The Dangers of NaNoWriMo

Oh, all right. I confess—I’ve completely abandoned all efforts at NaNoWriMo. Nothing has shut down my desire to write as thoroughly since the last time I had major surgery. For me, NaNoWriMo turned fiction writing, which should be about creativity and inspiration, into an exercise in brute-force statistical manipulation. I mean, I could easily make the word count simply by doing this:

But I don’t think any of us wants that, do we?

I know that NaNoWriMo has worked as a tool for many writers in producing their first drafts—Sara Gruen and Lani Diane Rich are notable successes stories. But the relentless rah-rah emails from NaNoWriMo, the requests  to accept various other writers as my “writing buddies,” the tweets from buddies crowing about word count—well, it’s just been making me cranky.

When I wrote for newspapers, word count was an important part of each assignment and I always hit my mark. So no, writing to a deadline and writing a specific number of words—those aren’t problems for me. But fiction for me is about imagination, creativity, inspiration, and escapism. Trying to hit a random numerical target with no particular topic assignment reminds me too much of those odious high school essays, the ones where the teacher got lazy and didn’t fill out her lesson plan and said, “Give me 2000 words on any topic you want.”

Aside from being annoyed by the arbitrary word count goal, there’s the fact that it just doesn’t work with my own writing process. The last thing I worry about in a first draft is word count. For me, the experience of NaNoWriMo has been one of putting the cart before the horse, or being Alice in the Looking Glass World. It’s back to front. If I want to be truly free in writing a rough draft, I can’t also be obsessing over whether I’m getting 1600 words per day. My first drafts are written longhand, on bits of scrap paper and index cards. Sometimes they’re just vague notes about a scene. Often there are big blank spaces with phrases like: [they go to the casino and encounter her former jewel thief partner there]. As a marker for later plot development, that works fine for me. But you can see how sucky it is if your goal is boosting your word count.

So I have thrown in the towel. I’d always meant to try NaNoWriMo. I didn’t think it would be particularly inspiring for me, but that’s okay. Sometimes you have to try different things to find a system that works for you in developing your story. To be honest, my process this week will involve watching the rest of the first season of Homeland and prepping for our family’s semi-traditional Thanksgiving brunch. (DO NOT post a single word about Season Two of Homeland here, or I will send someone to your house to do bad things to your NaNoWriMo manuscript. I was kind of afraid to even click on the Showtime link to add it to this blog.)

I’ll also be doing a bit more research for The Monaco Mission—currently I have a huge dilemma: should the story be set during the annual Monaco Yacht Show or during the Monaco Grand Prix. Yes, the life of a writer is a hard one. Lest you think I have it too easy, there are other challenges. For example, I might drink some cappuccino while I make notes. That’s pretty rough stuff there, you know. I could get a blister on my tongue if I don’t wait for the mug to cool properly.

So enjoy your NaNoWriMo, you hearty souls who are going to make it all the way to the finish line. I hope one of you is even now writing the next Water For Elephants. Because it sure won’t be me!



  1. I just wrote this and wondered how many people wrote something similar in the past. Not that many actually, but it was still funny to stumble upon the exact same title 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by, Ricardo! I read your post and thought you made some great points. I’ve heard some agents say they avoid reading unsolicited manuscripts in December because too many of them are obvious “NaNo” products – completely unedited and not revised at all. NaNo is a good way for some writers to get started, but that’s only a small piece of the job.

  2. Aww. But that’s okay. You can use it or not, any way you like. I’m using it to finish something I already started (not formally signed up). Anyway, I’m less concerned with word count than writing regularly again after everything I had blew up in my face.

    • Elizabeth, I admire your perseverance. I have used the NaNoWriMo time to do more research on the location for my next story and do more plotting, so I guess it’s worked a bit in that it did get me to sit down and think more about the next book and less about what to watch on my Netflix queue!

  3. So here’s what crazy sh** Carrie did on ‘Homeland’ this week, and boy was it a doozy . . .
    No, but really, I hear you about NaNoWriMo. I registered and kind of feel like I’m participating, but know in my heart of hearts that if I have something completed at the end of the month just to meet the deadline and word count, it will not be good work. I’m considering abandoning the entire enterprise as well, but there’s that darned widget I installed on my blog, taunting me to contend with . . .

    • Boy, you really scared me with that opening sentence. I was going to put my hands over my ears and go “la la la” really loud, but then I realized that wouldn’t work. Whew.

      I sympathize with your widget regret. I’ve had similar reactions to the “Twitter feed” widget, which just looked sad since I only tweet about once every 3-4 days, and the widget that was supposed to instantly post Goodreads reviews to my blog and only ever worked ONCE. You could just delete that NaNo widget – but good for you for not being all sneaky and underhanded like that.

      I think NaNo works for a lot of people because the more they tell others about their writing project, the more likely they are to finish it. Me – I seem to be just the opposite. If I talk about a writing project to everyone, it almost never gets finished. Probably because once I tell someone about it, there’s no longer a need to write it down.

  4. NaNoWriMo has given me the initiative to start a novel I’ve been putting off for the past few months. I’m having fun even if I’m far behind. 😀

    • That’s great, JG. I think if I were more enthusiastic about the story I’m currently working on, I could hit those word count goals – with or without NaNoWriMo. But I’m still in the planning stages and that doesn’t work well for racking up huge word counts. NaNoWriMo definitely works for some people, as Sara Gruen has pointed out. Keep plugging away and good luck reaching your goal!


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