Every November since 2016 , I’ve attempted the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo – for fans of torturous portmanteaus) – a challenge to write 50,000 words towards a single work of fiction in just 30 days.
I have had varying degrees of success.
In my first year, I won the challenge, writing essentially a Homeric fan fiction, which remains an unfinished ramble of ideas. Fine.
Last year, I won it again, but I came out with the basis for a novel that I spent the following eight months rewriting and refining, and which is now out to beta readers. Fine-to-good.
This year, I didn’t complete the challenge. I wanted to write a novel about fascism in a fantasy setting. Unfortunately, by around two thirds in, I felt I was unable to do the subject matter justice. I stopped at 35,000 words – admittedly with a handful of characters and a setting to which I will one day return. Poor.
Mixed results, then. But I’ll still return next year to have another bash at it.
NaNoWriMo has its detractors, whose grievances range from the stress that can be wreaked by imposing this needlessly arduous goal, to the inevitable lack of quality that such rushed productivity inevitably must yield.
These are fair criticisms, to which I have meagre responses; but since I like NaNoWriMo (for reasons I will go into anon), I will attempt to defend its honour.
The first riposte I offer is to the notion of self-inflicted stress: NaNoWriMo is a challenge, nothing more. Despite the language its organisers employ of “winning” the event, it is a meaningless nod, and as immaterial a victory as one can muster. There are no awards – besides a graphic that you can download and post on your blog – and success is felt only in the author’s sense of achievement.
It is not advised you write your magnum opus under such pressing circumstances. NaNoWriMo is but an exercise, to promote discipline and the kind of gut-busting work ethic that many would-be writers forget is necessary to finish anything of worth.
In short: you do not have to do it.
No one is forcing you.
And if you try it, but are unable to reach that arbitrary 50,000-word milestone, that does not make you a failure – especially if you have a full-time job, or a home full of squealing dependents, or experience any kind of emotional trauma or familial emergency, or cannot bring yourself to cancel all your social engagements lest you go mad with unspent extrovert-energy. Whatever!
Life takes time – and often there’s not enough of it in a month to write 50,000 words on top of all the rest.
Meanwhile, the very notion that you will have a novel if you vomit precisely 50,000 words down into Word is fatuous in itself. Most novels these days are around 70,000, while some genres are routinely (and expectedly) clocking six figures. So, no one who completes NaNoWriMo, regardless of their protestations and self-congratulations, actually has completed a novel – not one with an ending, at least. Not one worth sharing.
Their future holds months of editing, rewriting, feedback, disappointment, dejection, self-doubt, work and hope.
“Winning” NaNoWriMo, if anything, is a curse!
Quantity over quality
Which brings us to the accusation of quality, or lack thereof.
Participants should not expect to churn out pages of publishable work. The point is not to craft the finest sentences, or flourish the narrative with poignant analogies, and certainly not to form a watertight tale without a single plot hole.
Your story will, at best, resemble a sieve; at worst, the Titanic.
But therein lies the point: NaNoWriMo is a voyage of discovery, upon which you are telling yourself the story. You extricate whatever ideas are jumbled up in your brain and let them spill out into a narrative.
And I think this is where my fondness for NaNoWriMo comes from: it is an exercise in making decisions.
Hundreds of them.
A dozen a day.
Because you have to.
Because if you dither over every detail, you cannot hope to succeed.
What kind of decisions am I talking about? It depends on your genre, but all stories require a setting, a set of characters and a basic plot.
When is it set? If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, in what world does your masterpiece take place? Are there dragons? Magic? Alchemy?
Sci-fi, you say. Do the humans have lasers? Faster-than-light space travel? Telepathy? Are there aliens with vagina fingers? Purple food? Is money a thing? What technology is there? How does technological progress inform social customs?
Is there a traditional patriarchy governing the characters’ interactions? Or is it switched on its head? Is gender even a weighted construct at all in your world?
I could continue with this cavalcade of questions with ease; 50,000 words of them and I’d hardly break a sweat. Many of those queries will have binary answers, many more will not. But, to write a single sentence of a story might require answering an avalanche of them before ever reaching a full stop.
Every story requires these choices be made, whether you’re writing sci-fi, alternate-reality steampunk dramas, romantic serial-killer thrillers, historical comedies, romantic horrors or topical dystopian laments.
Christ, deciding on the protagonist’s name can take half a day if you are prone to impractical bouts of perfection, let alone picking their facial features, relationship history, education, aspirations, fears, flaws and foibles.
Many participants mitigate this barrage of queries by planning their NaNoWriMo in October – thereby answering many of the questions before the clock has ticked its first tock.
But there are questions that cannot be anticipated at the outset, ones the author will only encounter once they throw all their choices into the cauldron and start stirring.
NaNoWriMo, then, teaches you two things:
I: to sit down and write, every day – lots;
II: to make decisions on the fly, and trust your mind to know what’s best
Mind leading the mind
In a recent episode of the Adam Buxton Podcast, Louis Theroux spoke of the advice his father, Paul Theroux – a prolific writer of travel books – had about the writing process. He said the first draft of any story is written by your subconscious. It’s already in there, even if your consciousness can’t yet fathom it all. Getting it out onto paper is essentially the second draft, in which your brain attempts to communicate what it has already decided, and make it a matter of record.
Thence comes the rest: a magical trip with your imagination leading the way – with only the most rudimentary of maps – towards a destination you can both vaguely comprehend and cannot possibly know entirely.
That’s what NaNoWriMo is: an uncomfortable shove in the back from a friend that sets you off on a journey of discovery – one that you might have been too timid to embark upon without such a robust gesture of encouragement.
And I am eternally grateful for it. NaNoWriMo makes me feel like a real writer, despite my lack of accolades. It has taught me to graft, how to plan effectively, and, above all, how to make decisions.
If you want to write fiction, it is an excellent shove in the right direction.