A goal, not a win
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.