The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier

kermit-the-frog-writer

Every year in November, writers around the world attempt something noble and worthwhile: to not just write a novel–the Toughest Writerly Thing A Writer Can Do–but finish the thing in an insane amount of time, as in the 30 short, rainy days of November.

This is a huge, organized thing, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, the kind of acronym only writers could come up with after a marathon viewing of BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX trilogy. (Spoiler alert: first one with Neo is perfect while the second and third will ruin your childhood).

HOWEVER: writing an entire novel in 30 days is would be more accurately described by the non-acronym of Crazytown.

With logic and numbers, I’ll show you: (a) why this is nuts, even if you really, really want to do it, and (b) how an alternative is easier while (c) giving you better results.

When logic and math fail, I’ll resort to dirty rhetorical tricks. You won’t even see them coming.

Sidenote: Yes, many people have successfully completed NaNoWriMo, and you may be one of them. That’s awesome. Get down with your bad self.

The Math, It Is Crazy

Let’s say the finish line for a novel is 75,000 words.

There are 30 days in November, which means you need to hit 2,500 words a day, every day.

Oh, no problem, you say: I’m getting up at 4 a.m. to drink two pots of fine Columbian coffee as I bang on the keyboard for hours. And I type fast. Watch me.

Sure, that math looks easy. Say your average person types 50 words per minute, which equals:

  • 3,000 words per hour
  • 24,000 words per eight-hour day
  • 120,000 words per week

No sweat. We’ll crank this thing out in a week.

Except nobody who writes for a living produces 24,000 words a day. Nobody.

And they’re doing this full-time, with all kinds of experience and support, like professional editors and fancy VR helmets that turn thoughts into words. Kidding about that. They get implants and have to insert a sharp cable thing into their skull. I hear it hurts and itches all the time.

matrix-neo-plugging-in

Here come the word counts:

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = newspaper story
  • 800 words = oped
  • 1,000 to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 50,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 200,000 words = novel

Believe me, not even the fastest reporter writes 5 stories an hour, which translates into 40 stories a day and 200 stories a week. Most reporters do two or three stories a day. I’m insanely fast, and I don’t know a single professional speechwriter who’s ever cranked out a keynote speech in an hour, much less a keynote an hour, every hour, for a week. Such a person does not exist. Most keynotes take an entire week of research and writing.

As for novels, not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by illicit substances, produced a novel a week.

This isn’t a function of brains, talent, or being stuck in meetings 3 hours a day when you’re rather be banging on the keyboard.

Writing is more than typing. It’s a sexy vampire (non-sparkly) which sucks out your life force until you’re a dry little husk who needs to recharge. There are only so many words inside you every day until you smash into the wall.

This, for example, does not count as writing.

the-shining-all-work-and-no-play-typewriter

So what’s the floor and ceiling for daily word counts?

The bare minimum? 500 words

Literary gods like Hemingway were famous for counting words and walking away from the typewriter after hitting 500. Then they went off to drink wine, watch bull fights and whatever else Hemingway and other literary gods did with their free time.

Totally fine, if those are 500 world-class words. That’s 15,000 words a month, which is about two novels a year. Wonderful.

So our floor is 500 words a day, as long as those are good words. Yet this won’t get us there: 15,000 words in 30 days doesn’t get us close to a 75,000-word novel.

What’s the ceiling?

If 500 words is our minimum, we want the max, right? Give it to us. DO IT NOW.

Not gonna lie to you: 1,000 words a day is good, 2,000 words is great and 2,500 would be amazing.

You simply can’t count on being amazing every day for 30 straight days.

It’s a lot like running. Sure, plenty of people can run 5 miles in a day (or write 500 words). And yeah, some people could run 5 miles a day for an entire month. Your knees would rebel, but a lot of people could slog through it.

What’s not so possible is running a half marathon every day for a month (13 miles or about 1,300 words). And what’s insane is thinking that millions of amateur runners should try to run a complete marathon every day (26 miles or roughly 2,600 words) for a month. Don’t know about you, but I would be in the hospital after Day Six.

No matter how noble the goal is of NaNoWriMo, it’s setting up a lot of people for failure.

Sure, there are people who train hard and do even crazier things, like the folks who compete in 100-mile ultramarathons because plain old marathons aren’t tough enough. I’m not saying it’s completely impossible for everyone on the planet. People manage to do all sorts of things.

What I am saying is NaNoWriMo is like trying to get average people interested in the sport of mountain climbing by lining them up and attempting to set a speed record for climbing Everest in borrowed snow pants and Moon Boots.

Chances are, a lucky few will make it, as they always do each year, which only makes people who got stuck halfway to the finish line feel like failures.

Even if you quit your job and focus on doing this full time, you’re not guaranteed to finish the sucker, and that may make you give up on the dream of writing, which would be all kinds of wrong. Our world depends on good words, great ideas and compelling stories. We need more writers, and they need to be healthy and happy, not sleep-deprived wrecks who vaguely remember having a spouse and kids.

An easier, smarter path

Let’s think of a way to get a better product with far less stress and labor.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: it is pritnear impossible to fix a pile of 75,000 words with structural problems. (Yes, pritnear is a word, I kid you not.)

Been there. Tried it many times.

Want to hear a horrible truth? The fastest, most reliable method of fixing a bad draft is this: hold it over the trash can, drop it and wait for the clang to stop echoing. Then start over on page 1.

So even if you succeed in cranking out the required number of words, the end product is probably DOA, which is tragic.

The toughest part of writing is actually drawing up blueprints that work. If you have a solid foundation and good bones, adding the details and finishing the job is a piece of cake, whatever your favorite cake may be: cheesecake, German chocolate (not actually German) or what have you. But not blueberry pie, since that’s pie. Illegal. Not gonna do it.

Instead of quitting your job and holing up in Motel 6 to write 2,500 words a day, no matter what, let’s shoot for 500 words a day. Except those 500 words are foundational and structural.

We’re skipping all the non-essential filler, the description and dialogue, and going to the essence of the actual story: motivations and conflicts, setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations.

You can boil down any movie or novel into what Hollywood calls a treatment. It’s a quick and dirty way of writing the foundation of a movie or novel, plus you don’t need to learn any of the wacky formatting (sorry, sis) screenwriters use in Tinseltown.

Treatments are rough and raw, which doesn’t disguise the fact that the story they tell is pure and beautiful.

So, here’s the easier path to NaNoWriMo in eight steps:

  1. Figure out if your ending is up or down, and make your beginning the polar opposite. There are good reasons for this. Ask me later.
  2. Grab the late, great Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT and figure out what type of story, you’re telling, which is a different animal than genre or setting. JAWS, FATAL ATTRACTION and ALIEN are not a horror movie, domestic drama and sci-fi flick–they’re all the same primal story, Monster in the House: you’re in an enclosed place with a monster, and it’s going to eat you unless you kill it.
  3. Make a copy of Snyder’s beat sheet and start playing around with the typical twists, reversals and revelations of your type of story.
  4. Start your treatment from the villain’s POV, because they get up early and go to work long before the hero stops hitting the snooze button and finally takes a shower. The villain matters more than the hero. Poor villain = poor story, no matter how interesting your hero is.
  5. Let the villain win, all the time, and in interesting ways.
  6. Make the hero lose, all the time, despite their best and most clever efforts. A hero who wins at every turn is boring–that’s a romp, not a story.
  7. When you’ve cranked out your 500 words for that day, pour a glass of whatever you enjoy and watch classic examples of that story, or read great novels in that genre for inspiration. But take a few notes. Notice how they create setups that don’t pay off until later, all the while managing to (a) keep you curious by raising narrative questions they don’t answer right off and (b) find new ways to surprise you in scene after scene.
  8. When you’re done with the treatment–shoot for 15,000 words–go through and eliminate or combine every character you can. Show no mercy. If somebody only shows up in one scene, kill them off and give that role a core character. Whatever role is played by evil minions, sidekicks and love interests, try to give those jobs to your villain and protag. Make them do their own dirty work.

That’s it. If you do this, at 500 words or less a day, you’ll have the core of a much stronger novel than if you banged on they keyboard like a rabid chipmunk for 20 hours a day.

This is the short version. Look around this silly blog for all kinds of related posts:

Whatever your Evil Writing Plan for this month may be, I wish you godspeed.

###

This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award. Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

65 comments on “Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier

  1. Pingback: Guest posting goodness and joining forces to take over the Series of Tubes | The Red Pen of Doom

  2. notfaulkner
    November 26, 2016

    I only succeeded in NaNoWriMo once, and that was with random (and shitty) plot twists because I was out of ideas, random words written for pages at a time, and a HELL of a lot of unnecessary stress over the utter crap I had written. If I had only read this then!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Deep story goodness for writers via The Mother of All Cheat Sheets | The Red Pen of Doom

  4. Pingback: Part 2 of Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–Why first drafts are always flawed and how to fix them | The Red Pen of Doom

  5. Chrystal
    November 15, 2016

    I’m thrilled to discover pritnear is a word and not just something my hillbilly family utters. 2. I’m equally, perhaps more, thrilled to read this post as I was considering NaNoWriMo as a way to really start taking my writing seriously. All it would do is make me give up on the first day I couldn’t get past 500 words. I appreciate the validation that I don’t have to write a bazillion words a day to be a real writer. I just need to write well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Guy Bergstrom
      November 15, 2016

      Amen, sister.

      Like

    • Guy Bergstrom
      November 15, 2016

      Glad to hear it.🙂

      Thanks to everyone who read this, shared this, reblogged this or cursed my name. I appreciate it. Haven’t had time to reply to comments and will try this week.

      Am now back from Japan, and Part 2 of this post will publish tomorrow morning, right when the sun comes up on the West Coast.

      May even write Part 3, with examples and everything. YOU NEVER KNOW.

      Like

  6. Jack
    November 14, 2016

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend.

    Like

  7. Pingback: Na No Wri Mo | The Great Fish's Blog

  8. patrj91
    November 13, 2016

    This is my first year doing NaNoWriMo. I am writing my second novel in my series. I understand your negativity towards NaNoWriMo, forcing you to write 50,000 words that could potentially be crap. But as long as you have a decent outline and are prepared before hand, I feel that NaNoWriMo is a great way to force you to get your thoughts on paper. It is always easier editing a messy page than a blank page. But I also agree that it is too much forced writing for a month. I wouldn’t normally write this fast outside the month of November. And by the way, I really like the kermit the frog visual haha. Great post!

    Like

  9. Anissa "Li'l Bit" Rodriguez
    November 13, 2016

    I did it once, and can’t do it this year do to all the stuff I already have on my plate. They do say they don’t expect it to be a polished novel, more like a skeleton you can expand on after. I would write my around 1700 a day and then print and edit. Idk what it was about printing the draft, but I always found more things to fix.

    Like

  10. juantetcts
    November 12, 2016

    Reblogged this on juantetcts and commented:

    I was interested in this contest, and then decided to write a book in a weekend instead! Sounds like writing a book in a weekend was a better plan, but I’ll definitely try this next year!

    Like

  11. Niq writes
    November 12, 2016

    Reblogged this on Niq Writes and commented:

    For fellow Nano writers out there who are panicking like me, take a breath, take a break, read this post, and don’t stress too much.

    Like

  12. jamescrassus
    November 12, 2016

    As a side note, the author of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” claims he wrote the entire first draft in two and half days. There are many other that claim to have written books in days, so it may not be an easy feat however it seems feasible.

    Like

  13. Alejandra Meza Fourzán
    November 11, 2016

    I loved your article. Thanks for sharing all that wisdom that is behind it with us.

    Like

  14. communecreatives
    November 11, 2016

    This is fantastic.

    Like

  15. j2w7
    November 10, 2016

    That was a very informative post; In case you have not noticed, November is also National Blog Posting Month, and I have been using my own blog, KALEIDOSCOPE, to participate in this by writing very special posts(some of which have something to do with a certain holiday called Thanksgiving); I very well suggest that you might want to check my blog out and see what you think!-JW😉

    Like

  16. Aaron Ross
    November 9, 2016

    Reblogged this on ARG Press and commented:

    Nano tips for the weary writer:

    Like

  17. leathehatless
    November 9, 2016

    Great article! And truthful, Nanowrimo is insane but I love it. xD

    Like

  18. Gayle Marie
    November 9, 2016

    Oooh, definitely loving those tips. Thank you!😀

    Like

  19. natalie50078
    November 8, 2016

    Well i would to say this article is very interesting and thanks for some knowelegde backround

    Like

  20. wordsznerd
    November 8, 2016

    Reblogged this on living with linguaphilia and commented:

    Well, I admit I’m currently a sleep-deprived wrecks who vaguely remembers having a spouse and kids (and if I try really hard, I can remember what my house looks like), but it’s not currently for this reason.

    Honestly, if November weren’t the exact opposite of the best time for me to do it, I might have given NaNoWriMo a go, if only to get in the habit of writing more, more often. My husband is doing it, and so far managing to keep up. But I have to say, this post from The Red Pen of Doom sounds like a better strategy, and it also includes some great tips no matter what your target word count is.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Tim
    November 8, 2016

    “We need more writers, and they need to be healthy and happy, not sleep-deprived wrecks who vaguely remember having a spouse and kids.”
    Amen.
    I’m a composer of music, but I dabble in writing words as well. There’s something about creative work that tends to make a lot of people sick, and we need to avoid that. I think on some level, structure is key.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Keith A. Wadley
    November 8, 2016

    “What I am saying is NaNoWriMo is like trying to get average people interested in the sport of mountain climbing by lining them up and attempting to set a speed record for climbing Everest in borrowed snow pants and Moon Boots.” I love the analogy. Had me chuckling out loud.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. classyqueeny
    November 8, 2016

    I’ve had writers block for months. Its the worse thing ever. Great post though.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. amecipraba
    November 8, 2016

    Very nice all the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Pingback: Ein Regenbogen zwischendurch | Schreibstudio

  26. alsabini
    November 8, 2016

    I signed up for NaNoWriMo (clic and pasted) thinking it was an intersting idea, one that I knew I was never going to complete, but hey here’s a challenge.
    Now I’m thinking sod that, the tortoise always wins. Thanks for the input. It makes much more sense and I won’t end up with blisters on my (four) typing fingers.

    PS my first few chapters are on my site.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Windmills of My Mind
    November 8, 2016

    Absolutely bookers to participate!

    Like

  28. sarahngima77
    November 8, 2016

    Reblogged this on Nderi Sarah.

    Like

  29. writegill
    November 8, 2016

    Thank you – quality over quantity. Most of the actual writing is done in the head, preserved in the first draft and then sweated over!

    Like

  30. sedge808
    November 7, 2016

    very cool

    Like

  31. cattmile
    November 7, 2016

    Finishing a novel in 30days? that’s insane!

    Like

  32. jc6477725
    November 7, 2016

    Love it. I wished I had one because I’m a fiction writer

    Like

  33. Elle Artes
    November 7, 2016

    2,500 words a day is tough and next to impossible!! Which is why I’ve never bothered to try NaNoWriMo… Good luck to anyone that does ! Great article BTW
    – Elle @ Thirtyish.me

    Liked by 1 person

  34. itsmayurremember
    November 7, 2016

    You are right about editing a 75000 or in my case a 50000 word novel, I can’t figure how to edit it anymore. So many flaws, structural and character wise. That draft is going in the to-do list forever.

    I really like the advice. But I am less of a planner and more of a writer. Everytime I write, I end up going with my imagination. I will definitely try out your method.

    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Julie Reeser
    November 7, 2016

    Agree with most of this. Did NaNo and won. The novels is collecting dust on a shelf because I would need to start over from the beginning to fix all of the holes, structural mess, and general problems. I do think, though, that people who methodically outline ahead of time have a better chance at creating something viable.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Tara's Cooking
    November 7, 2016

    I’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, and now that I have, I certainly won’t attempt it! But I do appreciate your advice for writing in general. Thanks!

    Like

  37. Wajdi Almowafak
    November 7, 2016

    Really enjoyed this!

    “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
    Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades

    Liked by 1 person

    • kennedykamal
      November 10, 2016

      Is that a book

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wajdi Almowafak
        November 14, 2016

        Yes, it’s a book which is a Collection of Essays by Thomas Mann. Sixteen essays, a rich course in European literature, for he writes not only of the specific personalities he has chosen, but abundantly of their contemporaries, their place in history, in the arts. Brilliant scholarship, profound philosophical as well as historical content, these essays are, for my choice, Thomas Mann’s security in the hall of fame.

        Like

  38. creativityamongdigitalchaos
    November 7, 2016

    This makes so much sense!!!thank you for this wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  39. George F.
    November 7, 2016

    Brilliant. Surprised the participants don’t “do the math” before they enter.

    Like

  40. Pingback: ¿Por NaNoWriMo es noble nuez – y 8 pasos para que sea más fácil – apserranoblog

  41. Dysfunctional Womans Digest
    November 7, 2016

    P.S. You are absolutely correct about The Matrix trilogy!

    Like

  42. Dysfunctional Womans Digest
    November 7, 2016

    I loved this and want to thank you for your words of wisdom. I am participating in my first NaNo and have hit a wall and this is why: I can’t just sit down and produce because my writing comes from my soul and not my fingers! Production is not art in my definition and I can easily create a 500-word something meaningful. Thank you for your post! XO DWD

    Liked by 1 person

  43. 🎿️Edelweiss🍦chérie
    November 7, 2016

    Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

  44. confabler
    November 7, 2016

    Sane advice, O scribbler of speeches and thriller Conjurer. Guess my typewriter won’t file any assault charges now.
    Didn’t even notice any rhetorical trick and I was actively seeking them. You are good.
    Good day – Jia

    Like

  45. Clari
    November 7, 2016

    Very good advice in this article. Thank you for sharing this wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

  46. jumpbackjr
    November 7, 2016

    Reblogged this on …Down to the River and commented:

    Want to write a novel…this makes more sense than anything I learned as an English major.

    Like

  47. walledcitybooks
    November 7, 2016

    Yes. Much of what is said here is probably true. It does, however, fail to mention a very important fact: many people who would have written nothing end up writing something. The pressure to produce will, for a person with a viable idea and the required linguistic skill and flair, leave them with a first draft that can be developed.
    While writers need to accept the harsh realities of the publishing world, I feel it is a little arrogant and destructive to glibly write off the whole pursuit.

    Liked by 2 people

  48. Ana Gui
    November 7, 2016

    We want to write stories, But living in the reality!😉
    I did the maths and I saw it was Impossible for me. But still, Thank you for the wiser advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  49. Victor Poole
    November 7, 2016

    I actually do write 10,000 words every day. I just finished my first 5,000 words today at 8:00 this morning. I used to do 2,000 a day, and I felt I was not doing enough. I then went to 7,000 words a day, and then to 10,000. A lot of indie writers write faster than you’d think. I write epic fantasy and science fiction, and I create outlines with my own version of Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method.

    Liked by 2 people

  50. saralakron
    November 7, 2016

    I made it through NaNo twice. It was a fun, if manic experience.
    I’m not doing it this year because I feel committed to trying to actually edit the two novels from NaNo. I think the should be a National Editing month to get the NaNo novels off the shelf.

    Liked by 1 person

  51. sharonecathcart
    November 7, 2016

    I feel great when I get 500 words/day on paper. I write historical fiction, which also means research … and so some day the word count is a big, fat goose egg. I am trying to finish a first draft this month … but it’s one I’ve been at for a while. Great perspective here.

    BTW, I think the correct spelling is purtnear.😉

    Liked by 1 person

  52. Joanna Trotter
    November 3, 2016

    No wit here just a note. Isn’t NaNoWriMo word count for the month 50,000. = approx. 1700 a day not 75,000 = 2500? That’s what the website says and that is what’s being talked about on writing sites elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  53. AlexandriaConstantinova
    November 2, 2016

    That Kermit gif slays me. Wonderful tios. Brilliant analysis of the nuttiness. Hugs, A

    Liked by 4 people

  54. Pingback: Live to Write – Write to Live

  55. stillight
    November 1, 2016

    This was great and practical advice – thanks! 500 words a day sounds much more doable than 2500, and hopefully with much better end results. I will go pull my copy of ‘Save The Cat’ off the bookshelf now.🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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