NaNoWriMo: Are You Playing to Win, or Playing to WRITE?

This morning, on Twitter:

@HillaryMonahan: “Add more dialogue tags to up your NaNo word count!” Me: “NO DON’T DO THAT PLEASE STOP DEAR GOD WHAT IS NANO TEACHING YOU!”

@falconesse: @HillaryMonahan Whoever said that needs a fucking smiting.

@HillaryMonahan: @falconesse Yeah, enter NaNo, the exercise in Dubious Writing Advice From People Who’ll Need An Editor.

@falconesse: @HillaryMonahan Problem is, with that level of superfluous padding an editor’s head will asplode. WON’T ANYONE THINK OF THE EDITORS?

@justanna: @falconesse @HillaryMonahan I think the problem here is that “advice to win NaNo” and “advice to write well” are not the same thing

@Hillary Monahan: @justanna @falconesse We were just talking about that. Unfortunately, a lot of participants don’t seem to SEE the difference.

So, let’s talk about it!

The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to crank out a 50,000-word novel between November 1st and 30th.  One of the “freedoms” participants are supposed to allow themselves during this period is the permission to write without editing.  You sit your butt in your chair, put on your fingerless gloves, hook up the caffeine IV drip, and GOGOGO.

Made by my coworker's mom. So warm!

There is nothing inherently wrong with this method so far.  Sure, if you’re used to tinkering with the text as you go, not-editing can feel awfully alien.  It’s like trying to go a week without cracking your knuckles when you do it all the goddamned time — leaving that clunky sentence be just seems so very wrong.  You get used to it after a while, though.  Maybe you start highlighting the text you know you want to go back to in red, or you turn on the track changes feature and insert comments that say FIX THIS.

What gets problematic is the advice doled out on how to hit that sweet, sweet 50K mark.

Some days, writers will run out of steam well-shy of the 1667 words needed to make the daily goal.  Maybe a scene’s not working, or a character’s flat, or they just don’t frickin’ wanna.

Or maybe the looming spectre of Thanksgiving has them wanting to get ahead of schedule, in case a few days’ worth of families and travel and turkey and pie renders word-making unlikely or downright impossible.

This is where padding comes in.

Padding your word count is the NaNo equivalent of stuffing your bra:  come the end of the night (December 1st for NaNoers), that wad of tissues has to go.

And yet, there are forum threads dedicated to adding useless filler.  Typical examples:

  • Never use contractions!  Don’t is one word; do not is two!
  • Give all of your characters like, four names and always use them!  Joe Bob Smith Jones went to the store.  “Hello, Joe Bob Smith Jones,” said Wanda May “Sunflower” Murphy when Joe Bob Smith Jones entered the bakery department.
  • Have your characters read pages out of the dictionary!
  • Have your characters make a sandwich and go into excruciating detail about every step!
  • RANDOM DREAM SEQUENCE!  RANDOM JOURNAL ENTRY!  GROCERY LISTS!
  • Every noun must have at least one adjective!  Every verb at least one adverb!
  • Dialogue tags!  Lots of them!

/headdesk /headdesk /headdesk

This is terrible advice.

My question to anyone contemplating these “padding techniques” — and yes, they get scare quotes because I happen to think they’re bullshit — is this:

Do you want to win NaNo, or do you want to write a good book?

The choices certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, but when you start adding in words you know are getting cut come 12/1 just so you can say you won NaNo, then you’ve chosen internet bragging rights over writing.

No, seriously.  The prize for churning out 50,000 words in a month is the ability to say “I wrote 50,000 words in a month and my heart didn’t explode from all the caffeine I ingested to reach that goal.”  You can put a little banner on your website, and come November of 2012 your profile on the NaNo page will say “2011 Winner!”*

But do you have a good book?  Or more realistically, a good, solid first draft?  A first half you’re inclined to finish?  A third?

If a significant chunk of your word count comes from this kind of padding, what use is it to you when the month is over?  At that point, when the frenzy is over and the forumites drift away until sometime next October… what do you have?  Something you need to tear apart?  Something that requires you to go through the draft getting rid of silly character names and adjectives gone wild?  Do you need to spend hours going through 200-ish pages of manuscript making every “is not” into an “isn’t?”  (Global find-and-replace isn’t always your friend here, I promise.)

There will be “winners” who crossed the finish line by inserting their History 101 essay into the pages, or by having a character whose only purpose is to add 300 words to every chapter with a Rickroll.  I have to wonder if the shiny banner for their livejournals is worth it, or if they ever feel a twinge of I didn’t really earn this guilt.

Probably not.

And really, it’s no skin off my teeth either way.  The only ones truly hurt by this false padding are the authors themselves.  The time spent inserting nonsense into their draft (and, if they go back to it after December 1st) the time they spend yanking it back out is time they wasted.  Maybe instead of writing a feverish dream sequence that has no bearing on the plot, they could have spent some time outlining or strengthening some dialogue.  What’s sad is that excessive filler can be hugely overwhelming when you try going back to a story.  It’s extra work.  It’s not fun.  Which might mean they’re more likely to walk away rather than fix it.

Does this mean that I think every single word you type should be a keeper?

Hell no.

But if you’re going to add extra words — whether to catch up or get ahead — make them relevant to your project.  Make them words that, even if they don’t make the final cut, you’re proud to have written.  NaNo is about experimenting.  It is about trying different narrative styles.  It is about making mistakes that you’ll fix down the road.

So how about making any padding work for your story?  How about making it really count?  Pretty much every project I start has a “Things the Author Knows” file that goes with it.  That’s where I toss all the little extras that might be important to the world, but have no immediate bearing on the story.  That way, if I need them in the future I can dust ’em off and work them back in.  Plenty of those snippets are cut right from the drafts, when I reread and see myself veering way off course from the plot to explain something that, well, no one cares about.  At least, they don’t care right then. 

Bored with a scene or don’t know what happens next chronologically?  Skip ahead and write a scene you’ve been looking forward to.

Character’s personality eluding you?  Write a vignette showing an event that shaped who they are today.

Forgive yourself for that infodump, but don’t let it run into a chapters-long digression.

Hone your dialogue:  let two characters banter a bit, as long as that banter advances the plot, reveals backstory, or develops the characters and/or their relationship with one another.

Writing ain’t easy.  Writing fifty thousand words in the span of a month is even harder, especially if it’s not a pace you’re used to.  Especially if you have to make room in your day for it and find extra hours that just don’t seem to exist.  Or if you have a job that demands long hours.  Or kids.  Or any number of things that require you to not be in writing-mode.

Point is, if you’re going to change up your routine so you can finally sit down and write that novel that’s been kicking around in your brain since forever, why spend even a second of that precious, possibly-stolen time on words that don’t belong?

Write the best goddamned book you can throughout November.  Even if you only get to ten thousand words.  No one comes to your house on December 1st and takes away your keyboard.  No one points and laughs at you for not winning NaNo, or bars your entry to some swanky NaNo Winners’ Club because you “only” hit 40K.

So make those words count, Wanda May “Sunflower” Murphy!

*Yes, I know, there is a page of special offers for winners.  Scrivener, which I love the hell out of, is offering a 50% discount to NaNoers who hit 50K.**  But the prizes that offer you free copies to self-publish your stuff?  Rrrrrrgh.  That’s a whole other post.  Let’s leave it at:  falconesse says that’s probably a bad idea.
**If you hit that 50,000 by padding the shit out of your manuscript and take advantage of Scrivener’s offer, now you’re not just cheating yourself, you’re cheating a small business whose dev team has worked their asses off to bring you a good product.  Just putting that out there.

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4 Responses to NaNoWriMo: Are You Playing to Win, or Playing to WRITE?

  1. Bika says:

    I like your ranting tough-love approach and Reasonable Writing Advice™. “Nip bad habits in the bud! Quality, not quantity! Don’t be a dickbag!”

    I’m glad I tried and won NaNoWriMo last year. I learned something about writing, editing, and myself by pushing out 50k words of product. I even liked a lot of what happened between my brain and the keyboard. There were enough positives that I signed up again this year.

    I’m sure there’s a hundred million metric tons of anecdotal evidence of how NaNo is good or bad. That’s because *how* you NaNo matters, and everyone does it differently. I agree with you 100%: if NaNo teaches you to write 50k words of what is the literary equivalent of frothy sewage, you’ve done yourself a disservice. Winning for the sake of winning is hollow. A manuscript even a mother couldn’t love is a sad showing for the time and effort spent.

    This November I’m using NaNo as an excuse to build a writing habit. I lost mine over the last year and was having trouble getting over the hump. Now my novel is going somewhere after being stalled for months and I’m very happy with it–all 25k words of it.

  2. falconesse says:

    \o/

    Y’know, on one hand, I try very hard to refrain from saying “THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY TO DO NANO.” I mean, shit, they’re not my rules, and no one verifies whether participants have actually written 50,000 words or copied something wholesale from Project Gutenberg.

    But I get awfully annoyed when people tromp all over what I see as the spirit of the rules and still declare themselves NaNo winners because they technically followed them.

    The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel within a month. Padding the shit out of it and saying, “Well, I wrote 50,000 words so it TOTALLY COUNTS even though thirty thousand are the characters reading take-out menus from the internet” is just plain being a cheaterface.

  3. Bika says:

    Honestly, who would ever, EVER want to read that? No one. NO ONE. Not even the person who wrote it. Not even their doting mommy. I don’t know how people can “write” that stuff. I’d be bored out of my skull!

  4. Mishaweha says:

    I am guilty of padding. XD

    First year I wrote out an alarming number of contractions and added some not quite related writing I had done in November. That was probably the worst padding I’ve done.

    I know last year I ended up just explaining how the rest of the story would go in a summary.

    Nowadays I have more of those notes of ‘this doesn’t make sense’ or ‘this is a completely ooc tangent because I got distracted’. But I feel I’m getting better at focusing on the story and not thinking about the word count! (And I feel if you realize you are padding your wordcount you’re probably on the right track, right?)

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