NaNoWriMo: A Publisher’s Perspective

November is upon us, and in the world of letters, that means NaNoWriMo. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock – or off the internet – for the last few years, NaNoWriMo is the fun little abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month, a project of the Office of Letters & Light. It’s a personal challenge – a sort of informal contest to see if you can crank out 50,000 words of fiction in a single 30-day span.

The “rules,” such as they are, are simple: On November 1, start writing. On November 30, stop writing. Somewhere in between, come up with 50,000 words of fiction. Any sort of fiction, although several dozen non-related flash-fiction blurbs aren’t really in the spirit of the thing.

You’re not meant to edit, to revise, to think too deeply about any of it – you’re just meant to get words down in durable form.

And apparently, some people take issue with this.

I’ve seen more and more cranks winding themselves up lately about how NaNoWriMo “degrades literature and the art of writing.” About how it’s not only pointless, but actually damaging to the act of authorship. About how it’s a terrible, terrible idea and it should be taken out back and shot, and its creators should commit seppuku with a Bic for their sins.

I don’t get it.

Truly, I don’t.

Why all the vitriol? Why the hate? Just because you don’t want to spend 30 days blasting out all manner of literary oddments doesn’t mean that it’s a lousy idea for the rest of the world. NaNoWriMo turns out more crappy manuscripts than any other idea in the history of mankind, it’s true. I’m both excited and terrified to see what comes through the slush pile after this month – I expect that there’s going to be a lot of short, awful manuscripts (50k words does NOT a novel make, children…shoot for 80-100k, please)…but there may also be some gems.

And, more importantly, there may be some gems about a year from now.

Because, you see, as far as I’m concerned, NaNoWriMo is about getting Draft 0 down. Write. Write like the wind. Prove to yourself that you can bang out words, characters, plot, story. Prove to yourself that you can, in fact, do this “storytelling” thing. Just let the words rip, without concern for “is this marketable” or “is this a heartbreaking work of staggering genius” or “is this anything that someone other than my dog would read without crying.” Just WRITE, and worry about the rest later.

Revisions come after the writing. Edits can happen later. You can pick up that crappy NaNovel in January, re-read it, take a bunch of notes, and fix it up into something not-half-bad. Then you can send it out to those trusty beta readers we’ve talked about, and get notes from them, and rework the novel again. After a couple of drafts, it’ll be ready to submit to publishers. And guess what? It’s probably November again by now, and you can start on another Draft 0, and get your writer on!

A lot of the ire directed at NaNoWriMo is, I think, based around people being horrified at the idea that just anyone can write a novel. “They might turn out 50,000 words of poorly written prose about space-chipmunks romping through 1930s Canada!” they yelp.

Well, yeah. That’s true. They might. But they might also turn out Water for Elephants, or Pilgrim of the Sky (yes, that’s right, Natania Barron started her novel as a NaNo project…and now we’re publishing it, many edits and revisions later. These things DO happen, cats and kittens).

NaNoWriMo is about pushing yourself to do something crazy, and about learning how you work as a writer. It’s not about producing a finished, polished novel in a month, much less the Great American/Canadian/English/French/Ghanian Novel.

So quit your whinging, Oh Literary Snobs. Pick up a pen, fire up the laptop, and give NaNo a try. You never know; you might find out you like it.


  • Karen Syed

    I could not agree more. The key here is for the writers to be smart enough to know that once they have that draft they MUST edit, revise, before they decide they can go out and Kindle publish their dreck.

    As of today I am a little over 11000 words into my 50K. And boy will it need ssome edits. LOL

    Karen Syed

  • Katie F.

    That’s why I’ve never finished–or even gotten very far on–a NaNovel. I can’t turn off my editor brain, and I’m not great at moving onto a new plot point before I’m satisfied with the previous one. But that’s why I admire everyone who cranks out those 50,000 words–they actually sit down and make themselves do it. Sure, they might cringe in January when they go back and read it, but as you said, they can then spend the next year revising. It’s not “National Write a Perfect, Publishable Novel Month,” after all.

  • RJ Keller

    Well said.

  • Patti

    Thank you. I’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, but I know folks who have, and I have nothing but admiration for them. And I have nothing but disdain for the snobs who don’t like it. Very territorial, that attitude, and elitist.

  • Kate

    NaNoWriMo doesn’t work for everyone. Some people really do have to sit and revise and craft their work as they go, and there’s absolutely NO reason to feel guilty that NaNo doesn’t work for you. Again, that’s not the point, at least to my mind – it’s just to encourage people to go for broke, with a support group ready to cheer them on.

  • Kate

    Yes! And that goes for any book written at any time, really – you have to step back, get some perspective, and then revise the hell out of it. Very few books are good right off the bat.

  • Draven Ames

    NaNo is good for some people and bad for others. I have seen some great, inspired work. You have seen the bad, I’m sure. That you are still excited about it, as a publisher, tells me it is worth some people doing. Great article.

  • Kate

    Much of it depends on the writer. Some people NEED to edit as they go; it’s just how they work. But for most people, they just need the push to actually put words on the page, and that’s what NaNoWriMo is good for. You have the pressure of a deadline, but without consequences, and you have the support of a few thousand other crazy writers.

  • Kate

    It’s not for everyone, but I see it as no more harmful to “literature” than, say, working off story prompts or doing flash fiction. Anything that gets your creative juices flowing and gets you to actually WRITE, rather than talk about writing or say you’ll do it someday…that has value.

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