Writing on the Ether: The Haunting of NaNoWriMo

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Table of Contents

  1. NoDon’tWriNoMo
  2. What Makes NaNoWriMoNoGo for Me?
  3. Where’s the Fire?

NoDon’tWriNoMo

Being only 28 years old (prematurely aged by overindulgence on the Ether, you know), it’s a long time before I’ll be swiping Kindle pages of the eBook of Life toward that Heavenly Afterword.

NaNoWriMoBut if I were to guess some things that I might want to come back and haunt in the industry! the industry! one of them high on my list would be NaNoWriMo.

You see—prepare for a gasp—I just don’t like NaNoWriMo.

Put that copy of Eleanor Catton back down. True, I’d be honored to be crushed by a Man Booker Prize-winner. But heaving The Luminaries at me is unfair. It’s an 848-page New Zealand boulder. I deserve a fighting chance.  Pelt me with Kindle Singles instead.

The Luminaries by @EleanorCattonAnd before you throw this column across the room, as well,  and hurt your mobile device, do note that I’ve linked up NaNoWriMo to its site so you can find it. In fact, here you go: this is the sign-up page. Go sign up if you’d like. No kidding, you go. Tell them I sent you.

Even better: May I offer you this totally cool NaNoWriMo Word Meter? You update this baby with your word count, and then copy the code so you can drop it somewhere and display, display, display your progress with my blessing. (My thanks to the Euro-touring Hugh Howey, from whom I learned about this nifty gizmo. I’m expecting him to start one with his SkyMiles count soon as he becomes a Million Miler, never mind the Kindle Million Club.)

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Roz Morris

And hey, are you worried about starting NaNoTomorro and getting your 50,000 words done without losing your marriage and your mind? Then I’ve got another resource for you: author and coach Roz Morris is one of the best writers on getting your NaN-sense going. She recommends that you prepare for it, particularly in terms of characters. Know who you want to write, lots of details and parameters, etc., rather than taking the NumbNoWriMo not-a-thought-in-one’s-head approach that some folks try.

In Generate Your NaNoWriMo Novel by Developing Its Characters, Morris writes:

If I had to choose whether to outline plot or characters in detail, I’d spend the time on creating the characters. Why? Once I know who my fictional people are, they start acting, talking and steering the show – merely by being themselves. This smooths the writing process enormously, helps you write in a natural flow. It’s especially useful for a project like NaNoWriMo, where you want to get your word count done – but still have fun.

I’d even add that if you haven’t had that chance to prep, then make your first day of NaNoWriMo just that. Write out your plan as the first installment of your word count, tell them I said it was fine. I’d really rather see you do some thinking, as Morris suggests, than feel you just have to dive in with that dark and stormy night stuff at the beginning.

And that’s not all.

RescueTimeLet me offer you, again this year, the opportunity to use one of my favorite sanity savers, RescueTime and its cloak of Internet invisibility, FocusTime, free for the big month. Joe Hruska and Robby MacDonald at RescueTime are again going to have a look at what can be learned about NaNoWriMo participants’ behavior patterns from the scans that RescueTime makes and they’re hoping you’ll give this excellent software a try free of charge.

By way of disclosure: I’m an affiliate with RescueTime, having used and loved it for years. If you use my link, you can get a free trial anytime, not just during November. Or, jump in and sign up on the NaNoWriMo project during November. You don’t even have to do NaNo to try it.

Rachelle Gardner

Rachelle Gardner

Our good colleague and literary agent Rachelle Gardner, in fact, has written about it here, in Five Habits of Motivated Novelists, in case you’d like to know more.

Gardner will be on the panel I’m moderating on November 13 at 10 a.m. ET / 7 a.m. PT / 1500 GMT in the Get Read (#GetRead) online conference, along with Eve Bridburg of Grub Street and Kristen McLean of Bookigee’s WriterCube.

See? You get it all! as they say on the infomercials. And I’ll even go so far as to tip my hat to the many sponsors of this year’s NaNoWriMo — they’re here on this page. Take a moment to recognize all these companies and personal donors who have contributed to the effort.

Big kicker on this section? I have donated, myself, to NaNoWriMo in the past.

And I’m telling you all this because I don’t want you to confuse my opinion of NaNoWriMo with a suggestion that you shouldn’t do it if you want to.

I want you to do what you’ve planned to do. I don’t need to win anything. This is not a competition. It helps me not one bit for you to decide not to do NaNoWriMo because of something I said. I’m here for a bit of discussion that I think this program throws into relief for us each November—more sharply each year—and perhaps you’ll join me in the Comments section with some thoughts of your own.

So go ahead and NaNoTate everything in sight.  If you love it, love it a lot. Like Lyle Lovett, remember, “I Love Everybody (Especially You” and that’s my message to you, NaNoCheeks.

Update: Special thanks to the folks at Beyond Paper Editing for the word that November 1 is not just NaNoWriMo kickoff day, it’s also Lyle Lovett’s birthday. Many happy returns, Mr. L.  – “especially you.”

See? Calm, even serene discourse. That’s all I’m after. Not a fight. Not a contest. Nobody “attacks” anybody or anything here.

You can almost smell a civilized debate approaching, can’t you?

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What Makes NaNoWriMoNoGo for Me?

I did NaNoWriMo five years ago. I did it seriously. Wore the turquoise horned helmet. I kept track of those word counts. Then? It caught up with me. I’m not the kind of writer who feels good littering life with disjointed, redundant, “dirty” copy to be sorted “at a later date.”

It occurred to me that I’d rather work on one page per day for 30 days and come up with 30 pages (7,500 words) of reasonably coherent material than with 50,000 words of madly “joyous” abandon. Slinging the verbiage right and left, for me, became a wasteful indulgence.

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Chuck Wendig

It’s interesting to read Chuck Wendig (another speaker at the Get Read conference) in The NaNoWriMo Dialogues: Day Zero talking about his own experience:

I tried it and it really didn’t work for me — in fact, it had negative consequences. It made me feel like shit for a little while about the whole writing thing. And back then I was naive enough to assume that when something does or does not work for me it obviously has to be that way for anybody else because we’re all the same precious snowflake, AND I AM MOST PRECIOUS OF THEM ALL. Which is not true, and of course everyone has a process as unique to them as a strand of DNA. What works, works, and NaNoWriMo works for some people very well.

Some of my own experience is there in what Wendig is saying. Not the precious snowflake stuff, of course, because Chuckie is the most precious among us, everybody knows that.


But the experience of “feeling like shit for a little while about the whole writing thing” sounds right. This is how I felt, in his ever-colorful vernacular. More Wendig I dig:

30 days is a pretty short haul for writing a novel. And 50k is technically novel-length, but publishers are likely going to be reticent about a novel of that length unless it’s young adult, but whatever. And what you finish may not look like much of a book yet.

What he’s describing, to me, adds up to artificiality. For me only, remember. For me only, NaNoWriMo luge-writing felt as natural as lying on my back on a small sled and flying down an icy track feet-first at ridiculous speeds.


Wendig does the right thing, as I’m trying to do, and also points out some good elements of the NaNoWriMo chute:

It gets you used to being on deadline. It forces you to write every day to meet that deadline. It teaches you that if you want to Do This Thing called “writing” then the only way out is through. Really, it teaches you to finish your shit, which is a core tenet of being a writer. And one so few writers manage.

I’m down with those points. The discipline counts. If anything, that’s probably the theoretical part of NaNoWriMo I like the best.


Keep an eye on Wendig’s blog. He’s going to be coming back with more of these “Dialogues,” he says, and I’m glad he’s doing it, not least because he’s talking “National Write Every Month.” And that’s an element of the thing that bugs me.

This kamikaze autumn thing with all community flags flying, and those inspi-vational email pep talks (this year contributors are to include author Bella Andre, Jeff VanderMeer and James Patterson), and the non-profit donation messages (it’s also a pledge drive, Gladys)…does this feel authentic? Not to me. Just me. Just speaking for myself. This feels like something on a shipboard activity director’s clipboard.

And there’s a more serious issue, in my opinion: Speed kills good work.

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Where’s the Fire?

Nathan Bransford

Nathan Bransford

Are you an outliner? Are you a seat-of-the-pantser? Do you need peace and quiet? Noise? Do you need to write in a cafe? Would you rather work in a closet? Do you want to write on a computer? A typewriter? Pen and ink? Do you want to write quickly and revise a thousand times? Write a near-perfect first draft slowly? Do you want to write every day? Only on weekends? Do you want to stay up late and burn through fifty pages? Do you want to write during the daylight hours and agonize over five words at a time?

How To Write a Novel by Nathan BransfordThat’s from Nathan Bransford’s new and awfully-orange book, How To Write a Novel, excerpted at his even more orange blog in How to find a writing style that works for you.

Bransford may need a color-scheme intervention soon, but I like how he talks of developing a “writing rhythm.”

His main point is about the spectrum between the pantsers and the outliners. It gets us closer to what I think is the real problem of NaNoWriMo. Its artificiality imposes something that may have nothing to do with your or my “writing rhythm.”

Maybe that’s fine with you, and if so, great. It’s not fine with me.

The digital dynamic, which makes it possible for people to publish books with or without traditional publishing support, also seems to be revving many folks into a shared assumption that faster is better.

13-June-2013-iStock_000003331164XSmall-photog-GrafficX-TEXTED-STORY-IMAGEI was on about this problem back in June, in Writing on the Ether: Faster, Authors, Faster! And here I am about it again because NaNoWriMo amplifies this bid for publishing speed, of course.

I’m the first to say that standard traditional publishing timeframes are insanely slow. I’m not talking about those 18-month ordeals. I’m talking about the writing pace, itself.

So many voices are chanting that having “many books” on the market is your only leverage and that you must get your “many books” out there as fast as possible, that I’m reading material these days by some very good writers that simply wasn’t ready. In 15 years, how will they feel about the books they produced during the digital dash?

Gardner has posted a column this week in which I like her fourth key point. The piece is called Writing a First Draft, emphasis hers:

Remember this is a first draft. Lately I’ve seen a lot of ranting online from agents reminding writers: Do not submit in December whatever you wrote in November. Anyone who writes a first draft in a month is going to need several months to revise and polish. Revisions are when the real crafting happens. So don’t proudly start querying on December 1st with your NaNoWriMo project. (Unless it was last’s year’s NaNoWriMo project.)

While we want to assume that most NaNoWriMo participants know their output from November isn’t ready for the world, agents are seeing indications to the contrary. I’m not sure we’re doing enough to  help writers either learn or remember that the creation of valuable literature of any genre or form takes time.

Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott

I’m reading Anna Elliott at Writer Unboxed in Where Do You Go From Here? writing about the rejection of manuscripts by agents:

Just from my own experience…what it REALLY meant was that my book, while on the right track, just wasn’t yet quite ‘there’. If I really, really stepped back and looked at the work with a detached eye, I could see the weak points, the flaws, the places where the emotional beats of the story came in the wrong order for maximum effect…99% of the time, I discover that despite truly thinking that the work was ‘done’ when I decided it was ready for submission, there are still ways to make it stronger still.

Elizabeth S. Craig

Elizabeth S. Craig

And I’m reading Elizabeth S. Craig (yet another speaker in the Get Read conference) writing about The Slow Release—Not the End of the World:

With digital sales, we’re in it for the long haul.  Amazon will keep those books for sale—there are no returns. Having a strong start is nice…but not vital.  It’s more important that we realize we’ve got a long time to keep ourselves and our books visible—that the online relationships and networking that we’re doing is going to continue for a very long time.

Craig mentions similar comments from Howey, Joanna Penn and other authors, in an effort to help colleagues understand that the “big launch” is superfluous in an era of long-tail digitally distributed work. I’m not sure that the idea of writing fast doesn’t translate to mistaken concepts of launching fast, too.

Water for Elephants by Sara GruenThere are stories of truly honorable efforts that started in the NaNoWriMo scramble, notably Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. No one in his right mind will gainsay such an achievement. But how frequently does such a happy outcome arrive? And in the meantime, how many potentially important efforts end up rushed, pushed, shoved out the door because they started in the word-count confetti of overheated camaraderie?

NaNoWriMo’s “Office of Letters and Light” (I do like that one) counted 341,375 participants at the top of the 2012 luge run. The company material says they “walked away novelists.” I don’t believe there’s any intention there of trivializing the work of true novelists, but I fear that such promotional hyperbole does have that unfortunate effect. Can we really say that the 341,375 who signed up last year—some of whom will have cowered and fled even before the start—”walked away novelists?” Is that kind of overstatement necessary or helpful?

#Cmonson, I hear our friend and Ether sponsor Guy Gonzalez saying.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013The administration claims that Gruen’s’ book is one of more than 250 “NaNoWriMo novels” that have been traditionally published. They include Howey’s excellent Wool in that count and Erin Morgenstern’s much-praised The Night Circus.

Remember, close to 350,000 efforts were made last year alone. Letters and Light anticipate some 500,000 riding the sleds this year. By my count, they’ve been at it 14 years. Even if the administration is right about 250 books going on to publication contracts, those odds are, as we like to say these days, challenging.

Yet one more time: please engage in NaNoWriMo and enjoy it if that’s your inclination.

All I’m saying is that speed can kill what might have been genuinely textured, fully rendered, contoured, and realized work. So far out on my limb here that I’m grasping at pine straw, I might even hazard a proposal that more than 250 of those projects may have gone further if they weren’t born as speed-above-all slips down the slope.

I’m not at all sure that the NaNoWriMo “OMG I’M SO EXCITED” frisson you see here in some of these tweets doesn’t exacerbate the sensation that we’re all in a race—with each other, with the market, with the readers, with the industry, with ourselves.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

If you’re feeling competitive, see Howey this week in How To Save Books:

Authors are not in competition with one another. We are in this together, and we are in it with readers and everyone who loves a good tale, however they love it told…What I see around me is a ship taking on water, and the reaction is to eye everyone else to see who is going to eat whom first. The threat is coming from without, not within. We are in this together. My hope is that a ton of readers pick up a great book today, one that I didn’t write, and it makes them want to pick up another.

One of the NaNoWriMo slogans is “The world needs your novel.”

I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need your novel right this minute. Or even right this month. As Howey says, we want them to pick up another book after yours. That may not happen if you’ve slammed yours together so fast that it’s not as good as it should have been.

NaNoWriMo has never claimed to be an exercise in quality. Would that it were.

Quantity, we’ve got.

I wish you a November focused on quality.

Or would you like to tell me that my vote for going slowly is just the retrograde grits-eating silliness you expect from a Charleston boy? I seriously do not have a problem with you disagreeing, because my own pace passeth all understanding, anyway, and won’t be threatened by contrary views. Let me know what you think of NaNoWriMo and, more importantly, this luge-like drive to produce new work so quickly. 

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Main image:  iStockphoto – Jamx, a photo of the ruins of Whitby Abbey, which figured in Bram Stoker’s writing of “Dracula”

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

View posts by Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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