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Monday, October 29, 2012

Why I'm not doing NaNoWriMo

This is the time of year when writing boards have their obligatory "Are you doing NaNoWriMo?" thread, and where among some writers, the peer pressure becomes intense. Will you? Won't you? If you're on the fence, people start urging you, "Do it! Do it!"

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?

Burnout.

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.


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Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or ejecting stink bugs from the house. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. To make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 

10 comments:

Xan said...

Couldn't agree more with this post! I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year because I'm almost finished my WiP and want to take my time savouring that rather than rushing into something new.

Megan Hand said...

And 1200 words a day is nothing to snooze at. Everyone does have their own pacing. For me, I've been on burnout mode for a too-large chunk of this year, so I am psyched for NaNo. It's exactly the kick in the butt I need to get my juices flowing out of the fingers instead of being stuck in my head. Wise words, though. We all do need to slow down sometimes. That message can never be heard enough :)

meg@meganhandwrites.com

Kelly Matherly-Urban said...

I am new to the writing world, so it's sufficient to say I have never heard of NaNoWriMo before. Thanks for sharing. I am going to try to go the distance...

Hope Clark said...

Amen, Jane. It's not my way of writing, and I can easily see the burnout happening. Or learning to hate the story after pushing it so hard. Others may enjoy the rush, but I'd rather follow my own pace...and most likely wind up editing less in the long run.

C. Hope Clark
www.chopeclark.com
www.fundsforwriters.com

Rebecca said...

Last year, I participated in NaNoWriMo just so I would have the excuse to spend as much time as I could on my book, which I knew would never reach 50,000 words since I was writing in verse. The draft ended up taking me two months.

Joan Leacott said...

I've never done NaNo for this very reason. It's not my pace. I goal at 1000 words a day, 5 days a week. I need those two days off to clear my head and get other stuff done.

Gerry said...

Jane, you captured so well how I feel! I've done NaNoWriMo twice. I used it to add 50,000 words to a book I was already working on. I'm about to start something new, but it has to be at my own pace. I would encourage anybody who has the time and energy to try it, though. As you said, just consider whatever you do a success.

JeffO said...

I did it two years ago and 'won', and it really did all the things for me that I guess it's supposed to: got me in the chair, writing every day, getting a story down. It didn't work out for me, timing-wise, last year. This year, I'm not in the middle of a project, but the Next Idea that's kicking around in my head may not be ready enough for me to work on just yet. Looks like I'll be sitting this one out.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

Having cranked out approximately 60k words in two weeks more than once in my life (mostly because I had nothing else to do and a burning idea), I have, nonetheless, always wanted to do NaNoWriMo. Alas, having to make time to make a living hasn't made that possible of late. That being said, it's up to each person to decide what he or she can do. If someone says they are debating doing NaNo, then I encourage them. But you're right - it is an artificial construct, one that can be very useful or which can be ultimately destructive. It just depends.
For me, the real excitement this year will be doing The Night of Writing Dangerously with my daughter. What fun - writing and spending time with my wonderful spawn (her term).

Anne Louise Bannon said...

Having cranked out approximately 60k words in two weeks more than once in my life (mostly because I had nothing else to do and a burning idea), I have, nonetheless, always wanted to do NaNoWriMo. Alas, having to make time to make a living hasn't made that possible of late. That being said, it's up to each person to decide what he or she can do. If someone says they are debating doing NaNo, then I encourage them. But you're right - it is an artificial construct, one that can be very useful or which can be ultimately destructive. It just depends.
For me, the real excitement this year will be doing The Night of Writing Dangerously with my daughter. What fun - writing and spending time with my wonderful spawn (her term).