National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo, for short) is in full swing, and hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers worldwide are hitting Week 2 of their attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. This is my third year doing NaNo, and so far it’s going well: I’m over 2,000 words ahead, giving me a nice cushion in case I have an off day later in the month, and I’ve got a list of writing prompts to help ease me through the notorious second-week slump (for those new to NaNoWriMo, the second week is when the novelty of the story wears off, but the end is still nowhere in sight. It’s a dark time).
I do NaNoWriMo because I become a part of a great community, join a solid writing boot camp to kick productivity into high gear, and the pressure often results in my creative energy leaping off into directions far different from where it goes for most of the year. I do NaNo, in fact, primarily for the excitement of doing NaNo, but there’s always that voice that crops up, from a friend or family member, fellow writer or even that nagging voice in the back of my own mind.
What many of us really want to know at the end of the day is: Will this month of frenzied writing leave us with something we can publish?
Yes and no.
If you’re expecting to reach November 30th with a complete, publishable manuscript in hand, then for starters, I’m pretty sure you’re not doing NaNoWriMo at all, especially since by my count the disillusionment should be kicking in right about now. NaNo promotes quantity over quality, rambling experimentation over refinement. In short, your novel is going to suck–in the first draft, at least. It probably won’t even be finished. Fifty thousand words comes out to 150-175 pages; it’s a slim novel at best, and the rambling nature of most NaNo novels means there’s often thousands of words left to go to wrap the story up.
It may also come as a shock to realize that once December rolls around, the NaNo community largely disappears. This month the forums are buzzing, offering encouragement, commiseration, and a seemingly endless supply of tips to help even the most struggling authors-to-be get their words on the page. Next month, there will be some activity in the “I Finished NaNo—Now What?” forum as people try to coordinate draft swaps and early revisions, but by January the site will be pretty quiet until next October, when hopefuls return to plan their next story. Writing is largely a solitary process; don’t expect the same buoyant support of November all year round.
All that said, some writers have done it. Sara Gruen’s bestseller Water for Elephants began as a NaNo novel. Erin Morgenstern’s brand-new novel Night Circus began, according to her pep talk this year, as a tangent in 2005. Her characters in her novel at the time were boring her, so as an attempt to spice up her story, she sent them to the circus.
The circus turned out to be the most compelling part of the story, so in the following years (including two more rough and dirty NaNo drafts), she reshaped the novel to focus on those characters, dropping her original plot. The sheer speed at which you have to write to accomplish 50K in 30 days can lead to some inspired creative choices.
The other benefit is the obvious: if you complete NaNoWriMo, you’ll be left with at least 50,000 words in just over four weeks, which is a serious rush. The fear of the blank page is a solved problem. Character, plot, theme, and all the rest is a matter of editing, not generating from scratch. Realistically, no author can expect a first draft to be publishable anyway (unless you edit so heavily as you go that you’re accomplishing both tasks at once). Why not pound out the first draft as quickly as possible before you lose your nerve? NaNo enthusiasts often point out the fact that the perfect time to novel won’t magically appear, and that no matter what the quality, completing that first draft gives you the right to call yourself a novelist.
Overall, I see National Novel Writing Month as great writing exercise, and a good litmus test for aspiring writers. Excited by the thought of blasting out 1,667 words minimum every day for a month, with no promise of readers and no prizes beyond the satisfaction of achieving your goal? NaNo’s the place for you.
Now keep an eye on your feelings in December. Are you exhilarated? Exhausted? Ready to dive back into writing (after a breather), or content to wait until next November? Your answers may give you an idea of whether your novel may one day grace a bookstore’s shelf, or whether it’s a personal accomplishment only.
Either way, happy writing.