Day 19: The Pros and Cons of NaNoWriMo


It’s November again, and if you know anyone who has ever thought about writing a book, you may already know: November is NaNoWriMo.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo parses out to National Novel Writing Month. Basically, writers are challenged to write 50,000 words—a novel—in the month of November. The challenge started in 1999 with 21 participants, and today has grown to nearly 500,000 ambitious writers each year.

My eighth novel, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse, actually started out as my first novel, and I started writing it for NaNoWriMo 2003. I got about 20,000 words in and could never get any further. Almost ten years (and seven completed and published books) later I picked up that first draft again with an aim to revive it. I realized then why I’d never managed to finish it: it was—pardon my French—crap.

But I still liked the core idea; the questions I’d been trying to answer still wouldn’t let me go. So in late 2013 I completely scrapped the entire first draft and started over again with just the kernel of the idea, and what I wrote became my eighth book (and one of my favorites).

Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve grappled with the question when would-be-writers ask me: “Do you recommend I try NaNoWriMo?” There are pros, of course, but there are also cons. And thus, this post.

First, the pros.

If you’ve always wanted to write, anything that gives you a nudge to get started is good. You can finally see if what you thought was a book inside you, waiting to get out, was actually a book; or if maybe it was just an idea you had but aren’t really passionate about. Writing isn’t a glamorous activity. There’s eye strain involved; there’s carpal tunnel and shoulder and back problems. And it’s not “hard” in the sense that coal mining or digging ditches is hard, but it’s hard in the sense that it brings up every insecurity you never knew you had, every fear, every resistance to judgment, every vulnerability. If you want to write well, you have to dive into those fears and vulnerabilities, and that can be hard. So, to my point, if NaNo (as it’s shortened) can give you that push over the fear hurdles, that’s great.

And, in theory, one could develop a habit from this. If you sit down and write every day for 30 days, by the end of 30 days you’ll have a writing habit, and that’s what it is to be a writer.

But on the other hand, the cons.

On the other hand, the 50,000-word mark is a not-entirely-arbitrary number; it’s the very lowest baseline for what most consider a “novel” as opposed to a “novella.” (See here and here.) It may come as no surprise that if you asked a hundred novelists how long it takes to write a novel, the most common answer would not be “one month.” Certainly some people write that fast. I do not. Even if I’d spent a year planning out my novel, I doubt I could write one in a month.

And as I said, 50,000 is really a baseline. Most novels (depending on genre) are longer. If you want to technically write a complete novel, you’ll be writing more than 50K. But beyond that, 50,000 words in 30 days amounts to almost 1,700 words per day. I’m a seasoned writer, and generally when I’m in my writing groove I aim for 1,500 to 2,000 per day. A huge number of writers aim for 1000 per day, every day (not just when they’re in their writing groove). The most words I’ve ever written in one day is somewhere over 6,000, and I’ll tell you, that is exhausting. 1,700 every day for 30 days (especially for a new writer) is a feat that leaves most people completely drained. Anyone who ends up writing 50,000 words in one month is likely to be too tired to continue. I’ve known far too many people who go hard in November and then don’t touch their work again for months.

In my opinion, a better idea is to adapt NaNoWriMo to more realistic aims. If you want to build a writing habit, decide on a goal to write every day for 30 days for an hour. An hour is a reasonable amount of time to stare at your computer or pad of paper, even if at the end you only have 200 words. It’s the habit you’re trying to build, not the word count (just as I’m firming up my own writing habit with these daily blog posts). The word count will come with time and practice. When I started my first book, a 200-word day was not uncommon. Here I am, seven years later, and now a 1,000-word day is pretty easy. Start small and build up.

If, on the other hand, the goal is to write a novel, then by all means, start writing a novel. You don’t have to complete it in one month. Two of the hardest parts of writing a novel are starting it, and then finishing it. If you’ve done both, you’re miles ahead of the game—even if it takes you 31 days, or 90, or a year.

I think the idea behind NaNo has merit, but the execution of it leads people to focus too much on goals rather than on process, and further, leaves the “winners” exhausted. If a person’s goal is simply to put 50,000 words on paper (or computer) in 30 days, that’s one thing. But if your goal is to write a real, quality piece of work, or to build a writing practice, I think the NaNo project is best if adapted to your own needs, and if “success” is measured in some way other than 50,000 words.

The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!

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