In Praise of NaNoWriMo

  • By Nora Zelevansky
  • June 15, 2016

How the yearly novel-writing event continues to guide my fiction


During the Q&A portion at a recent reading of my new novel, Will You Won’t You Want Me?, at Book Soup in L.A., one audience member raised his hand and shrugged: “Maybe this is an old-fashioned question, but do you write in pen, on the computer, or dictating aloud?”

I thought it was actually a really interesting question, and it was only as I began to reply that I looked out into the crowd, made eye contact with a favorite essay-writing teacher of mine from UCLA, Amy Friedman, and realized I had her to thank for the answer.

The truth is, when I’m starting a novel, I do write by hand. I carry a notebook with me and jot down random ideas, thoughts, and even overheard tidbits as an opening begins to take shape. The reason for this is simple: First, I often think of my best ideas and snippets of language at inopportune moments when I’m out in the world, in bed, or in the shower. But more importantly, as Amy taught us, creative ideas flow more freely when we write by hand. The same goes for editing. My publisher always has me edit at least a few final drafts in pen, by hand.

As writers, we pick up methods, rules, and tips along the way, and we keep the ones that resonate. Thinking about that fact after that evening’s event, I realized that — in addition to Amy and one high-school English teacher who insisted that there was no such word as “hung” except in the context of being “well hung” — for me, one of the most influential factors on my writing has been National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

I wrote my first novel, Semi-Charmed Life, adhering strictly to the movement’s tenets. Basically, every year, hundreds of thousands of people pledge to write 1,667 words a day, every day, without stopping or going back to edit, for the entire month of November. Writers are encouraged not to outline in advance and to do any research the week before the writing begins. Ideally, participants will create schedules and consider when they can fit a writing session into their daily calendar so there’s no room for excuses about having no time. On December 1st, if they’ve followed the rules, they should have a short, hot mess of a novel ready for editing.

This process worked well for me for many reasons, not the least of which was the rule against stopping. In every writer’s process, there comes a time — or many times — when he or she feels discouraged, is sure the whole manuscript is crap, is tempted to scrap it and start over from the beginning. NaNoWriMo strictly forbids this and, for some odd reason, I took it seriously. Without that rule carved into my neural pathways, I would never have finished a single manuscript.

For my second novel, Will You Won’t You Want Me?, I didn’t have the luxury of officially participating in NaNoWriMo. First of all, the book was due long before November of that year. Second, the novel was part of a two-book deal with my publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and they weren’t big on the idea of me penning an entire manuscript without even offering up an outline. And I definitely needed to do a little bit of research, especially when it came to writing the younger characters. (I wasn’t up to date on my Justin Bieber, if you know what I mean.)

That said, certain fundamental NaNoWriMo principles guided my process, and I suspect that they will as long as I write fiction. I still began on the first of a month. Starting fresh that way and deciding in advance when to begin gets the creative juices flowing. (I just realized how much I hate the expression “creative juices,” but the fact remains: Thinking about the novel in advance helps generate ideas that make the actual act of starting feel less daunting. The slate is not totally blank.)

Second, for me, it really works to bang out at least 1,500 words a day until I’m done. I don’t always achieve this, but I do try to at least write something every day while the novel is in progress. It keeps things cohesive and keeps me engrossed in that world and voice. Also, while editing is always a massive project, it still feels less intimidating than working with nothing. This way, there’s a jumping-off point, a place from which to work. So I prefer to get something — however imperfect — down on paper.

Lastly, NaNoWriMo encourages participants to tell loved ones they’ll soon be writing a novel. The idea is that professing the goal out loud keeps people honest. I think that’s true, but also, writing a novel does take a lot of time and, if you have a day job (I’m a freelance journalist), you may be less available to friends and family as you struggle to fit everything in. It’s good to let them know in advance.

There’s an Amy Friedman lesson I would add to that: While I do always let my nearest and dearest know that I’m starting a novel, I don’t share the details of the actual idea. Amy believes that telling the story aloud can dilute the writing, and that makes sense. The more you tell it, the more stuck you get in that version of the narrative.

Also, no one is ever as excited as you want them to be when you share an idea. A ticker-tape parade would hardly be enough when you’re nervous and on the precipice of something. Plus, others can’t envision what’s in your brain before they read it, so why not avoid the disappointment?

While I may no longer sign up for NaNoWriMo each November to log my word count and watch that satisfying graph grow, the lessons I learned from it will continue to guide me for the long haul. And that, in itself, makes the experience invaluable.

Nora Zelevansky is the author of new novel Will You Won't You Want Me? and Semi-Charmed Life. Her writing has appeared in Elle, T Magazine (the New York Times), Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn.

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