Nanowrimo – what is it and why is it useful?

Let’s start at the beginning – what is nanowrimo?

Nanowrimo stands for National Novel Writing Month. These days, the ‘national’ bit is a bit defunct, as it’s really an international endeavour. There is an official organisation that run it and they have a website, which you can easily find by Googling ‘nanowrimo’.
However, there’s nothing to say that you actually have to sign up to the website to take part, you can do so completely in the privacy of your own computer.
The basic principle is that you write the first draft of a novel – all within the month of November. You are not allowed to have written any of it in advance (although it’s is highly recommended to have a plan sketched out – The Novel Factory software is perfect for this) and you have to write 50,000 words. That works out at just under 2000 words per day (they didn’t even have the good grace to pick a month with one extra day – still, I suppose it could have been February).

The advantage of ‘officially’ signing up and submitting your work to the Nanowrimo community, is that you may get more motivation by seeing what other people are doing, and getting instant feedback. Also, I think you get a kind of digital certificate if you complete it – if you’re into that kind of thing.
However, the slight risk is that some places are  funny about work that has been published anywhere else, including on a website – so that’s just something to keep in mind if you’re intending to take the work further.

What nanowrimo is

The point of nanowrimo is to get writing.
The main problem for most people that want to be writers is that they don’t get their bum on the seat and the words coming out. This may be an issue of finding the time (saying you don’t have time is not a reason, it’s an excuse, and if you don’t like me saying that, then you won’t like me saying this either – if ‘no time’ is your excuse, then you’re not a writer, and probably never will be), feeling uncertain or embarrassed, not knowing where to start, or being precious about the work.
Nanowrimo is a great way to get over some of those obstacles. There is no time to overplan, procrastinate or be precious. Just dump any old rubbish on the page. Writing crap is a necessary part of the process on the way to writing something decent, and Nanowrimo shoves you out onto the path.
Knowing that thousands of other people are doing it at the same time is also highly motivational.

What Nanowrimo isn’t

I am always very careful to say that Nanowrimo is about writing a ‘first draft’ not about writing a ‘novel’. That’s because a first draft is so far from a finished novel, they barely look related. There is no way you can get a finished novel out in one month, and a good rule of thumb is that however long the first draft took – refining it into something even barely passable will take about twice as long again. At the very least.
Anecdotally, publishers and literary agents groan when it comes round to Nanowrimo time, because in the following months, they are inundated with rubbish first drafts that are being called submission ready manuscripts (as a side note, this is useful to know for choosing when to submit your novel – i.e. not in December).

Using the nanowrimo concept to suit you

There is no law to say that you can’t apply the principle of having a fairly hefty challenge to suit your needs, if writing a first draft doesn’t happen to be the thing for you.
For example, if you already have a first draft, you could use the month to force yourself to get the second draft completed – although this is a lot harder to judge – 50,000 words is a very clear goal that can be broken down into discrete parts. But having said that, you could break down a second draft into two chapters per week, for example.
Another alternative works for short story writers, which is to write 30 stories in 30 days. You don’t have to write one a day, exactly, but it gives you a very clear guide as to whether you’re ahead or behind and the average rate you have to keep up.