Every year in November, writers dedicate the month to achieving a seemingly impossible goal: to write 50,000 words of a new novel by November 30. This is National Novel Writing Month, and it's been in full swing since its inaugural "competition" in 1999. It's run by the nonprofit literacy advocacy organization NaNoWriMo, which was founded by so-called Wri-Mos in 2006 to support this challenge.
Today, the organization runs several camps designed to improve access to education and writing resources for children of all ages, on top of hosting NaNoWriMo every November, providing writers with the resources they need to get a full draft of their novel done quickly.
I'd heard about NaNoWriMo before, of course. When you're a writer for any length of time, you end up having friends and contacts who will rave about the Wri-Mo community. One of my friends in high school participated in every camp, and would excitedly talk about her projects every year before Thanksgiving break. I thought she was magic, being able to write a whole novel so quickly.
This year, I had a perfect storm brewing. I had an idea for a fun, scary sci-fi horror novel that I was very excited about. I was gearing up to become a writer full-time after being a writer part-time for nearly a year. I was, understandably, stuck at home, and unable to travel. November was on the horizon, and in the writing community, stirrings of NaNoWriMo were beginning to overtake my social media feeds. So I thought...why not?
Well, here we are at the end of November. How did I do? Have I written 50,000 words?
Not quite. I stopped writing at a little more than 35,000 words, and I'm proud of that. While I may not have completed the "competition," I do think it was the right move for me to participate in this. Let's talk about the pros and cons of NaNoWriMo.
The Pros of NaNoWriMo
Let's start with the actual NaNoWriMo site. I didn't know there was so much to it! When you create an account (which is free), you have the option to post projects on your profile. In these projects, you put a brief synopsis, an excerpt, and a goal, as well as where you are in the writing process for it. This means that you can show off your novel a little bit as you're writing it, and you get the satisfaction of seeing the progress bar go up.
You also get a Stats page, and this is my favorite part of it. You can see how many words you write per day, whether you're on track for your goal, when your peak writing times are during the day, and, if you use the site's built-in timer, your average writing speed. I really appreciate this because it gives me a sense of perspective on my writing habits and how I operate, which means that I'm more accurately able to predict how long future projects will take. It also means I'll have a place to log out future projects!
On top of that, NaNoWriMo gives you access to discounts on a bunch of different writing programs and resources across the internet, from novel writing software to publishing prep tools. These discounted rates can save you hundreds of dollars and tons of time by compiling them all into one place.
Perhaps best of all, NaNoWriMo connects you with other writers, both through the options for joining a region or group and through the open forums. You get open access to a huge community of writers who are more than willing to offer advice, support, and enthusiasm to help fuel your writing endeavors. The organization also sends out "Pep Talks" occasionally, written by accomplished writers, to help motivate you through the month by offering perspective on where you are in the journey. It really is a community and I couldn't be happier to be a part of it.
The Cons of NaNoWriMo
Of course, there are some serious downsides to the competition.
A lot of writers find it incredibly intimidating to be stuck on such a definite, short deadline. The rules of the game state that every word of your manuscript must be written during November, meaning that you can't take old drafts and revamp them to meet the word count. It's just you and a blank document that you have to fill by the end of the month.
It also means feeling a lot of anxiety when you don't meet that word count. I hit the end of the novel at around 25,000 words, and panicked. What would I do to make up the other half? Was I a failure? I managed to scrounge up another 10,000 words by shifting perspectives, but even then, I finished the manuscript too early. I spent quite a long time worrying about whether or not I would be able to hit 50,000 because I was simply out of story. To me, that felt like a problem. Was my idea really so shallow that I couldn't muster a full-length novel about it?
That leads to another problem: a lot of novels shape up and fill out in the second draft. With NaNoWriMo, you're trying to fit a full-length novel onto paper before it's had a chance to really develop. If you're like me, and your planning is about as in-depth as having a rough outline that you whipped up the night before, then that feels like too much pressure to be perfect before you've had a chance to get to know these characters and this setting.
Is NaNoWriMo Worth It?
It seems to me that people are in two opposing camps about NaNoWriMo. Either it's perfect, a brilliant community of writers banding together against the odds, or it's terrible, a forced pageant of false dedication and bragging rights based around an arbitrary and unrealistic goal. People either sing its praises or decry it as evil, and they tend to get heated when talking to someone with an opposing viewpoint.
For me, it's a bit more nuanced. I think NaNoWriMo is an excellent opportunity to push yourself, but I also think there's nothing wrong with not meeting your word count. I think the value comes in pushing yourself to finish the story, and when that aspect is praised, the community really shines.
I think it's silly to assume that, just because a certain writing style doesn't work for you, that it can never work for anyone else. At the same time, I think there's no shame in admitting that this style of writing isn't for you, and it's ridiculous to be upset that someone doesn't want to participate.
NaNoWriMo is excellent as an organization, and the work they do is important. They provide a fantastic resource and community for writers, especially during a time when we can't get together to participate in person. I wouldn't change that sense of community for the world.
As for National Novel Writing Month? I think the challenge posed in November is fun, inspiring, and motivating, and that I'll happily participate again, but I won't focus on the word count anymore.