National Novel Writing Month is awesome: don't get me wrong. I've done it twice and finished it twice, and I'm delighted that so many writers find it so invigorating. The challenge? Write 50,000 words during the month of November. Since a smallish novel can clock in at fifty thousand, this is the time for anyone who's ever said "I really should write that novel" to get in gear and write it. Forget the excuses and just put the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair...and write your novel.
The scope has expanded beyond "I really should write that novel" to include even career novelists, and there's no shortage of writers publishing tips to help other writers. According to NaNoWriMo.org, it began with 21 participants in 1999 and expanded to over a quarter million last year. Obviously this is a felt need: it's a limited time, an easily-understood scope, and oodles of mutual support.
Thirty days, fifty thousand words: about seventeen hundred words a day. So why am I not doing it? Especially why am I not doing it this year when I'm gearing up to do a lot of writing anyhow?
Every writer has her own ideal pacing. It depends on your state-of-life, your obligations, your side activities, your energy level, and what kind of book you're trying to write. A mother of five high-need children who is coaching soccer and caring for her elderly father may count herself lucky to write two hundred words a day. A college student who considers coffee the real base of the food pyramid might clock in three thousand words a day without a problem. Moreover, a novelist may be able to write more than a philosopher, and obviously a poet will be generating fewer pages than even the philosopher...but these are all good. There's no one metric that works for all writers, and NaNoWriMo is an artificial construct.
Moreover, some of us (for example, yours truly) need what I've referred to before as "a literary pause." In a literary pause, we're not blocked, but we find we can't write, at least not right now. It happens instinctually just before a pivotal scene, or a moment where we're going to need every bit of skill to craft the work. Those mini-breathers give us the emotional and mental energy necessary to get through the tough bits.
We can overcome the lack of natural pauses by forcing through, but what that breeds is exhaustion. It breeds resentment. After a while, the book becomes your enemy, the word-count a living thing you need to fight and subdue every day, every day, every day.
And after that month ends? Well, it's over. You defeated the book.
Do you want to defeat your book?
Do you want to have to look your book in the face after you defeated it, or after it defeated you?
There's nothing magical about NaNoWriMo except that many writers find it helpful, and I'm glad for them. But for those of us who become competitive with ourselves, or who tend to take a guideline as an iron-clad rule, who don't realize we're sacrificing ourselves in pursuit of ourselves...for us, it's better not to start. Or to set your own goal, something more sustainable. Thirty-five thousand words in a month is just lovely. It's not a small novel, but it's half a regular-size novel, and at a gentler pace, you have the stamina to do it again. You don't have to sprint to run a marathon. In fact, I'm told that to run a marathon well, occasionally you need to walk.
Two times I went the distance, carved out that extra half-hour a day and poured out seventeen hundred words every day, and two times, I crashed in December and didn't touch the book again until I absolutely had to. One is still unfinished.
I don't dispute that National Novel-Writing Month helps many writers get a start, gain their confidence, and learn they're more skilled than they ever imagined. Someone who goes from "I should write that book someday" to "Wow, I can do this!" is a better person all around, and we should encourage that sort of self-discovery.
NaNoWriMo taught me the value of graphing my progress. When I'm focused on finishing a project, I set up a ticker and update it every day, and I find motivation in "feeding the ticker." I encourage my friends who are struggling with their own NaNo projects, and I encourage those who are on the cusp of deciding whether to sign up. It may be for them.
Similarly, it may be for you: you don't know until you begin, or until you finish. Just give yourself permission to back off if the pace is too much. The cutoff for "winning" is fifty thousand words, but if you "only" write thirty-five thousand words you didn't have before, I can't see how you've lost.
For myself, I'm not doing NaNoWriMo again, not while I still have children at home, not while I still find my most comfortable pace to be twelve hundred words a day with a few random days off every month. Because for me, a hundred thousand words in ninety days births a novel just fine.