Just Say No to NaNo (WriMo)

Just Say No to NaNo (WriMo)

If you really want to try to write a novel in a month, I am not going to stand in your way.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to commit, sitting side by side (virtually) with thousands of other avid fictioneers, to pen a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days, starting at midnight on Nov. 1 with 0 words written.

Sure, a few of the impulses behind this zany idea are valid. For instance:

  • It’s good to set goals.
  • It’s good to create a specific timeline in which you commit to reaching a specific goal.
  • It’s good to tell others your goals.
  • It’s good to write daily, if possible.
  • It’s good to try to find extra time to write even if you seem too pressed by other obligations  to have much time for literary creation.

Fine. And the NaNoWriMo challenge may sound fun and possibly productive (at least in October).

But the problem: a madcap, caffeinated dash to write 50,000 words in 30 days and call it a novel is a bit foolhardy.

What is most likely to happen? After a week or ten days, the creative juices will flag. At about the two-week point, you’ll start to seriously get tired.

You’ll ask yourself, should I continue? Some will quit. Others will stiffen the spine, declare they are not quitting, superglue their posteriors to their chairs (or growl at anyone who approaches them in the coffee shop), and plunge along.

It’s just that few good novels are written in this way. I’ve always recommended NaNoWriMo as a good time to commit to writing more diligently. (As is most any time, but November is good, as the fall settles in and our gardens are done and we begin to look at what we’ve achieved this year and hope to accomplish in the near future.)

But make a realistic plan. Please.

Am I being too Midwestern? Too practical?

Here’s what I’d rather that you did in November, towards the goal of writing a good, readable, marketable novel:

  • Commit to writing 500 words a day. (So you’ll end up with only 15,000 words. So what? What if that’s better than a 50,000-word mess?)
  • Commit to finishing a short story each week in November. Four weeks, four stories.
  • Commit to finding a good writing partner. Exchange serious plans, and support each other in a path that leads from here to a good novel, within any reasonable timeframe.
  • Commit to anything that you genuinely feel will push your career forward, in a way that really helps and that doesn’t create a lot of bad habits and mediocre writing.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you might also check out this challenge by Nina Amir to “Write Nonfiction in November!” (She suggests that you write and publish nonfiction all year.)

Her pitch:

You are personally challenged to start and complete a work of nonfiction in 30 days. This can be an article, an essay, a book, a book proposal, a white paper, or a manifesto. WNFIN [Write Nonfiction in November] is not a contest. It’s an event held for you—so you get inspired to set a goal and achieve it.

That actually makes sense. Follow that lead, for your fiction or nonfiction. Set a good goal. Get inspired. Achieve it.

And enjoy your Thanksgiving . . .without sitting there with a dazed, distracted look, wondering if sending your hero over the Zylchix Mountains on a wild goose chase is such a good idea, but deciding you’ll stay up late and make it happen anyhow . . . because, hey, it’ll take thousands of words to do it. And it’s Nov. 28. And you need 5,000 words to hit your NaNo goal.

Just say no to NaNo. (And yes to more pie!)

If NaNo works for you, godspeed. May your fingers fly. May the Zylchix Mountains ever rise to meet your hero’s step, with the flowing wind of words at his/her back.

[For a few other articles I’ve written dealing with the NaNoWriMo issue:]

Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?





  1. Amen. I especially like your suggestions about what to do while you’re not doing NaNo. If I was compiling an anthology by writers on writing, I’d be wanting this for it.

  2. Hi Philip, I do agree that anyone who believes they will come out of Nanowrimo with a truly complete and coherent novel is kidding themselves. I did it one year hoping to break out of torturously slow first drafts of things — and it helped me accomplish that. The insane word counts meant I had to learn to shut up the internal editor. I have pulled some short pieces from it for publication and I may, one day, go back to the overall draft and give it the time it needs in revision, because I do think there are good seeds there waiting for attention. So, for me, it served its purpose. Now, many Novembers, including this one, I do a modified for me Nano based on whatever project I’m on. This month, I’m working on another rewrite of a different novel that needs another thorough go-through. I’ll be taking my time — and not counting words, but rather, interrogating words (thank you, Robert Boswell for that phrase) — and hoping to be well into it by Thanksgiving. Thanks for a thoughtful post. Pam.

    1. Author

      Pam, you’re right on track with the “modified-for-me” NaNo approach. That I agree with! I worry more about the writers who focus on word count, and somehow avoid learning the distillation process that good fiction is about.

      It’s why John Garnder recommended starting with short stories. Even in a long novel, you need to learn those techniques of seeing the scenes, the characters and dialogue, in a filtered, artistic way. That’s why I’m a fan of haiku; there are techniques in brevity, perspective, set-up, suggestion, surprise that are learned in poetry or short fiction that work in a novel.

  3. Great post! I agree all the way. NANOWRIMO is just another way to burn out in a society that seems to always wants to get to finish line first. For me it would be a nightmare. Better to go with 500 words a day, smell the roses, and live a good life.

  4. If you’re into the idea of a modified NaNo, you should check out A Round of Words in 80 Days (It’s the writing challenge that knows you have a life). 4 rounds a year, 80 day bursts, and set your own goals (and change them, as necessary). Community and cheerleading.


  5. I like the idea of NaNo because I start wondering about and ‘improving’ every twist and turn in my stories and there simply wouldn’t be time for that. But I actually prefer your November plan suggestions. Finish a story each week in November? Eek. But that is the one for me. I’ve got just too many three-quarter baked stories lurking around on my laptop.

  6. I started NaNo for the first time this year (I started three days early because I knew I had three days not writing when I travelled for my dad’s 90th birthday.)

    After three days I was ahead of a word count but wanted to slow down, stop and revert to my usual practice of looking at what I’d written the day before. But I felt I had to push on, keep on going come what may. Then I read this post. I’m going to do it my way, maybe not even bother with NaNo. Thanks for a timely post.

    1. Author

      Martin, yes, the key is to find the pace that works for you . . . to produce real quality in your writing.

      Word count is less important than discovering the path to a story well told. Onward!

      — Philip Martin, Director
      Great Lakes Literary & Blue Zoo Writers

  7. Yes. Yes. And Yes. I recently joined a writers’ circle in my region and everybody was talking about this nano thing. And I was like: but why!? I’ve been working on my novel for over a year now and I do see the incredible power of the subconscious to come up with ideas. But for that, it takes one precious ingredient: time.

    I’m all for discipline and goals, as Philip rightly mentions, but brought to an extreme, it can have perverse consequences.

  8. Now, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong. I feel that anyone coming out of NaNoWriMo thinking “I should publish this,” had a bit too much coffee. But NaNoWriMo is a great way to encourage people to write! I personally can’t write a novel in a month, so i try to get half to two-thirds of a novel in NaNoWriMo! Then I do the same thing in December. (It is tiring.) Once I’m done with that, I work hard and edit. Then I might try to publish. I understand you’re point, but I think that NaNoWriMo is actually a useful tool and a helpful strategy.

  9. Spot on. Few days ago I found myself on NaNoWriMo forums, in the second half of November with 4,500 words. I was deluding myself that I still can whip it, that I still had the will and ability to write those remaining 45,000+.

    NoNo is a nightmare for people like me. It’s only good for motivation, bu nothing else. In fact, it even managed do discourage me from writing. I was looking at all those people on forums, seeing their wordcount under avatars, and asking: WTF is wrong with me? Why do they can? Why can’t I? Some of them almost doubled that 50K goal, all in the middle of November. And they all were much younger than me, most of them teenagers.

    Then I took a peek at what they write. There’s a section on the forum where you can paste some excerpts from your novel. Actually I’ve been thinking about pasting few paragraphs from mine before. But then I took that peek and saw what they write. There was nothing good out there, nobody wrote anything worth reading. Nothing worthwhile. I don’t consider myself a good writer, but I can surely tell a good writing from a bad one.

    The I did the math. If there’s 10 days left, then I have to write over 4,500 words a day. Then I looked at how many I write and was devastated. On my best, 7 to 9 hr working days, I wrote about a 1000 words. So, if every day was my best day, I would manage to write only 30,000 words in November. If I had more time on my hands, I would certainly be able to churn out 25K words if THAT was NoNo’s goal. But 50K was an abstract idea.

    Then I saw the dreadful truth: NaNo is isn’t for me. It isn’t for everyone. It just doesn’t work for people like me – perfectionists and/or slower writers.

    And that’s why I agree with your list of goals. Do I want to be a writer? Yes, but not a bad one! And not at the cost of my health and sanity! I would take 15K well-written words over a 50K of badly written ones anyday.

    So I say yes to writing, but no to turning people into caffeinated NaNo madcaps.

    1. Author

      Karl, this is a better track for you, I agree. As a good writer, you’ll likely find it’s better to avoid NaNo’s month-long word-count game, to focus instead on ongoing, practical, productive goals.

      If you’re attentive to your own work and honest about it, you’ll develop a more personal sense of the pattern of writing that really works best for you (which may well include time for concurrent revision of your drafts, reading other people’s best fiction, and relaxation & renewal of the creative juices).

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