Why quitting NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean you’ll never be a writer

Why quitting NaNoWriMo doesn't mean you'll never be a writerIt’s November and everyone who writes or wants to write knows that November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) time.

As recent data showed that being an author is the preferred career choice for 60% of the population. I imagine that this year will see even more people taking part. Presumably they’ve missed the info that half of writers in the UK earn less than £11k per year. Not everyone makes James Patterson money.

But I digress, in brief, the idea behind NaNoWriMo is that you dig in and tap away for the whole month and by the time December comes around you’ve written a 50,000 word novel. Or rather, you’ve written 50k words which you may be able to expand and wrangle into a novel. Note, ‘expand’ – just because Slaughterhouse-Five and The Great Gatsby come in at just under that, most publishers (and readers) expect novels to be longer. Unless of course you write like Vonnegut or Fitzgerald in which case you’d be reading your TLS reviews and not my blog.

NaNoWriMo works really well for some people, providing focus and the metaphorical boot up the backside that will help them to keep going when they want to walk away. So, if you’re hitting that magic average of 1667 words a day and the plot is flowing and you’re feeling great then go you. Crack on, I’m cheering you all the way. Let’s talk at the beginning of December about how what you’re going to do with your NaNoNovel.

But what if you’re one of the people whose novel fell at the first fence? Or maybe the first weekend. On the one hand if you look at the numbers, then you can take comfort from the fact that you’re part of a huge majority. In 2014 there were 325,142 participants registered with NaNoWriMo and 58,97 people completed their 50k words. That’s less than 20% so don’t take it to heart if you don’t make the finishing line. And then there are all the people taking part who haven’t registered. Some see it as a mere setback but others that I’ve spoken to are really cast down by it, sure that this ‘failure’ means that they should abandon their literary dreams.

If you’re one of those people, it may be that you didn’t complete the challenge because you really can’t write for toffee and should give up now. You no doubt have other talents and aspirations so make the most of those. But there are lots of reasons why flunking NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean that you should walk away from your literary aspirations.

  • Setting off to write a novel with only a germ of an idea is asking a lot of an inexperienced writer. Heck, I know best-selling novelists who don’t start work without a plan. They might write a few chapters, just to see how the story feels, but then they go back and make a plan, sometimes right down to the level of individual scenes. Try breaking your story down into chapters and see how it looks then. When you’re happy, try that first chapter again and you might find that although that structure is less romantic than simply plucking the words from the air it might actually give you the foundation to let your imagination run even wilder.
  • You might not have the time to commit right now. There’s no getting away from the fact that if you ever want to write a novel you will have put the hours in actually getting it down on paper. Writing 50k words in a month when you also have work and kids and family and housework and dogs to walk and homework to check is asking a lot of yourself. Try working out a few slots of time each week when you can write and make sure that you start showing up for those appointments with your novel. You may not have enough time to write 50k words in a month, but you will be able to find a few hours a week whether than means abandoning your Netflix boxset binges or lowering your housekeeping standards. If you opt for the latter then trust me, you really won’t notice the dusty skirting boards after a while.
  • To finish NaNoWriMo you need to average 1667 words per day, every day for a whole month. It might be that you just don’t write that fast. A lot of hugely talented and successful writers don’t. Obviously, being a slow writer doesn’t automatically mean that you’re talented but 500 good words is a better total for the day than 1667 words that aren’t very good. Quantity is definitely not always an indicator of quality.
  • The constant cry of NaNoWriMo is that editing is for later, that November is for letting your imagination fly and seeing where it goes. That’s all well and good but blasting along and not looking back isn’t for everyone. You don’t want to get bogged down endlessly polishing that first chapter but going back for a quick tidy up every so often isn’t a bad thing is that’s what suits you. It’ll slow you down but remember, your writing is more important than keeping up with a race.
  •  Creativity can be subdued if you constantly have one eye on your word count. Feeling that you’re failing a little every day is not going to bring out your best work. Some people work best with a deadline – I do – but for the polishing and editing later on, not the actual imaginative element.
  • Failure is not failure. 5,000 words that are the thoughtful, honest, original beginning of something worthwhile is more of a success than 50,000 words of drivel, especially given some of these tactics that writers use to boost their word count.

So, if NaNoWriMo is going well for you then I’m pleased for you and let’s meet up in a few weeks and look at the next steps. But if you’re at the stage when you’re struggling or it’s already gone to hell in a handbasket then take comfort that all it means is that this isn’t your way of writing. Keep trying and find the way that works for you.

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