This Year, NaNoWriMo Is Driving Me Nuts


Woe unto the writer with a particularly busy November, or the writer dealing with difficult personal circumstances that month, or the writer in the middle of a long and arduous revision process, slowly transitioning one paragraph into the next, or rearranging a manuscript piece by piece by piece. And as the leaves fall and the Thanksgiving Turkeys get pre-ordered across America, even more angst awaits the published, midlist author who has recently been told that, “stories with X just don’t sell,” or “your novel is beautifully written, but just too quiet.”

Why do all these different varieties of writers wish they could disappear until December arrives? Because every single day this month they will be discovering that every human being they know, they once knew, or they don’t know, totally made their national Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo) wordcount today! (Score! High five!) These social media pals sat down, buckled in, and are now taking a break from their daily writing extravaganza to share their accomplishments with their hundreds of writing buddies. Look at how easy it is to write a novel, the implication is. I’m totally gaming this.

Meanwhile, the miserable November novelist chews over a single word’s placement, hangs up after a frustrating phone call with her agent, or decides to scrap a manuscript and start again. Yes, for those writers outside the NaNoWriMo bubble, there’s something a little bit exasperating in the air this month, or this ‘Mo, if you will.

Now, NaNoWriMo’s purpose and intentions are fairly noble. First of all, I enjoy the very Elizabeth-Gilbert-esque idea that fiction-writing should be fun. It should be an adventure, a lark, a return to childhood awe. The spirit of NaNoWriMo, and the communal write-ins and cool badges encourage that aspect of it. So far, so good. And I’d go futher and say yes, everyone has creativity in them and should be encouraged to express that urge. Furthermore, anyone who has spent time reading about the origins of the write-a-thon knows that the idea is not to massage any grand opus into perfection, but to birth a new draft. A really, rough draft. Plenty of excellent novelists have used the month to jumpstart their new projects. And I am a big fan of this method because this is how I like to write, when I have the freedom to do so — one long, messy draft, followed by potentially years of careful and constant revision.

Yet it’s in the midst of such revision that I find myself this November. I’m not suffering from a lack of raw material but trying to figure out how to arrange it and position it, and so observing to everyone pat themselves on the back for writing new words is driving me somewhat loony. Starting a new draft, that’s the fun part. It would indeed be so much easier and so much more exciting than spending hours agonizing over my characters’ motivations and whether they’re being accurately expressed with my current point-of-view and tone combination.

Yet the irritation that many established and amateur writers alike have with this month isn’t just about their own processes compared with the production of participants.

It’s also with the idea that probably more people are participating in this write-a-thon than attending contemporary fiction readings, buying literary magazines, reading classic novels, or reading contemporary novels. How American does that juxtaposition feel: more people trying to write their own books than read them! Increasing numbers people trying to “break into” the market without knowing what that market even looks like. Indeed, the audience for literary fiction is slim to middling, publishing is floundering in a sea of mergers, and the internet is giving novels a run for our collective attention. So one of the most common sentiments I’ve seen expressed this November is a wish that people would take time to read, rather than just writing their own novels.

Another writer on Facebook expressed similar sentiments, saying, “Wake me up when it’s National Novel Buying Month. ‪ #‎NaNoBuyMo‬” And Steal This Book! writer Austin Kleon started a similar movement, #NaNoReadMo, for enthusing over reading:

I worry that some of my animosity comes from snobbery, the (not entirely unfounded, to be fair) belief that writing should be hard and require lots of thinking and not just a mad frenzy of producing. Maybe I’m ashamed because the gusto that the new participants feel is showing up my laziness. But there’s more to it than that: I’ve learned since getting my MFA that fiction writing, particularly at the apprentice level, is an incredibly lengthy process, often years long, and at least for me for me, any lingering dreams of dashing off a really ambitious novel have been thoroughly extinguished.

Wherever my ego comes in, I confess it’s just hard to stand out in the cold, feeling like Adele, shouting hello from the outside, excluded from the warm camaraderie of the NaNoWriMo hordes.

Some of us will try to scrape something of our own out of the month’s spirit: last year I used November to try to write every day, to finish some short stories and send them out. It was useful, to an extent. Along similar lines, The Millions launched NaGrafWriMo, a jokey contest for literary writers to try to write one polished paragraph this November:

We are launching #NaGrafWriMo in recognition of all the writers with jobs and family obligations, and those who just spend an ungodly amount of time on the Internet, who find it hard to read a whole book in a month, much less write one. But we are also embarking on this new program because we have found that, for most writers, it can take more talent, determination, and hard work to write one good paragraph than an entire lousy book.

The contrast between this tongue-in-cheek contest and the big NaNoWriMo is a good way to get perspective a reminder that progress comes in different forms and sizes. So maybe the only real goal for all of us, participants or not, is just to keep plugging away at our stories, essays, poems and novels, bit by bit, day by day, and month by month.