Why Your NaNoWriMo Idea Sucks

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an international event held in November, in which assorted people either try to write a 50000 word novel in a month, or try to kill themselves through excessive coffee consumption. Why they are not allowed to kill themselves with tea I’ll never know….

If you have the impulse to try NaNo this November, you probably have a bit of a writing idea floating around in your head. And most of those NaNo ideas in people’s heads are simply no good.

Why is that? NaNo is a very broad-based event. Some people who do it are actual writers or aspiring writers who have written before. Others are timid souls who have never dared think of themselves as writers before NaNo came along. Some, who probably sign up for NaNo due to peer pressure, aren’t even regular book readers. And NaNo actually encourages ‘youth writers’— that is, children.

Now, children, those new to writing, and non-reader participants may be very enthusiastic about NaNo, but they simply lack most of the knowledge they might need to make an attempted novel happen. Most writers and serious aspiring writers have read hundreds of novels and have absorbed the rules of novels. Without that knowledge, attempted novel writing may be a failing proposition.

Children are a special case. Some will grow up to be real writers. Some will even be brilliant. But they are not there yet, and if they are encouraged to self-published an unready NaNo work, that self-publication will be a drag on their future writing.

NaNo’s founder has a book out called ‘No Plot, No Problem.’ We might guess from that title that NaNo encourages us to be ‘pantsers’— people who write without an outline. The problem is, some people don’t write well that way. And others, who are natural ‘pantsers,’ have story ideas that require a lot of worldbuilding and preparation other than outlining that just don’t fit in to a one-month NaNo.

Not having an outline mostly works for people who have been compulsive readers and who have the rules for novels in their head. They know your Lead character has to have a goal, or something he wants. They know there has to be conflict, even in the gentlest of sweet romances. If your character is not working toward a goal or facing a challenge, nothing is happening in your story.

I remember reading a very bad novel once. It was a near-future story, and the ‘author’ spent the first few chapters explaining how the crisis in the story could possibly happen. When we finally did get characters introduced to us, it turns out they were survivalists who weren’t much challenged by the utter disaster in the story, because they had prepped. The crisis was happening to other people who weren’t central to the story except as corpses in the scenery.

Your Lead character needs to be in the center of the crisis, conflict, or disaster in your novel. If the real action is happening elsewhere with entirely different people, you need to make one of those people your Lead. Readers won’t identify with a character who isn’t challenged, doesn’t want anything, doesn’t do anything other than pick flowers and watch the butterflies fly past.

NaNoWriMo has one bad effect, and that is that it focusses on the word count. Yes, you need to put out a decent word count to finish the first draft of your novel. But if you write scene after rambling scene because you obeyed the NaNo rules and didn’t outline much in advance, and if you tell yourself that the rambling wordiness is OK because you are making your word count, you are setting yourself up for failure. Wordy fiction isn’t readable, and rambling around isn’t something that you can keep in the next draft.

If you have a NaNo idea that might suck, if you haven’t read enough novels, if you have never read a good how-to-write book, does that mean you shouldn’t do NaNo? Not at all! A writer learns by writing. If you finish NaNo with the required word count, but you have created a beast that cannot even be edited and rewritten into publishable shape, you have still written a lot of words. The next writing project you tackle will be better. And writing ideas can get better over time, as you work with them. Thing of some writing project you or someone else has finished. Imagine what the writer would have said to explain his writing idea when he first had it. Then imagine what he could have said about it after he finished the final draft. The idea grew and improved over time, most likely.

I’m doing NaNo myself this year. Since I’m experimenting with the Edit-As-You-Go writing method, I’m not sure it’s possible for me to ‘win’ NaNo by writing 50000 words of a completed (first draft of a) novel, but I think it’s worth doing.

My NaNo profile: https://nanowrimo.org/participants/ilsabein

Questions: Do you have a NaNoWriMo idea? Would you give it up if someone criticized it, or would you bull ahead and do the best you could with it? Do you think doing NaNo this year is something worth doing, or a waste of your time?


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