Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
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.
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:
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.
Here come the word counts:
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.
So what’s the floor and ceiling for daily word counts?
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.
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.
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:
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.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award. Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.