Why I quit NaNoWriMo

November 4, 2010

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.