It’s not really about the 50,000 words

I don’t participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, often abbreviated to NaNo) every year. For two years, dealing with my husband’s stroke has made writing impossible. At other times, like this year, I’ve been in editing mode, which is a NaNo no-no. The goal is 50,000 words of a new novel.

But I’ve done NaNo three times, “won” twice by hitting the 50,000 wordcount mark, but had a blast each time.

I have heard detractors of NaNo say that it’s a waste of time, that participants produce 50,000 words of garbage that are promptly forgotten, etc… What I say is it’s great for people who always said they wanted to write a novel to give it a try. If nothing else, they learn something about the work of writing and themselves. But it can also be a boon to serious aspiring writers.

If you are the sort of writer who strives to get every chapter right before moving on to the next–and I know several successful, published authors who work this way–NaNo is probably not for you. Unless you have a lot of time and are a fast writer, you may not be able to write as cleanly as you like and still reach the 50,000 word goal.

But if you are like me and many other writers, NaNo is the opportunity to get in a good chunk of first draft. IMHO it’s not about writing 50,000 words that can be submitted to an agent or publisher; it’s about generating ideas and learning about one’s characters.

I find the wordcount goal helps me to focus on that, by ignoring things I can fix later: awkward sentences, background research that doesn’t affect the plot, bits of dialogue that don’t feel period, etc… Although sometimes nuggets of “keeper” prose sneak in, they are just a bonus. What matters is coming out with a lot of new ideas I can use in writing the next draft.

Some people don’t have as good an experience with NaNo as they’d hoped. I’ve heard them complain that they started generating pages of blather just to reach their daily wordcount goals. My advice to anyone this happens to is to stop. You need to forget the wordcount at that point, because you may be bogging down on something important. It’s likely you’ve lost touch with your characters.

It’s time to back away, take a walk, have a cup of tea, brainstorm with a friend, do a character interview or a Goal/Motivation/Conflict chart as in Deb Dixon’s book. Anything that will get energy back into the story. If you solve it, you may be behind on your pagecount but you’ll be closer to the real goal of NaNo. IMHO a lesser wordcount and a lot of good ideas are worth more than a winner’s certificate and 50,000 words of a story you’ve lost interest in.

But you also may find that your enthusiasm for the story will rebound and you may end up with the certificate too.

So that’s my tuppence on NaNoWriMo. Anyone heading into it, good luck and have fun!


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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7 Responses to It’s not really about the 50,000 words

  1. Carolyn says:

    I have a project that needs MAJOR word count so I’m going to NaNo it.

    I’ve heard Chris Batty speak twice, once when I was in grad school and he was speaking and more recently when he came to address my local RWA chapter (San Francisco Bay Area, so it’s his back yard). He’s an inspiring speaker so if you have the chance to hear him speak do it!

    I hope this is my NaNo winner year.

  2. Elena Greene says:

    I always enjoy Chris Batty’s motivational notes, which is one of the reasons I stay registered and will participate whenever the timing is right.

    Good luck, Carolyn!

  3. Judy says:

    Oddly enough, if I’m accountable to someone else, it’s almost a challenge to me to NOT do it…. actually, I was so accountable for everything to everyone that it’s now my personal Quest to be accountable to me and forget everyone else. I’ve been told that I don’t really need to be accountable to anyone else, because I’m tougher on myself than anyone else would ever dream. That being said, I’m in the middle of a manuscript; however, I want to up my daily word output. To meet the 50,000 words requires writing 1667 words, every day of the month. I average 1000 words a day. I think what I’ll do is participate, not officially, but with the word count in mind. Thanks for the post on it, Elena, because I’ve been wondering about it.

  4. Jane George says:

    I’m doing the same thing as Carolyn. Not strictly following ‘the rules’ but the boost in focus and drive and will get this novel finished & edited.

  5. Diane Gaston says:

    Judy, I have that problem, too. It seems like every time I join a writing challenge, I find reasons to rearrange my underwear drawer and clean out the closets.

    But I’m thinking of unofficially joining our local chapter’s NANO. I’m starting a new book so it is perfect timing for me to give it a go.

    Or not….

    Good luck, Elena, Carolyn, Jane, and Judy!

  6. Elena Greene says:

    Good luck, Judy, Jane and Diane! Make NaNo work for you. Since I’m in rewrite mode, I’ll just be cheering for you.

  7. librarypat says:

    I thought it was primarily and exercise for established authors. Nice to know it is open to others. Maybe one day, but there is too much to do to even think of exploring that possibility in my life.

    Good luck to those of you who decide to participate.

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