NaNoWriMo is about writing, of course, but it is also about numbers. To win the adult program one must write a novel of at least fifty thousand words in thirty days, starting on November first. It’s a wonderful month of writing – character creation, plot twists, and fantastical settings. Really, NaNoWriMo is a crazy thing to do, but it’s fun and crazy.
The only issue is that sometimes participants confuse quantity with quality. I was one of those poor confused people.
Any NaNoer with half a brain quickly realizes that it’s possible to hit the minimum daily wordcount goal (1,667 words per day in the adult program) by writing nonsense. Trust me, I did this sometimes during Script Frenzy this past April and Camp NaNoWriMo this past August. (I’m happy to report that June’s Camp NaNo session went much better.) I didn’t do it all the time or even most of the time, but there are several pages that are now very difficult to edit because I’m not exactly sure what I originally meant. It’s very easy to go overboard with description or have your plot wander around more than I than when I’m looking for excuses to not do my math.
The NaNo-official term for it is wordcount padding and let’s face it: everyone does it. Some people do it more than others. I used to do it quite a bit and it’s very hard to stop. It does help to outline your plot and create more complex characters and settings but inevitably there will come a time when you must send your characters on fruitless searches. I’ve had characters walk all over in the quest for a good doughnut because I needed more words.
It’s not a bad thing to do – occasionally. The trouble starts when that’s all your writing consists of. Another problem arises when you start to confused quantity with quality. I think it’s wonderful that some children as young as five or six are motivated enough to tackle NaNo, albeit in the YWP and generally with wordcount goals of about a thousand. (You can’t join the adult program until age thirteen.) However, I think it might be a better idea to do your first NaNo at an older age, because you’re very impressionable at a young age. NaNoers are beaten over the heads with, “Have you written 1,667 words today? Are you at 15,003 words? You should be – that’s the total you should have by day nine.” We’re told this by overeager fellow NaNoers and we get emails from the websites saying as much.
If you’re a bit older and wiser you’ll have realized, probably through reading, that being wordy does not equal being awesome. All four books of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga can be condensed into: “A girl falls in love with a vampire and takes absolutely forever to decide whether or not she should become a vampire.” I’ve recently fallen in love with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but even I’ll admit that at times he could have benefited from some editing. Describing every footstep that each of your characters take is alright for a bit, but don’t write book after book of that. I’ve read a lot of books in my sixteen years and know that there is little worse than someone not knowing what they’re talking about and therefore deciding to write complex sentences that amount to nothing because they think they’re so awesome and also they just really, really, really, really, really like using a ton of words and again, aren’t they so awesome? (See, isn’t it annoying?)
However, little kids generally haven’t read as many books as teenagers and adults. When I was five years old I probably wouldn’t have thought to ask my parents if longer books are better, so I doubt most little NaNoers (NaNo-ies, I’ve decided) would think to ask. I think it would be very easy for them to decide that writing a long story is better than writing a good story. However, it’s not only impressionable little kids who fall into this trap. I’ve read a number of blog posts – including some on my own blog, ha ha – where the writers bemoaned how they’d written a gazillion words that day but that none of them really did anything to enhance the story. Yes, everyone will pad their wordcount, but we shouldn’t let ourselves get too proud of our three hundred and fifty thousand-word novels that are utter junk.
For a long time I have been thinking about of the power of shortness. This helps to make me feel better because I’m only 5’1″. Seriously though, being concise is appreciated. On November 19th, 1863, president Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate a battle that had been fought there. Depending on how much American history you have studied, you may or may not know that before Lincoln gave his speech, another politician gave a speech that was several hours long. People were getting bored and cold – remember, it was November. Lincoln stood up and said the following:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Yes, that’s it. The Gettysburg Address was only two hundred and seventy two words long. Whether you’re a writer or a speechmaker, others appreciate your conciseness. There’s a reason that people use bullet points. And not only was Lincoln brief; he was also eloquent. Phrases like “Now we are engaged in a great civil war…” and “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” leave me wishing that I could write as well.
I still think NaNoWriMo is a wonderful program. My writing has improved and I’m much more passionate about writing than I ever was before last November. However, NaNo is tricky not because the wordcount goal is challenging but because it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “longer is better”. NaNo is cool, but it’s not a typing test. Doing NaNoWriMo does indeed help you to grow as a writer, but only if you put forth a serious effort.