• Andrew Johnston

National Novel Writing Decade



Each year, thousands upon thousands of people set out to fulfill a dream and write a novel. They read how-to articles, listen to podcasts, and sit through motivational speeches of one form or another. And most of them, sadly, will fall short. It is a daunting task, especially if you're doing it on a timetable.


So make this the decade of the novel. Commit to writing and editing a 100,000 word manuscript in the next 10 years. That's a mere 10,000 per year, 900 per month, 200 per week, or 27 per day. Found us late? No problem - a month, even a year won't take too much away from your journey.


There are no pep talks because we don't have those kinds of connections. There are no achievement badges because we can't be asked to make them. There are no word counters, because who needs the pressure? Our motto is The World Doesn't Need Your Novel (So Take It Easy), and we mean it. There's nothing to win except for your dreams.


So start the decade right, with that first paragraph. Or put it off until tomorrow - it's all good.


What Madness is This?


Past experience has taught me that posts like this tend to draw smarmy comments from emotionally brittle people, so let me begin with these two points:

  1. This post is only tangentially about the National Novel Writing Month

  2. If you feel that someone is being mean to something you like, you can (and usually should) simply ignore it.

Now, onto the actual beginning:


Kurt Vonnegut, the patron saint of writing-themed image memes, once divided authors into two camps: Swoopers and bashers. He defined them thusly:

Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.

It's an elegant set of words that also happened to be very useful.


Note the past tense there. The use of these terms has markedly declined in recent years. These days, you're far more likely to see a different dichotomy: Planners and pantsers, which describe one's approach to outlining. It's a set of terms strongly associated with the National Novel Writing Month (hereafter NaNo), though you'll now see them used in a variety of books and articles on writing.


I mourn the slow death of swoopers and bashers, and not merely because those terms have a certain brutal poetry to them whereas the term "pantser" triggers my gag reflex every time I try to speak it aloud. Mainly, it's because the latter terms have pretty well assassinated the very concept of a basher. "Planners" and "pantsers" are both swoopers, and there's nothing else.


This isn't too surprising in and of itself. NaNo is a contest for swoopers - that's the point, to get a first draft down as quickly as humanly possible. If these terms they coined were restricted to the contest, then this would hardly matter. That the terms are now frequently used outside of NaNo speaks to a change in writing communities that I feel is unhealthy: A stress-multiplying emphasis on speed and output above all other considerations. There's no modern equivalent to "basher" because so many people treat it as an illegitimate way to write, and push young writers to work as fast as they can.


Writing Advice is Awful and We All Secretly Know It


One of the most common pieces of writing advice is that the prospective author must force himself to write every day. Usually this is framed as a certain amount of time each day or a certain number of words each day; alternately, it may be a certain number of words per week, or there could be some form of scheduling involved. You've all seem this advice in articles before.


I hate that advice.


If you aren't familiar with the cynical nature of article writing in the 21st century, you might think that the reason so many people are instructing you to write, say, 1000 words a day is that it's universal advice and must be useful. Not at all, I say. How-to articles on writing are governed by two fundamental forces: The iron law of search engine optimization and the desperate need for authorial self-promotion. The former guarantees that platforms will favor articles with similar topics, while the latter incentivizes a quantity-over-quality approach.


In sum: Modern writing blogs need to put out a lot of content, and the best way to do that is to copy what's already out there. It's the same reason you see so many "X sites that pay writers" articles that are just a completely arbitrary selection of markets from the Writer's Market guide: They take little time to compose and they turn over hits. Actual analysis doesn't take much more time, but why bother when the absolute minimum will do?


Write Quickly or Die


But I'm not here to complain about SEO (something I've already done anyway) - that commercial blogs are repetitive is not new to anyone. What concerns me about those articles is the tone they adopt. They treat writing slowly - bashing - as though it were simply wrong. No, you must write quickly. Writing slowly is just an excuse, a form of procrastination. If you don't start writing 1000 words a day, then you'll never finish your novel, you'll never be a bestseller, you'll never be remembered. And yes, I have absolutely seen articles with this borderline threatening voice.


Writing 1000 words a day (or 5000 a week, or for an hour a day, etc) won't make you a good writer. What it might do is train you to write on deadline. That's a useful skill to have if you want to be a ghostwriter or writer-for-hire, or the kind of professional series author who needs to produce a certain number of manuscripts per year.


But how many people fall into this category? What about the people who only want to get one book published, just for the sense of accomplishment? Or who plan to write as a sideline while keeping their jobs? Or the pure hobbyists who don't care about money at all? Not everyone wants to write four novels a year until they die, and most writers will never need to know how to finish a full manuscript in seven weeks.


So it's worth asking where this relentless time pressure came from, and here we must turn back to NaNo. I'm not going to put all of this at their doorstep - there are a lot of factors here, as there always are - but it's definitely worth considering why they took this approach. When it was dreamed up two decades ago, the intention behind NaNo was to offer motivation to the kind of people who've said they always wanted to write a novel but could never find the time - chiefly working adults with families. The copy on the NaNo website is still written like this:

Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists. (Emphasis added)

But increasingly, they're not teachers or parents - quite the opposite. The average participant has grown much, much younger in recent years. Back when NaNo had public stats, you could see that about half of all participants were teenagers. Why does a 16-year old (or a 26-year old, for that matter) need to write a manuscript right now? Isn't there time?


In much the same way, the "write quickly or die" approach has spread beyond its intended audience - people aspiring to be commercial writers. We now have hobbyists trying to force themselves into routines that don't suit what they're trying to accomplish. There are two typical outcomes: They can't keep up and feel like failures, or they amp up the stress until they burn out and quit. Either way, you get someone who's learned to hate that which they once loved.


And Now for Something Soothing


Again, I'm not going to blame NaNo for this mindset. It's certainly a factor, but there are many others. You could just as easily blame the old conventional wisdom on blogging in which people were told that they needed to write a dozen articles a day. You could blame the increasing importance of SEO and the perverse incentives that it creates. You could blame any number of big writing sites and a publishing industry that has made them so critical to the marketing process. If I really pushed myself, I could probably find a way to blame it on everything I don't like.


The point is: It's complicated. It's a complicated world.


On the other hand, here's something simple: If forcing yourself onto some writing treadmill is making you miserable, then take a step off. Give yourself a year to finish that manuscript - better yet, give yourself ten. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

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