For the uninitiated: NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month project. Started a decade ago by a young 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. Last year 165,000 writers—called “Wrimos”—joined in the merriment.
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 November 30th is a winner. No prizes that I know of: completion of your novel is its own reward.
To enter, you register at NaNoWriMo.org 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, so why not? Of the 250 commenters on Nathan Bransford’s blogpost on the subject most intend to try it. Some are going to be starting a first novel, but a lot of others have participated multiple times. (Nathan promised to devote all of next week’s blogposts to NaNo.)
But…don’t they write a lot of crapola?
Yup. And that’s the point.
It’s all about creating a *&%#ty first draft.
As Anne LaMotte wrote in her classic book for writers Bird by Bird :
“The only way [most writers] can get anything done at all is to write really, 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 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 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 damned book. The truth is, most of those details would bore the reader silly if you actually put them in your 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 13th century Scotland or what kind of underpants Genghis Khan 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 find out you weren’t really at band camp that summer when you and your buddies took the road trip to Cabo. Besides you’ll be amazed how characters/situations inspired by real life take off on their own and create an alternate reality. And excuse me, when did your brother-in-law ever read a book anyway?
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 pissing her off for even a couple of days.
6) You’ll have a great excuse for skipping the family Thanksgiving with all those relatives whose politics make you despair for the future of the human race.
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. (Locals: they’ve got regional groups in Fresno, Bakersfield, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, and a few San Luis Obispans are reaching out to each other in the forums.)
If you decide to jump into the craziness, here are the NaNo rules:
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!”
Start from scratch. Previously written outlines & character sketches are OK—and highly recommended—but this can’t be a work in progress.
Be the sole author. Although you can use the occasional quotation.
Write more than one word. No repeating the same one 50,000 times.
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 ChristmasCarol in six, four of which were in November, so there’s some precedent.)
But PLEASE don’t start querying agents until you do a serious, in-depth revision: you’ll just clog the pipeline and make the agents cranky, which isn’t good for any of us. And 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 Chuck Dickenses among you will have further work to do.
But if you do that work, maybe you’ll have the success of NaNovelist Sarah Gruen, whose phenomenal best seller Water For Elephants started as a NaNo project.
And the important thing is you’ll have a draft to start revising. And you’ll have finished a novel. How many people can say that?
And for those of us who are in the middle of several projects and can’t start a new one this month, YA author Natalie Whipple has suggested a companion November challenge: NaNoReaMo. You read at least three books a week for the whole month.
That’s the one I’m going to be going for. I already have a pile of sucky first drafts to edit.