NaNoWriMo: Long Odds but Lots of Fun

November is National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, is particularly popular with writers who never have written a novel or who have tried but got bogged down along the way.

Think of NaNoWriMo as a contest. Anyone who writes at least 50,000 words during November is considered a “winner.” In 2015 (the latest data I could find), nearly 432,000 people participated, and more than 40,000 of them said they “won.”

Those 50,000 words aren’t meant to be polished. NaNoWriMo organizers say the goal is just to write, no matter how poorly. Revisions can be made after November. For that month, the goal is quantity, not quality. There are pluses and minuses to that.

The most obvious plus is that people who never could find the stamina or motivation to write are able to do so, largely because throughout November (and in the months leading up to the contest) they interact with one another at NaNoWriNo’s website. Even those who fail to reach 50,000 words—about nine out of ten participants—find that they have made at least some progress.

The most obvious minus is that most writers don’t seem to complete their novels, ever. Or, if they do, the novels just aren’t written well enough to see publication or sales. Apparently lots of participants have trouble transforming the rough November draft into a competent book.

NaNoWriMo was founded in 1999. In the years since, several million people around the world have signed up (there is no charge), and “winners” number into six figures, but, according to NaNoWriMo, only 616 books coming out of the contest have seen publication, 484 traditionally published and 132 self-published. That’s a minuscule proportion, but hope springs eternal.

One author who hit the big time was Hugh Howey, whose science-fiction novel Wool was picked up by Random House and sold so well that he was able to retire young, travel the world, and live on a yacht.

I suppose most participants know about Howey and fantasize about having similar success, but I doubt anyone really expects that kind of lightning to strike. It’s enough to participate, brag about progress made, and share ideas and worries with other writers.

NaNoWriMo is more about overcoming lethargy than about producing fine prose. Most people who sign up never end up as published authors, but they all seem to have fun making the attempt.

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