The Right Time to Write: is writing at #NaNoWriMo speed really a good thing?

This article first appeared in issue 03 of Publishing Talk Magazine. An edited version  first appeared on this site on 28 Nov 2012.

It’s the last day of NaNoWriMo. Have you finished your 50,000-word draft? Don’t worry if not. Making your words count is more important than your word count, says Linda Gillard.

The Right Time to Write - Linda Gillard

Do you have writer’s cramp yet? Or typist’s tremor? Have you entered the annual November writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)? If you did, did you finish, or did you give up exhausted halfway through the month?

I’m a professional writer with six published novels on my CV, so I’m not your typical WriMo-er but, encouraged by the buzz and some enthusiastic writing friends, I attempted NaNoWriMo for the first (and almost certainly last) time in 2010.

finding time to write a novel isn’t nearly as difficult as finding time to think a novel.

It was an illuminating experience and taught me a lot about how I write. I gave up halfway through the month with a word count of 26,000. I didn’t abandon my novel, I simply stopped beating myself up about speed and resumed my normal writing pace and methods. I’d discovered that NaNoWriMo was not for me. I eventually finished that novel and, like most of my books, it took me a bit more than a year to write.

I made a good start even though I’d not done lot of planning. (I don’t plan my novels very much anyway, so this wasn’t raising the bar for me.) Producing quantities of words isn’t difficult for me, but writing at NaNo speed confirmed for me what I’ve always thought about novel-writing: finding time to write a novel isn’t nearly as difficult as finding time to think a novel.

And that’s what was missing from my NaNo experience. Time to think. I wasn’t day-dreaming, hypothesizing, re-thinking or revising – all those processes that, for me, are what novel-writing is about. I was just producing an impressive daily word count.

My fictional set-up was promising. The writing was competent. Then at 18,000 words things started to get tough. Artistic decisions had to be made and I wanted to slow down and reflect on what I’d produced so far. I knew I needed to get to know my characters better. In short, I wanted my novel-in-progress to develop and mature. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. It’s about “getting all your ideas down” – that and the big confidence boost of actually finishing a draft.

It’s my view that anyone with a love of writing, a vivid imagination, some spare time and a lot of determination can produce a quarter of a novel. Many novels – even those begun by seasoned professionals – are abandoned around the 25,000-word mark. Writers hit a wall. I think it’s because by then, we’ve finished setting up, we’ve created our characters and their environment. What comes next is the hard part: the development and careful structuring of the story so it moves towards the necessary climaxes and resolution. I believe writers only move beyond this 25,000-word point if they really, really want to tell their story (or if they’re contracted to tell it and have a deadline to meet).

it worries me the way NaNo has ‘failure’ built in for so many participants

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said, ‘There is no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ I don’t think I’d go so far as to say there’s no point, but I will say, if you aren’t being paid to write, you’re unlikely to finish your novel unless you feel this way.

NaNoWriMo is brilliant as an inspiring, sociable and creative exercise. It’s great for producing a very rough draft of the novel you’ve been brewing up for months or even years. But it worries me the way NaNo has ‘failure’ built in for so many participants – and not just failure to achieve the 50,000 word count. During NaNo month in 2010 I read many complaints on Facebook from writers suffering RSI-related pain, yet their well-meaning fellow participants encouraged them to push on through the pain, thereby risking the possibility of serious damage to the delicate tendons of the hand. This isn’t writing, it’s masochism! Producing a novel is a test of stamina. It shouldn’t be an endurance test.

I question the wisdom of producing fiction in a state of caffeine-fuelled exhaustion and physical pain. It might be possible to write like this, but it’s unlikely to produce your best work. It certainly didn’t produce mine. I still have reservations about the early chapters of my NaNo novel, The Glass Guardian, even though it’s sold well on Kindle and has, as I write, 27 four- and five-star reviews on Amazon UK. It’s hard for me to assess my own work, but if anyone levelled a charge of superficiality at that novel (and so far no one has), I would know what they meant. That novel doesn’t feel as “lived in” as all my others. I don’t know the characters as intimately as I do the characters in other books. This might have something to do with genre issues (The Glass Guardian was my first attempt to write a paranormal) but I think it has rather more to do with generating 26,000 words in 15 days.

there are reasons why professional novelists don’t produce a draft of a book in a month

I’m not trying to knock NaNoWriMo, I’m just making a plea for balance. I’d like to challenge the idea that churning out verbiage for an entire month has to be a good thing. I’d like to extol the virtues of a more thoughtful approach, especially to those who withdrew defeated from their NaNo marathon. To them I’d like to say, there are reasons why professional novelists don’t produce a draft of a book in a month.

Quick thinking can lead to the quick-fix and the quick-fix can lead to predictability, stereotype and cliché

When I was struggling to stay in the NaNo game, I wearied of people claiming on Facebook that ‘everything can be fixed once you have a draft’. I don’t believe it can. It is important to get all your ideas down on paper. (Prolific Nora Roberts said, ‘I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.’) Drafts are there to be edited into something better. But what worries me about NaNoWriMo is not the fast writing it requires, but the fast thinking, the decision-making that story-telling requires. Quick thinking can lead to the quick-fix and the quick-fix can lead to predictability, stereotype and cliché.

When my children were young and asked to watch films and TV programmes that I thought might frighten them, I refused and warned them that once you’ve seen something, you can never un-see it (which they discovered to their cost when they had months of nightmares inspired by Return to Oz.) I believe it can be the same with writing. You can of course un-write stuff, but you can’t un-think it or un-hear it. Writing is decision-making, word by painstaking word. Having made a creative decision, it’s difficult to get back to that state of open-mindedness where anything was possible. Anyone who’s ever been asked by their editor for substantial re-writes will confirm how tough it is to re-think a plot or characters you’ve lived with for months or even years.

If you’re concerned about the quality of your fiction and not just the quantity, I think there’s a lot to be said for remaining alert, receptive and poised for that moment of inspiration, which is the right time to write. In my opinion, that’s the really hard part about novel-writing: the waiting. Waiting until you’re ready to write. Knowing when you’re ready.

If you didn’t finish NaNo this year, don’t be too despondent and please don’t think you ‘failed’. Maybe you weren’t ready to write. Writing is the end product of a process of thinking, feeling, deciding. Maybe you had more thinking to do. Maybe you just aren’t a fast writer. That doesn’t mean you’re not good. I’m a hard-working professional and I failed to produce 50,000 words in thirty days. Or rather, I decided that to do so would be counter-creative, because for me it’s not about the word count, it’s about how much my words count.


About Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She has been an actress, journalist and teacher. She is the author of six novels, including Star Gazing, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and House of Silence, which became a Kindle bestseller, selected by Amazon as one of their Top Ten ‘Best of 2011’ in the Indie Author category. Linda has published two more new novels on Kindle: a romantic drama, Untying the Knot, and most recently, The Glass Guardian, a supernatural love story. Find out more at www.lindagillard.co.uk or on her author page on Facebook.

View all posts by Linda Gillard →

22 Responses to The Right Time to Write: is writing at #NaNoWriMo speed really a good thing?

  1. Gord says:

    I have the results of a NaNoWriMo sitting published next to me on my desk right now. I’m very excited. I found that the pace and endurance gave me the confidence to continue writing. Once I hit 30 I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to writing that novel, so NaNoWriMo gave me the chance to.

    Mind you my life was a slower pace at that time. I had more downtime to think about the novel and its progression. Thanks for the article.

  2. NaNoWriMo works brilliantly for some people and I’m glad it really paid off for you, Gord. I couldn’t make it work for me, but then my problem wasn’t showing up at my desk & putting in the hours. My problem was/is carving out the thinking time and NaNo didn’t help me with that.

    Thanks for commenting on my article.

  3. DJ Stpe says:

    Thank you for the article. I was feeling failurific as the month came to an end. WriMo doesn’t allow me the time to do other things like draw or write songs. These are the things I think spur me on toward inspiration when the writing dries up. During WriMo I feel guilty when I do those things, like I’m shirking a responsibility, so I stop. Then absolutely nothing comes out. I need those distractions to keep me going. I’m glad WriMo works for some, it’s just not conducive to my process.

  4. Paula Martin says:

    I did Nano last year, Linda, and managed the 50K words, but it took me another 7 or 8 months to get it to the standard I wanted, and I eventually submitted it on Nov 1st this year. Like you, I missed the thinking process, and the last half of what I wrote during Nano was probably the worst writing I’ve ever done! I felt like I was sacrificing quality for quantity, and didn’t really enjoy that. It’s the main reason I didn’t sign up for Nano again this year.

  5. Works for some, but not for me. I need the thinking and planning time and I know that whatever I produced would be no more than a very basic outline of where I wanted to go – I do admire people who can gaily knock out a few thousand words a day, but it’s just not me.

  6. Nanowrimo is, in my humble opinion, there to show each of us that we have a novel inside us, and that it can come out, sooner than we may think. It’s not intended for those who already know these things.

    For those who have already written a novel and have had no trouble starting on a second, Nano may be month’s worth of pointless exercise.

    But for the vast multitudes of writers and maybe-writers who procrastinate and low-self-esteem their way out of ever accomplishing their first novel, Nanowrimo is a way to overcome both barriers at once. That’s a brilliant thing.

    As for whether the writing will be good — well, no. No matter what, if you’ve never put together 50,000 words before, you’re unlikely to write something of quality. You haven’t paid your dues and written your first million words of crap.

    But to get the first 50K of those crap words onto paper in just a month, watching your own progress and that of others, learning from their mistakes as well as your own, and realizing that it’s not the insurmountable task you had built it into, wow, that’s a good combination of things for a newbie novelist.

    I heartily recommend Nano for anyone who hasn’t written a novel yet, and maybe even for those who have but haven’t yet published one. It’s a great way to get those first efforts out of the way quickly while clearing out the clogged writing pipes.

    • Kyle Starr says:

      I completely agree! I did not expect to produce a masterpiece in one month. Instead, I used NaNoWriMo as a challenge to get through the barrier of entry. After achieving my 50,000 word count, I had a new found creative confidence. I understood the faults of the process (little time to think, heafty edits, etc.) but found it rewarding nonetheless.

      Around the halfway point, I too felt like the process wasn’t for me. I was struggling to move the story in the direction I wanted, develop of the characters, and find motives and obstacles. Not to mention the added burden of traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday!

      In the end, I was happy I completed the challenge. While the work it produced certainly won’t be my best, at least it produced some kind of work. I had always struggled trying to find the patience to mull over a story or spend months crafting a novel. Those ideas always deterred me from the process. NaNoWriMo felt like quickly ripping off a band-aid. Being able to tell myself that I have written a novel, good or bad, will allow me to confidently try my hand at a more patient process.

      • I love your image of ripping off a Bandaid, Kyle! Ouch…

        Writing is all about confidence & self-belief and we need to learn to recognise what helps and what doesn’t – and that varies of course from one writer to another.

        It’s sounds as if NaNo has proved to be a great launch pad for you. How we “launch” doesn’t matter. (A mental breakdown got me writing fiction.) It’s the “launch” that counts.

  7. Stacey Voss says:

    I was trying to use Nanowrimo this year to finish my second novel. I failed miserably. In 2007, however, I wrote my first novel and completed Nanowrimo. I made sure that when things got sticky I would stop and meditate and try to get into my characters’ heads. I found that after bouts of meditation the words came flying out.

    I think Nanowrimo can work if you have most of the novel planned out in your head. Sometimes things come flying out that you never expected.

    I also firmly believe that Nanowrimo is only the first baby-step for a novel. So much editing must be done to the stream of consciousness writing that results that you can’t really count it as having being written in a month. The months afterwards are for exploring the sentences that you got out and refining them, correcting grammar, and fixing story holes.

    Nanowrimo 2007 helped me to get past that mental hurdle of getting my first novel out and Nanowrimo 2012 helped me to get going again on my second novel. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish it again, but I do know that it helps to give me a kick in the pants.

  8. Gilly Fraser says:

    I have this very silly image in my head – of people standing round looking at NaNo as if it were a slightly smelly dog. They want to be kind and compassionate towards the poor creature but really don’t want to reach out a hand and actually touch the thing.

    I’m throwing in my tuppenceworth because I love naNo – well I would, wouldn’t I – given that I’ve just finished (successfully) my second in a row. I am a journalist – and I am a writer – albeit of Mills and Boon books which may not allow me to qualify for the title in some quarters.

    That may explain why I love NaNo and why I get so much out of it. I know deadlines and I value them. They concentrate my mind and – so far at any rate – they have completely refused to let me even countenance the idea of ‘writer’s block’.

    I have found NaNo to be an incredibly liberating experience – setting me free to say at some stage every day ‘I have to go and write now’ – and also giving me free rein to write gibberish. The gibberish isn’t set in stone – it’s just there as a marker, giving me some notion of what I wanted to say at the time. I can say it properly later.

    This year – Nano saw two of my nephews take up their pens. Both have said for years that they wanted to write. Now they’ve actually done it. One has crossed the 50k line, the other keeled over at 40k – matters not a jot. Still a fantastic achievement – and I reckon both will now see writing in a very different way. Will they continue with their stories? Maybe yes and maybe no. In a strange way, that really isn’t the point.

    Finally – and my sincere apologies for wittering on – I see NaNo as a kind of London or New York marathon. Thousands will take part – only a handful will finish in a respectable time, if at all. Some who failed will be tarnished forever by the experience – but many others will still be reliving it in their dotage. Because that’s what it is – an experience. And yes – all being well I will do it all over again in 2013. Because – quite apart from anything else – it’s damn good fun.

    • I agree with you, Gilly – all the time it’s fun, it can’t do any harm and it might be an exhilarating & productive experience. But feeling a failure isn’t fun and RSI isn’t fun. It was those issues among others I was addressing. When the fun stops for writers – writers at whatever level of experience – I think it’s time to take stock.

  9. Gilly Fraser says:

    As someone who’s well accustomed to failure – and indeed a touch of RSI, I do see what you’re saying. BUT – we can’t all succeed at everything we do and I truly believe it’s wrong to let people think otherwise. How are you going to embrace and rejoice in success – as I have quite blatantly and shamelessly with NaNo – if you haven’t been slapped round the face by failure as well? And – I would swiftly add – NaNo doesn’t slap those who don’t ‘win’ in any way – they just keep on encouraging them.

  10. I tried NaNo last year to get my second novel up and running. I never made the 50k – not even close.

    Even though my second novel was the sequel to the first, I didn’t have the necessary background work done.

    I think an author needs January-October to have the novel planned out characters’ developed before they can sit down and properly write something that even remotely resembles a novel.

    Wordcount for the sake of wordcount means nothing.

    Good on you, Linda, for speaking your mind!

    • I agree, Melanie, that if you’ve done months of preparation a concentrated burst of energy in November might produce a useful or even a great draft. But the tiredness issue would still bother me. Writing is very tiring (and I’ve been a teacher and an actress, so I know about tiring jobs). I can write when I’m exhausted. I just know I write a lot better when I’m not.

      But it’s a question of getting to know what works best for you as a writer. NaNo should be the carrot, not another stick to beat ourselves with.

  11. Randy Kraft says:

    Took Donna Tartt ten years from start to print. Roughly 220,000 words. A Dickens of a masterpiece. Really, what is the point of rushing? Every word should be considered. That’s the joy of writing.

  12. Mary says:

    I can see the various points of view about writing for the challenge, but I can say this much for everyone–people have individual writing styles and that’s fine as long as it works for “them.” I finished the challenge by Day 14 and I love the way the story was writing itself. I work as a college instructor, have grandma duties for a 12 year-old who lives me and I kept writing. I finally stopped at 65,000 on the 19th of the month, but only because I had a ton of papers to grade–it’s near the end of the term.

    I’m thrilled with what I have accomplished and I intend to finish writing the novel because the end has not yet appeared. This was my first year, but an inspiring one and I would encourage meet to join in the fun, simply as a way to get started on a fantastic writing journey.

    I quit when I get tired and seldom drink more than two cups of coffee a day. I did develop a story map before the challenge started, but the storyline I thought I was planning was lost at the gate. I love the story and since I already knew the characters (2nd book of a series), I had no problem joining in their adventures. My hope now is to revise and publish before Christmas. May not happen, but it’s a goal. If I don’t make it, I tried!

  13. Cat says:

    I think Nano is a great tool when used to your advantage. Before Nano I took Candace Havens Fast Draft course which required 20 pages a day (about 5000) words) everyday for two weeks. After that Nano was pretty easy. We all know that Nano is in Nov, so start planning your novel in October or even before that. Once it’s in your head or on an outline (or notecards like I use) then its a lot easier and more productive. As far as RSI, no one has to work in long constant blocks. With planning, I am able to write about 500 words every 30 mins, break that up in 4 half hour increments throughout the day and it’s doable. For Nano, one only needs to write 1666 words a day to hit the 50,000 at the 30 day mark. Nano is a tool, and with any tool you can get injured if used improperly. But if used correctly it can be a great thing to help you accomplish a job. :)

  14. Claire says:

    NaNoWriMo is the best thing ever if you ask me :D! The more free time I have I’m less likely to spend it on writing. I take part in almost every NaNoWriMo throughout the year, including Camp NaNoWriMo. I find it so much easier to finish my work during those months.

  15. kathryn says:

    İ just signed a three-book deal for a series that İ started with NaNo. İn fact, each book started as NaNo. İ used it to kick start each one and then added another 70,000 words to each. İ have a fourth almost completed (in the same series), the publisher says she wants it, as she does the fidth which is – NaNo failure at 42000 words. İ dropped out when İ found out İ had been signed and then got busy putting finishing touches on everything.

    İ must say that as the numbers swell, the forums have filled with young people who have never heard of Google. it is astounding. Also psychiatric conditions are the new fashion…and how many times will the moderators allow the question of how far a horse can travel in a day?

    Anyway, İ love NaNo, İ am grateful to NaNo for making me an author at the age of 50.

  16. Phil says:

    Very informative post.
    Some probably need to have the NaNoWriMo criteria/conditions to start or complete their book.
    I personally wouldn’t subject myself to it, as I would feel that I needed to be under a ‘just write something’ ethos, to keep the momentum going.
    Whilst I appreciate the fact that the perfect draft isn’t completed on the first write, I’m more likely to need major re-writes writing under NaNoWriMo conditions.

  17. Ludo Merit says:

    I tried NaNoWriMo this year. I started early to see what it would be like. I couldn’t top 500 words a day, and if I were to write that novel I’d throw all of them out. I have to think as I write. That’s how my mind works. Then I have to think again. So far, I haven’t got a novel idea that I really want to spend that much effort on, but I did come up with a couple of characters during NaNoWriMo.

  18. Susan Parry says:

    Like you I decided to give it a try – and gave up at 30k although i didn’t push myself . I prefer to write with reasonable quality and cannot ‘just keep writing’. Unusually I had plotted out the novel (my 7th crime novel in the series) so knew what to put in each chapter. My reaction to the experience is mixed – I am far further along than I expected to be and it has helped me keep going afterwards but I agree there is a certain feeling of failure at not achieving the 50k. Perhaps we should start another month where 30k is the target – haha!