NaNoWriMo and the importance of reckless first drafts

For years now, November has been an exciting time for me. Because November is National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo for short — and I like to participate. Or at least hang out with the local participants.


In past years, I’ve used NaNoWriMo to quickly hash out a story set in the Aligare world. Ravel was originally a 50 000-word mystery-drama story completed in one month. I didn’t like that draft much. The mystery part was pretty clumsy. I dreaded fleshing it out into a more typical 80 000-word novel — but the core relationship between Aster and Llarez was kind of charming. So I hacked away all the plot points I didn’t like and ended up with the 14 000-word romantic friendship story that Ravel is today. Who knows how long I would have struggled with that story if NaNoWriMo hadn’t pushed me to pour words out now and edit later?

That’s the real strength of NaNoWriMo: it encourages you to finish. Just finish. It’s okay if the novel you’re writing is the biggest steaming pile of awfulness ever composed: we can fix it later. New and/or young writers often find NaNoWriMo encouraging for that reason — plus the community spirit of many people writing messy drafts together. Sometimes those messy drafts have potential, viewed later in the cold light of December. Even if one’s NaNo draft is nowhere near publishable, it can be tons of fun.

Because one of the staples of NaNoWriMo is accepting truly random writing prompts. Your story has gotten stuck? Well, what would happen if the heroes’ car broke down? Or someone found a lost pet monkey? Or a secondary character revealed that he’s actually an alien? Or if the entire plot so far has been a delusion forced on your hero by an evil psychic wizard? Anything can happen, and sometimes you stumble across cool ideas. The Night Circus  — a book that spent seven weeks in the New York Times Best Seller list — came about when Erin Morgenstern got bored with her NaNo novel and had her characters randomly go to the circus.

But in more recent years, I haven’t been using NaNoWriMo for my Stories of Aligare: I’ve been turning to NaNoWriMo as a refresher. To run away from the Aligare world on a mad, commitment-free tangent. This year I’m writing a murder mystery with a fairy forensic investigator. Last year, in October 2012, I was sick of struggling with Render (A story of Aligare) and I found it very helpful to write some random other thing for a month. I came back to Render with fresh eyes in December. My previously frustrating story now looked wonderfully structured — although I couldn’t throw in spontaneous ninja battles like during NaNoWriMo. (Well, I could throw spontaneous ninja battles into the Stories of Aligare, strictly speaking. But you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.)

I always sympathize with authors locked into big publishing contracts for five, six, seven books in the same series. Don’t know about anyone else, but I go stir-crazy when I dwell on the same ideas for too long. And that’s why a scheduled month of reckless nonsense is something I wholeheartedly embrace.

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The value of sloppy work

I write this blog post on the final day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This November, over 300 000 people attempted to hammer out a 50 000-word piece of writing — which is long enough to be a novel in the strictest technical sense.

I got my 50k written!

I got my 50k written!

Now, NaNoWriMo gets some flack for encouraging people to write poorly. It’s about producing a quantity of work, not agonizing over the poignance of every word. Most of those bad first drafts go straight into drawers, although there are always few poor fools who email their 50 000 raw words to literary agents on December 1st, causing the resounding slap of palms against foreheads.

But, you know, there are worse things than a terrible first draft. For example, a blank page. A bad draft can be edited and fixed, unlike a blank page. Even if someone’s NaNo novel is the most awful prose ever given form, it’s better than nothing by the sheer fact that it is something. Think of it like pottery: you can start with some gross mud and, through experimentation, make it into an actual, useful piece of dishware.


That’s actually how I wrote Ravel, the novelette-length story of Aligare. I wrote the first rough draft as my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. At the time, the story was named Rhythm instead. Aster was a cranky teenager instead of a soul-searching young mother. Llarez the bard had a village mystery to solve for some reason (and the plot twist was visible from space, it was so obvious). My 50 000 words involved a lot of crummy paragraphs that I didn’t enjoy writing. But it became clear to me that the core of this story was Aster and Llarez’s bond, and the way they help each other explore the world. I ended up cutting away everything that didn’t work, and developing what was left into a 14 000-word story. I needed to fiddle with the idea and write in wrong directions before I figured out what to do.

A terrible first effort is a step along a path. It’s easy to be embarrassed at your poor first showing, but really, now. When you first got on a bicycle as a child, were you Tour de France material? When you first put crayons to paper, did a museum-worthy piece spring forth? Of course not. And even as adults, mistakes must be made as part of the learning process. It’s easy to succumb to self-consciousness and fear, and not recognize that failure leads to later success.

Ten thousand ways a light bulb won't work, and so on.

Ten thousand ways a light bulb won’t work, and so on.

This is the ultimate principle of NaNoWriMo. Don’t worry if what you write isn’t objectively good. Just go for it. You can fix it later. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in making your inner editor shut up, so that you can start something you might not otherwise start — or finish something you might not otherwise finish.

And the principle works even if you’re not a writer. Go ahead and knit that uneven scarf, or compose a simple song, or build that shoddy first attempt at a birdhouse. No one has a right to tell you that your flawed first efforts are worthless.