Why I Do NaNoWriMo

So, National Beat Up On NaNoWriMo Month is mostly over, but a few essays/posts/etc are still trickling in. Since I finished early this year, I’m feeling inspired to post about NaNo myself.

First, the facts:

  1. I have done NaNoWriMo every year since 2001.
  2. Yes, that’s 10 years.
  3. I have “won” (ie, written 50k) every year. Sometimes in semi-cheaty ways (like, having my characters read things I was writing in other contexts, like my reviews), but always finished. Even when I was laid up after serious surgery, I finished.
  4. I have only attempted editing one of the novels.
  5. I have never submitted any of them for publication.

I have written over 500,000 words just for NaNo in the last decade. I have spent hours and hours churning out words I won’t let people read, let alone send out for publication.

According to the Anti-WriMo crowd, those words are crap, pointless, useless, a waste of time.

To me, they’re also crap. But not pointless or any of the other stuff. Every year, I relearn valuable lessons from NaNo:

  1. Writing is only useless when you don’t do it.
  2. If you haven’t written something down, you can’t edit it and make it better.
  3. If you haven’t written it, you can’t see its structural issues.
  4. Most importantly, I relearn how to shut my inner editor up and just write.

That inner editor was the bane of my first NaNo attempts, and nearly made me lose. It was so hard to churn out words without fussing over them endlessly. Impossible! But I’m extremely competitive at heart (weird, for a Pisces, I know), and deadlines are sacred to me, so I managed to do it. Every year it gets easier.

Slowly, that ability has crept into my other writing. I can pound out movie reviews and blog posts in no time now, and then edit them and polish them and send them off. I have a lot more confidence in my writing — given that the stuff I churn out for NaNo isn’t half bad sometimes, how much better must my other writing be, since I take time on it?

And this year, something magic happened. My 2003 NaNo doesn’t suck, it turns out, and the sequel idea I had and wrote this year doesn’t suck either. And on the last day, I had an idea for a third book in the series.

I’m going to edit and rewrite, and see if I can make something of these little babies. These little novels, who never would have seen the light of day if not for NaNoWriMo.

I try not to get too defensive when people harsh on NaNo. It’s been an enormous part of my life for the last ten years, and it’s never easy to hear people say that not only have I been wasting my time, I’ve been inviting and encouraging people to do something actively harmful to the art of writing.

But you know what? That may be true for those people, but it isn’t true for me. It isn’t true for the many friends I’ve made through NaNo, the people who’ve gone on to sell their NaNo novels, or the folks I’ve talked to at the Thank God It’s Over party. Even folks who “lose” tell me they had fun. The ones who sound sad they lost often brighten when I remind them that the words they wrote are still words that never would have existed if not for their attempt. Plus, even if their book sucked, well, then they know that sucked.

It’s like the story of Edison discovering ways not to invent the lightbulb. Sometimes you have to try and fail so that later you can find the thing that will work.

Or, as other people put it, you have to write a million words of crap before you start to write the stuff that’s really good.

NaNo lets people churn through the crap posthaste and get to the good stuff all the faster. I think that’s a good thing. Folks who beat themselves up or get too neurotic to finish or whatever can learn about their self-defeating habits.

We learn the most when we try to do the next to impossible. NaNoWriMo can be a tool of self-discovery. It can be a way to hone your craft. It can just be a way to meet other crazy writers in your area and have a hell of a lot of fun.

It’s not for everybody, but it’s definitely for me. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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