NaNoWriMo ’05

Maria Speaks Episode 17: NaNoWriMo.

My comments about the National Novel Writing Month project and the NaNoWriMo ’05 Podcast by Darusha Wehm.


Hi, I’m Maria Langer. Welcome to Maria Speaks Episode 17: NaNoWriMo

I’ve been listening to the NaNoWriMo 05 Podcast by Darusha Wehm. And I’m really sorry if I just mangled her name.

NaNoWriMo — that’s capital N – A – capital N – O – capital W – R – I capital M – O — is short for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is new to me. The goal appears to be to write a 50,000 word novel during the period of November 1 through November 30. It’s an interesting idea, a sort of forced deadline for procrastinators who don’t have an editor reminding them of a deadline as it approaches.

I subscribed to Darusha’s podcast to learn more. You can subscribe, too, at I’ve found that after each episode, I have some comments I’d like to add. That’s what this podcast is all about. I’ll record it and send it to Darusha and she can decide what she wants to do with it. She did, after all, ask for comments in MP3 format. I’m not sure if she expected them from such a cynical realist. But I’ll try to behave myself and be gentle with everyone listening.

First, let me tell Darusha’s listeners a little about me. I write for a living and have been doing so since 1992. That means I write stuff and I get paid for it. I’ve had over 60 books and literally hundreds of articles published in the past fifteen years.

I mostly write computer how-to books and articles. I make a good living doing what I do, but there’s no rest for the weary. Every time a new version of a software product I’ve written about comes out, I have to hit the keyboard to revise my book. I don’t earn royalties on out-of-print books, and most of my books have gone out of print. After all, the average life of a computer book is 12 to 18 months.

I’ve worked on a number of novels over the years but have never finished one. I think it’s because deep down inside, I fear the rejection of something that’s near and dear to my heart. You see, fiction comes from your imagination and soul. Having an editor say he won’t publish it might hurt. Having an editor turn down a new computer book title, on the other hand, doesn’t faze me in the least because there’s so little of me wrapped up in it.

Maybe I need NaNoWriMo to get my latest work in process novel done. I don’t know. I have some thoughts about the 50,000 words in a month deadline that I’ll get to later on in these comments.

And now my comments about things I’ve heard on Darusha’s podcast.

NaNoWriMo gear?

Darusha mentioned that you can buy NaNoWriMo gear on the NaNoWriMo Web site. That raised a flag. And I may as well start these comments with a bang by pissing off some people.

I visited the Web site and maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t understand why they need to raise $110,000. I’m also trying to understand why would-be novelists should be so interested in building children’s libraries in Laos. I’m not trying to say that children’s libraries aren’t a worthy cause. But why do NaNoWriMo writers need to support it? And why not support libraries in their own countries?

Okay, so I’m a cynic. It’s hard not to be one when you’re born and raised in the New York City metro area. It just seems to me that the NaNoWriMo gear you can buy at the Web site does more to serve the people selling it than the people buying it.

You want to write a novel in a month? Do you really need a t-shirt to do it? I don’t think so.

And who are the people running the NaNoWriMo web site anyway? It looks to me like some kind of scam to get wanna-be novelists to fund annual vacations for a bunch of Web programming geeks. There’s no indication on the Web site of any real writing organization behind it.



Darusha’s episode 3 talked about the importance of supporters. I couldn’t agree more. And I have some comments to add.

I agree that you cannot write a novel or anything else in your spare time without the complete support of your significant other or family. If you just require support for this one month, it’s easy. Ask for it. Explain how important it is to you. Make them understand that by supporting you, they’re helping you achieve your goal. When you achieve your goal with their help, it’s a team effort. But the ball is in your court: if you get the support you need, it’s your responsibility to succeed. Failure would let down everyone and make it just a little tougher for them to support you next year.

Remember, you can’t completely neglect your responsibilities. Do your best to fit your regular chores into your schedule. Rearrange your schedule if you have to, if you can. Just make sure you fit in the things you absolutely must do — like have dinner with your family or go to work — with enough time to get your writing quota done each day.

If you’re trying to write a novel outside of the NaNoWriMo one-month deadline, getting long-term support from your significant other and family might be a little more difficult. One word of advice: be reasonable. Locking yourself up in a room every evening or morning or whatever and neglecting your responsibilities because you’re writing a novel month after month, year after year is just plain irresponsible and stupid. Don’t do that to the people you love. Don’t do it to yourself. Make a deadline and stick to it. And take off enough time during the writing process to keep your life alive.

Novel writing software

Episode 4 talked about tools. Darusha specifically mentioned the phrase “novel writing software.”

I’m sorry, but isn’t any decent word processor an appropriate tool for writing a novel?

This reminds me of an e-mail I got from a guy who wanted to start writing computer how-to books. He asked me to recommend some book proposal software. I told him to try Microsoft Word. That’s what I use and it hasn’t failed me yet.

Here’s the point. There’s no special software that’ll make you a better writer — unless it comes with a creative writing teacher who can critique your work and offer tips for making it better. You can fool around with writing software all you like and it all comes down to your own capabilities. Either you can write or you can’t. Either you have a good idea that you can form into an interesting plot or you can’t. Either you can write realistic dialog and good descriptive prose or you can’t.

That’s not to say that you can’t get better. The best way to be a better writer is to read more, write more, and listen to feedback about your work by people who know what they’re talking about. That doesn’t include your spouse, aunt Tillie, mother, or fellow writing club member — unless one of these people has already had his or her fiction published or works in the industry.

But novel writing software? I looked at CopyWrite, the software package Darusha suggested. It doesn’t look like something you could pick up and start using effectively without a lot of experimentation. So don’t run out and start playing with it now, especially with the NaNoWriMo clock ticking. Use your favorite word processor to write. It has a word count feature built in. And take notes on index cards. Big ones or small ones — your choice. They’re easy to sort, modify, and read. That’ll help make your downtime — like the time you might spend on a bus or train on your way to work or the time you spend at lunch — more productive.

And that brings up something else. Writing a novel is more than just typing words 2 to 4 hours a day until you’re done. It’s planning and plotting. It’s creating backstories for your characters so they’re real. It’s including little details that make your work come alive. When you’re not sitting at your desk, typing away to meet your NaNoWriMo deadline, open your eyes and look around you. Take notes about what you see. Use the index cards. You can put them in your purse or a jacket pocket. Make the most out of all your time, not just the predefined writing time you’ve set aside for this project.

NaNoWriMo forums

Darusha’s Tools podcast also mentioned the NaNoWriMo forums. I visited those on the Web site, too. And here’s my sad report: There are literally hundreds of thousands of posts. My question: why aren’t these people working on their novels? I know from experience that fooling around on the Internet is a great way to procrastinate. Cut it out! Get to work!

If you feel you absolutely must participate in these forums, set a time limit for yourself each day. Something like 15 minutes. Remember, if you type 50 words a minute — which is probably pretty average for someone who actively participates in Internet forums, in those 15 minutes, you could have typed 750 words in your novel. If you wasted an hour in a forum, that hour could have been spent meeting your word count quota for the day.

The good thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them while you’re doing something else. Like driving the car, taking a shower, or working out. So if you must get an Internet fix, do it with podcasts. That’s another way to make the most out of down time.

Backup plan

Darusha also talks about having a backup plan — that is, a plan to backup your novel files. This should be a no-brainer, but I’m sure it isn’t. Most people probably don’t even think of backing up important files — until those files have been wiped out by a hard disk crash, virus, or fire.

Back up your important files. Period. It doesn’t matter what kind of files they are: accounting records, contact databases, or word processing files containing your novel. If you’ll miss it when it’s gone, back it up so you won’t lose it.

Darusha makes some good suggestions for backing up. The main idea is to have an offsite backup. That means backing up on a computer or other device that isn’t sitting right next to the computer where the data lives and breathes. What good is copying your important files to a CD once a week if you store the CD next to your computer? When the burglar steals the computer, don’t you think he might take the disks with him? When the fire breaks out because your superfast, undercooled computer processor got too hot for its own good, don’t you think everything around the computer will burn, too?

Okay, so it isn’t likely. But it is possible.

It’s odd because I was sitting at my desk finishing up for the day while I was listening to Darusha’s podcast in iTunes. Just as she was talking about backing up, I was setting up a folder on my publisher’s FTP server to back up my current work in progress. That folder is accessible by me, both of my editors, and my indexer. I made sure my editors knew why it was there. You see, I’m also a helicopter pilot and there’s always the possibility that I might not match successful landings to take-offs. If something happens to me, I want my editors to be able to get someone else to finish the job without reinventing the wheel.

Check with your ISP. Chances are, you have space on your ISP’s server for your own Web site or something like that. Use that to back up your important files. All of them.

Well, that brings me through Episode 4 and I’ve already said nearly 2,000 words. (Hmmm, if I were writing this for NaNoWriMo, I’d already have my quota met for the day.) But I do have one more thing to say, and that’s about the whole idea of NaNoWriMo.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo because you see it as a great way to meet the challenge of writing a novel before a specific deadline, great. You must know what goes into writing a novel and see that it’s more than just the challenge of getting words down so they can be read.

But if you’re participating just to see if you can write 50,000 words in a month, stop and think about it. Are you writing 50,000 words that someone else might want to read? In other words, are you crafting a novel or doing what 100 monkeys at keyboards could do?

My point is this: if you want to be a novelist, it takes more than just saying you’re one and typing 50,000 words as a way to prove it. It takes planning, creative genius, writing skill, and a lot of hard work. NaNoWriMo is one way to see if you can meet deadlines. But there’s more to being a novelist than meeting a deadline.

Do I think it’s possible to write a publishable novel in a month. Yes. The people who do it regularly are referred to in the industry as hacks.

Heck, I’ve been referred to as a hack. But there’s something magic about seeing your name on the cover of a book in a bookstore. Even after the 60th time.

Good luck!

What do you think?