Why you should take part in NaNoWriMo

Oct 13, 2016 | Living a little differently | 1 comment

I have a confession to make. When I worked at a literary agency in London I hated NaNoWriMo. My Twitter timeline would be flooded with people talking about it all November, and then once the month was over, my inbox flooded with the results. It used to irk me no end, and I never understood it, or its appeal. Who were these people? What on earth made them think they could write a novel in a month? A MONTH? That’s ridiculous. Writing novels is hard work. It takes time. Years even. It’s a serious business. REAL writers don’t write novels in a month.

NaNoWriMo, to me, felt like a piss take. I turned by snotty little nose up at it, and was, I’m rather ashamed to say, pretty scornful of anyone who took part.

I obviously have a very different opinion now, although I still stand by most of what I’ve just said. Writing a novel is indeed hard work, even more so than I thought back then, having never had a stab at it myself. It does, for the majority of us at least, take years to get right.

Yet taking part in NaNoWriMo, as I understand it, isn’t a means to circumvent this process so much as it is a way to kick-start it. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, slightly miss-sells itself I think, as it isn’t about writing a novel in the strictest sense, so much as writing something that could potentially become a novel. It’s about dedicating a month to writing, about saying goodbye to your excuses and actually sitting down to do the work. It’s about getting an idea out of your head and onto your computer, so you can examine it, turn it around, to see whether it has merit or not. It’s about letting your characters take you where they want to go. It’s about discovering what your plot really is, and what it is you actually want to say. It’s about giving yourself pages that can be edited. It’s about creativity, and the thrill of a proper challenge.

I think anyone coming into NaNoWriMo expecting to end the month with a polished novel, or one that just needs some light tweaking, will be disappointed and, to be honest, probably won’t even finish. The aim of the month is to write 50,000 words, and complete a narrative arc. That is all. From my, albeit limited experience (I wrote a “novel in a month” back in March) you don’t end up with a novel as such, but rather a misshapen thing with a few bones and a lot of rough, oddly shaped flesh to it. You might have a few characters you like, but most you will never want to go near again. Your dialogue will probably be very clunky and sound odd to the ear when read aloud, and your sentences will rub up against each other in an unsettling way. There will be inconsistencies and plot holes big enough for Hagrid to slip into. Your metaphors and images will feel trite and overused, and your language about as sophisticated as it was when you were thirteen. It will take you at least a year to knock it into any kind of shape, if indeed it can be knocked into shape.

“I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.” 

Barbara Kingsolver

So why do NaNoWriMo then? If all you get at the end of the month is more work, then what is the point? You do it because you end the month considerably closer to writing a novel than you did when you started. So many people I know have “write a novel” on their bucket list. They talk about their “big idea” or say they will write one when they magically receive their “big idea”. Yet very few of these people ever actually do write a novel. They talk about it yes, they might write the first few pages or so, but will probably go back over and edit them so many times that they get bored before they’ve ever gotten to the meat of the story.

In order to write 50,000 words in a month you have to tell your inner editor to go sit on a stool in the corner of your mind and shut up. You have to. It’s impossible otherwise. And what help’s you to do this is the fact that nobody can write a good novel in a month. They just can’t. (ok, maybe Zadie Smith or Margaret  Atwood could. Maybe.) Which means that the pressure is off. If there is no chance of it being any good then you can’t judge yourself too harshly when, it is in fact, shockingly terrible. And you might as well just keep on writing.

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” 

Jodi Picoult

But above all, you should take part in NaNoWriMo because it is fun. Because it is chance to just be creative, and to give yourself permission to just tell a story. It doesn’t matter if you end up with 49,900 bad words at the end of it, or if you never do anything with what you wrote. You will have written something, and that is far more valuable than nothing.

I’m running a Facebook group for people taking part in NaNoWriMo this year (or search Curiously Creative NaNoWriMo). It’s a small, safe community offering support and inspiration. Please join if you are taking part!

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