National Novel Writing Month (familarly known as NaNoWriMo) is not my least favorite sign of autumn. That would have to be the endless cold rain — no, the omnipresent pumpkin spice pastries and lattes. Still, as everyone online starts talking about their plans for the event, I feel like someone who has no interest in sports but is trapped in a city gripped by playoff fever. I just don’t see the point. In fact, NaNoWriMo seems to perpetuate ideas about writing that seem to me likely to be harmful.
Admittedly, the event starts off with a grating abbreviation. “NaNoWriMo” has a sharp staccato that always makes me think of Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Worse, it sounds like cute Newspeak, which is an oxymoron if I ever saw one. It makes me think of jackboots and the rats in Room 101.
Still, I could forget the cloying abbreviation, except for other irritants. To start with, the 50,000 word goal seems designed to be possible within a month, not because it leaves participants with anything useful. Either it leaves them with a novella, a length that is hard to sell to either publishers or readers, or with a fragment of a novel to be finished in the future. Both seem meager rewards for putting the rest of your life on hold for a month.
More importantly, like so many wannabe writers do, the guidelines emphasize quantity over quality. At first, 50,000 words may sound impressive — but do those words sing like the poetry of John Keats, or plod like the prose of Dan Brown? If those 50,000 words take five drafts to become acceptable, or a third of those words are eventually deleted, the accomplishment is not so impressive. A serious risk exists that you will only waste your time to make the word count and end up little that’s worth keeping.
Yes, I know that conventional wisdom has it that a rough draft’s quality doesn’t matter. However, there are people like me who need to put the rough draft into close approximation of the final form before moving on. Personally, if I ignored this need, I would increasingly start feeling like a swarm of bees had taken up residence in my skull. As I pressed on to my arbitrary goal, I would only feel more annoyed. Moreover, almost the entire end result would fall prey to the ravages of the Delete key. I can consistently knock off a publishable 1500 word article in a couple of hours, having written over two thousand over the last two decades, but my fiction oozes out more slowly. I like to think that I save time in the long run by needing fewer drafts to make fiction presentable, but the point is, NaNoWriMo is set up with the assumption that we all have the same writing habits. We don’t.
If NaNoWriMo wanted participants to end up with a useful manuscript, its goal would be something like the first three chapters of a novel. A goal like that would still be challenging, but it would be far less than 50,000 words, which would give writers a chance to produce their best work. But I know that’s not likely to happen. Whenever I raise the points I make here, the result is another classic example of one of Orwell’s concepts: double speak. “Of course I know that the number of words is not a reliable counter of progress,” is the typical response. “Do you think I’m stupid?” Yet sometimes the indignation has barely faded before the same person happily chirps, “I did 3000 words today!” and preens themselves on their progress anyway. So I doubt that many would agree with me.
The true point of NaNoWriMo, I think, is to turn the private act of writing into a social one. When not rushing to meet their daily word count, people can compare results with other participants. They can watch videos online, or, depending where they live, go to an event where they can get a much-needed boost of encouragement. Most of the timewhen I hear participants talk about NaNoWriMo, what enthuses them is the camaradery, the sense of shared hardship and of facing the same challenges as those around them. For some, that may be enough for them to take part in NaNoWriMo year after year. However, I have critiquing partners, so I generally don’t have to look for writing-centered socialization. I have it year round. I look at the circus surrounding NaNoWriMo, and I wonder what it all has to do with writing.
Besides, who has time to start NaNoWriMo with a reasonable chance of finishing? I’m not a student taking a semester off, or retired and looking for ways to fill my day. Nor do I live with anyone who could support me for a month, or who might agree to do my share of the cooking or the laundry for four weeks. The best I can do is limp along the same as always, slipping in a few hours of writing when I can. My normal output for a month is far below NaNoWriMo’s goal, but I will keep far more of it.
For these reasons, I’m going to pass on NaNoWriMo, the same as every year. All that NaNoWriMo can do is help me ready my Scrooge act so that I’ve perfected it by Christmas.