Why I quit NaNoWriMo

Update: I edited the grammatical errors that you’ve made clear a “real writer” wouldn’t make and clarified a point. Yikes, but a lot of WriMo’s are crazily over-sensitive. How about leaving comments instead of sending email? More fun for everyone, don’t you think?

I think NaNoWriMo is a fine and wonderful thing and I’ve participated and won a whole bunch of times.

A few years ago, I “won” twice. I had a lot of time on my hands that November.

I won’t ever say that my participation has ever been a waste of time. I’ve never used anything I’ve written for it any productive way, most of it is junk and never has the quality of anything I keep working on.

This year, however, is another story. This year – like last – NaNoWriMo is a distraction from the writing I want to get done, and that defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise.

I was thinking these vaguely heretical thoughts when I came across Laura Miller’s “Better yet, DON’T write that novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy” at Salon.

NaNoWriMo was started back in 1999 as a motivational stunt for a small group of writer friends. It’s since become a nonprofit organization with staff, sponsors, a fundraising gala and, last year, nearly 120,000 contestants. Participants agree to start and complete a novel of 50,000 words or more during the month of November. To “win,” all you have do is meet that goal, however wretched the result. Last year’s NaNoWriMo had 21,683 such winners.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo seems laudable enough. Above all, it fosters the habit of writing every single day, the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision.

I think there are lots of reasons to do NaNoWriMo that extend far beyond just the act of writing and I think it’s a useful creative exercise for non-fiction writing Capital-C Creatives to spend time on “creative cross-training” activities like this.

I think NaNoWriMo has been very useful to myself and other writers for getting us out of old ruts, giving projects under revision a chance to rest, and even getting us out of the house on occasion. I don’t in any way believe that “real” writers don’t do NaNoWriMo anymore than I believe that “real” artists shouldn’t participate in Artomatic or “real” actors didn’t guest-star on the Love Boat.

Wait. What? Let’s skip over that last one and get back on-point.

Miller didn’t inspire me to quit, but her argument certainly informed my decision. Plus, her post gave me something to link to so I could lucidly blog about why I was quitting. I didn’t want my writing buddies to feel abandoned or to think I’m dismissive of their efforts, because I’m not. I’ll happily join them for a write-ins, but I’m not going to be focused on a NaNoWriMo project while I do.

And that’s okay.

Right? That’s okay, right?

It feels a bit wrong to quit. Not as wrong as when the writers of the Love Boat decided that the new cruise director character should be Julie McCoy’s sister instead of just creating a new character with a new backstory when Lauren Tewes went to rehab.

I don’t know if that was technically wrong, maybe it was just fucking stupid.


I spend a lot of time researching and writing. NaNoWriMo is eating up my knitting and reading time, and a writer who doesn’t read is some kinda blood-sucking freak, in my opinion. If I didn’t write the other 11 months out of the year I might think this is a small price to pay, but I do and it’s not.

Miller’s piece first came to my attention because frantic WriMo’s were taking it as an inditement of NaNoWriMo – an accusation that it’s having a deleterious effect on the amount of novel-reading the general population does. I don’t agree with that part, but I do agree that writers are going to write anyway and maybe this event isn’t for them every time.

So I’m not worried about all the books that won’t get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say. Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they’re always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it’s the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species. They don’t make a big stink about how underappreciated they are; like Tinkerbell or any other disbelieved-in fairy, they just fade away.

Rather than squandering our applause on writers — who, let’s face it, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not — why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built. After all, there’s not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there’s no one left to read it.

I actually poked around the NaNoWriMo site to see if I could delete my participant information for 2010, but the site is bogged down right now and it wasn’t readily apparent to me. Plus, I do have that stubborn “never say never” thing, so I might decide on November 25th to finish my abandoned project after all. I’m 10% done, after all. Wouldn’t want to waste those words!

To my writing buddies I say this: keep writing. I applaud your efforts and I think you have as many reasons to participate as there are “Captain Stubing bald jokes” in your typical episode of the Love Boat.

For me, there’s a primary reason not to do NaNoWriMo this year: I’ve got shit to do.

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  • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not doing nanowrimo. And, while I’ll miss watching your word count (though it usually makes me feel like a slackass), it’s all good sister. But I do have to say that I hated the Salon article. I read it the other night and thought she came off as a pompous t**t. The argument just wasn’t ringing true for me. Not in the sometimes, if you’re working on something that you need to concentrate on rather than fixate on wordcount isn’t helping way– I get that– but that she couldn’t see a benefit or anything positive, and was dismissive of those who do it. I even posted a comment on the article (which I never do– I had to make a stupid account and everything) I was so annoyed. Personally, I love writing, but it is so totally deprioritized in my loony life. Nanowrimo saves me every year because it makes me sit down and write– something that left to my own devices would never end up at the top of the list of things I need to do, and thus is something I deprive myself of the other eleven months. It’s not about publishing. It would be swell if I did, but that isn’t it for me. It’s about the act of storytelling and being pushed into carving time out of my schedule for the practice of something I enjoy. I found her inability to see things like that, or to see the benefit of community, or the connections one makes, both sad (for her) and annoying. And that she has a very shallow and circumscribed understanding of writing, and why people do it.

    Also: sister as cruise director? Just fucking wrong.

    • rebecca

      I hear what you’re saying, but I do stand by my reasons for quitting, which are exactly what the salon article was about.

  • Hemingway

    Wah.Wah.You lack discipline to spend one month out of your life writing and you need an excuse.So what?Nanowrimo produces an incredible amount of crap and most of the people participating lack talent but if they aren’t writing are they really reading?I thought the salon piece was thoughtful,yours was just pathetic whining because you lack the guts to write a whole novel and you’ve given up on day 4.

  • rebecca

    Hemmingway – I believe you’ve missed my point entirely. I’m just explaining I’m not doing NaNoWriMo so my buddies will stop asking about my wordcount. I only wished to explain it once. My point is that I DO write and I’m not looking for structure. I also find the lack of emphasis on reading or revision in NaNoWriMo unfortunate, but I have no issue with the actual event.

  • Focault

    OMG, the needless drama that insular and self-absorbed online communities can bring.

    • rebecca

      This is much worse drama – it’s real-live-people. ;-)

      Seriously, no drama between me & Dr. Birdcage. As for drama outside this post, there’s plenty but I’m not interested in wading into it.

  • Brian

    Dr. Birdcage,
    I do not blame national novel writing month for the ills of the world but as an English Professor at a very large university I’ve become disenchanted with the process. The students who arrive on the first day of Creative Writing, smug in the knowledge they’ve produced a novel, get a rude awakening when they have to craft a piece or are asked when they will revise or rework their Masterpiece. My colleagues tell similar tales and a common refrain from students is that NaNoWriMo does not ever emphasize that a good novelist is also a reader or on the other side of the coin, suggest that because they wrote it that does not mean anyone will want to read it. Reading is not part of the equation. This is not a one-time observation. I’ve been teaching for 14 years and was an early cheerleader for NaNoWriMo. I’m not against it now but it can make the classroom an uphill battle as students quote Chris Baty like the Messiah and defend themselves against difficult critiques not by asserting themselves or displaying ego or even taking a bit of criticism. Instead they get defensive that “Chris Baty would see it was a masterpiece.” You may think I’m joking but I assure you I’m not.

    Writing and English students who don’t have any interest in reading don’t declare majors or even survive their courses once they understand the whole process of writing. And then they’re bitter and angry about NaNoWriMo – also a shame.

    It’s swell that this program builds libraries, they obviously love books even if their guides don’t push it. It’s swell that they get young people writing. But I have to tell you, setting young people up to fail by pushing them to write and then not giving them the tools or support to take their work farther is punishing and demoralizing to them. It seems the Salon.com piece hit home for you, maybe it’s time to step back and ask why. It seems you can’t respect Meanlouise’s decision to opt out of the program – graciously – without a spirited and anxious defense of why you will carry on. The better question is what brought on your need to protest so much at a pair of opinion pieces? A pair of equally valid opinion pieces that seem to have reduced you to the online equivalent of rending your hair, in that you spelled out that you registered at salon.com just to comment on the piece because it seemed to shattered your confidence and equanimity.

    • rebecca

      I can’t get past the mental image of bearded english professor dude dressed as a cheerleader. I need more coffee.

      I would like to say that Dr. Birdcage & I agree to disagree about the salon piece and that she respects my decision to drop out, which is good because we’re having a slumber party next weekend and I’d hate to have to retaliate by putting her bra in the freezer.

      • rebecca

        I wanted to add that I inserted some paragraph breaks into Brian’s comment because it was all run together and I’m hoping I didn’t create any inadvertent editorial changes. There was gibberish and I had to copy/paste to ungibberish it.

        I haven’t had enough coffee to be online.

  • HA! I’m sleeping with my bra under my pillow ;) Brian– I obviously need to take to heart the idea that the first thing off the bat without more thought and editing is not always best :) (Though this is why, in my 5th year of nanowrimo, no one has ever seen one of my “novels”) I thought meanlouise’s decision and reasons for opting out were and are legit (and obviously didn’t convey that clearly). My issues were entirely with the article, and in that were more with tone than content. I think she (salon writer) has some points, and I do not doubt at all that there are those who (as you’ve encountered) believe to have spun gold from… uhm… something not gold because they’ve “won.” My issue with the article was that she takes her swipes at the people who sign up for it with a mocking and condescending tone.

    I think that your point that “setting young people up to fail by pushing them to write and then not giving them the tools or support to take their work farther is punishing and demoralizing to them” is a very good one– and I completely agree that nano needs to address this.

    I wouldn’t say that my confidence and equanimity were shattered, though. I was annoyed at the snarkiness of the article, but was never in any way upset with Rebecca. I guess I was thinking more conversationally… and kind of forgetting that we weren’t hanging out in her living room while I was grumping about the article.

  • Kate

    I’ve dabbled in NaNoWriMo in the past and never seem to make it past day two. Part of that is although I’m an avid reader who writes non-fiction for a living, the act of creating fiction has always felt like a slightly uncomfortable stretch. This year I thought I might try again, and after two hours at my computer a few nights ago, I produced about 600 words. I gave great consideration to the sentences I crafted and was happy with the result. However, in doing the math on the contest I discovered that one has to produce on average over 1600 words a day. With a day job and a life there is no way I am going to be able to pull that off while being proud of the output. I think that NaNoWriMo might encourage a process that isn’t the right one for some. I’ve never been able to produce a lot of words quickly in any form that I’ve taken on. I’d rather give myself a year to write a novel if it means that I can work on something well-crafted. But then, I am not an experienced fiction writer. Perhaps there are some who have a better time with it.

  • rebecca

    I should state for the record that Brian who is posting here is not Brian, our brother-in-law who used to teach Freshman english, although his perspective would be interesting, too.

  • rebecca

    I think you make a good point, Kate. Writing process isn’t one-size-fits-all and although the word-rush of nanowrimo can be a good jumpstart for some, it’s not a good fit at all for others.