Talking About NaNoWriMo

October 19th, 2009

nanowrimoI shared what I thought was a very interesting post on NaNoWriMo this morning on Twitter, and have since gotten a few questions about it that I thought merited a more detailed response on the blog.

Chuck Wendig, the author of the post I shared, rates several different aspects of doing NaNoWriMo in terms of good and bad: the word count of 50K, the one month deadline, the writing, victory conditions, and quality control. And he makes some very great points — seriously, if you have not yet read his post, go there now. It’s ok, I’ll wait.

Back? Ok, moving onto my thoughts. As an agent, I look at NaNoWriMo as a sort of “first draft month.” I know several of my clients have participated and finished versions of their books that I’ve gone on to sell. But that’s the key — they were just early versions of later, more polished books. I don’t expect — in fact, don’t WANT — a bunch of queries in December from people who wrote a novel in November and now think they’re ready for an agent. They’re not.

Look, a lot of people think they have a book in them. And a lot of people may. But until you sit down and write it, you’re not a writer. At most, you’re an idea factory. The practice of NaNoWriMo, for some, proves that they can get from Point A to Point Z (“Once Upon A Time” to “The End,” as it were.) For others, it proves that they can work with a deadline — another important skill to learn to be a successful writer.

But if you’re looking at NaNoWriMo thinking that when it’s over, you’ll have something to send to an agent — well, no. The mission of next month is to put a lot of words out there — fifty thousand of them, in fact. Are they all going to be the right words? Probably not. But that’s what December (and, most likely January, February, March, etc.) are for.

And if you’re NOT doing NaNoWriMo? That’s totally cool too.

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35 Responses to “Talking About NaNoWriMo”

  1. Yvette Davis Says:

    I'm doing NaNoWriMo for the 2nd time this year. And I'm probably gonna re-write the work I started last year! At this rate I should have the book completed in…..let me see here…..um….

  2. Chuck Says:

    Hey, thanks for tweeting about my post. I'm glad to hear your thoughts on this. I'm all for people pursuing the goal of being a novelist (it's certainly mine), I just wanted to put it in perspective, framed by my personal experiences.

    Glad I found your blog!

    – c.

  3. Anna Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts! Good points all around.

  4. Rissa Watkins Says:

    So is December a bad time to submit to agents? I was thinking of submitting my heavily edited,I swear, book the first week of December but don't want it to get lost in the NaNo slush.

    Of course it may make my book look brilliant in comparison.

    Should I hold off submitting until later? Don't want to go earlier because I don't want to rush edits.

    Thanks!

  5. Rebecca (Fie Eoin) Says:

    Gosh, I really hope people don't swamp you with NaNo-novels in Dec! A few of mine have been horribly hopeless (for now, until I figure out what they need to make them hopeful), but I have to say that usually when I finish NaNo, put everything aside for a few months, and then come back to it it's not THAT bad. It still needs editing, no doubt, it's nothing I would show to an agent, but it's not the word-puke you would expect.

    I also try to use all my new-found writing abilities during NaNo – last year was POV, this year will be description, the first year was dialogue, ect. I make it a point not to word-pad my novel, and I have to admit that I do edit along the way. Not major edits, mind you, but minor sentences that I don't like the sounds of as I type them up (I handwrite everything first).

    Plus, it gives me a huge rush to know I'm writing as much as Stephen King does in a day (~2000 words, because I try to shoot high), AND I have a full time job on top of it :)

    I only plan on doing this for a few more years – by then I plan to start a family and slow down to the editing phase of all these novels. I hear it's hard to do NaNo and be a mommy at the same time.

  6. The Screaming Guppy Says:

    I'm suprised anyone thinks finishing NaNoWriMo = ready to query. That's insane. And stupid.

    I did NaNoWriMo last year, and I really loved the pratice of having a deadline. In fact, I kept going, and finished my first draft just before Christmas at 101k words.

    Now, almost a year later, I'm editing what I call my final draft. I've been through a number of critique swaps, worked with a professional editor and cut over 25k words. And I won't be sending my first query letter until next month.

    Excellent post. I guess many people need to hear this for this horse's mouth, as it were.

  7. Jamie Says:

    I am so torn on this whole NaNo thing. I like the idea of having a deadline, but I can't imagine I'd produce anything of actual quality unless I was feeling inspired…

  8. Celsie Says:

    Fact: My first finished rough draft came from participating in NaNoWriMo. I wrote the first 50,000 words in November 2007, and the last 30,000 slowly over the next six months.

    It's not a finished product, the story didn't end magically on November 30th, and I've spent a year and a half revising it.

    Some writers need a deadline and a community. NaNo provides both.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who wrote 50,000 words of nonsense, and has sworn she'll never do NaNo again.

    As for me, I'm working on a more intensive outline for this year, which hopefully will allow me not only to finish, but cut down possibly six months worth of revisions.

  9. Robin of My Two Bles Says:

    Chuck makes some good points, but I'd hate to see his views dissuade anyone from joining Nano. The first draft isn't going to be perfect, nor will it be finished at the end of the month, but at least a big chunk will be done. I think the majority of folks who do nano understand this. And Chris Baty and the team do impress upon people that it is just a first draft.

    Nano inspires a lot of people to write. It inspired me to write. My first ever wip wasn't great, but I impressed myself with what I did write. It gave me the confidence to continue and the whole process is a learning experience.

  10. ChristaCarol Says:

    Great points made, and someone mentioned how they couldn't believe people equate finishing a book in NaNoWriMo being ready to query, but honestly, I've heard of "writers" doing stupider things, so it doesn't surprise me. It really just shows ignorance and not stupidity on their part, they just haven't learned the craft or the business yet. This will be the first year I do it, and I plan to use it for deadline reasons on finishing the first draft and nothing more.

  11. MJ Says:

    The first year I did NaNo, it was a rush of joy. I'd spent a year revising the same book over and over and was so ready to write something new. It was nowhere near publishable, but I had the best time writing it. Maybe one day I'll take the bare bones and write a new story with it.

    The second year I tried a paranormal. It is in better shape but is missing a layer I can't quite put my finger on.

    I finished revising my third NaNo novel this summer and it's currently with my editor for consideration. It was much much stronger.

    This year I have an outline, so I'm hoping I have something decent to work with in December.

  12. SM Blooding Says:

    I've participated in NaNoWriMo for several years now. I've even started hosting one in March when there's no holidays to interfere with writing. With this, I've written some very intersting starter books. However, most of the time, the final polished book is sooooooo completely different from the NaNo Book! LOL! I usually re-read it going, "And you thought this was good why?"

    Frankie

  13. ZenMonkey Says:

    Interesting opinions (and some assumptions) about people's motivations for doing NaNoWriMo. I'm not a prose writer; if I'm writing fiction, it's in screenplay form, but I'm doing my first NaNo this year. My reasons:

    1. It's a physical challenge, the way healthy people run marathons. I am chronically ill, and meeting my quota every day is something I honestly don't know if I can physically accomplish, but I'm very excited to try.

    2. I think too damn much when I write. The story I plan to work on is one I keep trying to tell in various forms, but it always gets hung up by this bad habit of mine. (I'm a subscriber to Anne Lamott's radio station KFKD.) My hope for the month is to explore that story further by sheer brute force of the deadline. Whether it's good or whether it sucks is immaterial because, as others have pointed out, it's what you do with November's raw material that counts.

  14. Stina Says:

    So I'm guessing these eager NaNo writers only do one draft of their query as well. Yikes!

  15. dust Says:

    Dunno. I loved my NaNo experiences, but won't be doing it again this year, as I start working toward being more professional about my writing. Now that I know I CAN do it, I've been working more on my revision and polishing skills.

    But that's now that I know I CAN.

  16. Trish Says:

    I think NaNo is great incentive to put your butt in the chair if that's what you need to get your project started. But, as has been said, NaNo should just be the start not the finished product.

    As for me, I've already started my NaNo project because I think it's silly to wait. But I DO like giving myself a deadline. Whether I make it or not… now that's a whole other story!

  17. Karen Says:

    I feel nervous about NaNo, like I'm going to do it wrong-lol-which I know I can't really do. The main reason I signed up for NaNo is so I can build up my endurance. I have my writing bug during the day, unfortunately, I'm at work and they frown on that. So I want to get up to writing everyday instead of power writing on the weekends.

  18. Keris Says:

    I take all the points made – of course at the end of November you only have a first draft which OF COURSE shouldn't be sent to agents immediately – but, at the same time, I got my agent and my book deal for a book written for NaNo 06 with very few changes.

    I find NaNo to be close to magical. For me, it's not just about getting my bum on the seat and ending up with 50,000 pages of rubbish (but at least it's better than nothing!), it's about not second-guessing, not rewriting, not fretting and worrying and planning and shaping, it's about letting the story come out unencumbered by all of that.

    When I was did it in 2006, things happened in the story that I had no idea about and yet they fitted perfectly. At times it was as if the book was writing itself. I'd never experienced that before. And the first draft was by far the best and cleanest first draft I've ever written. And that's while I'll be doing it again this year.

    You may notice that I haven't mentioned NaNo 2007 or 2008 (or, for that matter 2004 or 2005). Yeah. It doesn't work EVERY time. :)

  19. Kristi Says:

    I haven't participated in NaNo before but as I just finished a YA ms tonight – woohoo – I may use November to write another YA that I've been thinking about while I wait for my beta readers to read this ms. I hope to start querying my current ms in January, assuming I've finished revisions, but may be doing so at the same time as the NaNo'ers. Either way, I do well with external deadlines and I love the 50K in a month requirement so I may have to try it this year.

  20. Scott Says:

    The best thing I ever learned from NaNo was that I could write a rough draft, start to finish, in 30 days. A. Rough. Draft. Trust me, the end result, while having a beginning, middle, and end, was far from finished. It just truly amazed me that I took an idea from start to finish (rough draft phase only) in 30 days. Whoa! So, when I sit down with an idea now, I set a goal of 30 days and 50,000 words for my rough draft process. In one instance, I complete 50,000 words in 2 weeks . . . but that was an obsessive time of writing, oh, and I lost about 5 pounds. Woo-hoo!

    As for thinking I could have a book ready to query in 30 days. Well, someone's been nipping too much at the margaritas!! : )

    S

  21. mb Says:

    I'm glad it works for someone, but I've never even been tempted. What bothers me is the emphasis on word count. I'd consider a day better spent if I wrote 10 words and had an important insight about one of my characters than if I wrote 5,000 words. But I've never been a follow-the-herd type to begin with, and would probably rebel based on that alone.

  22. Keris Says:

    For me, MB, the insights came when I forced myself to write more than I ordinarily would. If not pushed, I could sit all day waiting for a breakthrough – whether it be plot, character, whatever – but with NaNo the breakthroughs came while I was writing.

  23. Wiseoldwol Says:

    Like Keris at 18, I'm another one who finds NaNoWriMo magical. I think its chief virtues are that it's a cure for perfectionism and that it makes writing as sociable as you want it to be. What I have to show for my efforts isn't publishable and may never be, but I have two sustained pieces of writing and the process of producing them taught me a great deal. The process of editing them is likely to teach me still more. Plus, winning is a really nice feeling. I'm not deluding myself about what I've achieved but it's still more than I'd ever achieved before I gave NaNoWriMo a go. I'm gearing up for my third year and really looking forward to it.

  24. mb Says:

    That's interesting. I'm still not tempted. I mean, it's basically a tool, right? And for some people it's the perfect tool. For me it feels like a hammer when I need a Phillips-head screwdriver. If the hammer works for you, then that's terrific.

  25. CKHB Says:

    One of the nice things about NaNoWriMo is that if you look in the right places, you'll see that THEY don't want you to do premature submissions, either! December is National Finish Your Novel Month, and March is National Editing Month.

    Oh, and my 2005 NaNo project is currently being queried to agents. That' FOUR YEARS LATER, y'all!

  26. Georgiana Says:

    I mentor a pre-med student from Pakistan who thinks he doesn't write as well as he does. I've been helping him since he was in high school and I'll be there as long as he needs me, giving him whatever advice and support he requires, not just proofing and critiquing his papers.

    His first year in college his English professor had all the students do NaNoWriMo. They didn't have to try and hit the traditional 50 grand but they were supposed to do as much as they could. He found it exhilarating and it did exactly what she wanted, which was to teach the freshmen not to fear five page papers.

    To me that's what it's all about. Learning to get out of your own way, to stop going back and changing something two pages ago, to keep moving forward until you finish, etc. And to no longer be intimidated or even pressured by long works. I've been doing this thing since 2003 and I finished every year except one when I was looking into brain surgery and starting a new column, and it's made a huge difference in how I look at long works.

    I've thrown out a draft that was 70,000 words long because I decided the plot had been done too many times. Pre NaNo I would have been way too invested in that much work to be able to let it go. Now I'm much more relaxed and confident, which makes me a better writer even when I'm writing the proverbial awful first draft. Instead of trying to edit as I go, and never finishing anything, I'll make a note that says something like "last twenty pages not working, start again from…" and keep going.

    I'm not saying that approach will work for everyone but it's done wonders for me.

  27. alice hive Says:

    "But until you sit down and write it, you’re not a writer."

    Very important point! Guess how many people I know who want to become even professional writers and just don't start writing.

  28. Laura Says:

    This is my sixth year doing NaNo. I've crossed the finished line the last five years. I am an aspiring YA novelist and have never queried a NaNo project. Since I am a writer, I can't not write and find the NaNo challenge irresistible. It's like when I practice Yoga for my body. NaNo works out my cranium. I take the NaNo challenge to exercise my imagination, meet new people and have fun [and give myself a month free from doing things like dishes and laundry and a month full of all-I-can-eat jalepeño chips and all-I-can-drink REALLY expensive coffee. One year I typed my NaNo on my commute to and from my job at The Los Angeles Times, on the train. The characters came to me! Haha.

  29. Margaret Says:

    Hmm, interesting post with a lot of great points, especially about the FAQ. Makes me happy I never read it :D.

    I'm a NaNo addict. I love the rush of giving over a whole month to writing…even though I usually am still doing critting, editing, and programming on the side…because through the rest of the year, I set aside one-two hours a day and a couple weekends most of the time. Producing the rough is only a small part of the process and not necessarily a priority.

    I never really read the rules, and I certainly don't hold with the write crap one. I took the spirit of the concept and ran with it. I don't put artificial endings on my books (some years I've finished at 114k, some years I've written YA, and others I reached 50k and the midpoint), I never add anything that I don't believe belongs (writing is fun, editing crap? No way.), and I even sometimes go back and edit.

    So I am not the poster child.

    NaNo works for me because I don't follow the rules, and I get a decent draft or start of one out of it.

    That said, I don't care how good my first draft might be, one month of rush editing doesn't make sense, especially since I like to get feedback from my crit group for an objective view.

  30. Jessica Says:

    Very interesting to read all of the comments. I love, love, love NaNo. I'm about to attempt my third NaNo and have so much fun with it that I'm also on my second year as Municipal Liaison.mm

    I did it on a whim my first time, as I finished one project at the end of the summer, started researching the next, but was having trouble getting going. I got the 50k by the 30th and added another 15k in December. Spent a year neatening it and expanding the subplots. I added another 10k in revisions (six rounds of revisions), but, honestly, didn't change much of the writing itself. NaNo does NOT have to equal crap. You are allowed to write well during NaNo! :D

    NaNo is also great for experimentation. I'm strictly a writer of historical fiction, but I'd been tossing around the idea for a time travel novel. I used November to see if I could write anything even remotely SF. I can't. It doesn't bother me that that attempt went on the proverbial shelf. After all, I've only wasted 30 days trying something new.

    I learned a lot about myself as a writer during my first NaNo, which really turned me on to the program. I learned that I really am a pantser. I do just fine on minimal planning and, actually, have more fun discovering my story along with my characters. I learned that my writing is fresher when I'm not scrutinizing it as I write. Most importantly, however, I learned to trust myself as a writer. When I get in a sticky spot, when it seems like the story isn't coming, when it seems like I'm not going to make it, I can just write through it. I don't worry; I just sit and write through it, because I know the story will come back. I felt so exhilarated when I completed my first NaNo, much more so than when I completed my first non-NaNo novel, because it just fit. Writing that way, fast, furious, with each day an adventure, that's the way I need to write. It just fit me.

  31. Miss Mabel Says:

    I used Nano last year to write the back story for my next novel (a back story I needed to be perfectly clear in my head, for the purpose of the book's mystery element.) It was SO much fun to write the way I did when I was 14–just for fun, and not for publication. And it helped me work out all the plotting knots I was tangled in.

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  35. hugoestr Says:

    Wait… we have to >>revise<<?