13 Ugly Truths About Nanowrimo

According to the National Novel Writing Month website, I’ve been participating for eight years. No one’s more alarmed about that than I am. That’s a minimum of 400,000 words, which is at least two-thirds of your average Robert Jordan novel. Countless hours. Millions of keystrokes. Untold cups of coffee. I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things in those eight years. (I’m not saying I have, necessarily, I’m just saying I’d like to think so). But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that Nanowrimo is not without its pitfalls.

1. You’re going to piss someone off.

The spirit of Nanowrimo is one of friendship, mutual support, and unalloyed enthusiasm about writing that novel. It would be nice if family and friends always felt the same way, but they won’t. Writing takes up a lot of time, and Nanowrimo even more so, because of the high word count and short deadline. Chances are, people are going to want to spend time with you, and will be tempting you with trivial concerns like socializing, eating, or expressing affection for your loved ones. Things can get especially problematic when the people close to you try to be “supportive” by lovingly telling you you’re wasting your time.

Not everybody is going to be happy with the time you’re giving Nanowrimo this November. Not everyone is going to believe in you. Not everyone is going to care about your novel. All you can do — in fact, what you must do — is shrug it off and soldier on.

2. Much as you might want to, you can’t completely ignore life.

What would an insightful point be without another that immediately contradicts it, right? While you have to let the unhappiness and disapproval of others bounce off like a cat hitting a beach ball, you also can’t turtle up entirely. Regretfully, you’ll still have to go to work, feed your pets, pay the phone bill, and shower. Seriously, shower. That unwashed writer cachet only works on film and television because you can’t smell film or television. Some things just can’t be ignored.

All passions, and especially writing, require a balance, and Nanowrimo is great at throwing that balance out of whack. You’re going to need to cut vast swaths of time out for writing if you’re going to make it — but you can’t, and shouldn’t, cut everything.

3. You’ll want to throw it all away.

You’ve just finished writing a twenty-page chase scene in which Flash Gordon, Spike from Buffy and Jack Burton drive the Pork Chop Express into the Grand Canyon in order to escape from the UFO piloted by the mirror universe killer android double of Thomas Edison and the Force ghost of Andy Kaufman. And that’s when you realize you’ve written the worst chick-lit teen romance novel of all time.

Sometimes, even if you carefully plan ahead, things will fly off the rails. If you don’t plan, they’re almost sure to. Something is probably going to crawl out of your novel, tie the rails in knots, cover them in C4, and thumb the detonator. More than once, you’ll find yourself wanting to chuck the last five, ten, fifty, or a hundred pages and start over.

Don’t do it.

Plow ahead. See where your latest gonzo plot development takes you. Better yet, see if you can wrestle that unexpected plot development back on track. Make a challenge out of it. At the very least, sit down and really think about whether your work can’t be salvaged. Tossing out big chunks of text is one of the easiest ways to get demoralized.

4. November really is a terrible month for this.

Oh, November, you so crazy. Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving. In-laws showing up and lingering around like a herpes flare-up. November is a month full of distractions, obligations, and easy excuses for giving up on Nanowrimo. But here’s the thing: so are the other twelve months of the year. After all, after Thanksgiving comes Christmas, and then New Year’s, and then you’ve got spring cleaning, and who wants to sit cooped up all summer hunched over a laptop, and suddenly, oops, it’s November again.

Writers love to wait for that moment when they’ve just slept for ten hours, the kids are at the neighbor’s house, the boss just gave them the week off, the world’s most delicious cup of coffee magically brewed itself, the Internet stopped working, and the Muse has descended from on high to whale them in the back of the skull with the wiffle-ball-bat of inspiration. If you’re lucky, a day like that comes about once a year. You can’t count on it. Writing through inconvenience is something you have to learn to do, and November’s as good a time as any.

5. Something will go wrong technically.

I used to be a system administrator at a university, and there was one teacher who was constantly plagued by technical issues: hard drive failures, CD-ROMs that would stop working, backup devices that would stop working, monitors that would stop working… I think you get the drift. She would joke about “gremlins” and being “cursed,” and we would all have a good laugh because gremlins don’t exist, haha! But by the end, it got so bad that I wasn’t so sure anymore.

Whether it be gremlins or good old reliable Murphy’s Law, Nanowrimo is a great opportunity for either to strike. Take precautions. Back up early and often. Use Dropox or email yourself a copy of your novel regularly. Don’t assume that your creaky old laptop will hang on until you’ve written THE END on the final page. You think throwing out a thousand words is demoralizing? Try losing forty thousand. Plan for disaster and hope it passes you by.

6. Something will go wrong non-technically.

This is related to the first two points, but really bears mentioning again. There’s every possibility that you might get deathly ill from Aunt Bethany’s Raw Duck Surprise or the germs off the liquid soap dispenser that claims to be antibacterial but clearly someone lied. Your car will die. Your closest friend will have a public meltdown at Burger King and need to be bailed out at four in the morning. The bank will add a minus sign to the front of your bank balance for a hilarious holiday-season sally. Something always happens, is what I’m saying.

When it seems like life is piling obstacles in front of your Nano-novel like it’s the star in a Steven Spielberg action blockbuster, just put your head down and get through it. Think of the bragging rights you’ll earn. Put the not-actually-hilarious events of your life into the book and make them actually hilarious. Make adversity work for you — or just grit your teeth. Either way, don’t let it stop you.

7. Someone’s always doing better.

There’s one every year — some clown on the forums who apparently just sits down, starts flapping at the keyboard like a chimp on horse steroids, and earns that 50K purple bar in an afternoon. “Ah, done at last!” they’ll post on the forums, all disingenuous relief and manufactured naivete. “That took forever! I thought there was no way I’d hit 150K words before brunch.” Pay no attention to these reprobates. First of all, they’re probably lying. Or, if they aren’t, their novel is even more unreadable than is usual for a product of Nanowrimo. Or maybe they really are some kind of unholy writing android named Picasso Prosaico Prolificus and they really did knock off a work of genius like it was an especially productive bowel movement.

Whatever. You’re not them, and the last thing you need is a heaping side dish of seething resentment to go with your buffet of word-count anxiety and your dessert of crushing-fatigue soufflé. Just keep working at your own pace and try to be gracious enough to congratulate those stupid jerks on their dumb stupid accomplishment. You know, like the Golden Rule says.

8. Someone’s always doing worse.

Check the Nanowrimo forums, and every year you’ll see some poor sap who seems to be writing from a condemned coldwater flat located directly beneath Satan’s butthole. His wife just divorced him, the heat got turned off, the dog ran away and only pieces of it came back, he tripped on his laptop cord and shattered his tibia, even as said laptop flew out the window and caved in the hood of the landlord’s brand-new Lexus. And if that weren’t bad enough, he’s 32,000 words behind with two days to go, and his protagonist was just vaporized in a hospital accident and he doesn’t remember how or why because he was on a lot of pain pills at the time, which he just ran out of, incidentally.

I know, you might be thinking, why do you care? Buck up, little camper, put some duct tape on that tibia, put those frostbitten fingers back on your keyboard, and get back to work. Well, it’s not quite as funny when it’s someone you know. I mean, let’s hope not. But writing buddies occasionally fall hard and need some support. It might even be some stranger on the Nano forums or on Twitter whom a fun-loving God has just swatted across the groin with the mishap stick. These moments can range from the merely amusing, to the inconvenient, to the emotionally exhausting. Do what you have to do to support your fellow Wrimo, but don’t let it become an excuse to give up.

9. You’ll start craving that purple bar.

One thing about Nanowrimo is that the little blue word-count bar will slowly creep into the center of your life and stay there, mocking you with merry japes every time you try to turn your bedraggled attention elsewhere. You’ll become obsessed with it. You seek out new and more complex widgets to post on Livejournal, or Twitter, or your blog, or the forums, or the project management software at work so everyone can see how badass you are. You’ll write a paragraph, and check your word count. You’ll write a word, and check your word count. You’ll do nothing and check it anyway, just because you might have read it wrong.

Checking your own progress toward that mythical purple bar can overshadow other goals if you let it. Don’t let it. Keep writing, resist the urge to update, and put your story first. Many are the Wrimos who hit 50K and ended their novel with “and then he was shot by the cops and died such is the price of hubris and the wages of fear OKAY THE END” and figured that was enough. Do this and the poor jokers you’ve suckered into reading your draft are going to want to beat you with a belt until you look like one of the California Raisins.

10. Word counts are not to be trusted.

I’ll be succinct. Word counts are goddamned liars. Microsoft Word will tell you one thing, OpenOffice another, Notepad something else still, and the Nanowrimo word count validator will renounce them all like Saint Peter selling out Jesus. Don’t be a chump and stop at 50K just because Clippy says you’re done. Finish the story properly. Add a denouement. Pad the thing out if you have to, because the last thing you want is to have a character recite the Declaration of Indepence for a finale because it’s ten minutes to midnight and Nanowrimo says you’re sitting pretty at 48,104. Which brings us to our next point:

11. The Nanowrimo web site will probably fail you when you need it most.

Anyone who’s ever done Nanowrimo will tell you that from the 1st to the 5th of November, and the 27th through the 30th, the two hamsters that power the Nanowrimo site will start getting tired, and it will stop functioning. Much of the time, this is a boon, as it keeps you from downloading wallpapers or browsing for overpriced coffee cups or whatever super-vital thing you’re doing that isn’t writing. However, more than one Wrimo has tried to validate their word count at the very last minute, only to find out a bunch of other people are doing the same thing, and instead of a pretty placard and a congratulatory message, their reward is a blank browser page and the sound of their own screams. Do your blood pressure a favor and finish as early as you can.

12. The Internet will eat your life.

This particular truth is not endemic to Nanowrimo, but to writing in general; at some point, it will become clear to you that you cannot in good conscience write another word without firing up Wikipedia and learning all about torture methods in Turkish prisons, or the synopses of every episode of “Super Train,” or how harshly libel laws are actually enforced in your country of origin. I’m not saying that research isn’t necessary for a successful novel. Quite the opposite. But I will suggest to you that when you’re three days behind quota and fighting off a panic attack about it, now might not be the time.

The same goes for social media and blogging. What information-age writer born with the procrastinatory gene hasn’t killed an afternoon on Twitter? I know I sure have. I’m doing it right now. But you have to wrangle that behavior into line if you’re going to finish on time. And don’t give me any of that bullroar about how you’re Twittering your novel and by OMG bizarre coincidence it features characters named @neilhimself and @ChuckWendig. I’m afraid it’s been done, Major Gimmick.

13. A Damp, Drizzly November in Your Soul

This is probably the ugliest truth to face when it comes to Nanowrimo, and when it happens to you, there isn’t anything funny about it. There will probably be moments when you’re exhausted, you’re frustrated, and it seems like there’s no one there who believes in you. You’ll wonder why you’re bothering. You’ll briefly entertain dramatic notions of Never Writing Again. And sometimes all the forlorn forum posts, despairing tweets, or maudlin blog entries in the world won’t make you feel better — even if you get a pep talk from fellow Wrimos past or present.

Nanowrimo can be a real blast, a useful experience, and a great utility for pumping out a first draft. But it’s very easy to take it too seriously and let the images of the purple bar, the winning trophy, and the approving faces of your friends coalesce into a harrowing vision of guilt and shame. When this happens, just sit back and remember, it’s just Nanowrimo. Winning is great, but it literally only means as much as you let it. Bailing out doesn’t make you a failure, or a bad writer, or a lazy no-good mutant. Sometimes, goals are just beyond our grasp for the moment.

But if you can, take the knowledge that you can walk away from Nano, consequence-free, and use it to rekindle your love of the game. You’re not here because you have to be. You’re here because you want to be. Because you love the exhilarating, exhausting, fun-as-hell rocket ride of Nanowrimo.

Then finish your book. Good luck.

  • Anonymous

    NaNoWriMo sounds ripe for creating a murder mystery with the event as backdrop. That much pathos… Hell, I’d be astonished if that hasn’t been done several times already.

    I shouldn’t chuckle too hard, since some of that drama is real, but like all human condition, when amp’d up in a crucible such as this, … Evolution gave us laughter to cope with when all other reactions fail to trigger.

  • This article helped me more than you’ll ever know. First year for me and as a disabled veteran, I see this as something I need to do, like everything in my life was set up for this, not to win, but to write. I have many questions, so when you get a chance, can you hit me up on twitter?

    • Thanks so much for the lovely comment, Angelica. Hit me up on Twitter anytime.

  • I love this article, Daniel. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me, personally. Your writing style is hilarious 🙂 I always look forward to reading your posts now!

    I’m going to have to print this one out and read it again mid-way through Nano… especially point 13! Meanwhile, I shall stock up on some duct tape, for any impending tibia injuries… 😀

    • Thanks so much, Catherine! I look forward to hearing about your Nanowrimo experience. And glad to hear you’re planning ahead 😀

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I needed that 🙂 Onward and Upward and all that good stuff! LOL I’m like that poor sap you got up there, but never fear, for if my hands don’t fall off, then i will still keep writing…and if they do, then i will use a microphone and Microsoft word…LOL

  • Anonymous

    I should read this like once a day for encouragement

  • “…especially productive bowel movement.”

    BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    If you need me, I shall be dead from laughing.

  • NaNo Girl

    People who say they’ve typed 100,000 words in one day are liars; people who say they’ve typed a million words in five days are liars. Some people seem to think it’s a contest to see who types the most words in November. One consolation, though, whatever they’ve written is crap; they probably know it, but don’t care. They’re like Oooh, look at me, one week and I’ve hit half a million. As for me, I’m at just over 20K and I’m not worried. I’m trying to write a fantasy novel, and I know I’m going to get it done. And I don’t intend to write half a million words of crap.

    • Right there with you, NaNo Girl. Good luck this year!

    • Andy Dunn

      One year, my region was in a supposedly friendly word war with Chicago. There was somebody who was supposedly a teenager in high school with myriad extracurricular activities (debate club, cheerleader, feeding poor, unwed puppies down at the old folks’ home, painting houses for the homeless, running for state senate, etc.) who claimed 2,000,000 words. Somebody in my region called BS and pointed out there’s no freaking way a kid in high school could type that much in such a short period of time without sacrificing anything. He was raked over the coals for being such a MEANINE and HOW DARE YOU DOUBT SUCH A LITTLE LAMB and YOU’RE JUST STOOPID and HOW CAN YOU VIOLATE THE SPIRIT OF FRIENDLY COMPETITION, etc. After this, and New York moving the goalposts after we beat them (“well, you might have the higher overall word count, but we really won because we have the higher per person word count”), we’re no longer participating in regional word wars.

      • Two MILLION? That’s twice the length of all seven Harry Potter novels! I think someone’s a fibber!

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  • Liz DeJesus

    LOL That was awesome. 😀

  • Sam the Cat

    I’ve NaNoed 3 years in a row now (sophomore through senior year of college) and I’m going to make the brave attempt to NaNo this year while I’m student teaching… probably going to have to read this article at least once a day to keep myself grounded in reality. Thanks for this!

  • Jason

    I’ve been doing this for twelve years now, and all I want to do is get over 50K.. I did 100K+ one year, but that was over 30 days. I don’t understand these people who do 50K in one day, or 100K in one day. Why? Is this some kind of contest to see who gets the most in the shortest amount of time? Is this a race? Hey, you overachievers, what do you win? Nothing.