National Novel Writing Month

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


This week, the literary blogosphere has been abuzz about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, an annual November “race” to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Begun in 1999 by writer Chris Baty, the popular project has now gone international. To “win,” you simply submit your 50,000-or-more word novel to the site’s administrators at the end of the month. (For the paranoid, it’s easy to scramble your words before submitting.) No one at NaNoWriMo reads or judges your work; the project is truly just a goal-setting exercise. In other words, quality is not necessarily a priority; it’s all about getting the words down so you have something to work with.

Lest you think it’s a crazy idea, Poets and Writers just posted about NaNoWriMo, linking to a list of six successful novels written in a month; (among them, On the Road, natch). And The Rumpus published an article about six figure book deal that began with a NaNoWriMo draft. 

Since successful participants should write an average 1,667 words per day, planning ahead is crucial: I’m here to attest that if you begin without strong characters or a solid story, you won’t get far. To that end, there are plenty of resources out there for the 30-day novelist. MediaBistro’s Galley Cat offers 30 tips, such as “Stop clichés before they start” and “Use a plot diagram tool.” For their part, 826 National offers an “emergency novel finishing kit.” The NaNoWriMo site itself has discussion forums—everything from advice about outlining to story plotting software and other useful technology.

What I like about the project is that it encourages fast, automatic writing. IE: You can’t go back and edit/obsess about a sentence; there’s no time, man. As Anne Lamott says in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” essay, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

It’s tantalizing to think about the unconscious taking over. Patricia Highsmith has a great quote on this: “The unconscious mind takes the germ of an idea and develops it, but usually this happens only when a writer has tried hard, and logically, to develop it himself. After he has given it up for a few hours, getting nowhere, a great advancement of the plot will pop into his head. I have been waked up in the night sometimes by a plot advancement or a solution of a problem that I had not even been dreaming about.” Even Stephen King says in On Writing, “I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months.”