I can write two books a year, but I can’t do NaNoWriMo.

It’s that time again — no, I don’t mean Launch Week for The Broken Kingdoms; I mean NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple — write. Write as fast as you can. Write for thirty days, and try to finish a novel within that time. Write even if you write a lot of crap — which you will, guaranteed, if you’re trying to finish a novel in 30 days. But write.

An admirable goal — though I’m aware that some people don’t think so. (I disagree with Miller, for many of the same reasons noted here. It’s not a zero-sum game, folks.) I can’t speak for other cultures here, but in America every other person, it seems, wants to write the Great American (maybe genre) Novel. When I tell random people that I’m a writer, I usually brace myself, because one of two things occurs: a) they tell me they’ve always wanted to write too!!! and ask me for tips; or b) they tell me they’re already writers too, often self-published, and they ask me to take a look at their work. The former I don’t mind, given that you can’t learn anything unless you ask. The latter I do mind, but I’ve gotten good at explaining politely that reading another person’s book is a huge imposition on my time and potentially a legal hazard, so sorry, no. So it’s no surprise to me that NaNo is so popular, and on the balance I think it’s a fabulous project.

However. I could never do it.

Let me illustrate the problem. I had roughly six months to write The Broken Kingdoms. It was actually a little longer than that — maybe eight — but I was working full-time, actually around 55 hours/week (not counting my 10 hour/week commute), during the first two months of this. My pace was slow as a result. So I’ll count only the six months afterward, during some of which I was actually a full-time writer, no day job at all. (I was experimenting to see how I liked this.) Anyhow, before this six-month period, I had a detailed outline written up of book 2’s plot, characters, etc. I’d written sample chapters and settled on what felt right for Oree’s voice. I knew where I was going, in other words, and I knew how to get there. All I had to do was write.

But even with all that, I barely finished the book on deadline. See, my usual per-day pace has always been about 1400 words. I thought I could improve this if I wasn’t working, but that turned out not to be true. Even with all day free to devote to my writing, I still averaged 1400 a day. It just took longer, because I didn’t have limited time and other responsibilities to force me to spit those words out rather than dither over them endlessly. (As you can probably guess, this is one big reason why I eventually started looking for a job again; the full-time writer life will never be for me.) I set a goal of 2000 words/day for myself, and often I actually hit it… only to delete a quarter or half of those words the next day. Those were words I’d written just to meet my quota. They weren’t good words.

Now, NaNoWriMo is in many respects easier than this. Since the goal is the minimum length of a novel — 50K words — that generally means doing about 1700 words a day. That’s less than 2000! ::gasp:: But this doesn’t work for me, for several reasons. First, my novels are a lot longer than 50,000 words. The Kingdom of Gods, book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy, stands at about 150,000 words right now, in pure (not publishers’) wordcount. So to do that in a month, I’d have to write 5000 words a day. Not so easy. Second, NaNo assumes, rightly, that most of those words will be crap. They will be; that’s just how writing works. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing some crap. But I can’t write mostly crap, every day, because I’m a professional writer. My goal is not simply to finish the novel, it’s to write a novel good enough that people will buy it and like it. You can’t fix everything in revision. You can fix a lot, but if the core story doesn’t work, then the only revision possible is to scrap the whole thing and write it over from scratch. Which kind of defeats the whole point.

(I’ve done this, note. Most of you know by now that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a rewrite of a novel I wrote about 10 years prior. I did this because the core story just wasn’t working. So I did what I had to do. Did it again recently, note, with The Kingdom of Gods, book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy. I’d gotten up to 90,000 words on one version of it when it finally hit me that the story had been written from the wrong perspective, and had the wrong voice. Nothing to do but start over. That was a whooooole lotta wasted time… but worth it, in the end, to get it right.)

So while I’ve got nothing but respect for NaNoers, I won’t be joining them. Be nice if I could; speed is part of what makes a pro writer successful, these days. But just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it can’t work for others, so if you want to write and you haven’t tried NaNoWriMo, here’s your chance. We’re only 4 days in; still time to write your own Great American Novel. Go, NaNo, go!

5 Responses »

  1. Nano rocks. I tried in on a lark a few years ago when I was an occasional writer with a notebook full of half-finished ideas. Then a month later I was a novelist. I still don’t know if I ever would have had the guts to attempt a full-length novel if it hadn’t been for Nano’s potent combination of a deadline and an enthusiastic community.

    Multiple attempts to get my friends to do it have led me to the understanding that it really isn’t for everybody. But I think it’s the kind of thing everyone aspiring writer should try at least once.

  2. Like Quinn above said, I owe NaNo a debt of gratitude. I didn’t hit 50,000 words, but I did make 41K, and from there, I later finished that draft. My first completed draft. Wow! Sure, I ended up throwing it out and starting over, but it showed me I could do it. And that was an incredible realization.

    Would I do NaNo in the future? I’m not sure. Like you, I just can’t pound out that much a day. Some people can, and even have the words be good; more power to them.

  3. Yeah, I just can’t manage more than about 1K a day, and that’s if I’m really grooving on a specific, focused project. About 500 a sitting and then I need to take at least a 10-minute break; if I try for more I either lock up or just start writing dithery crap.

    This is one big reason why I don’t have a novel done yet. (That, and I seem to just be a short story person at heart. We’ll see how life goes.)

  4. N.K. Jemisin said:

    “I can’t speak for other cultures here, but in America every other person, it seems, wants to write the Great American (maybe genre) Novel.”

    Reading this, it occurs to me that in other cultural contexts a terminus comparable to the ‘Great American Novel’ doesn’t seem to exist. Perhaps that’s why an idea like NaNoWriMo seems so specifically US American to me…

  5. For me, NaNo’s pace and wordcount was what helped me finally learn how to silence my inner editor. I used to get endlessly caught up on every single line I would write, and never make any progress. I was too busy worrying if this or that sentence sucked to actually write much of anything. NaNoWriMo forces you to ignore your inner editor by design – you have to, in order to make your set word count. I think the word count of NaNo is pretty arbitrary, and I think that, for me at least, it’s not so much the total wordcount as the daily goals that help. It teaches you what it feels like to write every day – something that I think you can take beyond NaNo and into your daily life, although maybe at a lower wordcount! ;)