NaNoWriMo Vs. The 800-Pound Gorilla

What gives me hope as a writer is the same thing that saddens me. Every so often, especially around Nanowrimo time, I write or blog that the really hard work comes after you’ve finished the book. I also suggest that writers swim against the tide of people who say “just finish” by adding crap to your work. My belief is that will only make the revision process harder, and increase the likelihood that you will become discouraged and quit.

And every time I write that, I get shouted down, by people who have never gotten published. At least a few stop following me on whatever medium I’ve posted it on. Now, like this post, I do so in part to identify those people and weed them out of my life. Writing is not a sprint, it is a marathon. And, like real marathoners, I understand my journey will take a lot of preparation and a great deal of support. Having people whose attention span for writing can be measured in months is, sadly, not support.

It is an excellent idea to have a Nano. In the last two years, I’ve gotten 3 first drafts out of it. But I think we need to think of books as ideas, not products. If we want to be published, those ideas will certainly change. If we want to be read after it is published, it will almost certainly change in at least one dramatic way. If it does not, you will hear it from the readers.

So, I’m shouting into the wind, once again. I am not speaking to writing hobbyists. For you, writing 50,000 words in a month is a significant achievement. It isn’t easy: it takes discipline to average 1,667 words per day for 30 days. It takes creativity, and teaches you to open doors to your personality you probably didn’t know were there.

My 1st Nano changed me, for good. While I had always been “creative” – photography, sketching, cartooning, poetry – I never considered myself imaginative. I couldn’t create ideas, but I could expound on them. After grunting out my 1st 60,000 words in November 2009; however, I had a catharsis. It got easier. I wrote another 60,000 in December and 50,000 in January 2010. The last 50,000 was significantly better and more imaginative than the 1st 60K. I did it again last year, and that writing blew 2009 out of the water in terms of imagination.

But it wasn’t only that. I’m more emotional, more sensitive, more expressive than I was two years ago. Yay for me, right?

Well, except for one thing. I spent two years re-writing what I wrote in 2009 because I had filled it with crap. It wasn’t bad writing, it was good writing that did not fit my book. In November 2010, I decided to forgo worrying about an artificial goal, and just allow myself to write well. I wrote, often in the dark, always with music, sometimes with my eyes closed. I knew the story I wanted to write, so I didn’t worry about word count. I simply closed my eyes, and let the story out.

And I wrote more words than ever before, in a story that was much better crafted. You see, in the interim two years, I also read a lot of books on how to craft a story. You don’t need to write crap to be prolific. You don’t need to just poop out something no one will read in order to “just get it out.” Rather, you only need to learn to relax, trust in yourself and your story, and get the hell out of your own way.

That lesson will benefit you in every endeavor in your life.

So what’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room?

It’s just as hard to write 1,667 crappy words per day than it is to write 1,667 good ones. And 10 great words, in a well-structured thought, will do more for your writing career than 10,000 mediocre ones. The 800-pound gorilla is that if you want a writing career, you don’t need to learn how to write, you need to write well. That does take practice. Evidence suggests most expertise takes 10,000 hours (around 5 years, full-time) to attain. So if you are just doing Nano as a writing exercise, screw the novel. Write 5-10 pretty good short stories in a month. It’s your prize, and your career, change the rules. If you have never been able to get out of your own way, then by all means, Write Anything. But do it Every Day. It will come.

If however, you want a career as a novelist, as some do, try to learn to write well. Sacrifice that last 20,000 words to add reading a good book on writing and story structure to your repertoire. Make National Novel Writing Month about learning the write the next great novel. You will be glad you did when it comes time to make that 5th revision down the road.

“Just getting it out” will leave a bloody mess that somebody has to clean up later. Don’t be surprised if you decide it shouldn’t be you.


  1. Shannon LC Cate says:

    My first finished draft of a novel changed me too. I planned it in July and was going to do it for NaNo, but couldn’t help but write it early and got finished in September. So I wrote it very quickly, though not in thirty days. And I was well over halfway to “finished” before it occurred to me that if I chose to, I could actually write as opposed to simply “finishing.”
    I revised the heck out of that piece for several months and eventually realized that I needed to just let it go, let it be an exercise and move on to another book. I’ve written 2 and a half more novels since making that decision. I have about 5 possible next ones lined up in my head, and in notes on my computer.
    So while I can see the value in something like NaNo for teaching one a lesson about one’s self, it doesn’t have to be in November and it doesn’t have to be in thirty days.
    And yes–whatever you do and however you do it, revise, revise, revise!

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