NaNoWriMo Smackdown

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Well, maybe not quite…though there was certainly an online brouhaha when Laura Miller, a columnist at, voiced her opinion that the November ‘write a novel in a month’ project was a ‘waste of time and energy ‘ (click here to view her article).
Miller’s view on the whole NaNoWriMo phenomenon was that it just gave a lot of people an excuse to write a load of crap that would morph into ‘slapdash’ novels adding to slush piles everywhere.
Unsurprisingly Miller became the target of online vitriol/bile/horror for daring to to diss NaNoWriMo but many of her points remain, nonetheless, totally valid. Now before I become the object of a flamewar, let me preface this by saying I think NaNoWriMo is a great way for people to motivate themselves to get a first draft finished. I’ve even contemplated doing it myself but I have to confess the fear of letting volume alone dictate my writing was too worrisome (and the mere thought of it, exhausting!). However, if we boil Miller’s objections down they actually seem pretty uncontroversial:
First, she worries that if the focus of NaNoWriMo is merely on tapping out a bad first draft (and, lets face it, all first drafts are terrible!) then would-be writers may be mistaken in believing that the endless grind of revising and editing is not required – hence her concern over all the hastily put together manuscripts subsequently invading agents desks in December.

Second she argues that the ‘selfless art of reading is being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing’ and worries that, while there is no shortage of people eager to write, there is, however, an acute shortage of people eager to read. Can’t say I can argue with that, as almost everyone I meet these days tells me they want to write a book but few, if any, can find the time to actually read.

In Laura Miller’s view, true writers would be pounding their keyboards whether or not NaNoWriMo existed and that we should be focusing our support on getting people motivated to become avid readers rather than would-be writers. Given the amount of money spent on the whole ‘how-to’ write industry it is depressing to realize just how much of Laura’s article rings true.

So what is your opinion of NaNoWriMo – just an excuse to pound out 50,000 words of crap or a valuable tool to nurture the next great American novel? Is our culture so focused on self-expression that we have forgotten the one thing all books need – readers?!


32 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Smackdown

  1. Anyone who wants to churn out slapdash crap and ignore things like editing and rewrites is certainly capable of doing that and adding to the slushpiles without use of Nanowrimo.

    RE: Shortage of people to read: I’m in the process of reading Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” which among other things, discusses how technology is altering how we read and how much we read.

    I can’t do anything about the person whose reading life consists solely of 150 word tweets. I’m writing for the people who still read. And even if everyone were to stop reading novels, I’d still write them, because I have specific stories I want to tell and its about personal satisfaction. But books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    I’m not sure why Ms. Miller finds encouraging writers and encouraging avid reading to be mutually exclusive.

    As to Nano, whatever motivates a person to get their words on the page is good, regardless whether their goal is publication or simply self-satisfaction.

  2. The internet is certainly altering my brain – I seem to skim read so much more (having kids can also do that to you though:)!) I have no problem with whatever motivates people to write and Nanowrimo seems to have helped heaps of people accomplish their goal. Like you, I’ll be writing whether or not there’s anyone left to read my books or not – depressing thought though that may be!

  3. Doing nano doesn’t detract from editing, that’s the rest of the year. What it does do is force you to focus, find how much time you can dig up, and do it. It is also excellent practice. This is my third time with nano and every year, because of the practice I’m able to sort through the pre-story better. I’ve become more of an organized plotter. I don’t know everything, but I have all of the main points down and enough of my twists to get things layered in there better.

    Everything gets better and easier with practice. Nano is practice commitment for those that write. There are many committed non-writers too who do it as a matter of self-discipline. Nano, like any tool or opportunity, is what you make of it.

    Even in nano, the focus is mostly on supporting the young writers program- if they are writing young they are reading young… again, a good thing.

  4. I think she makes some very good points. Writers are a dime a dozen these days and NaNoWriMo doesn’t help the problem. The surest way to have a successful blog in the publishing industry is to say you’re a publisher or an agent. People swarm these blogs like a moth to a flame. But author blogs, even those of some of the better authors, are hardly read. What people want it to have their name on the cover of a book.

  5. I guess the low readership of my blog is proven by the lack of vitriol; directed my way in the past week, as I posted a piece that echoes Ms. Miller’s sentiments pretty closely.

    As for editing later, I doubt people who need the artificial inspiration of NaNoWriMo are too likely to put butts in seats and editing what they churned out. Now, if someone would come up with a DecNoEdMo, I’d be on board.

  6. I have 2 contradictory (mostly) opinions about it. 1. I think it’s BS and an excuse for a lot of people to produce crap that they then inundate agents and editors with in December. 2. It’s their life, so what do I care?

    For me, every month is NaNoWriMo and what can I do?

    But here’s a story that I thought was interesting. A few weeks ago I was running when a guy I peripherally know through band boosters stopped me (he was on a bicycle) and started quizzing me. He asked me if I was doing NaNoWriMo (honestly, I just wanted to keep running). I said, “No.” He mentioned that last year he did it and wrote about 40,000 words. “Maybe,” he said, “I’ll finish it this November.”

    I may have said something along the lines of, “Might be a good idea” or “good luck,” but what I was thinking was, “You spent all that time and energy cranking out that many words in 30 days and then YOU DIDN’T FINISH THE DAMN THING? AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN WRITE ANOTHER WORD FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR?”

    Well, who knows. It took Styron 23+ years to finish “Sophie’s Choice” (maybe he would have benefited from participating in NaNoWriMo?), but I’m inclined to think that if you binged for a month than never wrote a word, you’re not really a writer. I’m not sure what you are, but you’re probably not a writer. Maybe he just needed to get it out of his system. Or maybe he’ll finish it this year (or who knows?, next November?) and he’ll sell it and it’ll make a gazillion dollars and be made into an award-winning movie.

    And what do I care? It’s his life.

  7. Hmmm…interesting. What does it matter if writers are a dime a dozen? If 5 bazillion people want to write a book, why should we want to stop them?

  8. Ms. Miller writes:

    The purpose of NaNoWriMo seems laudable enough. Above all, it fosters the habit of writing every single day, the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision.

    I’d quibble with the last line. The goal is not to write “really, really bad” per se, but to do those other things mentioned, then take what you produce and figure out what you’ve got and what to do with it. It’s good for discipline and training. It would seem to be perfect for the “seat of the pants” writer. It’s a great way to find the story you want to tell. It brings out material from the writer brain you might not otherwise find. For outliners, it fosters something they often need, spontaneity, and overcoming the fear of organic tangents.

    And it’s not a bad way to spend November.

    But as Ms. Miller rightly notes, no one should be encouraged to think that their 50,000 word “novel” is ready for submission. The hard work begins after that. Which is one reason sales of Revision & Self-Editing spike in December.

    I see nothing wrong with getting writers, even wannabes, to up their productivity, and maybe get many of them to see how hard it is to produce a prose narrative. But if they have the right attitude about it, many of them are going to be better writers at the end of the month than they were at the beginning.

    What about established writers? Does NaNoWriMo have any value for them? I’ll let you know next month.

  9. While I agree with quite a bit of what Ms. Miller writes, I have to add that one can find the good or bad in anything.

    I have used NaNoWriMo in my writing classes. Having had a few students who claimed writer’s block or that they categorically cannot finish anything, I’ve used NaNoWriMo to challenge them.

    And it’s worked. As a matter of fact, one student finished her novel, entered it in a contest, and won. She now has two books published, and I’m one proud teacher!

    As for me personally, I’m cranking out stories year ’round, so to me, NaNoWriMo is a moot point.

  10. I’ve completed NaNoWriMo four years now and I think it is a great way to jump-start your writing. I signed up to participate in it this year but decided to move on. Instead, I’m keeping up my less intensive 500 words per day, blogging, and also reading and reviewing more books.So, I am supportive of NaNoWriMo but think at some point it is wise to move past it.

  11. My issue with Ms. Miller’s article was her tone–how dare we unpublished masses waste time writing a novel and how dare we invade her precious bookstore. Why should anyone care why we do it!? By her argument every hobby/form of entertainment that someone doesn’t participate in is a waste of time and the person doing it should just stop and go do something else.
    I also feel like a lot of the anti NaNo pieces are lumping all participants into a very generalized category. Not all of us come out of November expecting to ship a novel off and get it published. I looked at it as a way to get a rough draft completed. The novel I finished last year, I’ve spent the whole year editing and I’m taking a break from that to do NaNo this year.
    The whole point of NaNo to me is really to challenge yourself and see if you can meet a deadline, as well as teaching me how to create a writing schedule and a better routine. It’s been a great tool for me.

  12. First of all, I got up way to early this morning. So forgive me if this is way out there. I’ll consider it my morning pages. 🙂

    I’ve never participated in the NaNoWriMo, but I have done something similar. I’ve also never been a fan of Freud, but I can’t help but think that NaNoWriMo is similar to the second definition of psychoanalysis and also connected to The Artist’s Way morning pages.
    1. a technical procedure for investigating unconscious mental processes and for treating psychoneuroses.

    When we write fast we get rid of a lot of stuff we don’t want in our novels. But there in the midst of it all is a seed of genius just waiting to be discovered, nourished, and molded into something deliciously readable for that specific person browsing on line or in a bookstore.

    So write, baby, write. Your genius is about to be uncovered and who cares if someone else doesn’t like the process?

  13. Does Miller have good points? I’d have to say “no.” Before I get flamed, let me explain. Her piece is titled “Better yet, DON’T write that novel” – and that in point of fact is her thesis: NaNoWriMo is useless at best and a “bad thing” at worst.

    Her points about editing and revision WOULD have merit in an article about, say, whether NaNoWriMo encourages writers to submit too quickly. But that’s not what she’s saying. She’s saying “don’t write AT ALL.” She’s saying “if you’re not writing all the time already, you’re not a real writer, and you should just shut up and read.”

    Yes, paraphrased heavily, but the tone and the rhetoric lead us inescapably to that conclusion. This is how Miller feels. Well, OK, except, that’s rubbish. In my view the LA Times Blog response was MUCH more valid, and I won’t waste space here recounting it all point for point.

    What Miller fails to grasp is that there are a myriad of reasons why writers DON’T write. And NaNoWriMo, which has always been about the first step only–i.e., getting words on paper–helps them get past those reasons.

    If would-be writers are submitting crap in December, then I fail to see how we can lay the blame for that at the feet of NaNoWriMo. Seems to me we need to look at the submitters, instead, and say “Didn’t you read the fine print?”

    Look, there’s a ton of useful info out there on how to revise, how to query, how to tell if your MS is ready in the first place. Calling NaNoWriMo a bad thing because some folks didn’t pay attention to all those resources is like blaming Carpathia for the fact the Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats. (Maritime history geek reference. Sorry. Best I can do right now. I’m in the middle of revising my novel, large portions of which I wrote last November. During last NaNoWriMo.)

  14. Here’s what I consider to be the most brilliant passage of Ms. Miller’s article: “. . . far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter.”

    There’s a predatory, soul-stealing industry out there that is built around gimmickry and the propagation of unrealistic expectations among “writers.” Vomiting 50,000 words onto the page does not make a writer a novelist. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure that 50,000 words is enough to qualify as a novel, but why quibble?) If that were the case, then I was a novelist when I was 17 years old, some 21 years before I wrote my first publishable novel.

    By way of full disclosure, I had never heard of NaNoWriMo until a few weeks ago when a colleague mentioned it to me over drinks at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. My first impressions were that the concept was silly yet harmless. Certainly, it will have no effect on the success or failure of professional writers, and if it produces the occasional gem, so much the better.

    Now that I think a little more deeply, I’m less sure. Taken in context with the predators that lurk on every writer’s forum on Linked-In and Facebook, I wonder if NaNo isn’t one more link in the chain of unrealistic expectations.

    Real writers write. It’s not about the gimmickry or about the artificial deadlines or even about having a book in the library with their name on the spine. Writers write because it’s what they do; without it, something would be missing in their lives.

    I dunno. Color me cranky this morning (our furnace broke, and as I type this, the thermometer on the wall reads 62 degrees–inside), but this kind of gimmick can encourage the predatory side of the new publishing world. If expectations are realistic, I think NaNo is harmless, and maybe even motivating. Otherwise, I think it’s a gateway to abuse and disappointment.

    John Gilstrap

  15. Why do I support NaNoWriMo?
    I’ll give you three solid reasons:

    1. For the writer who is actually good, but could never complete a project, this motivation gives them a reason to stop procrastinating and FINISH something.

    2. For the future good writers out there, this gives them great practice and helps establish a daily writing routine.

    3. NaNoWriMo encourages an activity that requires creativity and discipline, and promotes literary inclinations.

    I would encourage the elite writers of the world (who often remind me of the elite politicians who believe you’re stupid if you don’t live in DC) to support NaNoWriMo, because it promotes your industry. Reading, writing, and anything involving books is a positive in this age of televisions, video games, and the world wide web.

  16. I’m using NaNo as an exercise to 1.) teach myself to not edit so compulsively so that I can 2.) finish a first draft before burning out.

    I’m also not convinced that NaNo is really going to affect on agents. It seems to me that anybody who thinks their NaNo novel doesn’t require extensive editing wouldn’t be the type to learn how to do a proper query letter, etc, and would get booted off the list pretty quickly.

    Here’s a question for agents: Does saying, “This is the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo,” in a query letter result in immediate dismissal?

  17. Like John G, I’m not that familiar with NaNoWriMo. At first I thought it was what Robin Williams kept saying on the TV series, MORK AND MINDY. Or the secret phrase Klaatu told Gort the robot in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. I guess anything that encourages people to write is a good thing, but my first question would be: has anyone participated in NaNoWriMo and then gone on to have their finished work published by a legitimate publisher? Or does it even matter?

  18. As a former journalist I write fast, but I know I could not finish a solid first draft in a month. I could spew out 50,000 hurried words, but then I’d have to start all over, salvaging bits and pieces. To deliberately work at a pace that seems destined to produce inferior results seems like an inefficient approach.

    Maybe a more realistic game would be NaNoWriSiMo (National Novel Writing Six Months). And we’d also need a mandatory NaNoReMo (National Novel Rewrite Month).

  19. I don’t understand why someone would worry about Nanowrimo participants writing instead of reading. I don’t know any writers (hobbyists or paid pros) who don’t read. And they generally buy a lot of books.

    To me, Nano is all about encouraging each other to write.

  20. I wonder how much of a difference nano makes to what goes into the world that is crap? 190k participants, 50k of them are youth. How many finish the month? the actual book (because 50k words isn’t an adult novel)? the query letter? (yes, I skipped editing but only because we’re talking about the crap stories).

    This is my first year in it and it’s reminding me that there really is time in my life for writing if I work at it (life had knocked me out of the daily habit). I do better with deadlines (sadly and amusingly).

    To do just Nano and expect to get published is foolish but using it as another author’s tool on the road, that just makes sense to me.

    As for the editing comments, there’s also 50 hours of editing in the month of March. Which is also not the sum total of editing but it would be good practice to be that disciplined about editing.

  21. Great comments and I love how we have really gotten into the fray – only downside for me is with the timezone I wake up to discover I’ve missed getting into the middle of it all! I think anything that encourages writers is great and so nanowrimo doesn’t bother me per se – but I have to confess the whole hoopla surrounding it soes make me wonder if people binge and then sit back – thinking that churning out volume will somehow make their dreams come true. Writing is hard. Writing takes time. Lots of time – and almost all of that comes with revision and editing. Sure there’s a lot of crap out there but also some hidden gems (I believe Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants was written during nanowrimo – well the first draft was at least). My major issue is that the industry is creating a group of people with a sense of entitlement around publication. Unfortunately the fact that you wrote i doesn’t mean anyone will actually want to read it.

  22. Hmmm, excellent question. I think it can be a great motivational tool for people who have always wanted to write a novel but need some deadline pressure and community support to sit down and actually start cranking out pages.
    That begin said, what I learned from writing my first novel (which took a few years, and was never sold) was that every book should ideally sit in a drawer for a minimum of a month between drafts. And I’ve never done fewer than a dozen drafts of a novel. So I’d say the healthy way to view it is as a way to jumpstart to writing process.

    And yes, we do need more readers. I just had a chat with a fellow writer this weekend who can’t find time to read- while I go in the other direction, sometimes when I’m sucked into a story, I sacrifice writing time to finish reading the book. I blame Suzanne Collins for my utter lack of writing in the latter part of last week, for example.

  23. Clare, I agree that Nanowrimo can and probably does result in higher slush piles all over New York. In my case, somewhere around last November 1, I just happened to start a novel set in Key West. The Nanowrimo thing was all over the Internet, so I pushed myself to finish it in 30 days. I did, although it only came in at 44,000 words.

    Around December 1, I immediately got an idea for another novel, also set in Key West, and got right to work on it. By the end of the year, it was completed, only weighing in at around 35,000 words.

    I then spent the next 11 months going over both of them, bringing the first one up to 50,000 words and the second one up to 42,000. Even though they’re short, they feel done, not at all rushed, and I’ve submitted the first one already.

    My point is that a first draft can be done quickly as long as you are committed to spending however long it takes in shaping it up.

  24. There’s also the other part we haven’t touched on yet–sometimes books that are “crap” get through the slushpile and get published. We’ve all read a published book and wondered how it got in print.

    Like anything else, Nano is just a tool, simple as that.

  25. To deal with the reality that my life was, I began at an early age to create stories and movies inside my mind. These were the places and people that made me feel safe and welcome.

    Since middle school, I’ve loved writing stories. Life and people, however, destroyed any confidence I had in my abilities and I shelved the dream.

    Earlier this year, in an effort to jump start my writing again, I began blogging. Needing discipline, my aim was to blog daily. It quickly became a habit, albeit a successful one.

    Then, about a month ago, I learned about NaNo. I’m the person who works best under the gun, so I decided to do it. I’m happy to say, so far, it’s been great.

    I have no illusions, or delusions, that what I’m writing is ready for anyone to look at. I do believe, though, that it’s actually decent and will make an awesome outline with much I can pull from.

    Several passages are genuinely good (I’ve gotten feedback) while others ramble a bit. Then, there’s all the research that I need to do after NaNo for accuracy….

    I suppose my point is that, for me, NaNo has been a great tool. It’s giving me what I lack-discipline and routine and accountability.

    For that reason, I think it’s great. And if anyone cranks out a first draft that actually gets published, I want to see it!

  26. Michelle – Suzanne Collins has a lot to answer for:) but as I am completing a YA at least I can put it down to research! Mike – the revision process is key and that is where I worry that Nanowrimo may deceive some would be writers into thinking they only need a month to get a novel done! As BK noted though there certainly is enough crap that gets through with or without Nanowrimo and is published. I like to think any tool that encourages writing output is good but I do worry it fosters a delusional ‘anyone can write a novel in a month – you can too!!!’ mentality.

  27. Word crafter – your comment posted just as I was writing mine but I agree – I’d love to hear if any nanowrimo first drafts got published! They would be far better writers than me if that was the case:)

  28. Her article actually ticked me off and sounded more snide than anything else. Really a disservice to those who are involved. I’ve been doing Nano for 3 years now and what it does is kick start the first draft of a story for me. I don’t expect to finish it, but will have 50k words and a good start.

    Chris Baty, the founder of Nano, makes a big point of telling folks what ever they do isn’t going to be publishable when they are done. It will need work.

    Many schools are now wrapping Nano into their English courses and teaching kids how to write. Creative writing, using your imagination. All good things.

    It’s all about motivation. And the more you practice, the better you get.

    At this point, it’s all still practice for me as I work on improving my writing. And as a book blogger and life long bibliophile, there are no shortage of people who read.

  29. Robin – practice is key and I agree, anything that motivates people to get the writing done is fantastic. For many people I’m sure the supportive environment and sense of achievement they feel really helps pushstart their writing.

  30. JB,

    I think NaNo has effect on established writers. We face deadlines and often one right after the other. So a challenged like NaNo inspires me to keep going even when I don’t want to.

    I’ve done all the research and planning, outlining, and now it’s just my usual course, except I’m challenged to write faster.

    I like it! But, we’ll see what I’ve produced by the end of the month! 😉

  31. I had never heard of NaNoWriMo until last year, and never had or have an intention of doing anything related to it. But, that being said, my 10 year old heard about it this year and decided that he is going to write a novel. Then, much to my surprise he started into it.

    It’s something about a tribe of owls going to war against a tribe of blue jays for control of a gem that captures moonlight…or something like that.

    I don’t think he has any illusions of granduer or even the concept of selling his book. And I am not going to discourage him regardless of the potential for predatory marketing NaNoWriMo presents. In the end maybe he, like me, is simply a story teller who has to tell stories.

  32. While I don’t know of anyone who has pubbed a NaNo first draft (nor should they), I do know someone who took his first draft, whupped it into shape and it has just issued from a legit small press.

    I also have friends who are hard-charging freelancers who have multiple queries and non-fic proposals in the wind who use NaNo for a fun break from the everyday grind, writing goofy mashups of classics and sendups up pop culture phenoms (Twilight anyone?)

    I had signed up, hoping to dislodge my massive writers block. However, one of my lawsuits heated up and November will be NaBriWriMo (national brief writing month). I’ll be nowhere near 50K (I’m limited by statute to 25 pages), but I’ll have a reader as tough as any editor with the stakes being reeeeaaaalllll high.

    Personally, I think NaNo rocks, and as for slush increase? That is why agents have delete buttons.

    As for reading, I have Michelle’s newest and John’s newest, as well as an anthology featuring a friend of mine on my nightstand. I can’t wait to get back to them.


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