write to win

Why this author just hates the fiction writing orgy known as #NaNoWriMo

Not many literary pursuits can name and shame a writer like this one can.

It’s November again, that time of the year when I want to turn from unsociable writer to downright anti-social ogre…to the extent that I even consider a social media hiatus. This is the season for irritatingly excessive festive cheer (aka being nice to people you don’t want to be nice to), overindulging in Deepavali sweets, and realising that hardly sixty days remain to the new year, and I still have no clue what I’ve done with the current one. Each of these constitutes reasonable grounds for wanting temporary suspension of my membership in the human race.

But wait, it gets worse. Much worse.

It’s called National Novel Writing Month, though it goes by the deceptively unassuming moniker of NaNoWriMo. Imagine thousands of people all over the world coming together with the singular intent of producing, within one month, a novel. Each. Right, got your attention now, haven’t I?

What it is (and isn’t)

For those lucky enough to be ignorant of this global phenomenon, here’s a brief primer. NaNoWriMo started in 1999, when 21 people came together somewhere in San Francisco to change the world. Today, it is a registered organisation, complete with letterhead, logo (a shield featuring a mug of coffee, a laptop, two pens and a sheaf of paper. There’s also a horned Viking helmet perched atop the shield.)

Last year’s version had over 430,000 participants from all over the world. To date, over 250 novels churned out through this process have been traditionally published – that is, they were picked up by publishing houses – including the highly acclaimed Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Now if these numbers (sourced from the NaNoWriMo website) aren’t impressive, I don’t know what it.

Seriously, getting 400,000 people together in a spirit of mutual support (and some competition) isn’t easy. Getting these people to stick to a programme for a month and have something to show for it is even tougher. NaNoWriMo, one soon realises, is more than an organisation. It’s an idea, a movement.

But here’s the thing (and I make this confession on danger of premature death at the hands of many fellow writers): I cannot handle NaNoWriMo.

Actually, that’s an understatement. Let us put it this way: NaNoWriMo is why Halloween is observed on October 31. To me, nothing is scarier than the thought of an entire month dedicated solely to the pursuit of word counts. The average novel ranges from about 50,000 to 80,000 words, though longer books are far from uncommon.

NaNoWriMo sets the lower limit of this range as our modest target means that a WriMoer (yes, that’s a proper word) needs to pen just under 1700 words a day. Easy, right? (Mull over it while I go check the word count of this article, which seems to have swallowed up this millennium and half of the next.)

Why it’s not for everyone

Maybe that’s just me. You know what, it is just me. My twitter timeline is full of “complaints” from writers who’ve managed just three thousand words before breakfast, and have made a public promise to do better once they’re well-watered and fed. My Facebook feed is full of motivational quotes (though I find nothing remotely motivating about being told that people have written in a day what it takes me weeks to churn out).

Even my phone buzzes every thirty seconds with WhatsApp messages from groupies “checking in” – a term I’m convinced is a euphemism for rubbing everyone’s face in it all the way from here to Mars. And here you were thinking all those forwarded Deepavali GIFs were bad.

Speaking of checking in, NaNoWriMo also involves something called Sprinting. In a Word Sprint (which is not to be confused with a deceptively similar activity known as Word War), people get together, either physically or, as is more often the case, online, to meet either a small word target in the least amount of time possible or to write for a short period of time – say twenty minutes – and max the word count.

So basically, you have individuals racing against each other to write, the competitive camaraderie serving as motivation to get it done. The fact that everyone has something penned to show for their time, which is essentially what they all want, means that everybody wins. What could be better?

I tried a sprint once, on Twitter. We were supposed to get back with the achieved word count in fifteen minutes. By the time the others checked in with their achievements, I got back to my laptop with a fresh mug of coffee. The most awesome thing about NaNoWriMo is the people, and these people weren’t going to let a newbie like me fail at the first shot.

So we sprinted again, this time with a word target. I checked back in, three days later, with a triumphant #Done (If you’re cool, you can also use #AchievementUnlocked). So did the others, with like the twentieth challenge since. They asked me to go one more round, but there is only so much shamelessness that even someone like me can show. I quietly disappeared into the shadows, resurfacing only when it was time wish people a Happy New Year, and all ghosts of NaNoWriMo past were left behind.

And that was pretty much the extent of my long-standing and intimate experience with the NaNoWriMo phenomenon. You can be assured that this article is a most exhaustive and accurate representation of the whole situation, because it is written by a slightly jealous, terribly disgruntled, writer’s-blocked author who is in sheer awe of most NaNoWriMo-ers, or anyone who can be so disciplined really.

On that undeniably objective note, may the muse be with you all through November.

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