The wildly popular phenomenon, National Novel Writing Month, starts November 1 every year, and you’re urged to write an entire 50,000-word novel by the end of the month.
Wouldn’t it be great to actually finish a novel in 30 days?
That very idea has inspired millions of writers from all over the world to embark on this journey.
Since it began in 1999, when a handful of aspirants tried it, around a half million entrants take part each year now. Only between 10 and 15% actually finish, and NaNoWriMo refers to them as novelists.
Sounds fabulous, right?
What is NaNoWriMo?
The official challenge is to write the first draft of a new, 50,000-word novel in 30 days — an average of 1,667 words per day.
These days, you may continue a book you’ve already started as long as you count only new words written in November.
The goal of NaNoWriMo is to shake you out of your writing comfort zone and show you what’s possible while providing resources, support, and accountability.
You’re encouraged to outline your novel in September and October. You create an account on the NaNoWriMo site and log your daily progress starting at 12:01 a.m. on November 1.
Once you hit 50,000 words, you upload your manuscript to the site for verification.
If you complete or “win” the challenge, you earn banners and certificates and can purchase t-shirts and other merchandise.
Well, I can’t argue with the upsides:
The NaNoWriMo folks “believe stories matter.” So do I.
And in the last 18 years since this effort began, countless writers have raved to me that NaNoWriMo was the vehicle that finally motivated them to actually finish.
That’s no small thing. Over my four decades teaching writing, I’ve learned that the single most debilitating barrier to writers finishing writing their novels has been fear—fear that kills impetus.
I can’t count the number who have told me they can’t get started, let alone finish.
And as my film director son says about movies, simply producing one is a major accomplishment, let alone a good one. He compliments novice filmmakers for merely finishing.
The same is true about writing a novel.
So, yes, I’m all for anything that motivates a would-be novelist to start and (more importantly) to finish.
However, I also have reservations.
Now, hear me, I’m not trying to talk you out of trying this. If it’s the trigger that results in your first finished novel, bravo!
But let’s take a closer look:
NaNoWriMo reports that over the years, 250 of its participants have seen their manuscripts sell to traditional publishing houses. That means the authors were paid to be published rather than paying to be printed.
Nothing to sneeze at. Until you do the math.
A rule of thumb in book publishing is that an unsolicited manuscript has about a 1 in 1,000 chance of landing a traditional book deal. While the figure may be unscientific, it’s not hyperbole.
What are the odds your NaNoWriMo 2020 manuscript will be traditionally published? Without knowing the total number of novels written since the effort began (this is its 17th year), it’s impossible to say.
But one thing I can say for certain: The odds are way worse than 1 in 1,000.
In fact, if every success story had happened last year alone—in other words, had all 250 published novels come from only the 431,626 NaNoWriMo manuscripts completed last year—your chances of ultimate success would be 1 in more than 1,725.
But those 250 traditionally published novels have come from all the NaNoWriMo manuscripts written since 1999. While not every year would have represented more than 400,000 writers, surely the total is in the millions.
My NaNoWriMo Caution?
As a writing coach, my goal is to help get your work to where it’s marketable to traditional publishers. That’s the sole purpose of this blog and The Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild. So, far be it from me to criticize a well-intentioned program like NaNoWriMo.
It appears to me their goal is not to see you finish a pristine manuscript ready for the marketplace. Their aim, and it’s a worthy one, is to encourage.
NaNoWriMo serves to prove to you that you can both start and finish a novel of at least 50,000 words. And that’s just what many writers need.
If you believe it would work for you, motivate you, get you to finally get going on your novel, I say go for it.
My caution is to not make more of the result than it deserves.
The benefit: You knock out a first draft.
The danger: You assume your work is done.
Bottom line: I applaud NaNoWriMo for what it’s meant to so many writers who need a deadline to finally finish novel manuscripts. I urge you to see the result as only that for now.
Should You Enter NaNoWriMo?
Yes, if it helps you:
- Schedule non-negotiable writing time.
- Keep that writing time sacred.
- Establish your writing space.
- Start a daily writing routine.
- Overcome procrastination.
- Feel more confident about sharing your work.
- Push through the Marathon of the Middle.
- Join a writing critique group.
- Be accountable.
Whatever you decide, remember that this is only the first stage. Your novel may not even be finished (an average novel is closer to 64,000 words).
But beyond that, the work has just begun.
Finishing your fiction manuscript doesn’t make you a novelist. You’re still an aspiring novelist, and I’d LOVE to see you fulfill your dream.
I’ve harped on this before: If getting traditionally published were easy, anyone could do it.
The part of the process NaNoWriMo proves can be done quickly is getting your first draft down. Just realize that if you were building a house, what you would have after a month of frenzied work is the foundation and shell.
Your novel’s foundation has been dug and laid, and its studded shell is standing. Now it’s time to pour yourself into wiring, plumbing, drywalling, trimming, painting, and furnishing it.
That’ll take a lot longer than a month, and I ought to know. I’ve averaged an output of four books a year since 1974.
Some things can’t — and simply shouldn’t — be rushed.
If you’re gearing up for the next NaNoWriMo challenge, I wish you the best. Check back here the first week of December for what to do next. My hope is that your foundation and frame are ready for a LOT of finish work.