Tonight the dead walk, witches screech through the sky, and, more scarily, thousands of would-be novelists put finger to keyboard on the stroke of midnight to begin NaNoWriMo. For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a self-imposed challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.

After a month of umming and ahhing I’ve decided not to do NaNoWriMo this year. When I first did it back in 2009 it was a massive help to my writing, but right now I’m not at a stage in my writing development where it would be helpful. Tonight seemed the night to recommend it and to say a few words about its pros and cons, though.

The good

NaNoWriMo is a great help in turning off one’s inner editor for a month. Quality and coherence are jettisoned for the sake of churning out 50,000 words of prose. Back in 2009 that was exactly what I needed: I had written short stories, but I’d never finished something novel-length, and focusing on word count let me prove to myself that I could.

NaNoWriMo also helps you to spend time every day writing. You know you’ve got to write those 50k words, and the only way you’re going to do that is if you sit down and do 1,667 words per day, every day, for the month. You learn how to write quickly and you learn how to make time for it. Once November ends you might not be writing that heavily, but you’ll find sitting down to write a bit easier than you did previously.

Most importantly (for me at least) there’s the NaNoWriMo community. With NaNo you have a whole support network to help you achieve the things above: to give advice, to nag, to compare notes and to all be in it together. I made some great friends through NaNo, and it was only with their support that I got through the month. The reason I was even considering doing NaNo again this year was for the community element of it. But…

The bad

The bad is that NaNoWriMo is restrictive. It’s one-size-fits-all. The community pressure is great, but the community pressure is to write 50,000 words and nothing else. The only way people vary the formula within NaNo is to set themselves even more insane targets: 100,000 words, 200,000, more. The rules of NaNo become a straitjacket: you must write 50k words, the word count is more important than quality, you must start in November and not before. If that isn’t what’s best for you as a writer, you’re outside the community; it’s not fun to go to the parties and have people ask about your novel or word count and have to say, um, well, I’m not really doing NaNo as such. I was tempted to do NaNo just for the sake of being in the community, even though it would be a month wasted from the point of view of my development as a writer, and that was when I knew I had to give it a miss this year.

Another potential problem with NaNo is that it’s easy to stop there. It’s recreational novelling: you write a novel in a month but you don’t intend for anyone else to read it, and you might not write anything for the rest of the year. That’s great if recreational novelling is what you want, but if you’re serious about being a writer you have to step past that and judge whether next year’s NaNo is for you.

For anyone doing NaNo this year: good luck, and enjoy! If my local NaNo community is anything to go by, NaNoers are all brilliant people and I’m proud to be part of that community even if I’m not doing NaNo itself again.

And for anyone considering doing NaNo: it might not be right for you, but if you think it is, go for it! Depending on when you read this, it may not be too late to start. It’s a unique experience that’ll teach you valuable writing skills, even if there are other skills it doesn’t teach.

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