November looms and with it comes the annual question for writers.

No, not ‘Why the hell are christmas decorations up already? I swear they’re getting earlier every year, etc, etc’.

It’s ‘Should I have a crack at NaNoWriMo?’

Sounding like a rejected catchphrase from Mork and Mindy (and with that, kids, I show my age), this is National Novel Writing Month. The annual frenzied quest to write a fifty thousand word novel in one month.

My few cracks at it each failed dismally early. My last attempt was pootling along wonderfully, till “Holy Bat-Cramp!” and I was relegated to the sidelines after the first week. The perils of drafting by hand.

Each year, good intention and planning crumple before the oppressive daily 1670 word count. Fail to make the daily quota and you’re gone. And why does life get weirdly busy on Novembers as soon as you set off?

Still, I ponder another NaNoWriMo bid. Like a fabled challenge to conquer. A Mount Everest. A rite of passage (pun deliberately avoided).

So what are the positives of taking on NaNoWriMo?

  1. Word counts force you to find opportunities to write.

    1670 words a day requires extra writing efforts. Auditing your daily schedule to spot gaps, what can be forsaken to make time for getting some words down? In checkout queues, at traffic lights, on the phone to long-winded relatives. Will universal karma unbalance if I ban sudoku for a month? korma

    For those of the “not enough hours in the day” brigade, NaNoWriMo provides an invaluable way to discover productivity.

  2. Ignoring the inner editor

    Word counts demand output. No time for perfectionism, critical appraisal or editing, all of which should be actively avoided during first drafting. No getting stuck endlessly reworking the same sentence, a la Joseph Grand.

    NaNoWriMo teaches how to shun the inner voice. Fix it in the edit … next month.

  3. Bugger me, this writing lark is hard work

    ‘A novel? A doddle!’

    NaNoWriMo dares such words into action. A few days in, it soon becomes apparent that knocking out a book ain’t easy. You better appreciate the skill of published authors to make something readable to a wide audience.

  4.  Just do it

    That big stack of scribbled ideas? Do something with them.

    “Nothing caters for my demographic anymore”. Write something that does.

    Out of your head, off vague to-do lists, and onto paper. Finally we find out if an idea has legs.

Then the case against:

  1. The word count

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. 
    All work and no play makes Jack ...

    As the Count on Sesame Street so often finds, life passes you by when an obsessive compulsion towards numbers takes over.

    A tongue in cheek thread on a NaNoWriMo forum invited tricks to expand the word count. Use full names. Exercise the description glands. Pretend contractions in speech are outlawed in a pedantic grammar-based dystopia.

    In the push to cross the line, does NaNoWriMo pressure lend itself to waffle, padding, and gaming the numbers? Sure, first drafts are allowed to be crap, but does the all-consuming urge to meet word count bury needles in more hay than useful?

  2. What sort of novel comes out of NaNoWriMo?

    Of all the multitudes hammering out words across the world, how many end up published?

    Do publishers shudder at the very mention of a NaNoWriMo manuscript? Horror enough some of the badly written manuscripts that arrive in slush piles, but one also written in a hurry?

    What sort of length is fifty thousand words anyway? Isn’t it more National Novella Writing Month?

  3. Existentialism

    As far as I know, NaNoWriMo generally doesn’t turn people into bleak Algerians smoking Gauloise cigarettes.

    But how many perfectly serviceable, promising ideas that might flourish with time and care are crushed by the sheer mass of urgent words?  How many fail the challenge, and walk away thwarted, questioning the meaning of their existence? Next thing you know, they’re out killing folk on hot beaches, and giving Robert Smith song ideas.

    Perhaps NaNoWriMo is a secret conspiracy to rid the world of writers banging on about their idea for a novel, by proving it actually sucked in the cold hard light of day.

The wash-up:

These doomed NaNoWriMo attempts did produce an integral tool for me.

Coveting the snazzy NaNoWriMo tracking graph of daily progress, I got to thinking … why wait twelve months? Why not use this all the time but with a slightly less daunting quota.

Unable to find an equivalent charting app, I fiddle-faddled a spreadsheet to meet my needs. This resulted in a cross-referenced, colour-coded, calc-celled uber-matrix that my inner control-freaking micromanager required. I even included an “excuses” column for days my future self couldn’t be bothered. Take that, procrastination.

As for a monthly quota, ten thousand words ended up as eminently doable. About a page of handwriting a day. Nowhere near the 50k booty of NaNoWriMo, but across twelve months gives one hundred and twenty thousand words, with a day’s consideration between each page rather than a harried rush.

For me, the monthly spreadsheet is my motivation. The compulsion to beat personal bests and graphing monthly comparisons gives me a sad little thrill of delight. Sometimes I make it, sometimes life’s too busy, sometimes I’m slack. But if the month gets away, unlike NaNoWriMo there isn’t the depressing eleven month wait to dwell on your failure till the next try.

Now, how to actually type in all this mass of hand-written output … that’s a story for another time.

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