NaNoWriMo: Your Muse on Fire?

Man! Do I write about the kewl new Arab/Muslim issue of Apex, or NaNoWriMo, both topics which surfaced on the Internet today? I guess after the day I’ve had, I’m going for the lighter topic, but make no mistake, I will be back for the other topic as soon as I can be. It’s an AWESOME issue.

That said, as you all know, it’s time for NaNoWriMo. I’ve done this before…twice. I have friends who do it on a regular basis. I have friends who are playing with it right now.


Here’s a snapshot I apologize for, as it’s not very flattering. I stopped in Coffee Talk, where I get my morning grande skinny latte with sugar free flavoring. Susan, the shop proprietor, asks me if I’m doing NaNo, as she has some clientele who are writers. Before I even think, I say, rather snobbily, “No, that’s not something real writers do. I try to write some every day. I don’t need a special month to do this. ” *sniff*


Because that’s not what I believe at all. Not exactly. There are some very good reasons to do this.

1. First drafts can suck. If you’re having trouble actually coming up with any words, for some people, this is a chance to give yourself permission to write.

2. If you need to really push yourself to get some clay on the slab so you can start shaping it, ditto.

3. Bonding with your other buddies who are NaNoing, or failing to NaNo, well that’s good.

Now, for me, the NaNo method doesn’t work so well. Often I revisit material I’ve put down before I gush out 50K words. I can usually hold out until I’ve spewed about 20K, but then I need to look at what I’ve got. When I look at it, I want to tinker with it, and then move on. As with every other process, your mileage may vary.

Good old Maggie Stiefvater. She has some thoughts on this: At first Why NaNo didn’t work for her, and then Why NaNo might work for some, but still not for her.

Maggie asks the question, would it be better if the period were for longer? Yes, Maggie, and for that, I direct you over to the incomparable Jo Knowles, who hosts JoNoWriMo, which is 2.5 months of working on a project or projects. I’ve been doing JoNo for around 3 years now, and it’s seen me through a few revisions. Right now I’m on the second of the three goals I hope to complete for this year’s session. It’s an alternative that’s happening RIGHT NOW over NaNoWriMo.

Of course, there isn’t quite so much hype, because it’s just a bunch of writers quietly doing their work. Deadlines help to make it sexier.

I can think of several reason to NOT NaNoWriMo too, by the way. Like Maggie, what I find is that I tend to get focused on the word count, and not the quality of the story I’m telling. I rush, rather than let my subconscious do its subconscious thing. It’s not my way.

Here are some other things to consider.

1. How many NaNo manuscripts are actually revised and turned into stories? Spewing out 50K words is not easy, BUT revising 50K words into something beautiful is pretty damned hard. Especially if you’re not thrilled with the words after you look at them later.

2. Is your goal publishing writing, and not hobbyist writing? If that’s the case, why do you want to establish a habit of binge writing? If putting these things down on paper, and reshaping them works for you, go for it. Most of us, writing pedagogy tells me, need to reflect, revise, and redraft over a period of time.

I think a lot of people are attracted to the camaraderie of the experience, but I doubt that it’s a good method for most writers, because most NaNo people don’t come back to the draft they’ve produced. They give themselves the freedom to write with abandon in November, and then it’s hard to win the time again to write. Or they’re tired, and when they get back to the draft, the love is gone. Or they discover that revision is harder than chasing word count.

And I could be totally wrong in your case. Am I?

Maybe an analogy is appropriate here. Let’s pretend that for a month, I decided to exercise every day, and eat well every day. At the end of the month, I decided that I was done with that, because I only had enough in me to make this effort once a year. Overall, what would my health look like? I speculate that perhaps it would be better and more honest for those wanting a taste of the writing life to set aside time every day to go to the gym write, research, and revise, and accept that what produces books that publish is slow, steady, constant good work that you’re willing to take time to do.

In the final analysis, my advice (yes, my advice. World famous writer me) would be to develop the writing habits that will last you a lifetime if you want to be a writer.

If you just want to be a novelist for a little while in November, pretend, and have a good time, knock yourself out. And if this works for you, and my vision is too narrow, I’m not trying to convince you of anything. Nothing to see here. Move along.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

5 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo: Your Muse on Fire?”

  1. Hmm. First time didn’t post.

    I think we’re being finicky in our definitions. A writer is a person who writes, regardless of publication. Emily Dickinson was a writer, was she not?

    An author is a person who writes, like a contractor may be one of many trades, so an author could be a plumber or an electrician. An author may be a novelist or a poet or a non-fiction writer. One might say that an author is published, but I think that’s not altogether true.

    So, even without any fiction publication credits, I’m still a writer. I think of myself as an author.

    I perused Maggie’s comments at about 72 – most of them were Wrimos, none that I saw said a longer deadline would be a good thing. I think Chris Baty hit a sweet spot when he picked one month/50K. It’s a stretch but doable. Another month gives us time to procrastinate.

    If you went back to the years that you NaNoed, (I recall you were not happy with your product either time) did you feel anything else besides that disappointment? Did the quality of the work overshadow any feelings of victory? Was there a sense of accomplishment?

    I think those feelings are very powerful, an enticement to NaNo year after year for me. On the flip side, I haven’t written much of anything in the past three years that wasn’t NaNo. But I’ve lost the desire right now for publication… the requirements of publishing a novel are outside my ability to tackle right now. Maybe in 6 years when TaLL is out of the house, I can reconsider.

    As for publication, the NaNo site says that 57 NaNo manuscripts have been published. Water For Elephants went onto the NYT’s bestseller list. If that’s the criterion of success, then some fifty novelists have made it. But I don’t think that’s all NaNo is about – it’s about overcoming the boundaries in our own minds and lives.

  2. And that’s why publication isn’t on my radar right now: too distracted by kid stuff to proofread properly.
    An author is a person who writes, like a contractor may be one of many trades, so an author could be a plumber or an electrician.

    That sentence is a mess. Trying again:

    An author is a person who writes, like a contractor may be one of many trades, so an author could be a novelist or an poet.

  3. From you, I expected a very long response. 🙂

    To start with, you can define a writer anyway you like. We could keep tossing this idea around. What’s a writer? What’s an author? How are the terms used accepted by the world at large, and idiosyncratically? I don’t think this is a very fruitful line to pursue in defense of or in critique of NaNo, because it distracts from what I’m really talking about.

    The core of my little essay (big essay) is how useful is NaNo to you. I’m not suggesting that it is inherently useful or not. I have no beef with NaNo or people who NaNo. I think you understand this.

    I don’t find NaNo useful in terms of developing habits that are going to serve someone who wants to publish, ALTHOUGH there are people who publish who don’t practice organized planning. I have students in my Comp 2 courses who still wait until the night before a term paper is due to write it as well.

    Pedagogical studies point again and again to the best writing of any sort undergoing a process which involves time, the ears and eyes of others, and redrafting. While there are always exceptions, this is, in general, how the best papers/stories/poems/refrigerator manuals are written.

    Procrastination is a problem all artists face. I think a question of producing good art is a question of fighting procrastination and managing a temperament that tends to put things off. Creating is hard. Having one month doesn’t mean that you won’t procrastinate. How many NaNo writers don’t make it? Loads. Some of them probably procrastinate. One month doesn’t work for them for a variety of reasons. The logic of time doesn’t cry for more or less of it in the face of individual procrastination.

    I am coming to believe, the more I work in the professional world (not of publishing) and that the more I write and attempt to publish, that NaNo actually affords a false sense of victory. It is victory in the “hey, look I’ve written 50K!” That’s it. For many novels, that’s not the size you need. And whatever you’ve written is far from done.

    I could be the kind of writer that celebrated every 10K words I wrote, or every 50K words I wrote. Chances are good, I’ll get rid of of a lot of those words anyway in my pursuit of a story. The 50K, or 100K have ceased to be the thing for me. The whole plot meshing and cohering have continued.

    So, no, I was never disappointed in winning NaNo. But I was not finished either. Since my goal is to write stories I can publish, well, NaNo does not serve me well. It creates an illusion of completion which doesn’t exist for me.

    As you sagely point out, you have different goals. If writing is your hobby, something you do for fun, you can do it at your own pace, as you like, however you like. Another analogy is costuming. I see kids who put together broad cloth costumes with glue gunned seams all the time. They’re happy, and they’re having fun. Nothing wrong with that. It’s not what I want for myself, but I’m not too judgmental of what others want.

    The point is to be doing what you want. If NaNo gives you pleasure and satisfaction, that’s what you should be doing.

    I wouldn’t think the point of NaNo would be publication for the majority of its participants, especially, as like you, they discover what that commitment really means. I think you’re probably more aware of what that commitment means than most NaNo people.

    And I also think it’s okay to dream. If NaNo helps people to feel like they’ve written a book, it’s okay to dream.

    For some writers (regardless of how you want to define this piece of vocabulary) it’s also a great way to start.

    But I think for most NaNo participants, it’s a way to write 50K words that you’re not likely to return to again. Which is also okay, because you have to practice a lot to get to Carnegie Hall.


  4. Verbosity is my middle name.

    I don’t think I meant to be adversarial any more than you did in the coffee shop. I think we’re both passionate about our creativity and sometimes we produce words and emotions that don’t line up with what’s in our heads. B)

    Nearly everybody I know says “I want to write a novel.” (That may be more of an indication of what kinds of conversations I have than is representative of the real world.) I think NaNo opens a lot of eyes to the sheer work of will writing requires. Their success rate is about 18%, plus or minus a couple of points per year. I hate math, but if they increase year to year, it’s not just the same old people winning year after year – it’s new people trying something new. That, to me, is incredibly valuable.

    I gave a speech at Toastmasters last week about NaNoWriMo. I ran some of the numbers, but this was the crux of my talk: Empowerment comes from stretching for the goal that is just beyond our expectations of what we can do – and reaching it. I never thought I could build a house, but I did with Habitat. I came home that day so full of the WOW that when my disposal broke that night, I was able to say “I can build a house, so I can replace a garbage disposal.” And I did. One thing leads to another. 50K isn’t a novel, but it’s perhaps the step up we need to break those walls of limiting expectation.

    Creation is indeed hard work. Procrastination isn’t the only thing stopping us – lack of vision is just as effective. A deadline cracks procrastination and vision gives us drive and imagination.

    That’s what makes NaNo useful for most new writers. They’ve got an idea, NaNo is the challenge to put it on paper. The fact that the majority don’t win is, possibly counter-intuitively, good. We learn from failure. We could say NaNo is therefore useful in the negative as well as the positive.

    50K is a useless length. The one time I finished my novel it stopped at 133K. I think it could easily go another 50K and have a two part story. Maybe someday I’ll do that – right now, I don’t have the writing chops to convey the emotions in that story that the conclusion requires. As you say, Carnegie Hall has its requirements.

    BTW,I believe Stephen King’s daily goal is 3K. Maybe not just once a year – but the man is putting out double the daily NaNo requirement. May I someday be so prolific.

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