Why I Quit NaNoWriMo

For the first time in the six years I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, I quit.

For NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, writers sit down every day for 30 days and write about 1,600 words to complete a first draft of a 50,000 word novel. There’s an emphasis on just writing, being productive and getting all those words out.

There has been controversy about whether or not NaNo is useful. Writer and TV reviewer Robert Smedley talks about how the competition “gets people writing, but not with the right mindset for creative potential.” For the record, I don’t think NaNo is a bad thing overall. I love anything that gets people creating and working on this kind of stuff. But I do believe there are some drawbacks.

I have written three previous novels with NaNo, one being around 100,000 words, since I did it two years in a row. Last year I attempted, but couldn’t do it because of a really time consuming writing job that I ended up quitting. This year, I was rewriting one of my old novels with a new plot and in a different part of history, but the same characters. The first week or so went very well. I felt energized, productive, and I was excited to write. But the next week, I felt bored, unenthused and was struggling to get through just a page of work. But I didn’t feel unproductive. I wanted to write, just not what I was writing for NaNo.

So why did I quit? Slam poet Sarah Kay seemed to describe how I felt. Although she was writing poems (for NaPoWriMo), I related to what she felt.

“The idea is you write a new poem every single day for the entire month of April. last year I tried for the first time and I was thrilled by the efficiency at which I was able to produce poetry. But at the end of the month I looked back at these 30 poems I had written, and discovered that they were all trying to tell the same story, it had just taken me 30 tries to figure out the way that it wanted to be told.”

NaNo emphasizes axing your inner editor. To be clear, this feeling  wasn’t a matter of my inner editor coming out. This wasn’t me rewriting a chapter over and over. It was a stalemate between me and the plot. I’m normally a ‘pantser,’ having a vague notion of what the story will be about before going forward to write it. Most of the time, when I do any extensive planning, I get bored. But even as a pantser, for the first time, I was bored.

Like I said: I think NaNo is good to kickstart people into writing. But I’ve kickstarted. I’m past the stage of debating whether or not I can write. I’ve been writing regularly and been reading and studying the craft. NaNo stops me from doing that and only allows me to write a first draft for a month. And the temptation to just be proud of writing that first draft and not go back to revise it is a big one. Writer Laura Miller discusses how editors and literary agents dread any work sent to them that mentions NaNo in the cover letter, as it usually means it’s unedited, unrevised and just plain bad. It’s also more tempting to not go back and edit that NaNo novel because it’s usually…well, really bad. Two of my past novels I would be better off rewriting altogether.

To be creative, you need input. You need to be introspective. You need to read everything. Every day. NaNo doesn’t allow for this. It doesn’t allow you to be introspective about your work because you’ll be too busy racing toward that goal of 50k. I write various stories at the same time because I feel more attuned to one story over another depending on the day. It takes more than one day to move forward in a particular story. In my opinion, that freedom makes for a much better story in the end than if I had just forced myself to write it, even if I wasn’t feeling it.

When I talked to my fellow writer-friend Brenna, she got through NaNo, but felt like her characters lot direction and what they were originally set out to do. NaNo can do that. You often don’t think about your character’s goals or how their actions will affect the rest of the story when you’re just trying to get to your deadline for the day. I think when writers are aware enough to come to this conclusion, they shouldn’t be doing NaNo. I feel as though there’s a certain point when NaNo just won’t work for writers who are experienced enough. I even think NaNo would be more useful for just writing whatever you wanted. Maybe you don’t write a novel, but you just have to write 1,600 words a day. That  would bring about more creativity than forcing yourself to write a whole novel in a month.

I no longer have trouble sitting down to write, and NaNo helped me get to that point. Really. I’m proud enough to say I’ve written three novels that I have the option of going back to edit, or to rewrite all together, or just be happy NaNo gave me the opportunity to print them so I could have a little prize on my bookshelf. NaNo pushed me as a young writer and just like training wheels, helped me learn how to get on a real bicycle.

Alexandra Kesick