Why Every Month Can’t Be National Novel Writing Month

November is National Novel Writing Month.  In case you are fortunate enough not to have heard of this phenomenon basically it is a pledge to finally sit down and write that novel you were always going to, all in one mad dash for one month. The official goal is to write 50,000 words – which isn’t actually a novel by today’s standards (though it was back in the glory days of trade paperbacks) but it is a substantial chunk, a good three-quarters or four-fifths of a modern-day novel.

I’ve done NanoWriMo (for short) about four times, that I recall.  I utterly failed to finish once.  One of those novels is polished up and making its rounds being rejected for representation.  The others languish in the pit of my hard drive, revised, revised, ignored.

Sometimes, I do wonder what the point of all of it is, but I can’t keep myself from the allure of guaranteed accomplishment.  That’s what NanoWriMo does – it provides an obtainable goal, the support of friends and strangers all doing the same thing, the acceptance of our spouses that it’s “just for one month.”   With all that on your side, you are bound to accomplish something, though it might not be something all that useful, accomplishment itself feels awfully nice.

For me, the stages of Nano are clear:

  1. I’m going to write the best novel ever!
  2. Oh cruel fate why did I think I could write?
  3. What are words? What is writing?
  4. This isn’t half-bad.
  5. I long for the sweet embrace of death.
  6. It’s crap, but I’m going to finish it.
  7. This is literal torture. If I make it, I’m never doing this again.
  8. I finished! Why can’t NanoWriMo be EVERY MONTH?

Aside from forgetting what a pain in the ass it was, there are very real reasons why things like NanoWriMo or Game Jams or intensive exercise programs work, and those same reasons are why they are unsustainable.

You neglect important things in the short term, because you have a deadline.  You sleep less. You bathe less. You eat garbage.  You drop other hobbies.  Yes, you can achieve great things in the short term by unhealthy focus. This is the same mechanism by which your body stops digesting food when you run for your life, or your reproductive system stops when you are malnourished.  It’s a mad dash. It’s sacrifice. It is not sustainable.

It is the deadline itself that provides focus, that forces these many small sacrifices.  These mad dashes work best when the deadline is juuuust shy of what you could comfortably achieve. Where it is possible, but difficult.  Make a game in 48 hours.  Draw a comic in 24. Tantalizingly ambitious yet possible.

So… what to do? How to answer the inevitable lament, “Why can’t I do as much in all the rest of the year as I did during this limited time dash?”

I’ve heard it from Game Jam programmers, stepping blinking into the sun after a weekend in the same room.  I’ve heard it from NanoWriters every December.   The truthful answer is: because sustained output in your creative pursuit is not the same skill as a mad dash.

Why can’t sprinters beat marathon runners at marathons? After all, they run faster!

Because they are two completely different skills.

So I will sigh, and stretch, and tuck my NanoNovel into my “to revise” folder, and I will get back to my daily task lists.  Time to set my modest monthly and weekly goals.  One short story.  One submission.  One new scene draft.  I know what I can get done in a month or week while also doing my job, keeping my relationships strong, keeping myself healthy.  It ain’t 50,000 words.  Some months it ain’t 150.  And that’s okay.

It’s time to shift to the long game.

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