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Why You Should Say ScRuYu to NaNoWriMo and Just Write

So you want to write a book.

Perhaps you’ve been scribbling nonsense since your teacher gave you leave to copy giant, cursive letters onto circles of paper.

Perhaps you write fanfic and are a big hit with Supernatural slash lovers.

Perhaps you read the Twilight saga and said to yourself: Hell, I can do better than this!

But however you might mock SparkleVamp ‘n’ friends, writing a bona-fide novel is a lot harder than it seems. It takes a lot of time, dedication, self-delusion, prescription drugs, dragon tears, and just a smidgen of IDGAF (I Don’t Give a Fuck, to the uninitiated).

A disclaimer to the below opinioney opinions: I am not the guru of all things literary. I have finished a couple of novels, sold a romance novella, and recently acquired a literary agent for a humor book that we sure hope sells.

One thing I have not finished is NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, held every year in November. The participants’ goal is to write a fifty thousand word novel in thirty days. (That’s an average of 1667 words per day.) I tried, but I figured out pretty quickly that pooping out the prescribed numbers of words per day just does not work for me. It’s quantity over quality, and while those things are not mutually exclusive, the NaNoWriMo process is not for every writer. It may work for you. If so: yay! Go on with your badass self! This post is for the rest of us.

I’m a pretty prolific gal, so it’s not the word goal per se that screws with my genius*, it’s the fact that with so many words to write per day, there’s little chance to go back and make sure that the book is on the right track, you’re feeling it, it’s working, the characters are coming together, etc.

I’m a pantser as opposed to a plotter. A plotter will lay out the entire book (or a lot of it, I’m guessing) before they begin writing. They might even make copious notes on world, characters, etc. Not me. I write by the seat of my pants (pantser – see?). I will usually jump into an idea ovaries to the wall (for I have no pants on) and just write write write for a while. I’ll think on plot as needed (although I usually have some idea of what’s going to happen), but my overall story arc usually ends up being scribbled on a couple of notebook pages containing little more than, “this happens, then this happens, and then this happens, and ZOMG is there a unicorn?!”

See, I like the unicorn (or whatever) to creep up on me. If I need to add more about the unicorn, I will go backwards into the book and lay my foundation. If I plot plot plot the unicorn to death, I don’t care anymore. I need to discover what happens and how my characters grow as they do. I find this difficult to do if I’m just burping out 2,000 words a day of un-reflected-upon crap. You’ll need to figure out the method that works best for you. If you try to jam your round peg into a rectangular hole without the proper technique, you may not end up with a sexy best-seller but a lot of painful grunting. So to speak. Ahem.

Another reason to say UhHuhByeBye to NaNoWriMo? IT’S JUNE. Why are you waiting to create your masterpiece? WRITE IT NOW! Now is always the best time to write! Some days will be better than others, but waiting until November to begin your dream is a very un-unicorn thing to do. You may say, “But I’m writing my fanfic now!” That’s great. But if that’s all you ever write, then you’ll never be a professional writer (unless you get a gig writing Star Trek books (or similar), which is awesome). Now, don’t brandish your wand at me just yet, fanfic writers. I think any story writing in which you can practice and hone your voice is fantastic. Fanfic is also a great way to build an audience who will likely buy your original work when it’s published. But to be a professional novel writer, you must write your own stuff, and you don’t have to wait until sweater weather to do it.

Reason the next why NaNoWriMo is not ideal? Fifty thousand words DOES NOT A NOVEL MAKE, no matter what your pretty completion badge says. Take a moment to read this great post by Colleen Lindsay on word counts and novel lengths. Unless you are writing middle grade fiction, 50,000 is too low a word count for a publishable novel. You might get away with 50,000 for young adult, but just barely. The other exception is a romance or erotica.  There are quite a few e-pubs who publish shorter works anywhere in the 5K-50K range. But if you’re writing with an eye to most other genres, your novel will need to be much longer (average 80,000 words or so). Unless you have no day job at all, 80,000 in a month is tough. At least, it is for me.

What happens if your fabtabulous novel idea falls flat? There is a shame-hole on my computer full of the beginnings of what I thought were brilliant books. Sometimes it takes me 10,000 words to figure out… this doesn’t work. Or that the concept is great, but I have not yet figured out how to execute it. Maybe I need a main character change. Maybe I need a POV (point of view) change – should it be first or third person NaNoWriMo can put mental pressure on you to keep shoveling coal into that Titanic when you should just let it sink below the iceberg-filled waves.

Reason the nexter why NaNoWriMo can be frustrating: once your novel is done… it’s not. Not even close. Your first draft may be done, but there’s lots more work to do! My personal process? My second draft is a re-work of the first, fixing the glaring issues I can see. Next, I give it to my trusty critique partners and wait. When I get it back from them… oh, boy. Time for fixing the crapola and the maybe-not-so-great. Before I can do that, I spend at least a few days weeping over my lack of talent while singing myself a mournful song called “Why the Fuck Did I Think Writing a Book Was a Great Idea? Also, I am Fat and Ugly and Bad at Everything.” Then, once I have eaten all the things, I jump into my third draft. Once that’s done, I go through and look for repeated words, overused words, bland verbs, bland adjectives, too many adjectives, repetition, repetition (you can’t clean this stuff enough), etc. That takes a LONG TIME. But it’ll tighten up a book like whoa. Next, I give it to readers again. Hopefully it won’t need much more major work. After I get the book back again, I put it away for a while and work on something else to clean my palate. Upon return to the book with fresh eyes, I lurch into the final stage of editing. I print out the entire book ON PAPER and read it OUT LOUD. You will catch an amazing number of mistakes, clunky turns of phrase, and just general WTFery this way. You read more slowly off paper than you do the computer screen, and an out-loud reading forces you to examine every single word. This takes a SUPER LONG TIME. You can only do so many pages a day, because it’s exhausting. I do this “out loud” thing at least twice, entering changes into the soft copy in between each go-round. For an 80,000-word novel? It takes forever.

I would never accomplish all this in one month, even as a nerd who loves to edit.

And it may sound wimpy, but that’s why I don’t try. I have developed my own way of doing things through trial and error. Honoring my personal process makes me a better writer, and a more efficient one. Saying “screw you” to the status quo of what other people say you ought to do is very freeing.

You may say that you need to be forced by an arbitrary event to write so many words a day. If that’s the case, get your friend to harass you. Or set little rewards for yourself to be bestowed if you accomplish the goal. Or just wo/man up and set a damn goal for yourself. The hardest part of being a writer is getting your ass in the chair to write. But unless you do, you’ll fail. You cannot edit a blank page.

Go forth! WRITE! DO IT NOW! I COMMAND THEE! Good, bad, or schlockey, you’ll learn every time you sit down and open up that document.

*Genius may** be overstated.

**May be overstated?  Oh, who are we kidding?  I’m one step up from a monkey at a typewriter.

[Photo “Table with caution tape and books” by Yuba College Public Space on Flickr.]

By Lucy Woodhull

Lucy Woodhull is a novelist, humorist, parodist, and all-around geek. Her new venture is THE SHITTIEST PRINCESS, a series of un-fair-y tales right here on Persephone. You can check out her sexy, fun romantic comedies at www.lucywoodhull.com.

35 replies on “Why You Should Say ScRuYu to NaNoWriMo and Just Write”

The hardest part of being a writer is getting your ass in the chair to write. But unless you do, you’ll fail.

I write all the time. Sometimes I have to jump off the train and jot an idea down, because it’s like a needle in my brain. I never have to “think” of ideas or force myself to write. I get ideas all the time. If a story doesn’t come to me and keep me up at night, I will not write it.
I appreciate this piece but I look at it differently.

You may say, “But I’m writing my fanfic now!” That’s great. But if that’s all you ever write, then you’ll never be a professional writer . . . to be a professional novel writer, you must write your own stuff, and you don’t have to wait until sweater weather to do it.

I don’t believe that a writer needs to be published to be known as a writer. Do they have to be published to be known as a “professional writer”? What’s that, any way?

I’ve read lots of published books from people who are not writers. At all. Sometimes I read books in the book store and I literally cringe.

If a painter paints but never sells a painting, is he not still a painter?
If a mediocre painter paints and sells his painting, is he a better painter than the genius painter who has never sold a piece?

I think we’ve moved into a new era of writing where people don’t write because it is a gift and a passion that needs to be expressed but instead write because they want to be seen, recognized and applauded; because they want to “win” and be on a bestseller’s list. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

This is really great advice for folks that want to be “real” writers. But what about people that don’t want to be real writers?

One of my goals for this year is to write a novel, just for fun with no hopes/plans of getting it published. I won’t be doing that as part of NaNoWriMo simply because I don’t like working on someone else’s timetable.

Can anyone help Gerty out? I’m a gal with a specific goal and I talked about it in the article. Maybe Persephone needs a casual writing group? One for fun, and maybe crits if the folks are open to it? Of course, I say write for whatever reason you want to, and let your freak flag fly!

We already have one!

Bi-Curious Shoes started a writer’s group on the forums, and I nominally help her admin it.

http://persephonemagazine.com/groups/calliope-co/

Also, Gerty, check out She Writes, which is a website/resource/networking site geared at women writers (but not limited to them, of course). http://www.shewrites.com/ I can be found there as a member, though I’m not particularly active. http://www.shewrites.com/profile/SlayBelle

I wrote my first novel (300 pages) when I was 20. It wasn’t very good. In fact it was terrible and only one other person has read it (my mom). I have grown a lot since then. Back then there was no such thing as Nanowrimo. Once I considered doing it, but that novel took me 6 months to write. I wasn’t going to write a piece of crap in one month.
I mean, if people do it for fun and are proud of it, that’s great, but it’s nothing I’ve ever seriously considered.
I’m working on another novel right now which I hope will be the one to publish. And no it will not be written in a month. It’ll probably take a few years.

Oops I have YET MORE thoughts!

I’ve finished NaNo thrice. The first year I still loved my story at the end, and I still like it now. I liked the characters, I liked the setting, and I liked working on it. I gave myself permission to make the plot implausible and to just let it happen like I wanted it to. It’s not finishable or publishable but I like and liked it.

One year I finished and I was like, “yuuuup done with all of you characters/story/etc.” and didn’t look at it again for like two years. And I’m mildly curious about what more could happen with those people, but not enough to like, write more.

And I literally can’t remember what I wrote about the third time I did NaNo (I “won” all three times I did it because I am fucking stubborn). I imagine I closed the document on November 30th and never looked at it again.

But those were all good experiences and good practice for me. I was really productive with my other stuff during those times because I was like, “well you need a couple of hours to write today, so you’d better not waste too much time now.”

So I guess what I’m saying is, for those of who don’t plan to be published novelists, it can be fun and useful in different ways. Which I know I said before but now I wanted to say it with personal examples.

One of my coworkers is a novelist and she is hilariously angry at NaNoWriMo. She thinks it undermines the seriousness of writing a novel by pretending that anyone can do it. (I slightly disagree–I think it demonstrates to a lot of would-be writers that they actually don’t have that great of ideas, or passion for putting words on the page, or diligence, etc. etc.; I think some writers are defeated by the format of NaNo and end up finding something that works better for them, which is different from using NaNo to find out there’s nothing you can talk about for 50k words, if that distinction makes sense.) ANYWAY, my coworker said, “we don’t have ‘try to be a dentist month,’ or ‘give merchandising a try month.'” Which is funny! Also, I think her feeling, that she got an MFA and worked hard and spent a ton of time on a lot of stuff that never became a novel to get to the point where she’s good enough to now have several published novels, makes sense. Why should we pretend that everyone has what it takes–both in terms of ability and in terms of that story sitting in their heads–to be a novelist? In some ways, it does minimize what writers do. Every time they say, “oh I’m a writer,” they get jerks nodding as if they understand and saying, “yeah, I have a novel I’m planning to finish one day.” Like it’s the same!

However. I don’t think I am or ever will be a novelist in the publishing-books sense, but I love NaNo. I like having a goal and a deadline and trying to do a totally different kind of writing than I’m used to, just for the challenge. I think a lot of people DO develop better writing skills and habits, and a lot of people DO finally get that story onto paper, and a lot of people just succeed at something that’s kind of hard. And those are all good reasons to do NaNo.

But I also agree with Miss Worded–if you have a book in you, you don’t need NaNo to help you write it. You can write it on your own. I think NaNo is a tool like the “intro to running” class at your local college is a tool. People who would get out there and do it on their own don’t need it, and the people who are curious but unsure can use it to whatever degree it’s useful for them.

/lots of thoughts

Yup, writing is one of those things like acting – lots of people think they can do it and it’s soooooo easy. But those of us who are doing it (sort of, I’m sure your friend would consider me a baby writer at best) HAD TO START SOMEWHERE. We are all wannabes until we’re not, and even then we should remember all the steps we took and not shit on other people for taking them, too.

I don’t think there’s any reason to hate nanowrimo, but it’s interesting that anyone who writes can simply label themselves a writer, when with different arts, there has to be more proof of capability to verify they are artists. And I think that is what your friend may mean. This is something I’ve discussed with other writers.

Something that made me feel better once a creative writing teacher said, “There are short story writers, and there are novel writers.” I didn’t have to feel so bad about not being able to write short stories. Those are so much harder to write than novels. I have always had a hard time, and they’re really an artform in themselves. So these people who have a hard time who are interested in writing, they may be short story writers.
And of course there are the poets.

I, personally, like to live by Flannery O’Connor’s opinion:

Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to hate nanowrimo, but it’s interesting that anyone who writes can simply label themselves a writer, when with different arts, there has to be more proof of capability to verify they are artists. ”

I’m quoting Maggie here, but I think my comment is more to this general idea of what Sequined starting talking about in this thread.

Here’s the thing: anyone who knows how to write can write. Just like anyone can pick up a paintbrush and ‘paint’ and I can open my mouth and call what comes out ‘singing’. It doesn’t mean it’s any good or that I’m talented at what I’m doing, or that I’ve put the work in to become a professional artist.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really had to take a hard look at some of my absolutist ideas about art and artists. I think that most people’s lives are enriched by being encouraged to be creative and that there’s a good subset of those individuals that probably do have a nugget of talent that they’ve been discouraged from pursuing due to our societal/romantic ideas of what an artist is. I don’t have an issue with someone who writes calling themselves a writer — though I used to, and I used to get quite snotty about it.

And honestly, this is one of the reasons I’m so gung-ho for things like NaNoWriMo — I want the arts to be accessible and lively. I want people to feel connected to the arts, either as creators or consumers, because ultimately I want society to view it as important and necessary part of us.

Not every book is going to be literature. Not every writer is going to change the world. Not every singer is going to be Aretha. Hell, not every post Persephone puts up is going to be art. But that’s ok.

Here’s the thing: anyone who knows how to write can write. Just like anyone can pick up a paintbrush and ‘paint’ and I can open my mouth and call what comes out ‘singing’. It doesn’t mean it’s any good or that I’m talented at what I’m doing, or that I’ve put the work in to become a professional artist.

IMO, we all have been blessed with gifts all of us and we just need to find out what they are. But for some reason we all want certain gifts: we want to be able to sing, dance, write and paint. It seems we want the gifts that garner attention and applause and don’t want the gifts that might not bring us accolades.

Not every book is going to be literature. Not every writer is going to change the world. Not every singer is going to be Aretha. Hell, not every post Persephone puts up is going to be art. But that’s ok

It is okay. But I think in all fairness, we can’t take a cartoonist and elevate him to the status of Michelangelo, and we need to stop comparing Justin Beiber to Michael Jackson. There are different levels of talent, and it’s okay to acknowledge that, too, imo.

I tried doing NaNo last year and I was incredibly overwhelmed. I agree that the community can be a big help, but in my area? Yeah, not so helpful. So not only was I OMGOMGOMGOMGOM ????? I HAVE TO WRITE 1667 WORDS A DAY????? OMGOMGOMGOMG, but I had no support from anyone else. Everytime we had a write-in, most people would just ignore everyone else. I tried making a few friends/commiserators but none of them seemed interested. So I’m going to take Miss Worded’s advice and just start writing, instead of waiting for November.

The last time I tried to do NaNoWriMo I lasted four days (four days of cringe-worthy, truly terrible writing). November is right around the time my seasonal affective disorder kicks in, so trying to write 1,667 words per day is too much pressure for me.

The other thing is, when it comes to beginnings, I like to take my time and get the tone right. I’m a plotter in the beginning and a pantser for the rest.

I can see, though, why NaNoWriMo works for other people. If it works for you, go for it. If not, unsubscribe to their perky newsletter and go on writing in whatever way that does work for you. As long as you’re writing something, it doesn’t matter.

I get where Miss Worded is coming from with her post and there are many points I agree with, but I think that NaNoWriMo isn’t really aimed at someone like her.

The hardest part of being a writer is getting your ass in the chair to write. But unless you do, you’ll fail.

Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? There are a lot of people out there who can’t get to that chair, be it self-doubt, real life, the idea that writing isn’t a ‘real’ obligation to spend time on. For these people, setting a self-directed goal doesn’t work. If it did work, they’d be writing already. The whole purpose of the exercise isn’t really to write a novel — that is, to write something you could send off to an agent and get sold — but just to write, to understand you can write, and to spend some time with the ideas that have been floating around in your head.

And let’s be honest. Most of the people who are doing NaNo — hell, most of the people who write, full stop — aren’t going to be novelist. Their books aren’t going to see the light of day. But that’s ok. It’s ok to write for your own pleasure and to play with your own ideas, but that’s something that gets drummed out of us as we age. Everything has to have a point, a purpose, and usually it needs to make us money, and everything else is unimportant. I think NaNo is an external validation that tells its writers that their stories, their ideas, are worth spending some time with, and it gives you a designated chunk of time to indulge yourself. Its a lot easier to justify 30 days of something that seems like an indulgence over 90 days or a year or 10 years, like it might take to really get a novel from an idea to its end form.

I do absolutely agree that there’s no reason it has to be November. There’s been a slew of alt-month writing frenzies that have cropped up that may be more beneficial for people who desire the structure and camaraderie that NaNo brings to the table.

I can’t agree enough with the importance of reading things out loud. I read everything I write out loud. Sometimes, it’s OK if it’s clunky (like this here comment), but usually, I catch so much when I go back and read.

And yes, I am going to write something this summer or die trying.

I really don’t want to die.

Before I can do that, I spend at least a few days weeping over my lack of talent while singing myself a mournful song called “Why the Fuck Did I Think Writing a Book Was a Great Idea? Also, I am Fat and Ugly and Bad at Everything.” Then, once I have eaten all the things, I jump into my third draft. e

Thank god there’s more than one of me. I also love your phrasing for “once I have eaten all the things.”

I’m relieved after reading this because I’m also a pantser. Unfortch, I was a Creative Writing minor in school and the department was NOT AMUSED by this approach. It was plan, plan, plan. I think this is one of the reasons why I was so blocked all the time. In the writing, I mean.

Have you studied creative writing? If so, how have you reconciled professors’ expectations with your personal system of writing?

First of all, I am an Old (as in, long done with college), so I have no one to answer to but myself. SORT OF. I do have to answer to the market, since my goal is publication. The first thing I wrote was an outlandish parody novel, and it was called “hilarious but unsellable,” because it was not something they’d seen before. That may seem like a good thing, but it’s not. I went back to the drawing board and focused on my humor, but in a genre that was friendly to it (humor/ gift books). That humor/gift book is now repped by a literary agent and we hope to sell it. So yes, I had to temper what I write according to market. I hope to get my wilder book published some day — once you’re an established author, it’s easier to get the publishers to take more chances on you.

You have to play to graduate, I suppose… but the greatest lesson I’ve learned through all of this is to stay true to your own voice. But there are always things to learn and nuances to give it to make it more marketable.

(PS: Go pantsers!)

The one thing I can say in defense of NaNoWriMo (in which, full disclosure, I participate most years) is that for those of us who, like me, struggle with overcoming our incredibly negative views of our own writing, it can be beneficial to have some sort of support network and tacit permission to write crap. Just getting it on the page without editing can, for some people, be incredibly freeing; if your inner editor never shuts up and you can’t get through more than a few pages because you keep doubting yourself, then NaNoWriMo can help jump-start you, make you ignore that critical inner self and just get the words on the page, even if they are awful and nonsensical.

I agree. I think the article made very valid points, but for me, the appeal of NaNoWriMo is the support. I never expected that I would have a complete little novel baby at the end of the month, but I like the idea of the message boards. For someone who does not have that kind of real life support, that benefit is huge.

For me, that’s what I got from a writing class. I’d never shown my stuff to anyone ever, and to have people respond to my work like it was worth their time was incredible for my attitude towards my own writing-as-pastime.

That’s what I was thinking too – I definitely struggled with feeling that way, but one of the most valuable things I learned in my poetry workshops in college was that you just have to start and write and don’t think about if it’s crappy because you can edit and edit and edit later, but you have to have something down on paper in order to edit and revise.

Writers tend to live in a bubble where the only reviews they get are themselves. It’s interesting because once I tried other arts, I got immediate feedback, and it was really hard for me. As a writer people don’t always like to take the effort to give feedback. But I think you should always have permission to write crap. You have to write crap to edit it and write good stuff. No one comes out with good stuff right away.

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