Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalFrom Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog:

I recently overheard some professional writers talking about NaNoWriMo and a number of them thought it was a waste of time and that the folks who did it were wannabes.


Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m one of those guys who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time. For myself and writers exactly like me. See, I don’t begrudge people getting excited about writing, or taking part in NaNoWriMo, but I encourage quality over quantity in my personal creative endeavours and NaNoWriMo discourages such thinking. In my opinion, it’s better to write a really good 6,000 word short story over the span of a month than a shitty 50,000 word novel.

Of course, that’s assuming that the 50,000 word novel is shitty. Kowal, on the other hand, has a very different opinion: her debut novel, released to much critical acclaim, started life as a NaNoWriMo project.

I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo three times and gave myself that structure for a fourth novel because I like writing to a deadline.

Here’s how I approached NaNoWriMo when I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey.

  • I spend the months leading up to November making plans.
  • I cranked out the first 50,000 in November, adjusting the plan as necessary.
  • I stopped. Reread what I’d written and evaluated the overall structure.
  • I wrote the remaining part of the novel over a three-month period, which involved throwing out six chapters equaling 20,000 words.
  • Edited.

The point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to have a finished, ready-to-submit novel on December 1. It’s to get that first draft down on the page and stop talking about writing it someday.

Similarly, John Scalzi has some stern words for those who shake their head at NaNoWriMo contributors:

One of the kvetches I’ve seen from the pro set about NaNoWriMo is that writing a novel only in one month, once a year, is not the way pros do it, and it sets a bad example for up and coming writers. And my own response to that is, well, maybe that’s not how you do it. But you know what, in 2009 I wrote one novel, and I wrote in about five weeks very much on a NaNoWriMo plan of writing a certain volume of words per day, and then for the rest of the year I did and wrote other things. I have to say it worked out pretty well for me. And I’m fairly sure I qualify as a pro. I mean, I’ll have to check. But for now let’s assume I am.


Is it going to work for everyone? No. Is it going to be useful for everyone? No. But it’s going to be useful for some, and that’s fine – the ones it’s not useful for will find some other way to climb that mountain. Meanwhile the skills that those it works for learn — write every day, keep writing, get that story done – are skills that are transferable outside of the NaNoWriMo context and will be a benefit when that new writer, having completed the task of writing 50,000 words in one month, decides to try to write 100,000. In April. Or whenever. Yes, there may be some people who fetishize NaNoWriMo or take less than useful lessons from it (“Novels must be 50,000 words! They must only be written in November!”), but let’s entertain the notion that this will be more about those particular people than it is about NaNoWriMo.

And that’s where I was always getting caught up. Writing’s such an insular experience, especially for aspiring authors–most of whom don’t have the opportunity to rub elbows with dozens of other writers at conferences or in the online space–that it’s so easy to forget how diverse we all are in our motivations, techniques and goals. NaNoWriMo won’t ever be right for me as a writer. But, if it encourages and enables someone like Kowal (an established and lauded short fiction writer) to begin and eventually complete a debut novel like Shades of Milk and Honey, it’s hard not to find value in the process. Maybe the end result of most NaNoWriMo experiments are unmitigated disasters, but the confidence potentially derived from those failures could be worth years of rejected short stories.

So, what are your experiences with NaNoWriMo? Have you written a story? Given up after a few days? Found fame and fortune as a result? I’d love to hear stories.

  • David November 12, 2010 at 10:52 am

    This is my very first year doing NaNoWriMo and if all goes as it has been going I’ll “win” at the end of the month and have a actual draft of a novel by mid-December.
    It will be my first book.
    Will it be salable? Oh heck no, but I never wanted it to be. I just wanted to do something I had never done before.

    Someday perhaps I’ll write something to shop around but until then this is just practice, and fun. Never discount fun, even in writing.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SF Signal (John D.) and Aidan Moher, Patrick Hester. Patrick Hester said: RT @adribbleofink: New Blog Post — @MaryRobinette & @scalzi defend NaNoWriMo against the haters: […]

  • Kris November 12, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Every author is different – how true! And a lot of aspiring authors work full time, have obligations outside of work, etc, and nano is a time for them to squeeze in some good habits and actually get their fingers to the keyboard (as well as have the huge support from the hundreds of other writers).

    Some people do go into Nov with no plot, no outline, no anything. I can’t imagine what that would be like, but at least they are writing something, and hopefully building skills along the way.

    As for me, this is my second nanowrimo. I’ve spent this year finishing, revising, and editing last November’s novel, and trying to get it into salable shape. I’ll find out soon enough if it’s no good ;)

  • Mary Robinette Kowal November 12, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    I’m just replying so I can follow the comments. um… pretend I’m not here?

  • aidan November 12, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Did somebody just say something?

    … Must’ve been the wind.

  • Seth November 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    I think the key to NaNoWriMo success lies in Mary Robinette Kowal’s outline of steps, particularly the last one–editing. I don’t think even the staunchest NaNoWriMo defenders would assert that most of the month’s writing results are going to be ready for publication on midnight of December 1st. I agree that writing, at least the end result, is certainly about quality. The road to that quality varies for different writers. I think a lot of perspective writers are hung up on the misconception that they have to churn out a perfect first draft, which, as John Scalzi said, works for some but not others.

    I’m now attempting my third NaNoWriMo, and have once again fallen woefully behind. I deinitely have that “perfect-first-draft” mentality that NaNoWriMo is trying to break down.

  • SQT November 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Whatever process gets you motivated has value in my opinion. Getting hung up on what works for someone else seems kind of odd to me, but I guess it’s hard not to looked cockeyed at something that seems so unlikely to pay off.

  • Dungeonmum November 12, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    I don’t frown on NaNoWriMo, I haven’t taken part although I may have a go one year. The way I view it is that it is an encouragement to everyone who has ever considered writing a book, regardless of their ability, to simply focus and put pressure on themselves to write. It’s an anti-procrastination exercise. It might not produce novels of great quality but at least it encourages people to get into the habit of writing.

  • Joe Sherry November 12, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I attempted and “won” NaNoWriMo back in 2005 or 2006. Wrote my 50,000 words of a novel, and finished the first draft a couple three months later.

    I’m not a fiction writer and don’t really want to be. Writing the novel (which not one of you will EVER see) was a fun experience and something of a small personal accomplishment.

    I suspect some folks go over the top in their exuberance, but that’s what people do. But since writing is ultimately a personal experience, I can’t see how folks doing NaNoWriMo has any impact on anyone else. It’s a first draft and, really, is only 1667 words a day for 30 days. It’s a LOT, but it isn’t an unreasonable amount of words.

  • Walter Rhein November 12, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but I think it’s a great idea for authors to get into the swing of things. Honestly, it’s pretty rare that a day goes by that I don’t write 2,000 words (although that’s blogs, stories, novels, emails, comments, everything).

    Jack Kerouac once said that you have to write a million words before you start writing anything good, and I think there’s some truth to that. I often tell people that they have to be willing to write all day, every day for a month, and then to just throw it away at the end. It’s simply what you do.

    If you ever watch other artists (painters, etc.) those people crank out painting after painting in a day (some of them anyway).

    Being snobby about NaNoWriMo is wrong. For people looking for a kick start, I think it’s a great option.

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