National “Not Writing a Novel” Month by Catherine Foster

National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo—kicks off on November first. The now-traditional exercise involves writing 50,000 words in thirty days. NaNoWriMo began in San Franscisco in July with a group of twenty-one people, and the movement has snowballed since then. Nearly half a million would-be novelists participated officially in 2013, and impressive statistics can be quoted involving municipal liaisons, keynote speakers on the topic, libraries that host write-ins and so on and so forth. NaNoWriMo has become such a part of writing culture that it it sometimes feels impossible not to participate. If you are a writer, you may experience a lot of pressure to join in the writing fun and frenzy.

But before you grab a stack of snacks to fortify you and hunker down to write for the next thirty days straight, perhaps you should take a step back from the crowd and consider if you want to take part. There are a lot of blogs that promote the benefits of NaNoWriMo, and I’m not here to knock any of those points, but there are a margin of writers that may not benefit from the style of gonzo writing. This is a list for you to think about this November while you decide if NaNoWriMo is for you:


Quality vs. Quantity: Quantity is important for novelists. Or is it? The benchmark for NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words, but what does that really mean in publishing terms? The following table represents the guidelines set by the Science Fiction Writers of America when they consider nominees for the Nebula awards:

  • Short fiction: under 7,500 words
  • Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up

However, Lori Perkins, of the L. Perkins Agency in New York, claims that the charts for what they see at their agency and are likely to publish look more like the following:

  • Short fiction: 1,500 to 30,000 words
  • Novella: 30,000-50,000 words
  • Novel from a first-time writer: 80,000-100,000 words
  • Novel from an established writer: 55,000-300,000 words

There are more charts out there, and while they all concur that novels are longer than short stories and novellas, no one can seem to agree on what constitutes a proper word count for a decent novel. The range is anywhere from 20,001 words to … well, infinity. Take the winner of 2011’s Man Booker prize, for instance. The Sense of an Ending            by Julian Barnes contained no more than 43,869 words, including page numbers, titles and other incidentals. If this “short novel” can be considered, indeed, enough of a novel to win one of the most illustrious prizes in literature, than we must understand that quantity is very much in question when we try to define what makes a novel.

This brings us to the topic of quality. If we need not settle for 50,000 words—or even quite 43,870—to establish a novel, then there is time enough to devote to quality. The quality of the writing is something that usually suffers when people are trying to compose so many words in a day or in a week. This is understandable if the point isn’t quality. The aim of NaNoWriMo is to get one inspired and to get most of the novel completed. It is to spark a fire and to get excited. What if, however, you were motivated to write during the other eleven months of the year? If you want to be a successful writer, daily writing habits are more important to cultivate than a rush of stimulation all at once. One hundred good words every single day of the year is far superior to fifty thousand words that are mostly gibberish and will sit, untouched, in a junk folder somewhere until next year when you will do it all over again. One hundred words a day? What good is that? you might scoff.  It’s great! The commitment to write and the time you set aside to do just that is sacrosanct, even if it is only fifteen minutes a day. If you can only commit a small bit at first, that’s all right. The point is that you do it. Those words will build and you will have something. A wild fever dream of words in November is entertaining, but the product of that fun will not amount to much.

Novels vs. Short Stories and Poems November can be a lot of amusement for people who love to get in the spirit of community writing. NaNoWriMo brings together a group of people who are, by trade, largely alone in their craft. Many writers don’t seek out solitude because they dislike others, but it happens that they fall into it naturally. The wonder of NaNoWriMo is that it breaks down these barriers and allows writers to join together. People who are normally alone can be part of a community and work towards a goal together.

What if you are one of the minority within a minority group, however? What if you are one of the few who isn’t storyboarding? What if you don’t live to plot out your characters’ story arcs or work out what’s going to happen at the end of your trilogy? When your writing group falls silent with the collective hush of NaNoWriMo fever, what can you do?

There are a lot of short story writers and poets out there, and for you, NaNoWriMo may feel like the longest month of the year. It can feel as if you aren’t “real” authors because you aren’t participating in a novel writing challenge. Don’t fret; during November, keep to your own writing schedule and don’t let talk of writing marathons derail your own progress. If you are a poet, remember that April is your time to shine with APAD– A Poem A Day! If you are a short story writer or writer of a shorter form of fiction, you can also participate in your own adapted challenge amongst your novelist brethren by writing a micro-fiction a day or by keeping up with the same word count on multiple stories. You can also stay out of the challenge entirely and know that writing isn’t about how much or how fast you go; it’s about listening to you own voice and dictating your own pace. Keep in mind that the Nobel prize in Literature was won in 2013 by a short story writer, and some of the most incredible and humbling works we have to read were composed by poets. These were most certainly not written in haste; these were well crafted after much thought. There is a place for NaNoWriMo, but if it isn’t for you, that’s okay, too. It just may mean that they will be reading your works three hundred years in the future! Stay strong and get through this November with your passion to write intact. The important thing to remember is not what you wrote on November thirthieth but what you write on December first.

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