Is Perfectionism Slowing Your Writing Process? 7 Ways NaNoWriMo Can Help

by Anne R. Allen

We've all met those people who think their sojourn on earth is meant to be a fault-finding mission. They can spot lint on your jacket at fifty paces, provide a litany of your imperfections whenever there's a lull in the conversation, and be counted upon to tell you why your pumpkin pie will never be as good as Grandma's.

They usually have a work of art in their heads that is the greatest thing ever. But it will forever remain in their heads, because they never actually create it. Instead, they spend their days finding fault with other people's creations.

We have lots of words to describe these people: "perfectionist", "persnickety", "finicky"…and of course, "lonely." That's because not a lot of folks like these people. They especially don't like themselves. All this stuff they're doing to you, they do to themselves, only worse.

Unfortunately, most writers have some perfectionist in us.

I have a lot. Both my parents were perfectionists, and they raised me to be one too. Pair that with an inherited predisposition to anxiety, and you have a recipe for creative paralysis.

I wanted to be a writer from the time I could hold a crayon, but I never wrote seriously until I was nearly forty. Even then, the process was excruciating, because I'd write and rewrite every chapter for months.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) wasn't around when I was trying to write through the barriers of perfectionism I'd set up for myself, but I created my own crazy writing challenge by pitching a serialized novel to a local entertainment weekly. The San Francisco Chronicle had success serializing Armistead Maupin's iconic Tales of the City in the 1970s, and I was a huge fan. So I figured, why not do a similar thing in the 1990s?

I certainly was no Armistead Maupin, but The New Times editor, the visionary and much-missed late Steve Moss, decided to take a chance on my project. I was kind of blown away when he actually liked my pitch. I agreed to write a serial mystery novella set on the Central Coast, incorporating current events into the storyline, providing a 1000 word chapter every week for 30 weeks. It appeared on the back side of Rob Brezsny's "Free Will Astrology" column in the classified section.

No edits. No going back to fix anything. I had to write an episode a week—based on a very sketchy outline—and pray it would all come together.

It did, kind of, and I even got paid. Coming up for Air made as much money as a lot of first novels do these days.

But everybody who knew anything about writing told me I was insane. And I was. It was a reckless gamble. I don't know what made me do it, except maybe pure desperation.

I'd been dropped by an agent after my first novel had been on submission for nearly a year—and three readers at Bantam loved it—before it got killed in an editorial meeting.

I'd been so close. And I wanted to be a published novelist that much.

My crazy stunt didn't get me another agent and it sure didn't get my poor, almost-accepted-at-Bantam novel published. Somebody told me the rocket scientists at Vandenberg Air Force Base read me faithfully every week, but I'm not sure I got much of a readership in the general population.

Still, I count it as a success. It gave me confidence. I felt I could call myself a writer. Even though I made a lot of rookie mistakes and the story had some serious point-of-view issues.

But I had kicked my perfectionism in the butt.

Soon after that, I let my imagination soar and started writing the novel that would become The Lady of the Lakewood Diner. I was on my way to a career.

But I do not recommend that you do this at home, kids.

Enter NaNoWriMo.

I do recommend NaNoWriMo instead.

But first: only join the NaNo crowd if...

1) You have the time. Don't do it if your job or family or health will suffer. Make a schedule allowing for plenty of sleep, exercise, and eating healthy food.

2) You are not prone to depression. There's new data suggesting that people prone to depression can be plunged into an episode by long periods of cerebral activity. If you have a tendency to depression, be wary of any kind of writing marathon. (I battle depression and anxiety, so I'm speaking from experience here.)

3) You've talked out your plans with your family and friends. Your disappearance for a month can cause serious family rifts. Especially if you're counting on other people to feed you and take care of your needs. NaNo is fun and has benefits, but is not worth jeopardising your support system. And it's probably a really bad idea for parents of young children.

4) It suits your personality. If the whole idea of NaNo fills you with revulsion, dismiss all the pressure to join in. Some writers are sprinters and some are marathoners. Only you know how your muse works.

For people who aren't suited for it, but have some extra time, I suggest National Novel READING Month. The official NaNoREADMo is December 15-January 15, but there's no reason you can't do one for yourself in November. More on that below, and I'll be discussing it more in a future post.

What is NaNoWriMo?

For the uninitiated: NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month project. Started in 1999 by a San Franciscan named Chris Baty—and 21 of his verbally ambitious friends—it challenges you to write a complete novel in a month. That month is November.

Entering the contest—now run by Mr. Baty's non-profit outfit, the Office of Letters and Light—is free. Anybody who finishes 50,000 words by midnight November 30th is a winner. You can get a nifty badge for your blog or website, but mostly completion of your novel is its own reward.

To become eligible for the honor—and an official "Wrimo"—you register at so you can have your word count verified at the end of the month, and on November 1, start writing.

Crazy? Absolutely. But all fiction writing is crazy.

But…don't they write a lot of crapola?

Yup. And that's the point. (And at least your rotten rough draft won't be sitting there in the newsstands like mine.)

And it's all about creating that awful first draft. If you don't have one, you'll never have a fabulous final draft.

As Anne LaMott wrote in her classic book for writers, Bird by Bird, "The only way can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."

NaNo forces you to get that dung onto the page.

Here are some benefits:

1) No time to agonize over your first chapter.

You've read endless carping on blogs like this one about how the first chapter has to hook the reader, introduce all the major themes and plot elements, begin with the world's most enticing sentence, end with an even more exciting sentence, etc. But when you're writing your first draft, none of that matters.

You're introducing yourself to your characters and their world. You can worry about your reader when you start editing next January.

2) No frittering away time on excessive research.

If you're one of those writers who has procrastinated for years, piling up reams of historical and biographical detail, this is your chance to actually write the book. (I plead guilty to this one. I've been doing research for over a year on my next Camilla book, where Plantagenet meets the ghost of Richard III near Sheffield. It's sure is easy to get lost down the research rabbit hole.)

Thing is, most of those details would bore our readers silly if we actually put them in the novel, anyway.

You're better off writing the book first and figuring out later whether your reader needs to know what they used for toilet paper in 14th century England or what kind of underpants Richard III wore.

3) No time to censor yourself.

You can't afford to agonize over whether your brother–in-law/former teacher/ex-girlfriend will recognize him/herself. Or if your mom will read between the lines and figure out you weren't really at that church teen retreat the time you and your buddies took off for Mardi Gras.

Besides, you'll be amazed how characters and situations inspired by real life take off on their own and create an alternate reality.

Ruth Harris will be writing on the subject of creating fiction from real life next week. A must-read post!

4) You won't be tempted to save your best ideas for later.

New writers are often terrified they'll run out of ideas. But it's amazing how many more will show up once you're in "the zone".

5) You'll give up trying to control the process.

If the story goes somewhere you didn't expect it to go, or you can't stick to your outline, you'll have to run with it. When your muse is talking, you can't take the chance of annoying her for even a couple of days.

6) You'll have a great excuse for skipping the family Thanksgiving

You can avoid all those relatives whose politics make you despair for the future of the human race. I have a secret suspicion this is why Chris Baty and friends invented it in the first place.

7) It's fun—and a great way to meet other writers all over the world.

Look in the NaNo website forums for online and in-person discussions and groups.

If you decide to jump into the craziness, here are the NaNo rules:

1) Register at before November 1.

2) Write a novel (in any language) 50,000+ words long between November 1 and November 30. "Novel" is loosely defined. They say "If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!"

3) Start from scratch. Previously written outlines and character sketches are OK—and highly recommended—but this can't be a work in progress. (Although if you have a WIP you want to give it a push, you can do your own version of NaNo without the badge competition.)

4) Be the sole author. Although you can use the occasional quotation.

5) Write more than one word. No repeating the same one 50,000 times.

6) Upload your novel for word-count validation to the site between November 25 and November 30.

Chances are pretty good you aren't going to write a polished, publishable novel in four weeks (although Charles Dickens is said to have written A Christmas Carol in six, four of which were in November, so there's some precedent).

So PLEASE don't start querying agents or consider self-publishing until you do a serious, in-depth revision. You'll just clog the pipeline and make the agents cranky—or feed into the myth of the self-publishing "tsunami of crap"—which isn't good for any of us.

And if/when you do query, it's not wise to reveal that the book began at NaNo—unfortunately, a lot of participants send off the unedited crapola. Also, most agents won't look at a novel of less than 70,000 words, so even the Dickenses among you will have further work to do.

My advice, based on what successful WriMos have told me, is to let the book sit in December and then on January 1st let your inner persnickety perfectionist out to play and start polishing that puppy.

Then, maybe your book will have the success of NaNo Novels Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Wool, by Hugh Howey, The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, The Darwin Elevator, by Jason M. Hough, Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, and 90 other successful novels that started at NaNo .

Perfectionism can be a gift when used in the right way, of course. Perfectionists make fabulous proofreaders and editors. Also surgeons, accountants, pilots, butlers and a host of other professions. A whole lot of people could use a little more perfectionism, as anybody who spends a lot of time online can testify.

But it can also be a debilitating disease, and I don't mean to make light of its unhealthy side. It's considered an anxiety disorder and is related to OCD.

So if your perfectionism is more serious than just a case of writing slow-down or overediting-itis, do get some help. You'll have more friends and a happier life if you can keep that inner persnickisaurus at bay. Here's a test from Psychology Today that can help you find out if you have perfectionism disorder.

But if you have mild perfectionism that's thwarting your muse the way mine did, NaNoWriMo might just be the cure you need. For more great tips on NaNo (including how to take care of your body) check out Monique McDonell's collection of tips on her blog.


For those of you who aren't planning to spend November at the keyboard, wearing your fingers down to the knuckles, may I suggest an alternative? It may not help your perfectionism, but it is guaranteed to help your writing.

Conduct your own National Novel READING Month. Or join the folks at NaNoREADMo on Facebook who plan a National Reading Month in December. You can follow their Twitter hashtag #NaNoREADMo.

Two weeks ago I held a contest to see who recognized lines from the top 20 bestselling novels. Only one person entered. I chose books by mega-selling authors with very recognizable styles. But most people said they'd never heard of them. This does not bode well. Writers need to READ.

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."...Stephen King

What about you, Scriveners? Are you going to take the NaNo challenge this year? Or would you rather try NaNoREADMo? Have you ever done NaNoWriMo? Did you try it and find it wasn't for you?  Do you fight an inner perfectionist?


Whether you're jumping on the NaNo bandwagon or not, new writers need a handbook for navigating the treacherous waters of today's fast-changing publishing business without being driven stark raving bonkers by all the conflicting information. 

Amazon #1 bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde and I have just the book to do it. 

The ebook is now on an Amazon Countdown: only 99c on Amazon US (Also on sale at Amazon UK) for the next week. The sale price will disappear at Midnight on Halloween. Woooooo.

It's also on sale in paper at Amazon US, and Amazon UK. It's on sale right now for $10.75 and £8.75

Here's what a nice UK reviewer named David said about the book. We like his "just the good parts" style.


I could end the review there... but I have a few more words.

This e-guide is both reader and writer friendly, and I could not put it down. This book was SO helpful.


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