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No NaNoWriMo for me

Yesterday (Nov. 1) began the 2009 edition of National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. I love the name, and the T-shirts, and I think the concept is terrific. It’s an exciting month for writers, a time to band together and put your all into cranking out 50,000 words of a first draft of a novel. It’s like training for a marathon, or going to an online writers’ conference: it’s intense, it’s grueling, and the results are rewarding. So what’s wrong with NaNoWriMo? It doesn’t work. At least that was my experience.

I did NaNoWriMo several years ago—in 2001—when there were few enough people signed up that you were lucky if you found one person you knew listed in your city. (Last year 119,000 participated.) I was a newspaper reporter at the time interested in transitioning into creative writing and decided to use NaNoWriMo as my debut. The results were disastrous. I was so desperate not to “lose” the contest that there were days when I would write pure nonsense just to make my word count. Once I even cut and pasted some paragraphs I’d written before November 1st into my “novel” (which had no plot, little dialogue and vaguely conceived characters). The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, averaging 1,667 words per day, and because I had a full-time job, I would get up at 6 o’clock every morning and vomit my thoughts into my word processor. Mind you, this can be a very effective way to start the day. Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, advocates writing three pages of whatever is on your mind to get the creative juices flowing. But those pages are meant for your journal, not for publication. In the end, I wrote 40,000+ words of absolute garbage. I don’t think I salvaged one page from that train wreck of a “novel.” And yes, I know that many NaNoWriMo partipants are much more experienced writers than I was at the time and that some may even complete a semi-decent first draft of a novel by November 30, but it’s also important to remember that that’s exactly what they are going to produce—a semi-decent first draft. Unless you’re Ray Bradbury, who wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the basement of a UCLA library in a staggering nine days, chances are slim that your first draft will be anywhere near ready for publication. Agent after agent will tell you that once you think you’re done with your novel, you should work on it for another year. And be sure to tack on an extra 20,000-40,000 words while you’re at it, because 50,000 words makes for a mighty short book.

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