NaNoWriMo: Is National Novel Writing Month a Literary Threat or Menace?

More than a quarter of a million people are spending November writing novels. But does this mean an influx of new voices or the end of literature altogether?

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Now that the U.S. Presidential election is out of the way, it’s time to turn our collection attentions to the true purpose of November. No, not Thanksgiving. For hundreds of thousands of people around the world, November means National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo for short — and writing 50,000 words of their latest magnum opus by the beginning of December.

For those who aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo, the thinking behind it is actually fairly simple: Participants are challenged to write a 50,000 word novel from scratch between 12:00am November 1 and 11:59pm November 30. Sounds simple, right? Well, aside from that “writing a novel” part, of course. It’s not a contest — the only things you “win” upon completion are a sense of satisfaction at having met the goal and a certificate from The Office of Letters and Light, the organization behind the month-long event. No one sits down to judge the results of your efforts, although completed novels have to be submitted for verification (a process which exists to ensure that (1) you wrote a novel that (2) consists of at least 50,000 words that (3) aren’t just the same word repeated over and over again, and yes, that last part is actually one of the few rules of the whole thing).

Nonetheless, each year that the event has taken place since its creation in 1999 has seen an increase in the number of people signing up to attempt to unleash their inner Stephen King/JK Rowling/Dan Brown, with last year seeing 256,618 deciding to sacrifice their free time for an entire month in the name of creating art… or, at least, an unfinished Word document with really, really good intentions. (Only 36,843 from that 256,618 actually managed to meet their goal last year.)

This year’s NaNoWriMo will be the fourteenth, and the seventh since the Office of Letters and Light was established as a non-profit that existed purely for the purposes of promoting writing. (The OLL has spun the NaNoWriMo brand into two related events, NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, for school kids aged 12 and under, and Camp NaNoWriMo, which is essentially NaNoWriMo: The Catered Ski Chalets Version.) Launched as a 21-person writers’ group in the San Francisco Bay Area in July 1999 — the shift to November came the second year — with what started as, in the words of founder Chris Baty, something that happened “because we thought that, as novelists, would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists,” turning novel writing into a more approachable, less mysterious pastime than ever before. The question is, is that actually a good thing?

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Well, the answer to that question depends upon whom you ask. Kate Sullivan, founder of independent publish Candlemark & Gleam once wrote that “NaNoWriMo turns out more crappy manuscripts than any other idea in the history of mankind, it’s true. I’m both excited and terrified to see what comes through the slush pile after this month — I expect that there’s going to be a lot of short, awful manuscripts (50k words does NOT a novel make, children…shoot for 80-100k, please)…but there may also be some gems.” Salon’s Laura Miller was far less charitable: “As someone who doesn’t write novels, but does read rather a lot of them, I share [editors and agents’] trepidation,” she wrote in a much-discussed 2010 column.” Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the instance that other people read it? Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it’s likely to produce more novels I’d want to read.”

Miller wasn’t exaggerating when she referred to the event giving permission to “write a lot of crap”; that’s literally right there in the site’s FAQs: “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing,” the OLL folks explain. “By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.” The idea of writing without pause to self-edit isn’t one that appeals to writer Patrice Sarath, however; “Writing requires steady, consistent effort,” she wrote in a blog post subtlety titled “Writing a novel? Don’t do NaNoWriMo.” “Blasting through a novel at over 1000 words a day means that you will get a lot of crap and at the end of the experiment you will have 50,000 words, far too short for any market today.” She continued her barrage a year later, writing that “I think [NaNoWriMo] reduces an art form to gimmickry.”

(Not all established writers feel the same. Many — including Philip Pullman, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem — not only support NaNoWriMo but have written essays to support those who participate in the November projects.)

Another common complaint is that NaNoWriMo devalues writers’ talent by indulging the cliche that everyone has the potential to be a great writer if only they’d sit themselves down and actually write . “NaNoWriMo relies on the peculiarly American belief that every person has a story — or a novel, or a book of any kind — inside. (Some have quipped that this was where it ought to stay),” the Economist’s Prospero blog once sneered. “There is no analogous drive to write the Great French Novel, or the English, or the German. The very notion that a novel is in everybody’s grasp, and could be knocked out as a draft in just a month, is far more likely to induce some cringing in other countries.” Instead of idolizing writers, Salon’s Miller suggested, we should look to the other side of the equation to keep literature alive: “Rather than squandering our applause on writers — who, let’s face it, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not — why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers?”

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Such criticism feels unwarranted. Surely the idea of supporting writers or readers isn’t an either/or binary prospect? Isn’t supporting one also supporting the other and amazingly dismissive of the possibility that novels created for NaNoWriMo could actually be, well, good. The implication seems to be that, because the NaNo writers were allowed to write without fear or concern of poor quality, the quality will inevitably be poor. Neither Miller nor Sarath seems to credit writers with the ability or inclination to go back to rework or edit their work after the November 30th deadline to turn a first draft born out of unfettered creativity into something more sculpted, coherent or just simply complete. There’s a snobbery at play in that assumption — that if anyone who uses the framework of NaNoWriMo as motivation to write doesn’t have the same “need” to do as other authors do, or the same level of skill.

But NaNo books aren’t inherently low quality. After all, more than a hundred authors have had their NaNoWriMo works published in methods from self-publishing, small press or digital publishing all the way through to “real” publishing houses including Doubleday, Random House and Simon & Schuster. (Special mention should go to Lani Diane Rich, who in 2003 became the first unpublished author to get a book deal with a NaNo-originated effort, signing a two-book deal with Warner Books.) These aren’t necessarily novels that few have heard of, either: amongst the NaNo projects to find homes with mainstream publishers are Sara Gruen’s New York Times-bestselling Water for Elephants — adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson last year — and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, also a New York Times bestseller and one of TIME critic Lev Grossman’s Top 10 Moments in Reading of 2011.

Those concerned about whether NaNoWriMo heralds the downfall of literature as we know it can take comfort in fact that the rest of the publishing industry still has gatekeepers in place to uphold standards and trust in market forces to reward the worthy (or, at least, the popular) as much as ever before. To be fair, Sarath wasn’t actually wrong when she called NaNoWrimo a gimmick. It is. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By inventing the (entirely arbitrary) month deadline and word count, writing a novel becomes a game instead of something to be scared of, a challenge with a constantly visible end-point that removes much of the fear and overwhelmingness from the idea of actually trying to write a book — especially with the explicit permission to just keep going regardless of whether or not it’s actually any good.

NaNoWriMo hasn’t reduced an art form, increased the percentage of crap to revise Sturgeon’s Law upwards to 99%, or any other such paranoid hyperbole. It’s done something far, far more important: It’s made writing feel like something that’s achievable and, in the process, returned literature to a place of pop art possibility that it hasn’t been in for years. As far as gimmicks go, you have to admit; that’s a pretty impressive one.

15 comments
Darkwriter73
Darkwriter73

Publishing your story or not, sitting down to commit to writing a story is just as productive as reading one. Writer's shouldn't worry about slush piles or reluctant literary agents. Just write your story and love doing it. Besides, the main people focusing on your writing are the main people taking about it. Push forward. Forget publishers and literary agents with such high expectations. Write your story, and if you want, hire a professional editor and proofreader. The readers of your story have the ability to make publishers and literary agents take notice. Remember, write your story. No stress. No worries.

SarahWarren
SarahWarren

I have the impression a lot of the anti-NaNo sentiment is pure snobbery - the idea that anyone might sit down and be creative intensively for a month and end up with something that was not unmitigated, unsalvageable crap is anathema. I'm a Brit, and I've done NaNo some five times, and won three times. It's reignited my interest in writing, it's introduced me to new friends and new authors, and it's provided me with an enormous amount of pleasure. I hope one day to edit one of my efforts into something that is publishable, but even if it never did - even if there were no Sara Gruens and Erin Morgensterns to give the lie to this assumption - why is it not OK for people to write for pleasure? Heaven knows people play sports, paint, sing, and do any number of other things purely because they WANT to and they ENJOY it. Why shouldn't we be able to write for pleasure, too?

JohnU
JohnU

I used the NaNo brackets to give me the inspiration to write a story that made me feel good -- four times. I have four legitimate (80-90K) novels waiting for an editor or an agent. Hell, writing for almost all of us ends up in a folder in a computer. And so it went again this year -- I have a work that may be my best yet. NaNo never hurt anybody and the snobs who run the publishing houses ought to know that. Far better authors get turned down because the pub-houses are still living in the 1970's. NaNo works. 

EnjoyFiction
EnjoyFiction

I truly believe that more people should be writing such stories. The ability to write and publish your own novel is amazing. We did not have that opportunity while back ago, but now we have! Why not to take advantage of this? :)

@TwisTurtle is right! What about just having fun? Enjoy writing a novel of yours and be proud of it.

Elyce
Elyce

This is my 6th year doing NaNo, and I fully intend to "win" with this one, as I did with the previous 6 (wrote 2 in one year once). However, of those other 6 novels, only one has ever seen the light of a publishing press. I recognize that a lot of what I write during NaNoWriMo is crap, but that's kind of the point. Ernest Hemingway once said that, "The first draft of anything is shit," and he was completely right. The people submitting to publishers on December 1st need to take a step back and take a few more months, or years, to edit that sucker. And those publishers who discourage NaNo need to take a step back as well and consider the fact that print is a dying art and they should be glad they even get submissions anymore.

BrandonHughes
BrandonHughes

I think that those that disparage NaNoWriMo are missing a lot of it's inherent value.

Speaking for myself, I'm the type of writer who constantly rewrites as they write. This always leaves me working on the first few pages endlessly. NaNoWriMo is the excuse to ignore those things that bother me until the second draft. 

Let's be honest, anyone who bangs out a 50k story in a month, runs it through spellcheck and sends it to a pusher must inherently be kidding themselves, not just about being published, but about that NaNoWriMo actually exists to do. It doesn't exist to race through a narrative and then say "Ha-ha I'm done. I'm a novelist." It exists so that you have an excuse to pound through those first 50k words. It puts a writer into the habit of writing every day. It gets them to work through writers block, and it gets then to keep focused on the all important goal of "just keep writing".

It's always been said that writing is more rewriting than anything else, and I absolutely agree. If you're not doing that, then you're not actually writing a book. You're just half digging the story out of your imagination and say "Well, it kind of looks like something... so that's good enough.

Frankly, I think that the writers who disparage NaNoWriMo either do not get the point, or perhaps are just angered that the art of writing had been demystified. Not many people have the wherewithal to pound out a bad draft and then fix it later, but NaNoWriMo gives them that. It makes them pound out either and entire novella (50k really is too short for a novel) or it gets them a good chunk into a larger work. 

Personally, I kind of wish they'd appoint February as National Novel ReWriting Month... but I guess NaNoReWriMo doesn't have the same ring. 

BenjaminMaslen
BenjaminMaslen

I love that so many folks that should be writing their novel (including myself), have in fact drifted over to read this article and in fact comment (some at great length). GET OFF THE INTERNET people !! those word counts won't take care of themselves. Leave the naysayers to sit and spin till Christmas and keep pounding those keyboards !

Woo !!!

nimbuschick
nimbuschick

I know so many talented writers who cannot get through a long form novel because they start worrying about the problems at the beginning and discourage themselves before they can even write a first draft to edit. NaNoWriMo forces you to push through and create a whole product (even if it's a hot mess) to edit and adjust. Sometimes you need to look at the big picture to understand the problems and solutions. Nobody is saying that you should upload straight to Kindle. Heck, you may even throw away all 50k words and still learn from it. You can't improve without practice! Can you imagine taking a writing class and being told by the professor not to write anything because it won't be marketable after the first draft? No, because that's just stupid.

MarjohnLove
MarjohnLove

The people who intentionally injure young and inexperienced authors by making them doubt themselves by calling their first attempts crap should be ashamed. Every literate person needed some caring soul to spend years with them teaching them how to read. Writing extends far beyond printing and cursive penmanship that were taught during those formative years. NaNoWriMo is a writing coach that sets up a huge hurdle to run toward and jump over in a month long race with a cheering crowd of other participants and mentors. NaNo makes the terrifying concept of finishing a unique novel of your own a rough draft possibility. The March editing NaNo allows the creative concepts of the raw galley to cool down for three months and the gives writers' unconscious minds time to think about what words actually landed on the pages, so they can decide through critique in self editing mode what to clarify, elucidate, embellish, add, cut, change or rearrange. NaNoWriMo is a brilliant idea! All you Brave NaNos... Go For It!

TwisTurtle
TwisTurtle

I'm... sorry for trying to have fun? Or is it that I'm trying to better myself without permission that bothers you? 

quixotic_hope
quixotic_hope

Giving yourself permission to write a crappy first draft isn't the same thing as giving yourself permission to try to publish a first draft without editing. There is a spinoff event in March called National Novel Editing Month, when people sit down and try to edit the drafts they wrote in November (or whenever). The goal of NaNo is to inspire you to write the novel you've always wanted to write but are afraid of writing because you're afraid it won't be good enough. 

No first draft is perfect. Whether you write your first draft in a month or a year, it is going to require a lot of editing. The point of NaNo is to let go of your inner perfectionist for long enough to write the first draft. Are there some people who miss the point and try to publish their novel without editing it at all? Of course. There are morons everywhere. But that doesn't change the fact that NaNo is a huge source of inspiration to many people, and that the idea behind it is great. 

MNElsewhere
MNElsewhere

This is my first year participating in NaNoWriMo and even though it may produce a lot of novels that are unpublishable, it gets those would-be writer's like myself engaged and writing. It is not an easy thing to write thousands of words daily without editing, at least for me, but the one thing I can say is that I'm grateful for this challenge because I am learning to write freely, I'm enjoying the experience and I'm writing with a purpose. In the end, I know I will need to write considerbly more than 50K words for my novel to make any sense and come to a decent conclusion; I know I will need to edit, revise and rework before going off to a publisher with any outside chance of getting into any pile other than the circular file and I know that it will take a lot of work, patience and talent to make any of this actually turn into a book. But the best part is - I've started, finally, writing a novel. And I'm very happy about that.

crows
crows

Participating in my 8th year currently (with the previous three seeing me across the 50k line). I also read, write, revise, submit, & critique the work of others year round and have seen a little bit of short work published.

I recommend NaNoWriMo to people as what it is for me: a challenge to process. It is opportunity, permission, and pressure to try new things, both in your material by treading the unknown and your procedure because a several-thousand-word-per-day habit is not one that many people cultivate. It is, however, a very healthy one, and even if we only manage to do it one month out of the year, the challenge, the brain exercise, stays with us. Criticisms of NaNoWriMo seem focused on what is produced, which I think no one will argue against being a great many hastily written words. I will also not argue the point that it's short-sighted to turn around on December 1st and submit your draft to an agent or publisher.  This naivete occurs year-round, however, without any assistance from the Office of Letters and Light or anyone else.  It would be nice if everyone in every industry knew what they were doing, prepared themselves, considered their choices, did their research, and never jumped the shark or the gun.  However, I think it's fair to say that this doesn't happen often, anywhere.  Developing a good set of tools (or friends) for revision, editing, proof-reading, and understanding whether your work is finished (enough) and how it fits into the market you want to sell to is an entirely different procedure than producing the work in the first place, and takes different refining.  It's important, but so is the work.  

We do not, to my knowledge, begrudge athletes their practice.  You expect a marathon runner to run daily, and to train harder when an event is in sight that will test their skills and limits.  Do you ridicule someone who picks up a jogging habit because they'd like to improve the sensation of being inside their own skin, and says dreamily, "I think I'd like to run a marathon some day." I hope not.  I'm not in any circles of professional or aspiring-professional athletes, but I would feel rather poorly about someone who turned up their nose to sneer, 'not everybody has it in them, you know'.  

A lot of crummy writing gets published. My list of evidence to back this up probably has some things on it that will overlap a lot of people's, and some things that really won't. I would like to make a living writing fiction, or at least to supplement my living enough to take a nice retreat now and again to do more of it, if nothing else, and that relies on a certain amount of being better at it than most people.  That said, I am a fanatical supporter of writing, and creative processes as a whole, not being elevated to exclusive clubs, the lofty reaches of which  the fortunate may look down on those less so and tell them their dreams aren't worthy. It's healthy for us to open ourselves up and do these things, and it is through rigorous and frequent practice that we improve in whatever we're doing. Those things are universal, and uniting, and NaNoWriMo not only provides encouragement but a really stellar community out of those common traits, which is yet another incredible value in the event.  The proverbial cherry on top is the Office, whose nonprofit side does some very good work out there in the world.  I'm looking forward to my 50k+ this year, as well as many future years of participating, and am, as always, glad to see the word going out about the event.  Thanks :)

SarahWarren
SarahWarren

Procrastination is a time honoured NaNoWriMo art. It's as much a part of the month as tearing your hair out during week two, celebrating every 5K milestone, randomly throwing in a bunch of ninjas. Don't diss tradition ;)

nimbuschick
nimbuschick

@quixotic_hope "There are morons everywhere." Well said. Every field has morons; it's arrogant of writers to think that their morons are any more destructive. So a few bad novels get out. I would rather bad writers publish than bad doctors practice.