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A goal, not a win

October 25, 2009
Image used with kind permission
© 2009 Julia Anderson.

Here we go again. My last column before November hits and the annual insanity descends on writers across the globe. NaNoWriMo is fast approaching. For those taking part – good luck, hope you’ve been taking notes the past week. For those watching from the sidelines – bring coffee.

There is a lot of criticism of NaNoWriMo, some of it unjustified, but some of it has a measure of truth.

An unfair and unjustified criticism is that “it encourages people to think they can write”. How awful. Imagine, encouraging people to enrich their lives and pursue a new hobby. I first encountered this criticism the first year I took part in NaNo, expressed on BBC Radio 4 by a published novelist, and recently saw it on a website run by someone highly critical of the whole concept of NaNoWriMo.

If NaNo encourages people to think that they can produce a final, perfect, publishable, best-selling novel in 30 days, that will make them rich and they only need to write in November – then yes, that is delusional. 50,000 words is not a novel by the usual standards, by the end of November you have something that is the first half of a first draft, and being realistic hardly anyone taking part gets published.

But NaNo does not make that claim, and it is a terribly snobbish attitude to claim that it is somehow “wrong” to encourage people to write. Not everyone who paints will be hung in major art galleries. Not everyone who plays golf will win a PGA tour. Not everyone who writes seeks publication. For many, it is a fun hobby, and the majority of people who take part in NaNo do not expect to be printing off a manuscript on November 30th to send to a publisher.

My own personal criticism of NaNo is the unrealistic pressure cooker scenario it creates. In order to “win”, you have to write 1667 words every day. This target becomes all-consuming, provoking elation when you exceed it, and despair when you do not. Many writers crack under the pressure, and give up.

Targets and deadlines are good, but the key to writing is to keep the pen or the cursor (however you write) moving forward. The basic unit of advice in writing is to write every day, no matter how much or how little you write, and to build up the momentum of writing. That is success. That is a win. But in NaNo, a little is not enough. It must be 1667 today, or it will have to be 2500 tomorrow. Then 3000 the next day. A paragraph today is not a success, it is a fail – don’t hit the magic figure and you lose.

Psychologically, turning success into nagging failure like that is discouraging. People who fall behind the target get discouraged and give up, whereas as writers we should keep going. Didn’t hit 50,000 by the end of the month? Is 30,000 any less of a success? Many professional novelists take three to four months to write a draft. On a 100,000 word novel that’s about 30,000 words per month. People who fall behind in NaNo are often still writing at the same rate as a professional.

Moreover, some days you find yourself able to write 3000 words without realising it – others it is a struggle to hit 1000. On those days you are still failing, and you may not give yourself permission to remain open to those days when the words will fly.

NaNoWriMo is a short-term target. It is a goal. You only lose if you give up completely. Keep the story moving forward, keep the pen moving across the page, keep the words flowing, and forget about the wordcount. The final tally is an ambition. The act of writing is the victory.

If you are taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, then you can add me as a buddy here. This year’s NaNo is going to be easy. After all, it’s not like I have an anthology to launch the same month…. Uh oh…
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5 Comments
  1. October 25, 2009 4:59 am

    The pressure cooker environment isn’t the greatest I will admit – but what I love about NaNo is it makes writing a priority – something we writers are not necessarily good at. It’s the silver bullet for procrastination.

    I have entered Script Frenzy – the script writers NaNo held in April each year by the Office of Letters and Light and neither time have made it to the 100 page mark. However I’ve never felt I have failed either time. As someone who doesn’t write scripts to committ and then start writing a script is an achievement in itself. To sell the idea to *someone* to do it with me this year was also an achievement – sure we didn’t get anywhere near 10 pages of script but it was a relationship building exercise if nothing else. And hey “sane in insane places” was a theme that was meant to be part of our writing year.

    I think the high brow critics of NaNo are like critics anywhere – busy pointing the finger and tut-tuting when deep inside they’re probably wishing they had the guts and grit to committ to write under stuch “extreme” circumastance.

    Thanks Paul – I think I know what I’ll be writing about tomorrow now :)

  2. October 25, 2009 6:00 am

    Some of us need the pressure cooker. Some of us need crazy deadlines and ‘buddies’ to hold secret word-count grudges with. It’s just how we work. No one can make an all-purpose work process.

    After my first NaNo two years ago, I’ve never done so much with my writing. After three drafts (each one written blind from its predecessor) and a ruthless revision of the entire project, that book is a soft-scrub away from being shopped for agent-hunting.

    I’ve been excited for NaNo for months now– it’s looking to be a great year. :) New project, new sub-genre, new characters.

  3. October 25, 2009 11:44 am

    I guess the balance between being pressured and needing pressure will always exist. I know I myself work most, not neccesarily best, when under pressure. I entered one year but simply couldn’t keep up because November and the first half of December are the busiest months for me at work. I was writing the moment I came home and for two weeks saw next to nothing of my wife and children. They more or less forced me to stop. But I certainly think it can be a good experience.

  4. meelajoubert permalink
    October 25, 2009 1:32 pm

    I think of Nano as a container. I started because I had enough of a world to tell a story from, a story I wanted to tell, and the capacity for hyperverbosity. Oh, and I had just learned–finally–structural editing (what a proper sentence should be and why I hadn’t understood it before).
    While I want the novels to be published, I use the month of November to be the month of getting-the-story-out-in-a-draft-until-I-have-them-all-written-then-start-editing. Until then it’s learn-how-to-write-a-novel-while-doing-everything-else.
    The pressure-cooker of Nano is like any other pressure cooker: you get to see what’s left of you. We get to see what doesn’t work, and what does. It’s not the pressure that’s wrong. It’s the quality of the support. I love the camaraderie of the thing. The social gathering even when our heads are down and we’re ignoring everyone. I love the screaming and yelling, the strategies shared, the games we play with each other.
    Nanowrimo, for me at least, is a kind of writer’s recess! A retreat into making stuff up. I spend all year waiting for it, getting me and my friends ready for it. It’s an international writer’s holiday, a celebration of all the things writerly: good, bad and ugly! Days of the Dead Without Wordcount, even!

  5. October 25, 2009 6:42 pm

    Excellent post Paul.. really. This is my second NaNo and I now have come to appreciate all of the in-jokes and after re-reading Karens Workshops and other information to prepare for it, shake my head and smile at how wide eyed and ‘innocent’ I was last year. I am unsure if where I am now is a better place though and long for that innocence – that unknowing of what its all about. There were days last year I roared through the chapter and did more than the ‘alloted’ number, there were days I struggled and it was like pulling teeth to reach it.
    I won’t lie – I was extremely proud to have ‘won’ and like you annoyed at those who put it down or discredit what NaNo is all about…. to write… for the sheer love of it… perhaps it will be published down the track , perhaps it just needed to be written.. no matter – its the act which is celebrated.

    This year I am in a quandary (still) as to what to write – I have two fictional plots, and several characters desperate to air their views within them, as well as a non fiction piece which has been hanging round for literally years begging me to start to write it.

    I’m stressing ……..as last year I was very organized – done a lot of characterization research etc, this year… a few scant notes on each project.

    I have, however mapped my month out with realistic days I can write. .. its 16.. nearly half a month….thats 3125 words a day….With a major milestone birthday (and its subsequent celebrations and family holiday where I am banned from taking even a pencil) as well as a milestone wedding anniversary( bla bla bla) I could be forgiven by some to say – sod it – don’t enter this year – its not worth it…. but now – as you said.. its a goal – not a target, I have 16 days dedicated to writing (at least one) of these manuscripts. I shall honour at at least with my best efforts and fullest of hearts.

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