Saturday 20 October 2012

What's Wrong With NaNoWriMo?

What do the following YA novels have in common? Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Jessie Hearts NYC by Keris Stainton and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

Any idea?

They were all originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month, commonly called NaNoWriMo. This wonderful event happens next month, and the Guardian have created consternation amongst Twitter users, aspiring novelists, literary agents and God only knows who else by publishing a supplement today entitled "How To Write A Book in 30 Days".

There are two questions raised here - firstly, is the advice any good? From what I've read so far, it's fairly awful - I'd personally suggest that if you're trying to write a book in a month then there's no way on earth you should be spending 7 days of that researching it, and it's far more in the NaNoWriMo spirit of things to forget the research, make it up as you go along, and edit afterwards. (Other views will obviously vary there, and if the advice works for you then that's fantastic!)

Secondly, is it absolutely appalling that anyone should even try to write a novel in a month, which seems to be the feeling from some people commenting on it? NaNo has always been rather divisive, with pep talks given in previous years by leading lights such as Peter Carey, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Jonathan Stroud, but other literary figures criticising it. There was a bizarre piece in the San Fransisco Book Review last year decrying it for producing work of poor quality, with the author saying "I review a lot of books and I see the very best and very worst of the writing world on a regular basis.  I don’t want to have to trash your work someday because you took the easy route." I'm glad I don't share his complete lack of faith in agents and publishers to, you know, not publish something that's terrible. Authors have similarly criticised it in the past, commenting that it encourages superficial books full of terrible writing. Even today, various agents tweeted disbelief that anything good could come of this.

Well, it's not as if writing a book in 30 days or less was without precedent even before NaNoWriMo started in 2001 - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took 3 weeks to write Sherlock Holmes's debut A Study in Scarlet, while Muriel Spark took only a month to write The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and John Boyne fired off The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in two and a half days. In all of those cases, I'm assuming the books would then have undergone a fair amount of revision, as many books completed for NaNo will, although Fyodor Dostoyevsky probably didn't even have time to do much of that after writing The Gambler. He started the book on 4th October 1866 working to a deadline of 1st November that year and managed to beat the deadline by two full days.

In addition to the books by Stephanie Perkins, Keris Stainton, and Marissa Meyer mentioned above, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen were both originally written for NaNoWriMo. I'm sure that all of the authors who succeeded with their NaNo projects went on to revise them thoroughly, edit them, and spend a lot longer than a month on them. (I'd also guess that many of them had books planned out prior to November, as NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty advises, and in apparent opposition to the Guardian supplement.)

The general criticism of NaNo from agents seems to be that in the first few weeks of December their inboxes are full of dreadful submissions. This may well be true - I'm quite glad I'm not an agent to find out for myself - but since quotes claiming that 99% of submissions come from people who can't write seem reasonably common amongst many agents, I can't believe that the December period is that much worse than others.

Disclaimer: I've tried and failed NaNo on roughly half a dozen occasions, and am currently trying my own private OctoWriMo challenge, where I've written about 32,000 words since October 1st. Without this focus, I doubt I'd ever finish a novel. (Which may be part of the issue people have with it, to blatantly steal a line from Keris Stainton earlier today!) With it, I have a fair chance of completing my first draft.

But relax, agents, I promise I'll spend at least three times as long revising it before I even think of submitting it!

What are your thoughts on NaNoWriMo? Have you ever done it? And did you find anything of use in the Guardian supplement? I'd love to read your comments below!


  1. I'm all for NaNoWriMo, as you know. My last two novels (Jessie Hearts NYC and Emma Hearts LA) were written during NaNo, as was the book I got both my agent and my book deal with (although that wasn't ever published).

    Every year I read a lot of criticism of it and it drives me nuts. Many people seem to think that NaNo is suggesting that at the end of November you will have a finished novel, which, as you rightly point out, you won't - you'll have a first draft. Which you will then, if you've got any sense at all, edit/rewrite/repeat before sending it anywhere at all.

    But the thing that makes steam come out of my ears is the writers (both published and unpublished) who say 'You can't write a novel this way' or 'This is not how you write a novel.' The only right way to write a novel is the way that works for you.

  2. The book that became my first published novel was written for NaNo. It went through a few edits after that first draft, but the important thing NaNo gave me was the drive to complete a draft I could work with.

    I am using NaNo to finish a first draft of my current novel, and then will be doing a lot of revisions. But I've done a lot of research for this current one and am doing plenty of planning before NaNo starts.

    I love the fact that so many writers I know are doing NaNo at the same time, and we can cheer each other on.

  3. My NaNoWriMo novels have been published too, after a lot of editing. I don't always manage to complete it, but I love it! (And I have Keris to thank for introducing me to it in the first place.)

  4. The point you make is exactly right- that it isn't a novel that you end up with on December 1st, it is a first draft. (But NaFiDraWriMo, doesn't sound quite so snappy, does it?)Writers who get over excited and send theirs out as it stands do both themselves, other writers and NaNo a huge disservice.
    They need to see Nano as the vehicle for making the cloth from which their novel will be cut. You can't make a frock without fabric, can you?
    Does Nano have a "What now? - how to (or how not to) handle product of your month" section? Think it would be useful if there isn't, if only to stop the fallout from the impatient submissions.