The Dark Side of NaNo–An Alternate View

Cross-posting from the Write in the Shadows blog today.

First off: I have voted today (it’s 7:45 a.m.)–have you? Do it!

Well, yesterday was the first day of National Novel Writing Month, wherein we, as authors, are supposed to cast editing and revisions to the wind and crank out 50,000 words of a new WiP in 30 days. It says these magic words in the NaNo FAQ: “quantity, not quality.” (Am I the only one who finds those words vaguely troubling?)

I would mention how many writers are participating this year, but the number is so gargantuan that the whole NaNo website is one frantic writer short of crashing as I’m writing this about 10 p.m. on Monday, and I got tired of waiting for it to load. Let’s just say the number is ginormous and the word count with three hours to go before the Day One cutoff was more than 55 million words. Good Lord. How scary is that?

I did NaNo last year. This year, I was “sitting on G and ready for O” when a savvy blog reader (you know who you are, Matt) pointed out that I don’t qualify. You see, I’m revising an existing manuscript on a deadline and, in the NaNoSphere, revisions are frowned upon and don’t count, as it turns out.

In the Suzanne-o-Sphere, revisions trump hastily produced bad first drafts.

And as I watched the #NaNo hashtag on Twitter off and on throughout the day yesterday, it made me rethink the whole NaNo thing. The writers were all a’twitter (so to speak) about their NaNo projects. The editors and agents were, shall we say, not so a’twitter at all.

One agent seemed to best sum up the opinion of the industry pros. She said that while NaNo is a good exercise for writers in getting butt-in-chair and working on a productive schedule, it was hard for her not to notice the bump in submissions she received in December and January–submissions of not-very-good manuscripts that had been popped out in thirty days, given a quick read-through and submitted.

And, basically, that seemed the gist of it. “Winning” at NaNo does not a finished novel make, and the editors and especially agents bear the brunt of it when we as writers don’t realize that.

Will I ever do NaNo again? Maybe, even though it took me much, much longer to revise my 2009 NaNoMess than if I’d written the novel like a normal, sane person. Like any other writing tool, NaNo has its place. It enforces discipline and helps us realize how many superfluous things (ahem, Twitter) could be cut back to make more time for writing. That’s a good lesson to re-learn every now and then.
So this year, you can find me on NaNo (as suzannej3523). You can even be my buddy. But when you see my word counts, know they’re revisions, not new words, and that I’m there as a form of self-discipline, not to produce a craptacular first draft masterpiece.

So, who’s doing NaNo? What preparations did you make ahead of the Nov. 1 start? What do you hope to end up with?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

18 thoughts on “The Dark Side of NaNo–An Alternate View

  1. Nano does have its flaws. It inspires me though, and I get more writing done in November than any other month.

    Nano, for me, is about making sure I write every day, no excuses. If I make the time to write, I get work done. It’s that simple. I should take this approach throughout the rest of the year, I would get so much more work done.

    The goal of Nano is 50K. I’ve reached that goal five times now. So far, I’ve only finished one of those novels and it became Woman of Honor, now published through an epublisher.

    Nano has shown how much I’ve grown as a writer. I looked through my first Nano project to my most recent one, and the quality of the most recent is surprisingly good. The first was just dreadful! lol But I think Nano, despite its frantic pace, has made me a better writer. I can write faster and cleaner than before Nano.

    Nano isn’t for everyone, I agree. But I like it.

  2. It definitely depends on what you hope to achieve out of NaNo how much help it will be for you.

    It’s true that some people think that after 30 days you will have a polished finished product, but as you say that simply isn’t the case (except VERY rarely, of course there are exceptions).

    Personally I’ve used it this year as I did in 2009, to jump-start a project I’ve had sitting around for a long time and had excuses for not doing. I still have my NaNo2009 project ongoing, and I expect it still will be for some time, but I think NaNoWriMo is more about setting yourself targets and getting into a writing routine of constantly working to reach it rather than the act of producing a finished article.

    Just my two pennies, anyhoo.

  3. I agree- NaNo does not produce submit worthy results. but it can give great material to work from. Personally I;m doing short stories this year for NaNo- and then later I will use them as a bases for whatever I want.

    Have a great day-

  4. I am participating, but I am moving at my own pace. I already write everyday (usually between 1-2,000 words) and I am enjoying the new and excited writing support group that has appeared.
    That being said I know that the novel banged out this month is not ready for anything other than a total revision, and rewrite. I agree with Chuck Wendig’s idea that NaNoWriMo novel should be considered zero drafts, a flesh-out outline of a novel and that is what I am anticipating.

    Anyways, Chuck Wendig’s blog had an amazing post about this just yesterday that I recommend.

  5. you CAN to revisions for NaNoWriMo – who the heck told you you couldn’t?

    Head to the NaNo Rebels section of the forum and you will find you are not alone. There is even a section for “Editing Last Year’s NaNoWriMo Novel” as your this year NaNo. So whoever told you you couldn’t do a revision for NaNo, obviosly knows nothing about NaNo.

    I will also direct you to this web site: which is an interview with a 7 year NaNo veteran, who also has Maine’s highest word count year after year.

    As for people dashing off MSs in Dec and Jan – that’s just lack of knowing the industry on their part. I’m a publisher myself, you know how I deal with it? I close submissions. I can’t read what they can’t send me, right?

    NaNo makes no secret of the fact that the goal is to get a FIRST DRAFT out of your head and on to paper. I’ll repeat this words: FIRST draft. The average novel goes through 4 or 5 or more drafts before it is publishable. No one in their right mind would send a first draft to a publisher/agent…though sending a first draft to an editor is EXACTLY what you are suppose to do – it is the editor’s job to EDIT after all.

    Unfortunately so many editors today merely hang a title on their nose than never edit a thing, because they are too busy reading submissions to have time to edit. When an editor is reading submissions, you know the publisher is understaffed, because that is the slush pile reader staffs job, not the editor’s job. So next time you hear an editor complaining about first drafts being sent to them…send them a quick message and ask why they are calling themselves an editor if they are not doing their job and editing first drafts?

    Editing is what authors hire editors for. And that there is the problem…HIRE…you know, as in here is your fee per hour to spend 5 hours editing my book. Most newbs have no idea THEY are supposed to pay the editor to read and edit. You don’t pay a publisher to publish, no, but you do pay an editor to edit…and I think this is where editors are getting pissed over NaNo: authors just send their MSs to editors and say: here publish this – like it’s the editors job to get it published or something!

    The problem is not NaNo – the problem is that so many people haven’t got a clue how the publishing industry works. RESEARCH people – RESEARCH before you send out that MS – RESEARCH the publishing industry – make sure you know what you are doing before you dash out your MS to the first editor you see on Twitter!

  6. LIke I mentioned yesterday, this is my first Nano and goes against my edit-as-i-go mentality. I’m already sort of cheating because I was already 10k into my manuscript before nano started. I’m not counting those words toward my word count but I know it’s supposed to be something completely “new”. Well, sorry, on a deadline for this book and don’t have time to do a side project.

    So anyhoo, wrote 3400 words yesterday which is a big output for me for a day and I felt pretty good about the words. I am still editing as I go a bit because i can’t help myself, but I’m really not that focused on “winning” nano.

    I do disagree a bit with Wendy’s comment above though. I think editors are editing but it is not their responsibility to edit a first draft. In school, we wouldn’t turn in our first draft of a paper to the teacher. It’s a writer’s job to edit their own work, then get outside help from crit partners or whatever, then send that “best” version to the editor. And from my experience so far–the editor will still have edits but they will be able to help you edit big picture story elements and not spend all their time picking through bad first draft writing.

    I also disagree that writers have to PAY someone to edit their work. If someone chooses to get a freelance editor because they don’t have crit partners or trusty beta readers, that’s fine. But it’s not necessary. Good beta readers and crit partners can do the same for you. I got an agent and book deal and never shelled out a dime for someone to edit my work. Just my opinion. 🙂 Okay, now I must go Nano.

  7. Wow! So many opinions, so little time. Great topic, obviously. I’m excited about NaNo because I am a procrastinating perfectionist who would probably never get past chapter one of anything if I stopped to read what I had already written.

    I can only address my own junk here, so I will say that since I decided to try to write a novel, about six months ago, I’ve started four projects and dropped them all, taken four online workshops and not shared a word– are you detecting a theme?

    I love this concept because it’s great for me because I tend to take myself too seriously. At the end of this month, I will have written a novel! A crappy one, but that’s okay–I’ll have it out of the way and I can move on to doing something decent.

  8. Whoa, you guys are awesome! Thanks for the comments–I posted, went to a staff meeting (urg) and came back to a discussion!

    Nicole, I agree. NaNo is great for writing discipline. It’s why I’m on there this year even if I’m not “offically” going to register my word counts. I need to get back into a BIC (butt in chair) routine.

    Penrefe–I hear you! The manuscript I’m revising is last year’s NaNo project, for which an editor has asked for some changes on spec.

    Summer–great idea! I hadn’t thought about using NaNo for short stories, which my publisher is urging me to write. I’ll have to remember that next year.

    Judy–thanks for the link to Chuck’s blog. That was great. And Draft Zero is a good way to look at a NaNo project, I think. JR Ward writes 50,000-word-plus outlines for her Black Dagger Brotherhood books, and that would be an interesting way to approach NaNo.

    Wendy & Roni–LOL. Closing submissions is certainly a way to discourage premature ejaculation of NaNo manuscripts, Wendy. Roni and Wendy, I guess I have a sort of intermediate view of editors. When I send in a manuscript, it’s not perfect but I try to have it as clean as I can. I know people who can tell a story but don’t know a comma from a semicolon and, for them, paying an editor is an option. LEARNING basic skills would be even better, though. Here’s my experience so far (admittedly limited). With larger publishers at least, the editing process is broken up. The acquisitions editor is the main one you work with hammering out the big-picture items of the story. The line-editing goes to a copy editor (a different person) AFTER the manuscript has its issues resolved and has been formally accepted by the publisher. And I’m blithering on too long about this, which means….another blog post on editing must be coming soon!

    Teri Anne: You’re right and I used to be the same way. I credit Stephen King’s book “On Writing” for finally getting it through my head that the most important thing about that first draft is just hammering it out and getting it on paper, and NaNo can help with that. Nobody has to see it. It’s probably going to be craptacular. But it’s a jumping-off point for revising–which is where the REAL work of writing takes place.

    Great discussion, guys!

  9. Oh, and Wendy–NaNo REBELS! I had no idea. I love being a rebel. Thanks for letting me know about that. The NaNo FAQ mentions “pain of death” if one tries to use NaNo for revisions. So now I shall be a NaNo rebel.

  10. I’m jumping in this year, and have a 700 word start for yesterday. I’ve blogged about it this morning at:

    I think it’s fun, and I’m writing this WHILE finishing another novel I’m halfway through. Only time will tell if I’m successful at doing both or either, but it’s certainly worth a try.

  11. I’m doing nano for the first time this year and whilst, like you, I don’t agree with ‘quantity, not quality’, I’m using it to kick start the transition from short stories to novel writing.

    I’m not pretending for one minute that the 50,000 words I’ll produce will be anything other than a first draft, and as with my short stories, there will be many re-writes. But that’s okay with me. I enjoy the process of polishing those rough words into something nice and shiny. If doing nano gets the first draft written, then use it!

    Whilst I’m the type of writer who starts with the first sentence and sees where the characters take me, I disagree that using nano for re-writes or finishing novels-in-progress disqualifies a writer. Bah humbug to all those that say it does.

    Now as for the 55 million words already written, I suspect a lot of them will be sent off come 1st January in search of a literary home. 99.9% of them will probably never see print. But if the people who wrote them had fun and felt they’d acheived something, why knock nanowrimo?

  12. Hi Ellie–no knocking NaNo here. I just thought it was interesting that so many agents and editors were bemoaning it on Twitter yesterday because it results in them getting a lot of manuscripts sent out too soon. You’re doing it the right way! And now that I know I can be a NaNo Rebel, I’m off and running.

  13. Nano is a fantastic way to give people who have always wanted to write a book the permission to just do it. Maybe those people aren’t in it to pursue lifelong publishing careers, they just want to have some fun and tackle what they’ve always wanted to do.

    For people who DO want to get published as well, it’s a good way of jump starting a project that could only take two or three months to finish as opposed to a year of 200 words a day. Like Chris Baty says in an guest blog recently, “Human beings are amazing procrastinators. Give someone two years to write a 50,000-word novel, and what you’re really giving them is two years to feel guilty about not writing their 50,000-word novel. Give that person 30 days to write the same book, and they’ll get it done, no sweat. Tight deadlines bring focus and build momentum, which ultimately makes them much easier to achieve than their open-ended cousins.” And I couldn’t agree more. Unpublished writers don’t have set deadlines to finish their books like our published and contracted peers.

    Besides, if it was so horrible with quantity over quality, why do published authors like Jocelynn Drake and Kelley Armstrong amongst others participate? Authors on deadlines put out amazing numbers daily, I’ve seen Laurell K. Hamilton talk about doing 20 pages in a day. Yesterday, Jocelynn Drake wrote a little over 5,000 words. Does that mean they’re producing crap? They’re producing first drafts, but isn’t that what we’re doing with Nano? Nano only requires writers to write 1,667 words a day. That’s not a lot.

    Also, there’s a long list of people who have had their Nano books published.

    I agree with what someone said earlier in the comments. Nano is wonderful, but people have to research the industry and put in the time to revise their manuscripts.

    Writers who know they need prep work done before Nano should do their prep work, and writers who are gifted at writing by the seat of their pants, well… they can do their thing. Ultimately, if a writer is unprepared for it, then their book might be extra craptastic. lol

    Besides, the common advice given to writers are “Write, write, write.” That’s one of the things Nano is about.

    This is my 6th year doing Nano. Yes, during the first year, my writing was extra crappy, but it’s given me somewhere to focus on honing my craft. And how to make a deadline.

  14. LOL, Sarah–thanks for the comment. I agree with you for the most part. Quantity is fine, and I think NaNo is a great as a motivator to get us moving. I think the issue was writers who complete their NaNo project and send them out without putting in the revision time. First drafts aren’t ready for the light of day (at least mine sure aren’t), and I just had a flash of sympathy for the agents/editors who ended up slogging through a lot of December and January manuscripts that weren’t ready for submission. This has been a great discussion!

  15. Yeah, my first drafts aren’t ready for the light of day either. I remember Nathan Bransford blogging last year about how the amount of queries he gets in Dec/Jan is explosive.

    I agree great discussion! =)