Monday, November 7, 2011

A NaNo No No

Like many agents and editors, I see both the positive and negative sides of the program. Unfortunately, I see more negative elements than I do positive sides of the program.

First of all, I do want to say, I think it is a great inspiration for people to finally get off their butts and write the darn thing they spend all of their time complaining about when they don't do it. Finally, these authors have no excuse and will get motivated to do something. With that said, that is where I have to personally draw the line when it comes to the program.

Now, unlike many agents and editors, who tend to complain the most about the number of bad submissions we will all see in December (which is a hassle), my bigger issue is the lack of true emphasis on the writing process that SUCCESSFUL authors know and use religiously. It is the writing process that tends to yield the best final products and prevents so many headaches for authors that think it is a waste of time. I should also note that the writing process is not something we only use in the academic field. This is something that works in all levels and areas of writing.

First of all, the word process is key. According to the random "Online dictionary":

n. pl. proc·ess·es (prssz, prss-, prs-sz, prs-)

1. A series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result: the process of digestion; the process of obtaining a driver's license.

2. A series of operations performed in the making or treatment of a product: a manufacturing process; leather dyed during the tanning process.

3. Progress; passage: the process of time; events now in process.

Now, let us look at the first two definitions in particular. In both cases we are looking at a concept of things happening in a precise order to yield a response. The problem with NaNoWriMo is the encouragement of skipping any element of process. The arguement is to simply write. To throw caution to the wind and pray to God that something will happen in the end that is complete. Not good, just complete.
Remember, the writing process has essentially three parts. A Pre-Writing Phase, a Drafting Phase and a Editing/Publishing Phase. If you do the steps in order, when you get to that final phase, your work is really easy. Why? Because you took the time on the front end of the process to think and plan out what it is you are doing.
Let's look at each.
PRE-WRITING I don't care if you are plotter or a pantster, this early phase is for you to figure out what you want to write about and how you plan to achieve it. This is when you think through all the potential issues and problems that might show up so you don't panic during the writing phase and lose your momentum. This is where you pre-empt any potential issue. This is where you research. This is where you plan.
DRAFTING This is, unfortunately the only thing NaNoWriMo does. In this phase you write. Now this is where the problems occur for the majority of the writers in NaNoWriMo. Because they didn't know where they were going to with their story, the final product, if they even get that far, is a jumbled mess of disconnected thoughts, of characters doing things and saying things that might not fit with their GMC's and so forth. Sure, the word count is there but that is about it. All of that fluency and organization that ties those quality stories we love to read is simply not there. If it is, it stems from sheer luck.
EDITING It is here that the successful writers understand the value of the writing process. Because they planned things early on. Because they thought through their characters and their actions. Because they understand the conflict in the story, the editorial phase is fairly easy. We're not talking about a serious over-haul of your story here. You knew where you were going to and you took your time to think it through.
If, however, you took the NaNoWriMo approach, the amount of time you get to spend on revisions now will be almost doubled. Any writer can tell you that changing full chapters around, or over-hauling a character that goes through the whole book is sheer insanity.
Now, I know there have been some writers that have been successful with this program. We cannot simply look to these people. They are anomolies. They are the exceptions to the rule. Heck, maybe some of them took the time during October to do serious planning. Unfortunatlely, for many of you out there, you didn't take the time to do that.
For you people, I can only say, I am glad you are motivated, but please - do not complain, whine or moan to the rest of us when you either A) don't finish the NaNoWriMo because of "writer's block"; B) have a complete manuscript that is a complete mess; or C) find out that the final product you send out to editors and agents in December yields more rejections than you imagined. Only remember that I warned you.


  1. Great post! I've heard these same things regarding NaNo, but I think the difference between the hot messes and the not-so-bad is experience. Those of us who have written and know what is required of researching, writing, editing, completing a book, wouldn't DARE query a NaNo book in December.

    Nano has a good message, but you're right, it lacks the information required to really write something good. This is the first year I've participated in NaNo and have found it to be a good reason for me to write that story I've been thinking about for so long. It gives me a push and deadline to work toward. I, however, am realistic and understanding as to what I need to actually finish it.

    That's the difference. And NaNo--considering all the people who participate--should teach writers this.


  2. I'm not a huge fan of NaNo myself. The only person I know who's 'won' a bunch of years in a row is a pathological liar. Everyone else seems to 'try,' fail, beat themselves up and stop writing. I've seen the entire process do tremendous harm to people's developing talent.

    Thanks for the helpful post!

  3. Good post. However, nothing prevents (and NaNo encourages) one to plot, research, outline, and plan ahead of time. Then write in November.

    I am participating though I know my story will be much closer to 100k than 50k. In the months leading to November, I thought about my book, researched and read, made notes, picked out character names and even plotted.

    I'm a pantser through and through, but I started NaNo with an outline which has made it much easier to write my story. Have I deviated from it? Sure. But the important thing is my butt is in the chair and I plan to be over half way finished when December rolls around. Hopefully, by March, it will be ready to query.

    Perhaps I would have gotten it done in this time frame anyway, but I know myself and need the deadline (of someone else) for motivation. Now to quit procrastinating and get back to writing.


  4. I agree with Scott. I tried NaNo one year and found it incredibly stressful. I write routinely now and am doing well. Now, to overcome the fear of submission.

  5. You know what NaNoWriMo reminds me of? It reminds me of the people in January who make their "resolutions" to go to the gym. I've been going for about four years to the same gym and people religously do this...every. year. But by mid-year they are all gone. Because really they make this resolution to go, and what they want is immediate results. They want to know that they will lose weight in the first few weeks. But, really, working out is a lifestyle change. It has to be realistic and going five times a week right out of the gate in hopes to lose weight quickly for many is not a realistic goal. You WILL get burnt out. And you WILL lose your steam.

    So, with NaNoWriMo, I think it's the same. Writing, much like exercise, is a lifestyle change. You HAVE to incorporate it realistically. And write everyday. I ALMOST did it this year. But, I ended up chucking this idea that I really didn't feel attached to. And instead I am going to work on several short stories that I DO feel have something to them. Will I make my goal? Well, right now, instead of writing 50k words in a month, I have set a goal for myself to write 1k words a day. And that is something I can do Monday through Friday.

    For writing, you must be willing to change your lifestyle. For losing weight, you must be willing to change your lifestyle. You can't go on a diet for six weeks; and you can't go on a writing binge filled with unrealistic writing schedules for four weeks.

  6. Funnily enough, my venture ever into NaNo this year marked the first time I outlined before beginning a project. The outlining paid off; I've already written the 50,000 words required and am hoping to finish the entire draft during the month. Interestingly, I've found plenty of information encouraging the use of outlines and the importance of editing after November is over. Maybe this is because I've already been part of the online writing community for a few years now. Seasoned participants of NaNoWriMo are also a great resource of tips, encouragement and reality checks.

    The majority of people fancying themselves "writers" purely for having won NaNoWriMo are not, in fact, serious writers. A serious writer will research the writing process outside of November and will edit their NaNo book once the month is complete. I wouldn't be surprised to find if the ratio of "writers" to real writers is the same within NaNo as it is in the outside world.

    I, for one, am a great supporter of NaNoWriMo and hope to participate many more times in the years to come.

  7. By the way, the "subscribe to comments (atom)" button on your site seems to be broken. It opens up a bunch of code for me. Maybe it's just my computer.

  8. Certainly NaNo is not for everyone, and is not the ideal process compared to careful pre-planning followed by steady writing. It is, however, invaluable for those who would otherwise be intimidated by the prospect of writing a novel, including those who are usually too self-critical to write without immediate compulsive rewriting. I am deeply grateful to the Office of Letters and Light for providing a path I could follow as a writer.

  9. Hmm, I wasn't intrigued in NaNo in the slightest. I have my own schedule, my own routines, and a life outside of writing. I think I'll wait for the pressure cooker of deadlines for when an agent or publisher requires them. :)

  10. Scott,

    I cannot agree that the published authors coming out of Nanowrimo are anomolies, nor that the writing process is as clear cut as you describe it.

    Nanowrimo is a very visual representation which happens in terms of novel writing as a low threshold entry endeavor. What is it, 90% of all people wants to write a book? Nanowrimo allows them to get much further with this notion. The question that is not being asked is whether that 90% actually should write a book.

    The published writers coming out of Nanowrimo would have another way to get better at writing, good enough to consider themselves publishable, if Nanowrimo did not exist. Nanowrimo is neither cause nor hindrance but merely a coincidental phenomenon.

    However, the three step writing process you describe is utterly simplistic and useless. If writing was as easy as one, two, three Nanowrimo would not be needed at all and many more successful novels would be written. You are right that Nanowrimo focus on only one aspect of writing but by widening your focus slightly to include three you are still barely scratching the surface.

  11. Scott, I have 'won' two Nano's. And, I agree, one needs to prepare (I did), but one also needs to re-work/edit (still doing). For me, the greatest part of Nano was in convincing my internal editor that she could play all she wanted after the draft was complete;-) I recommend Nano to any writer who can't write more than a paragraph without his or her internal editor taking over.

  12. I'm with Lenora :) I've done NaNoWriMo 8 years in a row now. I've never "won," but I've gotten massive amounts done on my WIPs. Everyone in my family knows that November is my writing month.

    I plan all my novels. Character sheets, detailed outlines, research, the works. I'm a technical writer/editor by trade, and I feel comfortable with a planned process. NaNoWriMo is my draft producing phase. Then I edit and send through critique rounds. Sounds like I do all your steps already, and NaNoWriMo doesn't stop me. Huh ;)

  13. I came across your post quite by accident and I wholeheartedly agree with what you say here. I did Nanowrimo for the first time last year and did not thing with it. This year I spent four months actively researching prior to starting, this month I'm writing and I'm expecting to spend the next 9-12 months refining and improving on the raw material that's coming out.

    Only then, when I'm mostly happy with what I've got, that it's the absolute best I can do, will I inflict it on another living person.

    Thanks for your post and sorry you have to get so much rot to read!

  14. I'm half way through my first nanowrimo and joined up to write the second book of a series. (The first of which I got bogged down in editing as I went and lost the flow entirely - I've been struggling for a year now and it's beyond ridiculous).

    I wrote my very first novel plan - and so far I've adhered to the plan around 90% of the time. It's definitely the way to go. And I have to say, nano has helped break me from the editing bind of the previous book. Ideas come thick and fast and I wrote the first 3rd in three days.

    Of course, it will be NO WHERE near complete by the end of Nov or December or even the following 6 months. I'm still growing as a writer and have a lot of polishing up to do before I put my work out there for public consumption.

    I see you a grievance with nano (or rather those who do November then send off their inferior work out without any real thought) but it's help me get over a big slump.

    Shah .X

  15. I've been duly warned.

    No author writes the same. No author writes the same from book to book.

    You can't tell authors what will or won't work for them. What will or won't get them a good story on paper.

    I know I'll get people pointing at me saying "she's not a successful author"

    But, I cannot believe that every "successful" author follows the same process. Sorry, some reason this one really bugged me.

  16. I think NaNo has its uses. As other commenters have said, it gives writers who are plagued by their inner editor during the first draft phase permission to "just write".

    It's also a good way to introduce first-timers to the sheer hard work that goes into writing a novel, and gives them lots of encouragement along the way. Those who fail either learn to try harder next time or simply learn that the novel form may not be their best medium.

    For me NaNo is a useful way to concentrate on a first draft (carefully outlined in advance). The real work, of course, is done afterwards. But without a first draft in my computer I've got nothing to work on. So anything that motivates me to push out words is good.

    By the way I wouldn't query ANYTHING in December. I'm sure agents are just as overwhelmed by all the pre-holiday craziness as I am.

    Oh yes. . .Ann Elise, I suspect your browser is Chrome, which doesn't handle RSS feeds well. Try another browser.

  17. Thanks, Jane. I just switched from IE because it was so slow, and I'm not much of a fan of firefox. Meh, I don't use RSS that often anyway :D