On November 1st, NaNoWriMo starts again – National Novel Writing Month. Any writer who writes 50,000 words over the course of the month is said to win. Last year 431,626 participants achieved that goal, and according to the website, they “walked away novelists.” Those are some big numbers, and NaNoWriMo has become a big brand in the writing world.

There is much to love about this program.

  • I love a good challenge, whether we are talking about playing Monopoly, starting a business, or finishing writing a book.
  •  love anything that brings writers together in a positive way, because heaven knows that writing is difficult, lonely, and fraught with the perils of crushing self-doubt.  Knowing that other people are feeling what you feel and struggling to get words on the page in the midst of a busy life can be a huge blessing.
  • I love the idea of establishing the daily habit of writing – because after all, the only writers who succeed are the ones who actually find a way to write.

But there are dangers inherent in the NaNoWriMo process. The program is built on three deeply entrenched writing myths that can really mess with a writer’s mojo. Examining these myths may help you become less susceptible to them – so that even if you are doing NaNoWriMo, you are doing so with your eyes wide open.

Myth #1: The novel-writing process is fast.

We love the myth of the genius who is struck by lightning and in a fit of inspiration cranks out a symphony that can move people to tears or creates sculpture that defines an era or writes a novel that becomes the touchstone for a generation. There is something comforting about the idea that genius comes from outside ourselves, that it is bestowed upon us and that all we have to do is graciously receive it. Believing in this process means that we aren’t really responsible for the art we make. If we fail to finish or fail to produce something laudable, it’s not our fault; we just weren’t kissed by the muse.

This myth is compounded by the fact that it actually sometimes happens; lighting actually sometimes strikes. But it almost always it happens in the life of someone who was prepared for the lightning bolt in some profound way. Mozart, for example, grew up in the home of a musician who played at court. He wasn’t a farmer’s boy who suddenly sat down at a piano and banged out an opera. And in the vast majority of cases – the cases that are you and the cases that are me -- the stroke of genius never happens. Most works of art, especially including novels, are the result of long, laborious intensive processes that frequently take years to conceive, execute and polish.

I recently saw the documentary about the making of the blockbuster hip hop musical, Hamilton, and was struck by the moment where creator Lin-Manuel Miranda said that in the first two years of the show’s life he wrote two songs. Two songs in two years!!! That is a far cry from being struck by lightning.

Writing 55,000 words in thirty days is really fast writing. It is heroically fast. And odds are very, very good that what you write is not going to be a work of genius.

Myth #2: The novel-writing process is linear.

Reading a novel is a linear process. It starts on page one, proceeds to page two and continues in that way, straight to the end of the story. This process is so ingrained in our minds, that we tend to think that writing a novel is going to follow the same direct path. We tend to believe that we can start writing on page one, keep writing, and 50,000 words later, arrive at “the end.”

It almost never works like that.

Writing a novel demands that you hold a vast array of perspectives in your mind at one time. There is you, the author; the imagined reader; the narrator of your story; the protagonist; the antagonist; the secondary characters. Each of these people has a different viewpoint on the story. They stand in a different place in time, they know different sets of information, they have different agendas, and it is up to you not only to keep it all straight, but to make sure it makes sense. 

When developing a nuanced, multi-layered story, you have to move forwards and backwards in time, working in story present and in the backstory of your characters. You go back to deepen storylines and add character motivations, and you move forward making sure that your set-ups have payoffs. The truth is that the novel-writing process is more circular than linear.

The rules of NaNoWriMo, however, are not just to write a certain number of words a day regardless of the outcome – which would allow you to throw scenes out, revise them, start over, and circle back. The rules are to write 50,000 words that will add up to a novel. They want you to start on page one and write through to the end. They want you to believe that the process is linear.

Myth #3: Finishing is the same as succeeding.

There are as many reasons to write a novel as there are people who want to write them. It may be that all you want to do is finish the damn thing. You may not care if anyone ever sees it, if anyone ever buys it; the doing of it may be an end in itself. If this is the case, then NaNoWriMo might be just what you need.

But most writers have a goal of being read. They want to move their readers the way they themselves have been moved by the books they have loved. This almost never happens simply because you got 50,000 words on a page.

NaNoWriMo boasts some impressive success stories. On their website, it says the following:

“Over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’sWater for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.”

That is impressive, and exciting. But we don’t know what these writers did before NaNoWriMo to plan or and prepare for their writing sprint. We don’t know what they did afterwards to edit and revise and wrestle their story to the ground. If all they did was sit down and crank out 50,000 words, then they achieved that rare level of genius.

Most of the writers who do it won’t be so lucky – and, in fact, they may do themselves a disservice. Because 50,000 words does not automatically result in a good story. It does not automatically make you a novelist. Most writers would say that happens when their books finds its way into readers hands, and when those readers feel something as a result of the pleasure of a well-crafted tale.