Press "Enter" to skip to content

Nanowrimo, the Writing Marathon

This November more than 400,000 people will participate in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s much like preparing for a marathon. People talk about the approach with excitement and anxiety, wondering if they’re cut out for it. People who have done it before act like old pros willing to impart their wisdom from the other side of the grand accomplishment. Many read dozens of articles, like this one, about how to get ready and how to stay with it. Some join support groups, clubs, or online forums for camaraderie. Roughly 37% of people who participate in marathons actually complete them. Whereas, last year, less than 10% of the people that participated in Nanowrimo made it through the end of the month (at least according to self-reporting.)

Does this mean Nanowrimo is harder than running a marathon? It’s not. More people finish marathons because more people take it seriously. They make a commitment to set aside time for training for months ahead of time. They start the race surrounded by dozens or maybe hundreds of people. (Or in the case of the Boston Marathon 30,000 people.) The same things that make it hard to keep going make it hard to give up. All that time. All that sweat.

All sorts of people try their hand at writing Nanowrimo, For some it’s a total lark. Some are daring themselves. A few are really invested in it, almost desperate to write their first novel, using Nanowrimo as a fixed formal point when they’ll tell all their friends they’re participating and feel the anxiety as November approaches.

For my purposes, I’m going to divide Nanowrimo participants into two categories: writers and non writers. If you fancy yourself a writer, you might ask yourself how a participant can be a non-writer. For the same reason someone who decides to run a marathon once in their life isn’t a marathon runner, or even necessarily a runner. They want to be able to say that they did it.

Writers and non-writers alike are putting some skin in the game with this. They are risking some self-esteem. Whenever we fail to do something, it makes us feel like failures, especially when we don’t really try too hard. (Actually—purposefully giving it much less than 100% is a common self-sabotage tactic. It’s a reliable excuse after the fact.)

If you consider yourself a writer and you’re participating in Nanowrimo, you’re not really a novel writer yet. The same way you’re not a marathon runner unless you’re almost always training for a marathon. Writers write almost every day. Writers are constantly producing, constantly thinking about their writing, and constantly improving. Those people are usually in the middle of a writing project come November 1st and have no time or reason to participate.

So if you’re a writer taking part in Nanowrimo, you should take the same advice as the non-writers, because if you don’t finish Nanowrimo, you’re probably going to suffer another hit to your motivation to writer. Completing this will probably mean more to you than you’re willing to admit.

There’s something to keep in mind, so I’m going to say it now and come back to it later. Writers should already be doing everything they’ll be doing this month. Maybe not writing 1,667 words a day (how much it takes to complete the 50k word task.) every day, but pretty close to it. Also, the idea that it takes three weeks of doing something before it becomes a habit is probably wrong. Research shows it’s more like 66 days on average—especially for complicated things, like sitting down and writing every day. So if you want to be a writer, you need to keep that writing habit going at the end of November. Sure, put this novel aside, but start your next one, or write a cookbook, as long as you keep writing.

I’m currently leading a workshop at a local library for patrons eager to start on their first novel. Every one of them considers themselves a writer. None of them has written a novel yet. They all see this as an opportunity to move to some next level with their craft.

I’m going to use the marathon analogy again. In order to make it through a marathon without passing out, one has to train. One has to spend many hours over several months getting into appropriate shape. Once the marathon runner is at the starting line, if they’ve trained conscientiously, they’ve already won. They’re in great shape and they’ve improved their self-discipline and willpower. I think nanowrimo is more like the training than the actual marathon. Writing consistently every day for a month is what it is. Writing consistently every day for maybe the rest of your life is another thing entirely.

In any case, you can never do something well until you do it often. Nanowrimo is a good opportunity to start a lifelong habit because it is the talk around the water cooler in writerly circles. You and approximately 400k people are all leaving the starting gate, and a lot of them have the same ambitions that you do. Don’t waste your time with dilletantes that think this will be a fun thing to brag about but never do again- the sort of people who collect hobbies. Make friends with people who have similar goals, join a group or start one. Maybe your local library is having a workshop for it.



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: