The Lie That NaNoWriMo Has Perpetrated for 15 Years

If you’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) before, you’ve fallen victim to the lie that NaNoWriMo has had going for a decade and a half now. Your potential novel has fallen victim to it.

Since the beginning, NaNoWriMo has prided itself as a novel-writing month. In just 30 days, you can write a 50,000-word novel.

Hundreds of thousands of writers all around the world participate every year. And the writers who cross the NaNo finish line are duped into thinking that they just wrote the draft of a novel.

This lie has been going on for far too long. It must stop.

The NaNoWriMo Lie

The lie that’s being sold to writers all over the world, is that they are, in fact, writing a novel during NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately, that’s not the case at all.

What most writers are writing during NaNoWriMo is a story.

It could be part of a story; it could be a few stories that are mushed together, in need of separation. It could simply be an exploration of a novel idea seed (or concept).

But it’s certainly not a novel.

No, novels have structure. They have purpose, a mission. They have a beginning, middle and end that all ties together in a nice little package.

NaNoWriMo churns out 50,000-words worth of notes on a story that you may want to write as a novel someday. But that day is not NaNoWriMo.

Ask a writer who has participated in NaNo what happened to the “novel” she wrote. Nine times out of 10 it’s in a drawer somewhere collecting dust. (Maybe they should change the name to NaStoWriMo–National Story Writing Month.)

That’s because there’s a lot more to writing a novel than the writing part.

How To Truly “Win” NaNoWriMo

The only way a writer can attempt NaNoWriMo and actually come out at the end of the 30 days with the draft of a novel, is if she does some serious story planning ahead of time. And that’s totally allowed, based on NaNo rules.

You’re allowed to do all the planning, character creating and note-taking that you want to before NaNo starts. The only thing you’re not allowed to do is do the actual writing.

You have to wait ’til November 1 to start on that.

If you want this to be your best NaNoWriMo ever–an epic year where you actually come out of NaNo with the draft of a novel–you must commit yourself to finding your story (and planning it!) now. So when November 1 rolls around, you know exactly what your story is about, who the hero is, what the journey entails and how everyone is getting from page one to “the end.”

Here are some story planning resources to get you started:

Don’t let the opportunity to do some major NaNo prep pass you by. Take the next few weeks of October to really dig in and plan out the story you’re going to write in November. That way you can walk away with the draft of an actual novel. Since you’re putting in all that time and effort.

Regardless of What You Write, NaNoWriMo Still Rocks

While NaNoWriMo isn’t quite what its name suggests, it’s still an awesome annual event, for three reasons:

  1. It gets you started–the hardest part of writing is getting started. NaNo is brilliant for getting you started on your writing.
  2. It creates community around writing–writing is often a lonely calling, so it’s nice that NaNo month (aka: November) brings writers together, both online and in your local community.
  3. It gets writers off their asses (or on their asses, rather) and writing–NaNo is a great motivator for finding time to write every day, and churning out a really cool story idea that you can turn into a novel.

Share With Us

How do you feel about NaNo? If you’ve competed before, what did you do with the 50,000 words you wrote? 


11 Replies to “The Lie That NaNoWriMo Has Perpetrated for 15 Years”

  1. NaNo is a fun writing community to participate in, but I’m not cut out to write a novel in a month. I need more time to think through and work on my ideas.

    1. I agree, Jodie. The only way I can write a novel draft that quickly is if I have a fully created story plan. And that part usually takes me a few months to create.

  2. I participated last year for the first time, pantsed the whole thing and came out with a little bit over 50 k words. It was a pretty good base, but only half of the novel. I rewrote bits and pieces of it, but got stuck because of research needed for the rest of the novel. While not a novel, it IS a pretty good first draft, and was well received by my critique group.

    I think that we each work differently, and that is legitimate as well. If I plotted for months, I’d never write…

    1. We do each work differently. NaNo is absolutely perfect for “pantsing” your way through figuring out what your novel is about. I hate wasting my writing time, so that’s why I spend so much time planning. So when I do sit down to write, I can stay motivated and inspired the entire time and get the draft finished quickly. If I spent months and months writing my drafts I’d never finish them…

  3. I *love* NaNoWriMo. Probably because I am an extrovert and really struggle with getting myself to sit still long enough to write on my own the other 11 months of the year.
    Have I published a novel yet? No, but NaNo has taught me a lot about myself and writing and gotten me much closer to that goal than I would have ever gotten on my own.
    I agree that sitting down on Nov 1st with no prep and writing madly for 30 days is not going to create a novel. But it may create a writer. It may create someone who will find herself, a few years later, spending two months planning and outlining an idea she’s been marinating for a year or more. Someone who *this* NaNo has reasonable expectations of sitting back from her laptop on Nov 30 with a solid rough draft.

    NaNo is also excellent at creating community. It is because of NaNo that I already have a group of local writers to take that rough draft to for support the rest of the year as I (hopefully) finish writing, editing and polishing it into a novel!

    1. Congrats Kat! I’m glad you had such great NaNo experiences. It’s true that NaNo definitely makes you a writer and that’s really the whole point in the first place. Good luck this year!

  4. Jen,

    Before I even read the body of your email I guessed that the NNWM lie was we don’t write a novel, we write a “story!” (Proud of myself for thinking like you! 🙂 )

    I agree it’s a great way to start writing and shoot for 50,000 words, which is huge for most people. I did my first NNWM last year, with the help of your Oct. online “prep class.” I got my 50k words, but it was only about half a novel. I set up a good structure, sketched out characters, etc., but overwrote as I usually do, and only got about half my intended scenes written.

    I plan to write the other half this Nov. Whether that’s 30k, 40k, or 50 k words, I don’t know, but my goal is to finish the story, then take 4 months to whip it into a novel and start querying.

    I’ll be reviewing your prep class notes from last year to help me achieve my goal.


    1. You rock, Chris! Glad to hear my planning workshop was helpful for you. NaNo is tough–even with a plan. That’s why I think it’s fun to challenge yourself and see what happens.

  5. I imagine writers like Haruki Murakami and Stephen King are doing it all wrong then? Sorry if I sound aggressive here, I don’t mean to be. It just seems like you’re saying that it’s impossible to write a novel (or even the first draft of one) without planning. That sounds totally wrong to me. Murakami and King are the first writers that came to mind, but I could really give you a whole list of writers that don’t plan anything before diving in to the writing. I think saying that ‘this is the only way, and if you don’t do it this way, you’re wasting your time’ is just not the right way of going about this.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with you; for me, having a plan allows me to write better stories, I just know it’s not the only way. If you’d said the real lie of NaNoWriMo was that you’re not writing a novel at the end of the month, merely a first draft at best, then I’d have agreed wholeheartedly with you.

    1. @Noel I think you missed my point–I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a novel without planning, just that 1) if you haven’t planned anything then you’re not technically writing a novel, you’re writing a bunch of randomness trying to figure out what your story is about, and most of it you’ll have to scrap because it won’t be usable when you’re done (but you will be a tiny bit closer to figuring out what your story is about), and 2) I’m not saying it’s the “only way,” just that it’s the least devastating way. I’m speaking from experience on this because when I wrote my first “novel” (without planning anything) I ended up with a horrible 250-page mess that was completely not usable… and after writing (without planning) two more drafts of the same story, I still couldn’t make it work, and I still didn’t have anything worthwhile. So I scrapped the whole story. (Which was devastating to me.)

      Now I advocate planning first before you write anything, so that way when you do write your draft, you’ll end up with something that’s not only usable, but is likely a polish and edit away from being publishable. A far cry from what most people end up with when they “win” NaNoWriMo.

      But to each his own! Every writer has to find the process that works best for them. If King is OK writing multiple drafts, that’s perfectly fine. I am just a very impatient writer and if I have to write more than one full draft, I won’t ever finish any story.

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