Getting writing right this Nanowrimo

If it’s November it must be Nanowrimo, right? Write! Cally Phillips offers some advice on Nanowrimo, what it means to take part and how we can make the most of it. Is it a useful exercise or a cheat sheet into creativity? Here are Cally’s thoughts on the joys of writing all year round.


Nanowrimo is not just for November. It’s (just about) all year round.

When I first came across Nanowrimo a couple of years ago, I was sceptical. As a professional it slightly worried me. It still does. But this old dog likes to learn new tricks and so this year I decided to put it under the spotlight. If you will forgive a weak analogy, I wanted to find out what, under the hood,  Nanowrimo really is.

This year I signed up in advance and I started visiting FB pages and the forums.  I gave myself ‘the challenge’ to get a story out which has been languishing in draft form as a play and to convert it into prose form. Spending a month in a disciplined way writing a couple of thousand words a day isn’t a problem for me. Giving that much time to ‘own work’ rather than work ‘for’ other people is more of a challenge. So I decided to give it a shot.

On a Nano drive-by I had a number of issues. I (like many observers) thought they were selling the idea that if you wrote furiously for 30 days you’d have a finished novel ripe and ready for publishing. And that’s just fantasy. A dangerous fantasy, because it promotes confidence without competence. And on the flip side, it sets people up for failure.

Closer inspection reveals there’s more to it.  At its core, it’s a forum driven community of like-minded individuals, who set themselves the individual challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. 

And why would you want to do this?

Nanowrimo  supports the first draft to be written during November with a two month ‘prep’ period from September 1st. Add a revisions period from January to March, then  ‘camp’ during April and July, hey, you can be a Nanowrimo participant all year round. And it’s free, right? (Though donations are welcomed and merchandise are freely available.)  It’s certainly a lot cheaper than college, and many paid writing initiatives I know of cost an arm and a leg and aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. But let’s face it, if you want to gain kudos from writing, you’re easy prey.

I’m no party pooper. By all means, sign up. But before you do so, understand that Nanowrimo is partly data driven and realise that part of what you are doing is exchanging  data for discounts. That can work to your advantage. Personally, the discount on Scrivener software alone is worth giving them my data.

Don’t worry that someone might steal your writing.  There’s little evidence that anyone really cares about what you are writing.  You can send the words encrypted. No one is gonna read them, they just check the word count and declare you a ‘winner’ if you pass 50k.  The word pointless springs to (a cynical) mind.

That said, as communities go, it seems to be a pretty friendly, inclusive place. This is not something I equate with many writers forums. Writers can be very selfish. The reciprocity gene seems to be bred out of those who desire ‘success’ in the big bad world of publishing.  And maybe your new found friends will all wanna read your work? Do you want to read theirs? If so, do you want to read their first drafts? If so, you’re a special kind of person.  You can’t, after all, repeat a first time and most folk want to read something in its fullest incarnation when the ‘issues’ have been ironed out.  Those who don’t tend to be called editors, and they tend to read in exchange for money.

Still, let’s be positive. Nanowrimo offers a year long community.  A place to develop.  A place to make friends and to shoot the breeze.  True, but like Native Americans, I still have  my reservations. And they are mostly about how much time one can spend there (or in any social media environment) distracting oneself from actually writing.

I wouldn’t put anyone off trying Nanowrimo, but I would give some gentle advice - be realistic. If you are totally new to writing don’t be overawed, and be ready to get a lot of conflicting advice.

Work out why you are engaging - if you need external motivation to write you need to ask why? If you need guidance or direction you need to have eyes open to the fact that opinions are just that - opinion, not authority (and I include myself here).  If you need time… make the time and guard it jealously.

Don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles. Don’t feel pressured into parting with any money, and do keep a sense of proportion.  And be aware it’s pretty American driven.  No value judgement implied, just saying.

I’m sure there’s plenty to be learned from the Nanowrimo forums. Mostly I’ve learned how popular ‘fanfic’ is, followed by fantasy. I know nothing about either genre but I might suggest that the first is creativity ‘lite’ and the second can become a lifestyle choice rather than just a writing style.

Many writers need a bit less fantasy in their lives.  If you want to write, just write.  And if you want to ‘be a writer’ you’re playing a different game altogether.

Distracting yourself by casting your book with celebrity names (fantasy) and making a playlist to listen to as you write (distraction) are two of the biggest alarm bells I find within the Nanowirmo environment.

Apologies for the over the hill, old school attitude, but age and experience teaches that if you want to write you have to WRITE and that means without distraction.  You need to set aside however long it is and write. Just write.

Some final observations.

Beware of counterfactuals. ‘What if’s’ are best kept for the narrative itself. They are tools of the trade not dreams to aspire to.  Don’t get the two things mixed up!

If you’re looking for fun, I might just suggest there are a lot easier ways to have it.

And be clear, this is no way a fast-track to learning the craft of writing.

That said, if you wanna do it, dive in, get some discipline and write your heart out for 30 days. You’ll have learned something at the end of the month, even if it’s just that writing can be hard work - and have some kind of a story to tell. Just don’t expect to have a story you can sell! 

Writing isn’t (and shouldn’t) just about becoming an award winning, bestseller. For those who love words it’s a brilliant medium of creative self-expression. But just remember: First drafts, like first opinions, often need to be revised.