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The Dangers of NaNoWriMo

Posted in: Understanding Publishing on November 26, 2014 1 Comment 💬

NaNoWriMo Bad Books Good Writers

This is the last week of one of the year’s most frenetic months for writers: National Novel Writing Month. Since its foundation in 1999, the now-universally-abbreviated NaNoWriMo has established itself as the best opportunity for aspiring writers to stop being just that.

At the last New Generation Self-Publishing Summit (sponsored by Reedsy), Porter Anderson said something that really stuck with me (and apparently others – see tweets below): “‘E’ will obliterate territorial rights.”


Exactly. ‘E’ has this extraordinary capacity to tear down physical or territorial barriers – and that’s true for everything from books to [insert vastly different thing here]. In the case of NaNoWriMo, ‘e’ gives rise to a universal writers’ group where authors meet annually, exchange tips, support one another and update the community on their progress. The result is a global race where winning is accessible to everyone, because winning means finishing the manuscript. These kind of races always end up creating a strong sense of community.

To the casual observer, NaNoWriMo might seem like the greatest thing to happen to writers since QWERTY. But the e-phenomenon might not be for everyone. Here’s why.

1. The “New Year’s Resolution” Effect

Let’s start with a mild accusation. To me, it sounds like “NaNoWriMo” is to authors what January is to non-authors: that time of year when you take on game-changing projects that you hold on to… for a month.

Writing over 1,000 words a day is something many authors do throughout the year (or at least several months a year), and many successful authors write in excess of 10,000 words per month. While NaNoWriMo creates the perfect incentive to *start* doing that, I think it is as important for authors to stick to the 1,667 words a day during NaNoWriMo as it is for them to keep writing regularly afterwards (at a slower pace, maybe). NaNo can create momentum, but it can also cause burnout for those unaccustomed to such a colossal creative effort.

NaNo shouldn’t be the exception in an author’s life; it should be the ramp that launches a writing career.

2. “In the end, it’s all about writing, you know?”

There’s a Holy Trinity of generalized advice to authors out there that comes up regularly at conferences or in blog posts, forums and social media: 1. Writing is only half the job; reaching readers is the other half. 2. Writing your next book is your #1 marketing tool. 3. Present your book to readers only when it’s in the best possible shape.

NaNoWriMo sets up authors to follow none of this advice.

Think about it: You’re writing 1,667 words a day. You have a full-time job on the side. You spend the little spare time you have tweeting updates about your writing and contributing to a #nanowrimo hashtag feed that is already flooded by self-publishing companies trying to get participants’ attention.

In the meantime, not much is done for “the second half of the job” – marketing. It’s easy when all the focus is around #amwriting to forget about the occasional reader-directed tweet or Facebook post, the monthly newsletter, blogging, reader-mapping, etc. Not all authors forget about marketing during NaNo (the “big names” keep blogging heavily as a matter of fact), but there’s a certain detriment to everyone in the author community putting sole emphasis on “just writing” for a month.

This brings us to item #3. Speed and precision are rarely bedfellows, and NaNo manuscripts are no exception. I’ll expand on this point below.

3. “There! I’m done! Let’s publish now.”

I’ve heard from several Reedsy editors that the months following Nano are usually super busy for them. Authors have their first drafts in hand and are so proud that they want to capitalise on the momentum and accelerate the “publishing process” so their book gets out there quickly. NaNoWriMo puts so much emphasis on speed that it invites authors to neglect the 3rd rule cited above, and accentuates an author’s biggest vice: impatience.

Eagerness is perfectly understandable, especially in light of the massive effort it takes to write 50k words in 30 days. But that pace is challenging even for seasoned authors, and at best would result in a first draft – a starting point for editing and revision. Looking for an editor right after NaNo can be a good option, but only if you’re looking to get a quick manuscript assessment (most Reedsy editors offer that, and some will offer a discount in December/January for NaNo manuscripts). Doing a developmental edit, let alone a copyedit or proofread on your manuscript is a waste of time and money; you’re simply not ready – or at least, your NaNo manuscript isn’t.

Even if you ARE the rare specimen ready for the next phase of manuscript development come December 1, tens of thousands of other NaNoWriMo participants will be looking for a developmental editor during the same period of time. This means that all good, reputable editors are going to be fully booked for a couple of months. Have you ever tried finding a free treadmill at a gym in January? Well, it’s like that, but worse. Patience! Take December, or even January too, to edit your book, develop an early reader base (or look for beta-readers), pair up with other authors to prepare a common launch, or get started on your next book. Releasing several at a time can be an unexpected way to get noticed very quickly by the gremlins that power Amazon’s algorithms (aka, an indie author’s best friends*)…

Like Christmas does for consumer capitalism, NaNoWriMo generates an incredible amount of enthusiasm and energy for creative writing. But it’s not without risk, and sometimes gives rise to misperceptions about what writing seriously involves. Impatience, burnout and neglect of the market are natural pitfalls for NaNo participants. So authors: tread carefully, and learn from your experienced peers. Use NaNoWriMo not as an end in itself, but as another tool in your kit. November comes but once a year, but writing your novel is a 24/7/365 commitment.

*Next to self-doubt and caffeine, anyway.

By Ricardo Fayet

Edited by the lovely Reedsy editor Becca Heyman

What do you personally think of NaNoWriMo? I’d love to know your thoughts on this so don’t hesitate to leave a comment!

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