NaNoWriMo, and why it’s worth giving it a try

*WARNING: this post may contain anger and be a bit sweary*

Every year without fail I read a blog post, or a newspaper article, or some other opinionated piece of tripe telling the world why NaNoWriMo is a waste of space/time/energy. Usually it doesn’t happen until the end of September, but much as Halloween, the launch of Strictly, and Christmas seem to come around earlier every year, today I saw this on the Writing About Writing Facebook feed.

(In fairness, it’s a blog post from October 2012, so it’s not actually really early. Just repeated.)

If you’ve got a few minutes, please do read it. I am confused about whether Chris Brecheen has actually participated in NaNoWriMo himself, because while this post from 2012 seems to suggest he hasn’t (and let’s face it, why put the link up now if he’s changed his opinion?), later blog posts from ‘Evil Chris’ seem to suggest he did.

I dunno. I don’t even particularly care about one blog’s opinions, but the principle behind it is what has pissed me off.

I am so, so fed up with this. Every chuffing year. What is wrong with people, that they have to see something good, free and positive, and shit all over it? It’s like kicking someone’s sandcastle over, just because it’s there.

This year will be my 10th NaNoWriMo and I don’t think that qualifies me as an expert, but nevertheless I have taken part – as a complete novice writer, having never written anything full length, to a veteran participant, right up to a five-times published, multi-award winning, New York Times bestselling author.

My opinions are thus:

1. There is no such thing as a ‘real’ novelist. You write a book, you’re as much a novelist as I am. I’ve published a book, you can do that too, if you really want to. I’m earning money from writing, you’re earning money from writing, so are lots of other very famous people. It doesn’t make any of us a better writer than anyone else. This is not a competitive sport. Why do we have to fit into some category or other? It doesn’t make the world a better place. It just makes us suspicious and jealous and bitter. There is plenty of room for everybody at this party.

2. You don’t have to write 50,000 words to qualify as a success and writing less than that, or not at all, does not make you a failure. You judge your achievement by your own standards. If you can write 50k in a month, or something that has a beginning and a middle and an end, or 200k+ in a week, then good for you. If you write a sentence and think ‘this isn’t for me, I’d rather be doing something else’, then GREAT! Do it. Be happy. You’re absolutely not a failure, and anyone that says you are is a bit of a twat and therefore not worth listening to.

To put it another way: I can safely say, hand on heart, that I really don’t fancy mountain climbing. I know some people love it. I can even see, as an outsider, what a tremendous thrill it must be to achieve something in that field. I can celebrate and applaud you with genuine joy if that’s what you’ve done, and I can cheer you on if it’s something you’re planning to do. You might urge me to try it – after all, it’s fabulous for you, you love it, you think I might love it too. Now if I decided to have a go myself, and it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t consider myself a failure. I would be surprised if anyone would think I *was* a failure for having tried, and if that’s your opinion, I wouldn’t much care about it anyway.

’80-85% failure rate’? No such thing. Every NaNoWriMo participant is lapping the people on the sofa who think ‘I’ve always wanted to try writing’ but haven’t bothered. I’ve never seen anyone on the NaNoWriMo forums or anywhere else tell anyone who’s participated but not hit 50k that they’ve failed – quite the contrary.

3. Publishers, agents and industry professionals might well be wary of the additional manuscripts that come out of NaNoWriMo, but they’re unwise to ignore them or complain about them or be otherwise dismissive. I can pretty much guarantee that of the drafts produced during any given November, there will be some beautiful, thrilling, potentially best-selling novels. There are some awesome novelists out there being told that, because they wrote the first draft quickly, it will by definition be unredeemable. This is simply not true.

You are not a ‘little Nanoling’ if you’ve participated, written something, enjoyed yourself and now you’re going to write something else. I am so angry just about that one particular phrase. How fucking patronising it is possible to be?

4. Word count during November IS important – it provides your momentum, your deadline, a summit to aim for. Word count. Not, please note, a publishing contract. That has nothing to do with NaNoWriMo. If you fancy having a go at submitting your November novel to a publisher, then any sensible person would expect you to finish it, edit extensively, seek opinions from people whose opinions you respect, and research thoroughly beforehand. Your novel, polished and preened and edited, will most likely NOT be 50,000 words, because it will have changed into something else entirely by then. (I have no idea why Chris Brecheen thinks ‘modern adult novels are usually more like 200,000-500,000 words’. A few are – in the fantasy genre perhaps. But the far bigger majority are around 90-150k. My five published books are all around 120,000 words and they’re not especially small.)

The fact that word count is so important in NaNoWriMo is a good thing, because it takes the pressure off. It means people who would normally tell themselves they’re no good, or shouldn’t bother, can actually get past the self-doubt and write.

I know this because if it hadn’t been for NaNoWriMo, I would never have written anything full-length. I did not believe my writing was good enough for anyone to read, never mind to be worth editing, never mind to be worth publishing. I say this therefore as someone Chris Brecheen might call a ‘little Nanoling’. I wrote ‘50,000 words of excreta’ eight times (I didn’t complete in 2009); but then I edited it, worked at it, revised it and got a publishing deal because by then it wasn’t excreta, it was pretty good.


Having waffled on, I should summarise: I’m not saying you MUST participate in NaNoWriMo, or even that, whatever stage in your writing life you find yourself at, that you SHOULD. I just think that it’s worth a try. Much in the same way that I think you should try anything new, because that’s what makes life interesting.

I’m saying this as an adult human being, not as an author or a writer, or some kind of expert; just that I believe you probably know yourself well enough to judge for yourself if it’s something that you might find fun. I think to say that some people (‘little Nanolings’) go into NaNoWriMo thinking they are just a few short steps away from global literary success is deeply patronising. I believe that if you start NaNoWriMo and find it’s not for you, you can quite easily stop and go and do something that is – and not feel worse off for having tried. I’m certainly not going to think any less of you for stopping, and if you think writing 50,000 words in thirty days sounds like something you’d never want to tackle, then I love you just as much for it.

So my friends: do what makes you happy. Have fun. Challenge yourself. Be brave, and be kind to yourself and to others. If you have the burning desire to write, then give it a try.

I believe in you, I respect you, and I will cheer you on regardless.



  1. Well said Elizabeth. I hate elitism in any field. The egotistical belief that only you have the means of deciding what is ‘worthy’ in music , literature, art or any other medium is bizarre when these are the way humans find joy and happiness.
    Keep on Nano-ing xxx

  2. There is too much negativity in this world, and especially on the internet. You put your case very well and I think NaNoWriMo is a brilliant thing. I love the way that everyone encourages each other and I’m absolutely certain that you are one of the most encouraging protagonists. Your love of writing is inspirational. 🙂

    I wasn’t inspired by Chris Brecheen’s style of writing or point of view.

  3. Wow, Elizabeth, he really got your goat. You’re right of course, and such ill thought-out criticism deserved a logical, strong reply.
    I am a strong believer in ‘the writing community’ and authors and would-be authors coming together in groups, workshops, to self-publish and to accept challenges. Nano is one of those challenges – a great way to foster local, national and international relations between writers who would otherwise work in isolation. Putting yourself to the challenge is a great way to test your writing stamina and give you something to take away and work on, if that’s what you want. Like anything in life taking part is the most important aspect. That way the participants are all winners.

  4. Pingback: Signing up for my first #NaNoWriMo - Living my Imperfect Life

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