound so hard now, does it?
4) It instills a daily writing schedule.
Having a specific writing goal and a daily word count helps instill discipline and a regular writing schedule, which is essential if you want to write for a living. If I only write when I felt inspired, then I would barely write anything. But when you have a goal to meet, those spare bits of time that might have been spent wandering around the house, or surfing the net, or watching TV are filled up with writing instead. It might feel strange or too much like work at first, but after a while you get used to taking out a piece of paper and a pen whenever you get a spare moment to jot something down, be it an image, a line of dialogue, a scene idea, or an entire exchange. Every writer’s handbook I’ve read agrees that one of the best ways to be a writer is to write every single day. And wonder of wonders, they were right!
The CONS of NaNoWriMo:
1) If you fall behind, it can become very difficult to catch up.
The biggest downside to NaNoWriMo is, if you are very serious about reaching 50,000 words and you get behind, even by a day, it takes some grit to catch up. I got 26 pages behind on Script Frenzy at one point and had to spend almost twenty-four hours straight chained to my computer gulping down Mountain Dew to get back on track. I did it, but it was the most painful and stressful day of my life, and while I’m proud that I managed to pull it off, I never want to repeat the experience. I got behind a few times during NaNoWriMo, but nowhere near as badly as I did with Script Frenzy. So do your best to stay on track. Spending the whole day writing when you are far from inspired is not fun at all.
2) If you are serious about writing, or just serious about reaching that 50,000-word goal, be prepared to sacrifice your social life.
I’m a fairly solitary person so I do most of my writing when I’m alone because people distract me. Other writers are stimulated and do their best work when surrounded by people. Either way, expect to be giving up some of your social life in order to commit to NaNoWriMo. I work two part time jobs (the equivalent of one full-time job) and have my own house to care for, so any spare time I have, I must commit to writing in order to accomplish my goals. This means that my social commitments are kept to a bare minimum or cut entirely during that month. This doesn’t mean you should completely shut out your friends, but let them know ahead of time that you are planning to participate in NaNoWriMo so they won’t get upset when you drop off the face of the earth.
3) There is the urge to post previously written work just to make the word count – resist this urge!
This defeats the purpose of NaNoWriMo. The point is to write as much new material as you can to edit later. The word count is a goal, not an ultimatum! Don’t copy and paste old material in just to fill up the word counter.
4) Once the contest is over, there is the possibility of backsliding into bad pre-NaNo habits.
I suffered from this once NaNoWriMo was completed in 2010. As soon as November was over I took a few days off to relax. And I didn’t start writing again, not even fanfiction, until Script Frenzy started in April 2011. So, once you get in the writing habit, even if you don’t write 2000 words a day, write at least half that. Or a quarter of that. Something, anything to keep the habit of writing every day alive!
In conclusion, I personally find National Novel Writing Month hosted by the Office of Letters and Light to be a very helpful tool to keep me motivated in my writing. For some reason, filling up that word counter deeply appeals to me. Perhaps it’s a holdover from my school days when I had to meet certain page or word counts. It seems like every five minutes I pause in my writing to check the counter and calculate how far I’ve come and how far I have to go. Either way, I believe that, as a writer, the pros of participating in NaNoWriMo at least once far outweigh the cons. Just make sure your fridge is well-stocked with Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper!