NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?

What is NaNoWriMo? A great surge of literary energy?

Or a Feast of Fools?

From their website:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

In 2011, NaNoWriMo claimed 256,618 participants and 36,843 winners (i.e., those who finished the challenge successfully). As an earlier press release said: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”

As one of the participants wrote:

Every year of NaNo, I feel like a winner, just for taking time for myself to do something I love, and to do it intensely.

I agree that one key element of writing is setting aside the time to write, fueling your core of passion, and dealing with the demands of the often-tiring process. Writing can seem like a solitary struggle: man or woman facing the blank page of infinite possibilities. We all can benefit from encouragement and writing buddies, real or virtual.

So I understand how the cheerleading and sense of community of NaNoWriMo gets the writer’s blood pounding and fingers flying on the keyboard.

Personally, though, I recommend a more measured, stick-to-it approach. For most, 500 words a day and a good 3-month plan will get you further than an intense November.

Is a month-long writing marathon really a good idea for you?

As a writing coach and an editor of books of advice for writers, I’ve studied the techniques of successful authors of all genres and approaches. Only a few writers (Georges Simenon, Belgian author of the Maigret crime novels comes to mind) did anything like NaNoWriMo with any consistent success.

The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Simenon says “Typing some 80 pages each day, he wrote, between 1923 and 1933, more than 200 books of pulp fiction under 16 different pseudonyms, the sales of which soon made him a millionaire.”

Eighty pages each day! Zounds!

This story about Simenon is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock:

Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that [Simenon] couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock replied: “That’s all right, I’ll wait.”

Here’s another Simenon story:

So notorious did his speed of composition become, that on 14th January 1927 he signed a contract with publisher Eugène Merle undertaking to spend seven days in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub, during which time he would write a novel which was subsequently to be serialised in Merle’s newspaper, Paris-Matinal.

(The paper folded before the event took place, but Simenon kept the advance and enjoyed the media attention for the planned stunt.)

Of course, I certainly can’t prove that the manic intensity of NaNoWriMo – or being locked in a glass cage for seven days outside a night club to write – will do any serious harm to a writer. Most will probably build up at least some ideas, passages, maybe self-confidence (or not), maybe some progress on a project.

But that’s a lot of energy to spend on something that’s probably better training for pulp fiction than for serious writing aspirations.

My November challenge: ask yourself, honestly, what really works for you? Not what is fun, or a literary adrenalin rush, or a heightened sense of community, or the power of a public oath of commitment (good things in moderation). . . . but what is really going to advance your writing?

For some, NaNoWriMo is going to be the trick that works. No problem! But then . . . what’s your plan for the next three months, and beyond?

For others, maybe a better idea is to look at the principles of setting aside the time to write, fueling your core of passion, and dealing with the demands of the often-tiring process . . . and develop a more realistic schedule to accomplish a good piece of publishable work, and find some longer-term writing friends to help keep you on track.

As I said in my Afterword to The New Writer’s Handbook, Vol. 2:

“One of the oddities of the writing world is that it allows you – in some ways glorifies the tendency – to continue in fruitless ways. To grow as a writer, be more honest about evaluating what works.”

3 comments for “NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?

  1. October 19, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    I’m being a NaNo rebel this year: instead of writing 50k words on a totally new project, I’m returning to a languishing manuscript, second of a projected 5-book cycle, in hope of finishing it.

    The first book is out for consideration by a publisher, and — just in case it’s accepted — I want the second one ready to go. However, life and the editing career has pushed aside the writing.

    The abandon of NaNoWriMo will, I hope, kick down the dam and let the creativity flow freely once more.

    • PhilipMartin
      October 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Elizabeth, that is a brilliant way to use the community support of NaNoWriMo, but to focus on something more realistic and useful to you than a madcap 50,000-word novel from scratch. Good luck with the project!

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