Another November has arrived. This means, another year of NANOWRIMO has begun. This is the 20th year, I believe.
For those who don’t know, NANOWRIMO (or more officially NaNoWriMo for those who want to take the time to type the acronym out correctly) stands for National Novel Writing Month. This is a month where writers are encouraged to write a novel (or a novella) of 50k or more words in 30 days. The goal of NANOWRIMO is to encourage aspiring writers to produce a complete work, get in the habit of writing every day, and to give them a community of other like-minded individuals for encouragement and support.
I know there has been some controversy around this event. I’ve heard career writers say they do not participate because they are writing all the time anyway, so why would November be any different? I’ve also heard from new, self-published, or yet-aspiring authors that it has helped them produce content and/or get into a writing habit. NANOWRIMO as a non-profit organization has set up various resources to help writers of all ages (including creating a teen/young writers track) and provides information and tools to help guide you through the whole novel creation process. And yet, they also partner with a lot of products, sell merchandise, and probably profit a bit from some of that.
While I have participated in 8 NANOWRIMOs, I haven’t really paid attention to the other events they hold. This post, specifically, will be about the rules for winning and why I do it. Let’s start with the rules.
1. Writing starts at 12:00: a.m. on November 1 and ends 11:59:59 p.m. on November 30, local time.
2. No one is allowed to start early and the challenge finishes exactly 30 days from that start point.
3. Novels must reach a minimum of 50,000 words before the end of November in order to win. These words can either be a complete novel of 50,000 words or the first 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later.
4. Planning and extensive notes are permitted, but no material written before the November 1 start date can go into the body of the novel.
5. Participants’ novels can be on any theme, genre of fiction, and language. Everything from fanfiction, which uses trademarked characters, to novels in poem format, and metafiction is allowed; according to the website’s FAQ, “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel too.”
This seems like a lot of work. Why on earth would anyone want to do it?!
Someone told me this year that a former participant of NANOWRIMO said that “it doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you win.” While I will be the first to say that the goal should not be to write just a bunch of garbage, hitting that 50k word finish line is exhilarating. During the first year of NANOWRIMO, the organizer actually asked to verify that participants actually met their word goal (7 of the 21 entrants actually finished by the way). Nowadays, the “winning” is more honor-based (yes, there’s a tracker, but you can lie to it). However, the word count “win” is really just the visual representation of what you, the writer, is trying to accomplish.
Of the rules above, I have broken a number of them; whether it’s not starting a NEW project on day 1, or counting other writing projects done in November as part of my “word count”, or using the month for final editing etc. But for me, of the NANOs that I have participated in, I have won 7 of 8. Did I write my 50k words each time? More or less…but the main point was that I did what I told myself I’d do:
– Finish the novel, even if that’s after November end
– Edit the novel even though the “new words” I wrote fell under 50k…).
– Write 50k+ words and get some of those unpleasant asshole scenes on paper (which is harder than it sounds)
The most important thing about NANOWRIMO for me is that I was able to use the combined energy of the event and the participants to motivate myself to *do the work*.
Let’s break it down a little…
To successfully complete NANOWRIMO, unless you are a writing machine, you really need to write a little every day. Because the standard 1667 words/day is a lot easier than 10000 words each weekend day plus and extra 10k on the final day of the month. This “writing every day” thing, as I have heard from many professional authors, is the only way to really be successful as a writer. NANWRIMO is pushing that. For me, in doing NANOWRIMO, I’ve been successful at writing *mostly* every day. However, while I have proven to myself that I *can* do it, NANOWRIMO has also showed me that I don’t want to do it all the time.
You see, writing every day is tough already. It becomes infinitely tougher when you have a day job where you are on a computer every day. Or when, in your off time, you’d rather do anything other than sit on a computer more. Or when you crave social interaction after a day of burying yourself in headphones and music, emails and Word files. Or when, you realize you’re in your mid-30s now and need to go to the gym occasionally or your clothes stop fitting. Or when you have a family or a partner or a pet that also needs attention. Or when…
TLDR version: It’s hard.
It’s just as hard as getting to the gym every day. Yes you can do it, but you may be doing it at the expense of something else. Sometimes that expense is other hobbies like video games or sewing or fencing, but other times that expense is your partner, health, or sleep. This is a common struggle for a lot of us who have not yet made a career of writing, but who desperately want to. And until my partner can support me while I “work for money” 10-20 hours/week, this is going to be my reality.
But back to NANOWRIMO. It definitely has helped me with some of these issues. It gives me social interaction, even if it is just writing near other people and saying, “Hey, how’s it going?”. It gives me a reason to get out of my house. It puts the fire and that little edge of competition under me which helps guilt me into keeping it up. It gives me solidarity with other writers, sharing frustrations and triumphs. It gives me inspiration, excitement and pride at being a writer.
It gives me an excuse. For one month, I CAN do it. I can make arrangements to write a crap-ton and (hopefully) finish a project. (Then I can use the next 11 months to refine and promote that project and work on other projects sporadically at my own pace…).
I know some people may turn their nose up at this approach and say that I am not a serious writer, but I will disagree. If I weren’t a serious writer, would I still be writing after 25 years? For a while, I allowed those naysayers to get the best of me. You will see that in my NANOWRIMO participation years: 2002, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, & 2019. Those big gaps were when I stopped believing in myself (most notably 2002-2008. I was in college and while I knew of NANOWRIMO groups getting together on campus, I tried to pretend that I didn’t care). I stopped believing in myself because I did not have the resources and connections to convince me to keep it up. If I was not doing it “the serious way”, what business did I have even trying?
The last 3 NANOWRIMOS I’ve participated in have changed all that. I decided to seek out “write-ins” (where writers get together at a coffee shop or library and write together for a few hours). I joined writer communities, giving the NANO forums, Scribophile, CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishers Association), Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Toastmasters and other online groups a try. I had mixed success sticking with these communities but what it did show me, was that there were a lot of people out there writing. Some were snobby, and some were encouraging. Some were driven toward publication and some were just doing it “for fun”. Some were like me.
I didn’t find my current writer “group” specifically from NANO, but NANO has helped bring out all those writers that I already know (many of whom I didn’t know wrote!). The relationships I’ve built have carried on after NANOWRIMO was over. NANOWRIMO gave me access to a community that was already in my world and to a world that I had no idea how to break into otherwise. These groups, these individuals, encourage and push me to do better. They help me up when I am falling. Because of them I am still moving forward. Still making progress. Because of them, I have been pushed to attend more conventions, writers’ groups, and writing workshops.
So for me, whether I make the word count or not, it doesn’t matter. My participation in this event is one of the big ways I will work (sometimes slowly) toward my ultimate, grander, goal: to get published.
And to all of you writers, my advice for you is to definitely participate in NANOWRIMO. Even if you don’t think you’ll make the 50k. What is important, is for you to think about what you really want to do, set an achievable goal, and then run with it. Even if that goal is just to reconnect you with this love you’ve had for as long as you’ve owned pencils.