Apparently there’s some kind of weird backlash about Nanowrimo, as Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi point out.
Since I’m currently nanoing at the moment, I can hardly tell you it’s not beneficial–but I thought it was an opportune moment to share in my experiences of NaNoWriMo. This is the fourth year I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo. My first was in 2007, when I wrote the draft of what was to become Servant of the Underworld.
I didn’t come to NaNoWriMo a novice: I’d completed two novels beforehand, but Servant of the Underworld was my first attempt at something that I could see professionally published. I came to NaNoWriMo having mainly written short stories for professional publications, and worrying I wouldn’t be able to take my newfound fiction abilities to the next level of writing: the whole scary novel with a decent wordcount (100,000 words instead of the 200,000-word monsters I’d produced beforehand). For me, NaNoWriMo wasn’t so much about completing the draft or churning out the words (both things I knew I could do), but about getting something I could confidently revise (and by “revise” I didn’t mean “tear everything down” so much as proper polishing) and present to an editor or an agent as ready for publication.
I also didn’t come to NaNoWriMo without a plan. My previous two novels had been freeform, and had ended as structural disasters, with new directions popping up, and the plot getting lost in the marshes (coincidentally at the same time as the characters. I think my subconscious was trying to tell me something). I came with a synopsis, a detailed scene-by-scene map of what I was going to do, chapter by chapter. After all, if I was going to write 1,667 words a day and hold a dayjob, I felt I should not waste time wondering about possible plot directions.
I used my lunchbreak. I wrote on buses with a Neo (one of the best writing helps ever). I did catchup sessions on Friday evenings. For those of you who’ve read the book, an entire section in the first third was written in a single sitting: from the point when Acatl and Teomitl go to the Floating Gardens to the point where the WInd of Knives disappears and Acatl gets home to find Mihmatini playing patolli with a slave–basically chapters 8 to 11. It was of course edited afterwards, but still, it’s a solid chunk of more than 12,000 words. It hurt.
And I made it. I won NaNoWriMo that year. I subsequently completed that draft (I actually went on writing at the same rhythm for the month of December, which is probably where I should have stopped. I was wrung dry by the time January showed up). I revised it, submitted it for critique to my first read, revised it again, submitted it to my writers’ group, revised again. You get the idea. There was a long cycle of fixes before I submitted that manuscript to agents and editors.
So yeah, the manuscript wasn’t perfect after Nano, but as a first draft (or rather, half a first draft), it was definitely good to go. And I sold that book, once I’d completed and revised the draft.
I haven’t won NaNoWriMo since, though I’ve done it in 2008 and 2009. I suspect I won’t win it this year, either. 1667 words a day is slightly above my comfort zone when I’m at the dayjob. But I still do it. Like Mary says, some of us need deadlines to keep the fire going, and one of the great things about NaNoWriMo is that it allows you to feel a little less alone as a writer slaving to complete a draft. I need this, because when I write a novel, motivation is paramount–it’s a little bit like running a marathon. I daren’t stop, or I’ll lose my momentum, and I’ll never start again. Knowing that there are other writers doing this at the same time is great for that; and having a wordcount I need to have put down on the page is also great.
But, in the end, NaNoWriMo is only a pretext for me to commit words to the page. It’s not a goal in itself; and if I see I have a problem or need a break, I’ll take time to stop and fix it, rather than go for wordcount about everything else. If I can’t make the 1667 words a day, I’ll take what I have, and continue writing through December and January. I’ve heard the stuff about silencing your inner editor, and some of it is valid (you don’t need the little voice nattering away in your head spoiling everything that you’re writing), but you know what? Sometimes, the inner editor is right, and you’d better listen before you screw up the draft.
Like John says: NaNoWriMo is a tool. What matters is whether it works for you, and what you do with it. And, for me, it’s worked pretty well so far.
Also, a discount on Scrivener for Windows is pretty good motivation to win Nano, I’d say 🙂
If you’re wondering about 2008 and 2009: 2008, I wrote Foreign Ghosts, the Xuya novel. Got about 1/3 of the way through before I stopped because of real life stuff, and never could get the momentum up again. I subsequently completed the novel outside of Nano.
2009, I wrote Harbinger of the Storm. I can’t find out exactly my progress for November, but I was far from completing the 50,000 words at the end of the month–except I’d learnt from the previous year, and merely cut down my writing rhythm instead of stopping altogether. I finished Harbinger mid-February 2010, and shipped it off to my writing group around then (having a publisher deadline meant I had less time for crits, so I sent it off to my crit group and to my first reader at roughly the same time, and did one last, very thorough revision pass afterwards).