14 November 2013

A NaNoWriMo Reality Check

by Brian Thornton

For those of you who in the writing community who have been living under a rock, November is "National Write a Novel Month." Who declared it such? I have no idea. Someone did, and it stuck.

So every year tens of thousands of people- including several friends of mine sharpen up their metaphorical pencils and go to work, writing furiously, in an attempt to get an entire novel down in the days between November 1st and 31st.

My response to this notion?

Have fun with that.

Maybe it works for some people, but the idea of writing a complete first draft during a month with not one, but two big holidays (sorry folks, I'm a veteran, from a family of veterans, it's a big deal in my house), a full-time day gig, a marriage/mortgage/one year-old to spend time/effort on, holds zero appeal whatever to me. What's more, it held the same level of appeal back when I wasa kidless, single apartment dweller.

The irony of this is if you asked my wife about my work habits, she'd likely tell you I work better under a deadline. She's seen time and again how, when faced with a due date on one of my writing projects, I will pump out content at a rate that she finds truly impressive.

There's a difference, though. One BIG difference.

Put bluntly, my deadlines invariably involve dollar signs.

To be honest, it all comes down to time. I have a finite amount of it. Now moreso than ever. As a result, it's tough to sit down and bang away at something for the hours on end over a month's time required to turn out a draft of a novel. This is not say I can't turn out product, when it comes to fiction, I have a rough time doing it in assembly line fashion. Some folks can do that, and God bless them. For me it's a short-coming. When I'm writing fiction, I have to put a ridiculous amount of thought into it before I even pick up my (metaphorical) pen.

Back before I got married, I entered into a devil's bargain with a nonfiction publisher that had already published several of my books. These guys always wanted the turnaround on their content yesterday, and they didn't want to have to shell out a whole lot for it. I knew this going in.

At the time I was also wrapping up an editing project, where I'd collected and edited some inspiring nonfiction stories. I was working for the same press, with the same editor I'd worked with on my previous books. She knew how I worked, and that she didn't need to micromanage me or hold my hand while I generated content for her. We worked well together.

This new project involved working with a brand-new editor, who had no idea how I worked, and wasn't especially interested in just having the end result of my efforts just miraculously appear on her desk by deadline date. As I said, she was new, and eager to prove herself.

You can probably see where I'm going with this, so I'll just cut to the chase.

The long and the short of it was that after this new editor started up a pissing match with my original editor over my 25%/50%/75% due dates, I wound up completing the first book exactly eight weeks before the TWO new books I had agreed to write for the difficult-to-work-with new editor were due.

These were children's books, with an intended length of 40,000 words apiece. That's 10,000 words per week, folks.

Oh, and by the way, my day gig is teaching. And this eight week period started on September 1.

In other words, eight weeks of every waking moment not working my day gig pretty much consumed in NaNoWriMo on steroids.


Somehow I managed to complete the contract. Miraculously both books are still in print to this day, years later. The in-over-her-head editor who caused me so many headaches during this initial back-and-forth was eventually directed by her boss to cc her on all further communication with me about this matter. I won't go into it any further than that, other than to say she is no longer with that publisher, and hasn't been for some time.

So, NaNoWriMo? No thanks. Been there, done that.

And at least I got paid for my trouble!


  1. How nice the books are still in print- now that's a real consolation.

  2. I understand completely. I did a "gun for hire" book, and it went well enough. But the 2nd one had new editors who wanted every single detail of the novel in the outline - i.e., no room for creativity at all - and deadlines that were VERY tight, and at that time, I was still teaching. After the 5th rewrite of the outline, I sent them back the advance money. It just wasn't worth it.

  3. i am currently reading the 2nd volume of Twain's autobiography and he is discussing every publisher he ever worked with. Not editors but it feels similar. He essentially has three categories for them: crooked, incompetent, and both. The incompetent tend to be the micromanagers, too.

  4. Brian, I must agree with you on NaNoWriMo--but a bunch of my writer friends absolutely love it. AintNoMeDoinThat.

    I bet the Twain book's an interesting read, Rob. That's the one that's about a foot thick, right?

  5. Good stuff, Brian. I suspect NaNo may work for me if I can ever get out from under my work and my life, but God knows if or when that'll ever happen. I appreciate the kick in the ass — however artificial and arbitrary — it gives a lot of people like me who need buttock-bootings to get their work out into the world.

    In 2008, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge in tandem with a friend, Craig Lancaster, with the understanding that we would break each others' balls daily and hold each other accountable for what we did or didn't do each day. Craig finished his first novel, of 80,000 words, in twenty-four days. I faceplanted at the end, with 42,000 words I mostly wanted to rewrite.

    Craig self-published that first novel, and after it caught on where he lives in a small way, it was picked up by a small regional press. After a few awards and more sales success, it was picked up by Amazon Publishing and has become an even bigger success. After a standalone novel and a sequel to that first book, Craig's success enabled him to quit his job and make a living on his books and book-related endeavors (speaking gigs, magazine work, design and editing jobs, self-publishing workshops).

    All from an off-the-cuff challenge I threw out five years ago ....

  6. I did it once on a dare. Don't think I'll ever be able to repeat that one again.

  7. Thanks to all who posted so far!

    Janice: Yes and no. It was work-for-hire, so I don't receive royalties for the pair of them.

    Eve: I absolutely wanted to send the advance back. I also had biiiig plans for the back end, and focused on that. It financed my travel to several LCCs and B'cons in the ensuing years (and even used part of it for my wedding).

    Rob: I really need to bump Twain higher on my TBR list. Perhaps next summer.

    John: I agree completely with the notion that every writer is different and ought to find that which works well for them and do that, rinse and repeat. It just doesn't work for me.

    Jim T.: I'm truly happy for Craig. He's living the dream. There is no way, with the amount of historical detail in what I write, I could never keep up with that blistering pace, that's for sure!

    Jim W.: You're dead on. If you do it once, need you ever do it again?

  8. I look at Nano as not so much going for 50,000 words or a full draft, but writing 5X as much as I usually do. It's about pushing yourself to do only writing and not editing--to write a really free (and awful) draft so you have something to edit later. If you usually sqeek out 1,000 words a week and during November--just because it's November--you can do 5,000 a week, that's a good thing for writers. Sometimes doing it differently can create a different result. Working for me this year.
    And Jim, if you ever figure out how to get out from under work and life, let me know. That's my thing with writing, I keep waiting for that to happen and it never does so somehow I have to write any way. Leslie

  9. I think I'm with you on this one. I tend to write when I can -- around my kids' and wife's schedules, and my household duties. Just because it's November, doesn't change any of that in my house. But, kudos to the folks who find it useful.



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