Today’s post is by H. E. James:
For the last seven years, from this month through November, I’ve been asked that question by friends and family not in the know. I then go on to explain the pleasure and the pain that is National Novel Writing Month.
National Novel Writing Month is a nonprofit established in 1999 to foster creativity and writing in both adults and youth. NaNoWriMo has been so successful that it has generated more than 250 traditionally published novels, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.
I haven’t been so lucky, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying, even while pursuing my MBA. I have signed up for NaNoWriMo for seven years running and have “won” it once—my very first year.
To “win” NaNoWriMo, you must complete 50,000 words within the thirty days of November. Of course, because it is an online activity, we are all on the honor system, but participants are encouraged to only brainstorm, outline, or create notes for their novels before midnight on Halloween. Then, the writing can begin.
The Pleasures of NaNoWriMo
NaNoWriMo helps you along the way with several tools. The site offers a prep section that takes wafflers through the process of committing to NaNoWriMo through signing up and even interacting with the online community.
The online community is the perfect way to collaborate and brainstorm with and provides feedback from other writers. There are genre and regional forums, as well as boards on the technical aspects of writing. Writers who say they don’t need to improve their craft are lying. I don’t have to be face-to-face with them. If I have a question, all I have to do is pose it. Another brilliant writer will come to my rescue.
Another fun part of NaNoWriMo is that I get writing advice delivered to my in-box from the likes of Garth Nix, Jim Butcher, even Neil Gaiman. Last year, Butcher wrote an enthusiastically snarky Pep Talk—his advice was to quit while ahead. As I read it, I could hear Harry Dresden spewing the words and then saw him smirking, daring me to ignore every word I read.
One of the greatest benefits of participating in NaNoWriMo is that in addition to the online community that exists, there are regions, and I’m lucky to live in a big enough town that it has its own region. This makes it possible for our Municipal Liaison to bring many of us together for write-ins, parties, and events outside of social media.
The first year I participated in NaNoWriMo, the MLs was actually a married couple, and they were so much fun. She and I are still Facebook friends, as they have moved away from our town. Not only did I improve my writing skills but I gained a real-life friendship as well, not just a virtual one.
Help with the Writing Process
Speaking of those writing skills, NaNoWriMo has taught me a lot about my writing process—or lack thereof. I am a former high school English teacher, and one of the hardest things for me to teach was writing. Why? I don’t have an actual process. I just sit down and write, with minimal brainstorming or outlining. I expected my students to do the same.
When I started participating in NaNoWriMo, I began examining my process. This encouraged me to do a lot more prep work on my writing, both fictional and academic. When writing my stories, as I’ve always called them, I let them simply come to me as I sat down with a notebook and pen or at my computer.
Now, I put more thought into plot and timeline. I even think about specific scenes more carefully, or the context of the story itself, as author and Rutgers University professor Marc Aronson encourages writers. When I read work I wrote before I started NaNoWriMo, it’s scary. It’s as if I’m sending my readers meandering through CandyLand, and not in a good way.
These days, I don’t lose my readers as easily as I used to. It helps that I’ve learned to storyboard better. When I started writing fiction at eleven years old, I never thought I’d practically be storyboarding my entire novel. I’m techie, and I love to try out the latest writing software, and most of them offer a thirty-day trial. That’s just long enough for me to write my NaNoWriMo, but what if I fall in love with a piece of software after that thirty-day period? If I’ve completed my 50K words, I can get a substantial discount. I even get one for simply participating.
Along with the street cred of having “Winner!” appear over your username on the website, there are a number of other “prizes” for both participants and winners. Free books and discounts on applications other than those with which you can write your novel. One motivator for me is the chance at three months of Evernote Premium.
If I can make it far enough to actually finish a complete novel this year, NaNoWriMo will help with getting it published. There are platforms for self-publishing, how-tos, and a forum entitled “Novel Draft Aftercare” with discussion threads for everything from writing scams to editing timelines.
Nearly all the pleasures of doing NaNoWriMo have opposing pains.
Anyone who’s ever gotten involved in online forums before knows that while they can be helpful, they can also turn into black holes. If I get into the conversations in too many forums, there is little time left for me to compose.
Speaking of the forums, while I am likely to get some great advice, I am just as likely to get some really poor advice. I am experienced enough to know the good from the bad, but newer participants must be wary of the spammy advice that is sometimes offered in the forums.
Some regions aren’t lucky enough to have Municipal Liaisons as energetic and connected as the ones I’ve had. Unfortunately, many a region goes without an ML or has an ML that never coordinates activities like Halloween Kick-Off Parties. This is unfortunate, as I value the friendships I’ve made through my home region.
And of course the fact that NaNoWriMo has given me a larger platform through which to critique my writing skills was more eye-opening than I anticipated.
Managing Editing Time
NaNoWriMo editors, authors, and creators encourage participants to sit down and write without editing. Competing in NaNoWriMo has helped me control the compulsion to self-edit, but it has also made me realize that it certainly is one. It’s not on the scale of Thomas Wolfe’s tendency to use his refrigerator as his desk, but it does affect my speed. After seven years of being a NaNo, my plots are clearer and I use fewer words, but I still self-edit. A lot.
My tendency to self-edit wreaks havoc on the greatest pain that is NaNoWriMo: time. Thirty days hath November. If I’ve planned my novel accordingly, I should be all right. Of course, I have to stop editing every other mistake I make and just try to make it to the end.
All the planning in the world, however, won’t help if the idea fizzles out. Many a writer has stated that there’s no such thing as a muse. I don’t believe that, and even though I have planned to my heart’s content, there have been a couple of years of NaNoWriMo when I just wasn’t feeling it, and I failed miserably.
The letdown of failing at NaNoWriMo is daunting in the shadow of successes like Gruen. The fact that her novel was turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson can be inspirational—provided I win. If I don’t? It’s just all the more reason to hate myself in the morning.
One of my former students has already asked me if I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo again this year. I admitted to her that my one fear is that I’ll have finished my graduate program on October 31 and may not have the mental capacity to spend thirty days on 50,000 words. But it’s definitely worth it to start ticking away at the keyboard.
Hattie is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho, who has traveled throughout Europe and the United States. She has a varied background, including education and history as well as journalism. Hattie enjoys sharing her passions through the written word. She is currently spending many sleepless nights seeking her graduate degree but always sets aside time to enjoy a good cider. H. E. James on Twitter.