NaNoWriMo and other writing races: here’s a very stupid question

November is a month when thousands of wannabee novelists gather under the banner of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and race to produce a 50,000 word novel in a month. This was the brainchild of a certain Chris Baty, now operating within the organization running it, called The Office of Letters and Light.

From diddly squat back in 1999, NaNoWriMo now attracts approaching a quarter of a million participants all scratching away at their laptops racing to churn out their 50K quota of words by November 30th.

“All told, when NaNoWriMo wrapped at November’s end (2010), 200,530 participants had written 2,872,682,109 words, with 37,479 winners blowing through the 50,000-word goal,” it says on the website’s history page which is almost as long as a novel in itself.

This year at the time of writing (November 16th) the total collective word count for the 2011 session so far is just over 1.2 million and burgeoning.

Literary merit?

“The event itself was simple,” wrote Kara Platoni for the East Bay Express back in December 2001. “There would be no judges, prizes, or entrance fees; writing would be its own reward. Baty wouldn’t publish or even read the finished manuscripts; he’d simply run a word count and make sure each totaled 50,000 words. Anyone who made it to the magic number “won,” regardless of whether or not their novel was witty, coherent, or largely ripped off from the Nancy Drew books. Serious wordsmiths need not apply.”

And it seems not much has changed, in those terms, since then other than the exponential growth in numbers of participants.

No bad thing

Don’t get me wrong – I have absolutely no objection to people organizing the Grand National of the fiction writing world. I gather it started as a bit of a competitive lark to see if a small group of would-be novelists could egg each other on to complete a manuscript, regardless of merit, in the time and the encouragement the initiative now provides for both participants and young wannabee writers is very valuable indeed.

It encourages, in particular, writing fluency and removes the fear of the blank screen or piece of paper. There’s no time for “writer’s block” in 30 days.

And elsewhere?

This trend of favoring quantity over quality is seeping out into all sorts of other areas, notably the remits of some writing coaches, fiction writing courses, and autonomous writers’ groups.

“Hey, everyone, I did 1,000 words today!” shouts one budding Aldous Huxley.

“Am disappointed with myself as I only managed to get 2,500 words done on the weekend,” complains another.

“My writing coach told me I had to write 1,200 words by Friday,” says a third. “Doesn’t matter what about, just 1,200 words.”

And all this, in the name of developing fluency in writing technique. Yeah, right.

So what’s the stupid question?

The stupid question is very simple…

What on earth does it matter how many words you write if most of them are b*llsh*t?

I’m sorry, I know that’s harsh, but surely quality has a balancing role to play in relation to quantity? I’ve spent the last three decades working as a professional non-fiction writer and have had quite a few short fictional stories (mostly about the paranormal) published.

And at no time would I ever have dreamed of writing X,000 words about any old cr*p just to get my creative “juices” flowing. Life’s too short. Although it might be fun for a bunch of young folks to sit around getting wired on Red Bull writing novels about drivel at the rate of just over 1,500 words a day, my time – and that of the writing clients I coach – is too valuable. And before you say “ah yes, but what about when you’re just starting out…” my time, and that of my clients, was too valuable then, as well.

There are other ways in which to overcome a lack of fluency or writer’s block in fiction as well as nonfiction writing and my favorite is called “planning.” My second favorite is called “devise strong characters, a good plot with accompanying sub-plots” and my third favorite is called “structure: use a mind map or other similar technique to work out exactly who your characters are, what they do, what happens to them, and what happens overall.”

That’s what many successful writers do, and trust me – there’s nothing like a good, solid structure to encourage fluency a lot faster than writing 1,000 words about hot air will.

I’ll write more on this another time, soon.

Good luck, NaNoWriMo – I appreciate what you contribute, but when it’s writing for a living we’re talking about, we’re on different planets.

What do you think? Please share your views and experiences.

Win your (nonfiction) writing race:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. I disagree Suze, the only way anyone will get better at writing (or anything else for that matter) is through practice. I have days where I churn out 10,000 words and other only 2,000 words. The more I practice the better I get at it and comps like NaNoWrMo help budding writers get into the discipline of writing every day.

    I think it was Somerset Maughn who said he only ever wrote when the muse took him, and she arrived every day at 9am. Other fab writers like Steven Pressfield also sit down and write day in, day out, regardless of the quality that comes out, the satisfaction comes from doing the work. The actual writing process is what their work is.

    Once you have written you can edit and you can do all kinds of things to make it better but you can’t do anything whilst the words are still in your head. I doubt there is anyone on the planet who can write something perfect without editing it.

    I think writing comps like this are what stops the writing profession from staying in the dark ages.

    • I hear what you say, Sarah, but random writing of thousands of words isn’t particularly helpful other than, as you suggest, for beginners who need some sort of warm-up exercise. However assuming someone has the basic ability to write, working from a good, solid plan and structure – as you point out in your new eBook, Zero to Ebook – is the best way to approach writing something serious. Very similar techniques can and should be used in writing fiction, if only to prevent the inevitable “running out of plot” many would-be novelists do if they just let themselves ramble and ramble. And the other advantage of the “plan in detail first, write afterwards” approach is that very much less editing is required afterwards. In my experience too much editing dilutes good writing and decreases its energy and rhythm.

  2. Ann Godridge says:

    It’s simple really, it’s just about exercisising the writing muscle. I was first talked into this madness a couple of Novembers ago and the first one I did was absolute rubbish. But it did give me confidence that I could write more – until then I’d never written anything longer than four or five thousand words.

    The following year I finally managed to write my first novel of 120k words. And yes it needed plenty of editing. Oddly though some of the most interesting plot twists showed up during that frenzied nanowrimo time.

    The other thing is that actually there’s been plenty of research done that shows that there really isn’t as much difference as people think between what they produce when writing quickly and when worriting over every word. That said, all writing is re-writing and all the nanowrimo materials make it really obvious that you can’t expect to start from nowhere and have a polished novel at the end of November.

    • Thanks for that, Ann! I had to smile when I read your sentence about “all writing is rewriting” … I remember some old boy who claimed to be a literary agent once telling me that any novel is awful until you have rewritten it five times. If I have to rewrite anything of mine – nonfiction or fiction – more than once I throw it away and start again! As I mentioned in my reply to Sarah above, too much editing and particularly rewriting can destroy the spontaneity and freshness of both fiction and nonfiction. It’s a bit like dressmaking; if you make a garment and then have to alter it five times before wearing it, it’s not likely to look and hang as well as it would if you had made it right first time.

      I agree that for many people it’s a good idea to exercise the “writing muscle” but it’s also a good idea to exercise the “thinking muscle” at the same time. Courses in plot construction and story planning are available – one that immediately springs to mind is that of Robert McKee ( http://mckeestory.com/ ). I haven’t done any of his courses (although I am working on a joint project with him at the moment!) but people I know who have, all say that the knowledge gained from courses like this enable you to start several stages further ahead with your fiction writing and skip over the need to, well, warm up your writing muscle anything like as much as you would otherwise. Why? Because you get your thinking right before you write. So true of all writing, IMHO…

  3. I’m tiptoeing in here Suze as I’ve been trying to keep this quiet.. . . . . But I am writing a book.

    Phew gasp! how does that sound? Me the dyslexic who is phobic about putting ‘pen to paper’. I’ve taken up the gauntlet with a local coach who is trying to prove a point that motivated people can write a book in 90 days. He’s taken on 10 of us – and the thought is that we only write about what we know, we plan, we create the structure and all the details before we start writing…. Certainly I guess for the the planning is useful. Goodness knows what will happen when I start writing. However, as it’s not fiction I can’t comment on the words and pages but all I know is that it’s going to be a challenge – which I am looking forward to [I think] x

    • That’s fantastic news, Lynn! Good for you. Your coach sounds like my kind of guy, too – that’s pretty much exactly how I coach people for nonfiction.

      Watch your email inbox – I’m sending you something you might find helpful…

      xx

      • WOW – what a gift, thank you Suze. And your good wishes are much appreciated too. I’ll keep you in the loop.

        • You’re welcome – good luck with the project. And why don’t you keep a little journal of your progress so you can share that with us in here when the project is finished? I’d find that really interesting and I’m sure most other HTWBers would too!

  4. What I’d like to know is whether anyone could organize a national novel-reading month. There are plenty of books, the problem is that so few people read books.

    • Hi Setty and thanks for your comment. You’ve made a very good point – it would be amazing if someone were to set up some sort of initiative to encourage people to read more fiction, and especially to explore fiction written by lesser known but equally talented authors. Far too many excellent novels sink without trace after publication purely because the author was a newbie, the conventional publisher wouldn’t put in the promotional budget because of that, so no-one even knew the book was available. The only hope for success there is if the book is online and “goes viral” – but that is, to say the least, a somewhat hit-or-miss random hope…

Thoughts

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