That season is upon us again: NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. For anyone unfamiliar with this, NaNoWriMo started twenty years ago and has now grown to an international month-long event during November, in which intrepid writers everywhere attempt to churn out 50,000 words (minimum) within 30 days. The original idea was that this word count would constitute a first draft; for some genres, it still does, though for others it’s simply 50,000+ words of a draft — for example, contemporary adult novels tend to be between 85,000 – 120,000 words these days.
Even so, 50,000 words is the minimum required to “win” NaNoWriMo, but it’s more than that. Word count aside, what NaNoWriMo enables within writers is a sense of purpose, and an integration of a daily writing practice — the ability to sit down and write every day, which is something that many writers find difficult, especially newcomers. NaNoWriMo encourages the creation of this practice, and then nourishes it so it becomes routine. Then there’s the community aspect — there’s forums, chat servers, groups, and gatherings, both online and off. There’s “home areas” which you can join and meet other writers local to yourself; some offer regular, in-person events all month long so you can write alongside others who share the passion and/or social with like-minds. There’s also a plethora of virtual events held across different social media presences, all of which are aimed to encourage, support, and motivate.
50,000 words sounds like a lot, and it is. If you aim to write every day, it’s around 1,667 words a day. There’s all manner of ways to track this, including on the NaNoWriMo site itself, but if you use a program like Scrivener or MS Word there’s the ability to check your word count, or even (in the case of Scrivener) specify targets. Of course, if you hit your targets as desired, there’s no reason to stop at 50,000 — the first year I did NaNoWriMo, I churned out 86,000 and then wrote a further 10,000 in the early December.
I’ve now done NaNoWriMo a few times; initially, I did several consecutive years in the early 2000s, some of which were more successful than others. Then I had a gap, because getting married, moving house, getting settled, and so on took the majority of my focus. I returned to NaNoWriMo last year and rattled out a passable first draft of a young adult novel — which brings me to an important point: let your first draft be what it is.
There’s a lot of noise these days about “always letting your first draft be shitty”. I understand why this concept exists, because some people don’t realise the amount of work that goes into creating a novel. The copy of the book that you hold in your hands in the bookstore is rarely (if ever) the same as the very first draft that the author wrote. It will have gone through multiple edits by that author, sometimes complete rewrites, and then (when said author is lucky enough to be published), it undergoes scrutiny from an assortment of people in the process — agents, editors, and the like. In some cases, the book you hold in your hands in the bookstore may well be the 15th or 30th draft of a novel.
So — back to the “shitty first draft” concept. The idea is to lessen any pressure the writer may be internalising. You cannot, after all, compare your first draft to the finished product on the shelves. Don’t go comparing your beginnings to another’s middle or peak. It’s simply not healthy. By all means read, and read widely, and learn what you like and don’t like in books so that your writing can constantly improve, but don’t do the compare and despair thing. It doesn’t help.
However, the downside of the “shitty first draft” is that some writers churn out exceptional first drafts. Honestly, it happens. And those first drafts may end up being tweaked ever-so slightly and go through only a second interation before they grab an agent’s attention. But telling a talented writer that their first draft is always going to be “shitty” does the opposite of what is meant: it discourages and demotivates. It means some writers may hide amazing drafts away in shame and never be motivated to bring them to the light. Hence why I say, let your draft be what it is.
My drafts, for example, tend to be mixed. Some sections are pretty amazing (this from professional writers who’ve seen my work), and some need a bit more polish to bring them up to scratch, so to speak. So, let your draft be what it is. The aim of NaNoWriMo is, of course, to get the words down. As Jodi Picoult said, you can’t edit a blank page. Get the words down, the story, the characters, and get the first draft done. Then go back and make it into the best book you can — over and over again.
I get it; writing a book is scary business. A black document, with a flashing cursor prompt, can be the most terrifying thing in the world, and it can bring up all sorts of thoughts and feelings. But events like NaNoWriMo bring together writers — both new and experienced — to face that prompt on the same days for a whole month, and that’s a powerful thought. Thousands of writers the world over all attempting the same challenge as you are, as I will be: there’s comfort and reassurance in that, even if all our words and ideas and characters are different.
Writing is powerful magic. Good writing can change the world, can heal wounds. NaNoWriMo is just one way of getting said writing out into the world, so it can start its journey to touch those who need it most.