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National Novel Writing Month starts November 1. Sponsored by the Office of Letters and Light, a nonprofit group, writers get REALLY excited about NaNoWriMo (yes, it has it’s own shorthand.), either to do it or to complain about it. So excited, in fact, the website even has a countdown clock counting down the days and hours until the thing starts. Find out more here.

The game…? Contest? Workshop? Writing prompt? I’m not sure what to call it. Whatever it is basically works like this: you have thirty days to write 50,000 words of a brand new novel. That’s all there is to it. Simple enough, right? The website gives you writing prompts and encouragement and a winner’s certificate at the end of the month if you upload the book to them so thy can verify you really wrote all those pages.

And that’s it. Voila! A pat on the back for a job well done. No publishing contract. No money. No editor critique or agent pitch. Despite the apparent lack of reward, the website claims 257,000 people participated last year, from which 37,000 winners were crowned.

It’s a nice idea. The idea of NaNoWriMo is part persuasion (Come on! Turn off the TV! Write that book!) and part pressure cooker (Come on! 50,000 words! That’s almost 1,700 per day, buddy. Get to work! You don’t want to get a visit from the Pixie of Derisive Comments who beats you about the head and shoulders with sweaty gym socks if you fail, do you?) Okay, I don’t exactly know there’s a pixie, but I kind of like the image.

But I can’t decide what to make of this. I like the idea of wannabe writers dropping the wannabe part and actually doing it. I worry though that this contest (is that the right word?) is not going to be much help to writers who want to do this for a living, but rather book lovers who just think it would be fun to take a whirl at writing a book. They play around it with it, get excited about it, but don’t really care if they finish it. The 14% completion rate last year would seem to bear that out. Participation has grown every year since 2000 when 140 people joined in, but only 29 “winners” were tallied (20%).  The completion rate peaked that first year. Every year since has ranged between about 12 and 19%.  Granted, there could have been a few people who finished their 50,000 words and just didn’t upload it for recognition, but it seems like if yu go to all that work, you would at least want your free winner’s certificate, wouldn’t you?

The problem, I think, is the huge potential for disillusionment. A lot of those writers who really get excited about NaNoWriMo discover it’s hard as hell to write that many words. In  a month. With actual life going on around you, competing for your attention. Coming up short is NOT a failure, but it could sure feel like one.

Worse, a lot of those who have their 50,000 words on November 30, will think they have a finished book. They don’t. If you can write a publishable novel in that amount of time, you don’t need NaNoWriMo. You’re some sort of prodigy. More realistically, at most, you’ll have a first draft, maybe even a good one. And maybe that’s enough to keep you going past November 30 to go on and finish it, but I suspect a lot of the participants are disappointed to have only gotten that far and just drop the whole thing, certificate or not. Again, see the fourteen percent completion rate.

I do see how self-starter, motivated writers who don’t have a writers group or other writer friends to commiserate with and be inspired about could use NaNoWriMo as an elaborate writing prompt, a boost, a reminder they’re not alone. Just don’t expect more than the game can offer.

And if YOU do manage to complete a polished, finished product in only 30 days, bottle up that writing mojo and sell it. I’ll take two.


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