What is NaNoWriMo? Rules and reasons to do it

What is NaNoWriMo? Why take part? What are the rules? These are some of the questions we explore here.

What is NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short) is an annual write-a-thon that takes place for the month of November each year.

During the event, writers around the world attempt to write 50, 000 words of fiction between the 1st and 30th of November.

Founded by writer Chris Baty ‘accidentally’ in 1999, NaNoWriMo has grown from 21 participants in its first year to hundreds of thousands of registered participants annually. Its ethos is:

… to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds — on and off the page.

NaNoWriMo.org

What are NaNoWriMo’s rules?

Heather Dudley supplied rules in the official NaNoWriMo forum which are (as of May 2019):

– Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30. Traditionally, this had to be on a new novel; now, we allow you to continue existing works.
– Only count words written during November. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people’s works).
– Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you’re writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!
– Be the sole author of your novel. Apart from those citations mentioned two bullet-points up.
– Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.

Heather Dudley, ‘Welcome to Rules & Regs! What ARE the rules, anyway?’, NaNoWriMo forum.

What are the benefits of doing NaNoWriMo?

Some authors are on the fence about NaNoWriMo.

Shaunta Grimes, for example, in a popular Medium article titled ‘Why I Don’t NaNoWriMo Anymore’ advocates slowing things down if you want to build a sustainable writing career.

Grimes says something very true about the payoff of gradual (versus instant) gratification:

It’s like this shining beacon that promises all of the good stuff now. But here’s something that I guess someone ought to tell you: You might finish your first draft this November, but it takes a lot longer than that to produce a work of fiction that’s fit for public consumption.

In fact, it took me longer to make that first book readable because I rushed it out.

Shaunta Grimes, ‘Why I Don’t NaNoWriMo Anymore’, Medium, May 22 2019.

A counter to this is you can view NaNoWriMo as a step in what is ultimately your process. Grimes acknowledges exactly this when she says:

Doing it was magical for me, because once I knew I could write a novel, I knew I could learn to write one well.

So what are some of the benefits of NaNoWriMo, whether you keep to (or judiciously break) NaNoWriMo rules on word count and other aspects?

6 reasons to do NaNoWrimo:

Learn what you can do
Make actual writing progress
Build a writing habit worth keeping
Nurture connections with other writers
Stay accountable with targets
Gain perspective on writing process

Let’s briefly explore the ideas above and the ways they bring nuance to NaNoWriMo rules:

Learn what you can do

Even though Grimes stopped doing NaNoWriMo every year for the reasons she mentions, she touched on an important point: Creative process has valuable stepping stones.

These stepping stones may be collaborative processes such as working with a book writing coach, critique circle or editor.

They may be tackling writing challenges that arise in your first NaNoWriMo and finding creative solutions in discussion with other writers.

Whatever you use NaNoWriMo for (making progress on a work already underway or starting a new project ‘just for kicks’), you’re bound to learn something along the way by dedicating as much time as you can to writing.

Make actual writing progress

The NaNoWriMo rules aside, you don’t necessarily have to write 50,000 words in November alone.

As Grimes says, writing is hard and writing meaningful, polished scenes with clear, communicative style and playful verve takes time.

Yet as Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way for Parents, structure helps creativity to flourish:

In limits, there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way for Parents: Raising Creative Children (2013)

Having a structure in your process, whether it’s a 30-day plan to write a novel or something slower and gentler is useful for being able to check in with your own progress and objectives. Structure helps us keep putting one word after another, freely.

Build a writing habit worth keeping

Will work you produce during NaNoWriMo be publishable?

If you’re racing to meet targets, maybe not the first draft (though first drafts rarely are).

In a recent Q&A on story planning, Now Novel coach Hedi Lampert spoke about how there are at least three drafts worth doing for a story. A ‘down draft’ for getting your ideas down, an ‘up draft’ for picking up on nuance and anything big you missed, and a ‘dental draft’ for polishing your language. This idea was credited to the late author and writing educator Anne Schuster.

To be able to complete even one of these drafts, though, it so helps to build a writing habit that consists of sitting down and getting words on the page regularly.

Once you have that, you don’t need NaNoWriMo rules or targets to kick into gear.

Stay accountable with critique and support

Get a lifetime Now Novel membership that includes weekly crits and structured outlining tools, $50 off until this Friday.

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Nurture connections with other writers

There are benefits to doing NaNoWriMo beyond how many words you produce.

A major benefit is connecting with other writers. Holding one another accountable and sharing advice and insights is motivating in itself.

The value of community comes up often in our own reviews as a motivating factor in being a Now Novel member:

I like the site because the age range of members is wide and reading and critiquing other people’s work really helps with my own writing. Critiques from other members often make me think about something from a different angle.

Now Novel member Christine, testimonial via TrustSpot

Whether you engage on NaNoWriMo’s official forums or join another free-to-participate NaNoWriMo group like our own, support makes writing more meaningful. You might even build incredible friendships along the way.

Stay accountable with targets

Accountability is a common struggle for writers because self-discipline is tough. The instant gratification we get from entertainment such as reading a pacy book, TV, or scrolling through social media idly is much easier than writing often.

This is why a program like NaNoWriMo is useful as with the additional word count targets you set yourself to reach 50,000 words, you’re not writing in the dark. Clear, SMART writing goals help.

Gain perspective on writing process

As Grimes Medium article states, doing NaNoWriMo gives you something that money can’t buy because it is experiential: perspective.

Once you know how hard (or, if you are lucky, how easy) writing a novel is, you may find you are kinder to yourself about ‘slow’ writing days where 500 words (or less) feels like no progress at all.

Perspective is essential to creative process because without it, it’s easy to get discouraged.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year?

Comment below and tell us why you are (if yes) or why you’re not (if no). Chat to us in our online writing groups about your specific writing challenges.

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