As anyone who has followed me on social media for the last month (or last several years) knows, I hate NaNoWriMo. I’ve attempted it almost every year since college (I forget exactly what year I first tried, either 2007 or 2008), and I have never once written 50,000 words in the month of November.
I’ve started novels from nothing on Day 1. I’ve outlined beforehand. I’ve worked on projects I already started earlier in the year. I’ve done rewrites of old novels. I’ve followed and broken every rule of what to do with a novel for the month of November, and I still haven’t “won”.
This year was the attempt closest to a win, with roughly 41,000 words written in November (I might reach 42,000 by the end of the day tomorrow). I managed to blitz through the first two weeks without much trouble, even getting ahead of schedule for a while, but by week three, I was pulling teeth, and it got harder and harder to keep the pace going. By Day 22, I had fallen behind, and never managed to catch up. And thanks to the chaos of Thanksgiving and the horrible cold that soon followed, I soon had to come to terms with the fact that there was no way I was going to reach 50,000 words by the end of the month. Besides, I was already starting to burn out by that point, holiday feasts and cold notwithstanding. I do not do well with writing every single day, weekends and nights included, trying to reach an arbitrary word count by the strike of midnight each day.
I’m glad for the attempt this year, as I now have a rough quarter of a new novel written. 41,000 words is nothing to laugh at, but I hate the toll it takes on my sanity. One of the things I’ve been really pushing myself to do—this last year, especially—is to take care of my mental well-being. I keep to a fairly regular schedule. I write the most in the mornings and some in the afternoons, and I leave my nights and weekends for fun things, for family things. Not writing.
So when NaNoWriMo comes along and I think, Maybe this year will be the year I manage to write 50,000 words in 30 days… I have to throw my regular schedule out the window and hit the grind as hard as I can. And that’s what it becomes: the grind. I can be a workaholic if I let myself, and NaNoWriMo forces me back into habits I’ve worked years to break, habits that are better left dead.
Writing on the weekends. Writing at night. Staying up past midnight. Ignoring family and chores and food. Taking no time for myself to read or game or watch TV.
Now, I won’t argue that there’s value to be had in sitting down every day, writing to a specific word count goal, not worrying if it’s good or not, just getting words on the page. And I know a lot of writers tout the “first drafts are shit” line, that all first drafts are horrible and you better not think of editing that mess until you reach the end because editing only slows you down and sacrifices your hard-earned word count to the red pen.
Well, I disagree. Vehemently.
I edit. I write a page, and the next day, I go back and fill in the gaps to make it three pages. I read over chapters I wrote the day before, or even the week before. I add things, change things, move things around. And yes, sometimes I delete things. Whole pages. Whole scenes. Whole chapters sometimes. Because there inevitably comes a time when I reach a point in my manuscript and realize I made a mistake somewhere. It happens a lot. So I go back. I fix it. I adjust this, move that, delete the bit that’s hanging everything up. And when it’s finally right, I move on. I keep writing.
I don’t believe in the shitty first draft. I believe in writing a first draft that is as close to my vision as I can make it. No, it won’t be perfect. There will be things I know are wrong but don’t know how to fix yet. There will be mistakes. There will be scenes or characters I think are important that will inevitably get cut in the next draft, or the one after that. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to write the perfect book the first time.
NaNoWriMo doesn’t account for that, doesn’t make room for that. NaNoWriMo is all about the shitty first draft, because words on the page are better than no words at all. And while that’s true to an extent, I don’t want to write a scattershot draft of word-vomit and verb-salad that will take me five years or more to edit. I want to write a first draft that I can edit in six months and publish within a year. I don’t want to spend the three months after November trying to recover from the stupid pace of writing 1667 words every single day. I want to be able to maintain a writing pace that can continue from month to month, year to year, so that I can produce a steady amount of work, even if that means I only finish one novel per year.
If you’ve never written a novel, never tried, never finished, if you don’t know if you can, then NaNoWriMo is a great kick in the pants to do what you’ve always told yourself you would do. But I have written a novel. I’ve written four novels and a novella to completion, I’m 70,000 words into a fifth novel, and now 41,000 words into a sixth. Three of those novels and the novella have been published. I don’t need a kick in the pants anymore.
Writing is my job. This is what I do. Day in, day out. This is every month for me.
And as my job, I have to treat it differently. If NaNoWriMo doesn’t work for me, then it doesn’t make sense to force myself to attempt it every year, knowing how much I hate it.
I think this is the last year I will make an honest attempt at NaNoWriMo, to clocking in 1667 words every single day of November and finishing with 50,000 words by the end of it. Will I be writing next November? You bet your ass. (Unless I’ve just finished a book, in which case, I won’t be writing, because I’ll need to refill the creative well, but you know what I mean.) But I won’t be attempting 50,000 words. I won’t be writing every day. I’ll be writing at my own pace, the pace that works for me and lets me do my best work, and write my best words.
Just know that if you’re like me and “lost” NaNoWriMo yet again, it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer, that you’ll never be published. It just means that you suck at NaNoWriMo. But so do I. And I’ve written and published plenty.