Why NaNoWriMo Makes Monkeys of Writers

Monkey TypingFor writers, November is about closing the blinds to block out the fireworks, plugging our ears, and chaining ourselves to the desk. We used to think of it as National Novel Writing Month, which sounded prestigious even if the most sophisticated thing about that month was reading another letter of rejection over a breakfast of takeaway left-overs. Yet, November is now known to writers by the Hashtag NaNoWriMo. You could be forgiven for thinking that it sounds tacky – shouldn’t writers be more inventive with their words, after all? Type it into Google (patting yourself on the back that you’re

one of them good writers that do their research proper), and you will see thatNaNoWriMo is no longer a term, so much as a phenomenon.


Next year will see the twentieth anniversary of NanoWriMo, better known to writers as a challenge to write a novel of 50.000 words or more in November. If that seems daunting, it can be made to sound manageable by breaking it down into 1667 words per day. A simple concept, which has somehow spawned avirtual writing retreat, ,merchandise to buy as proof of your accomplishment, and even opportunities tofundraise for, anddonate to this nonproffit organisation.


The best thing that can be said about NaNoWriMo is that it helps aspiring authors to practice writing every day, although I would argue for doing away with regularity in favour of passion and creativity. In my seven years of studying creative writing, I found that no two writers take the same approach to getting their words down. My friend forces himself to write at a certain time every day, yet often has little to show for it because he tears out pages and deletes documents faster than he can finish them. I wonder if he’s a fan of Roald Dahl. It leads me to question whether being able to write daily is really something to celebrate, especially when you consider what all those monkeys do in front of typewriters. I am proof that it takes less than a week to sit and write out 50.000 words of nonsense. Surely the focus should be about the quality of the language and how the writing is structured.


We arrive at the age-old debate of how we judge the quality of something as subjective as creative work. There is no definition of good writing; some, like myself, value well-written literary fiction, whereas others prefer writing as escapism and all the goblins and Martian dragons that come with it. Chiclit is not to everyone’s taste, yet it still makes up the majority of commercial fiction. Creative writing studies encourage the production of work that is of publishable quality. The university tends to deride self-publication, probably because it is the antithesis of the peer-review. I wonder how many NaNoWriMo projects become commercially published novels.


Laura Milleralso questions the productivity of a 50.000 word November in view of literary agents’ reactions to it. The word NaNoWriMo is a big turn off when mentioned in an author’s cover letter, which should be a turn off for any writer who wants to take the business seriously. Besides, any author who does take it seriously isn’t going to limit their word splurging to a specific month; a writer’s work is never done, and work we do, all year round. It makes you wonder who the big writing challenge is aimed at. Does NaNoWriMo promote a true writing experience, or is it an exploitation of the impassioned hordes who have a novel they’ve always wanted to write?


I was sceptical of Miller’s observation that a lot of writers don’t read. The writer and reader are two co-dependent entities in my mind; it is impossible for one to exist without the other. Yet I had to reconsider this assumption when she gave examples of how the ‘selfless art of reading’ is being overshadowed by the ‘narcissistic commerce of writing.’ Writers project themselves out there to be heard; the reader digests what they have to say. Add to this the difficulty ofcoming up with something original,the importance of structure, the dilemma of which viewpoint to take,and it seems a wonder that any author makes it at all. At a rowdy party where the authors are all talking at once, the readers look on quietly with increasing confusion about who to listen to and what is being said. My metaphor illustrates Miller’s point that in our ever-increasing abundance of published novels and their authors, who will be left to read them?


In any case, who would want to read the by-products of an authorial challenge which views wordpadding as some sort of achievement? Writing is a qualitative phenomenon by nature and the number of words on the page is irrelevant. If spouting 50.000 words was all it took to become a successful author, I’d be a millionaire. This is only the beginning of the process, with months of grafting, ruthless cutting, persisting, editing, fistbanging, and revising ahead. Part of the reason that so few books are published is that it takes a great deal of self-discipline, resilience, and persistance on the author’s part.


I’m therefore advocating for a National Month of Novel Writing that focuses on the editorial aspects of the process. It would be sensible for editing month to come after wordsplurge November, but we’ll let people get Christmas out of the way first. In the bleakness of January, when we draw up the same list of resolutions we’ve striven to keep year after year, this seems like the perfect time for a month of editing and all the self-loathing that comes with it. Your 50.000 words will probably be more like 2000 by the time you’ve finished, but it will be the strongest short fiction you’ve ever penned. So, who’s joining me for National Editors’ Month? Let’s make NEdMo a thing.

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