NaNoWriMo and looking at some terrible advice.

I participate in NaNoWriMo every year, but it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. The thing I want you to know, as we go through the month, is that you don’t have to feel pressured into writing. So I want to talk a little about some commonly passed around advice that can make you feel like a failure.

You must write every day. Well… no. You can actually have a successful career and be a binge writer. You can write most days, but have a structured day off.  You can write randomly. You can write on a strict schedule. Ultimately, it doesn’t actually matter what your writing process is, because the reader will never see that. Now, writing every day does some useful things. During NaNoWriMo, I do, in fact, write every day BUT during the rest of the year I just write most days. The thing that is useful about “write every day” is that it forces you into the chair on days when the story is difficult or you’d otherwise make an excuse.

The problem with “write every day” is that it can make you feel like a failure if you aren’t writing because of travel, or depression, or exhaustion, or just because you need time to sort out a plot point. You aren’t a failure if you don’t write every day.

A writer, writes. Okay… sure. That’s true. But it’s easy to misconstrue those three words into thinking that if you don’t write, you’re not a writer.  Know what? A plumber is still a plumber even when not plumbing… or whatever it is they do. Point being, that if you need to take a break the universe won’t reach out and take your writer badge away from you.

You must submit your fiction. This is true, if it is fiction you want to sell. But it’s totally okay to write things just for the fun of it, with no intention of ever having a career as a writer. We allow that with every other art form, but there’s a societal pressure to publish that I think is really harmful to a lot of early career writers, or people who simply enjoy it as a hobby. You’re still a writer, even if you never publish a thing. You may not be an author, which does require publication by dictionary definition, but you’re still a writer.

You must… Any teacher, including me, who starts a sentence that way is about to utter some bullshit. What they mean is “this works for me and I’m telling you hoping that it will work for you, too.” Name any rule, and I’ll be able to find you an example of published fiction which breaks it. Also? Blind adherence to rules is a good way to watch fiction stagnate. The rules might help you with things that you struggle with, but all of them can be broken.

The bottom line is that as a writer, you need to figure out what works for you. If that’s NaNoWriMo, awesome! If it’s not? Also awesome! If you don’t know what works? Try stuff. Maybe even use November to experiment. If you don’t? Still not a failure.

What’s some writing advice that you’ve struggled with?

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29 Responses

  1. Nancy Norbeck

    Yes to all of this! It’s so hard to convince writers in particular that the “rules” they hear aren’t necessarily anything more than other writers trying to prove that they’re better than someone else. Thank you so much for being another “voice in the wilderness” on this topic!

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Sometimes, I think it’s not about trying to prove that they are better, but that they are excited because they found something that works. For them. With the kind of fiction they write. Sometimes.

  2. Victoria

    I’ve done the binge writing, the write every day, write on designated day(s) and pretty much every kind of produce word option including “finish it before you write it” (i.e, for me, get it all worked out in your head and then sit down to type what you’ve imagined.) All have worked for me. All have not worked for me.

    Nanowrimo doesn’t work for me.

  3. S0rceress0

    “Write one thing at a time”

    ….my chalkboard is filled with 3 to 4 projects at a time. It gives me a fantastic range for my intense attention span on one subject. I have lots at hand and I feel more complete. In between, I’ll even jot down poetry, reviews, etc.
    I tried. I tried only working on one thing and spend days at a time staring at my desk not having a word to say, but having a thousand other characters screaming in my head. It just didn’t work.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Oh yes. I use structured procrastination a lot. I know why that one exists — it’s something that makes sense for people who never finish projects because they are constantly moving to the next shiny thing. But heavens above, it’s not something that makes sense for everyone. (Also, I’m jealous of your chalkboard.)

  4. Sally

    November has always seemed the WORST month for this.

    It’s dark and cold and wet, which is depressing, and depression usually lowers your word count. There’s 4 days in the US that you might as well forget — even more if you’re traveling (who’s gonna get 1600 words done on the day you’re dragging the family to and from airports?), preparing all or part of the food, or hosting/cooking (which means shopping, cleaning the house, wrestling a turkey, figuring out how to get drunk uncle to behave…). The young kids are underfoot during those days too; the college kids are home borrowing the car and asking if you can do their laundry.

    Meanwhile, December holidays, end of the year paperwork, etc. begin to loom large.

    I guess if you’re a single hermit, it’s great?

    I think my sum total of advice is: you do you.

    1. Ashley

      Yes to all this. I still participate in NaNo, because I love it, but in an abbreviated way. With a second grader, work (or this year, work and school), and an absurd love of the holidays — the pressure to also write 50K seems to be too much. It helps that the husband and friends are also writers and NaNo-ers, but there’s still only so much a person can cram into a month.

      Thing is, I never find Camp NaNo useful either. Half of the reason NaNo works, for me, is the infectious energy of it. Camp just doesn’t get that.

  5. Jack Cranshaw

    One thing that I’m still trying to understand is what I do different with my narration. One of my writing group members gave me the feedback that I do narration differently, but that she really liked it. So I don’t have a problem, but I’m still trying to figure out the difference. Since I’m a noob still, I think I may be screwing with the POV in a non-standard way, and it may need to be fixed … but then maybe not totally.

    It’s okay to break rules, but it’s good to know what rule you’re breaking.

  6. Jamie Todd Rubin

    There was an interesting post on Medium the other day that touched on the root of this, I think. There is a difference between advice offered in second person, and advice offered in first person. I’ve always tried to offer advice using the latter: Here is how I do XYZ, here is why it works well for me–as opposed to second person, which often becomes, you should or you must.

  7. Pamela Dean

    “Start with short stories and work up to novels.”

    “Avoid [any word] or [any part of speech].”

    “Kill your darlings.”

    Good for some people, I am sure, and more power to them; but of no use at all to me.

    Pamela

  8. Aimee J Heil

    Actually, the “write every day” has often snagged me. On the one hand, I do find that if I take multiple days off in a row I lose track of what I’m doing and the writing falls flat.

    However, if I write every single day then everything STILL goes flat. My brain gets all muddled and unhappy and it becomes a struggle to get words on the page.

    I’ve found that taking a “reading day” twice a week really helps me so long as I space it out between two “writing days.” But … yeah. That’s just me. I’m sure other people have found ways to get around this particular wall.

  9. Andy Phillips

    I particularly like what you said about “You must write every day.” and “Writers, write.”

    I have ADD, and one of the ways it affects me is that is difficult for me to start things. I need to be really stimulated to start a task and if I don’t do it soon after I stall and not accomplish anything. Usually I have to get excited about something for a period of time before starting to get the momentum going.

    Word sprints are killer during NaNoWriMo, because the constant starting and stopping leaves me at a state where I’m near achieving momentum and then it is time to stop. It’s really frustrating. Although I might try a quick 5 minute sprint just to see if I can continue writing from there.

    Now I must clear out a chunk of my room so I can start putting chalkboard paint on the walls and ceiling.

  10. Ctein

    Dear Mary,

    I tried the “write every day” thing and it didn’t work well for me at all. In fact, I gave it up pretty quickly. It was such a nonstarter.

    Turns out I’m good for a certain number of finished and polished words a week, on average 3,000-4,000. Or, more realistically, about 15,000 words a month— I’m pretty consistent at that level. The day to day? Not at all.

    Most importantly, I discovered that when I had a really good day it would wipe me out for days afterwards. Some days the words were just there for the taking, and I could do a finished chapter, maybe even two, before dinnertime. I think to myself, “Gee that’s great! Now I’m a week ahead of schedule.” The next day, when I sit down at the keyboard, I have no inclination to write. Assuming I even have the inclination to sit down at the keyboard, which most of the time was not.

    I’m not even a particularly extreme case. I know one very well-regarded and highly successful author who goes for many months without writing (professionally). Then their Muse decides it’s time and they will turn out a full novel (or more!) in a month.

    I think there is one bit of generally good advice, though, for an aspiring writer.

    Finish what you start!

    In my observation, the single biggest factor that keeps competent writers from becoming successful ones Is that they lose steam/interest/enthusiasm/whatever halfway through and they never finish the piece. There is just so much half-finished work out there that is really good… so far as it goes.

    Oh sure, if it turns out that one’s idea was a genuinely bad one, abandon it. Nothing’s ever right 100% of the time. But most aspiring-but-failing writers aren’t in that situation. They’re just stopping.

    Nothing wrong with putting something on hiatus for a while. Nothing wrong with putting it on the shelf to stew some more while your unconscious figures out what comes next. But if that’s consistently your pattern, you have a problem.

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery http://ctein.com
    — Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com
    ======================================

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      “Finish what you start” can also be dangerous without context, since sometimes it really does lead to people working on things they loathe and then stopping writing altogether. I’m fonder of “Figure out why you don’t want to finish.”

      1. John Allenson

        That’s great advice in general.

        I would tell people if you have Writers block AKA the little voices in your head have stopped talking to you figure out why.

        Sometimes I’m just too depleted to write. Sometimes there’s something very wrong with my plot or the characterization that my subconscious is trying to tell me.

  11. Yvette

    I struggle with the advice to “ship it!” Finishing any given piece of writing; declaring it loud and proud “good enough” is my biggest challenge.

  12. Angela Korra'ti

    Thank you so much for this! I’m kicking it around on my social media accounts, just because I hear online friends all the time lament about not winning Nano, and maybe losing a bit of sight of how they still got some words out of their brains.

    I’m trying Nano again for the first time in a while, trying to finish up as big a dent as possible in my current major WIP. I’m very impressed by how much the site has developed since I last took a serious stab at it (in 2009). I love the improvements to your profile and the ability to record data for past Nanowrimo efforts. 🙂

    Re: writing advice I’ve struggled with–I don’t have specific advice that has caused me problems, per se. I think many of my current struggles as a writer come from seeing what other published writers are doing, and getting hit with imposter syndrome if I can’t keep up. E.g., “real writers put out a book every year!” E.g., “real writers query their novels to agents and publishers!” E.g., “real writers have to clear X in yearly sales!”

  13. Bruce Arthurs

    The “rule” I’ve settled on is “Write what you can, when you can, the best you can.”

    If that’s everyday, great! If not, don’t sweat it. I’ve been an “occasional” writer since 1975, with about a dozen short stories published since then, with long, long gaps between sales. (My upcoming story in the December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine will be my first publication since 2006.) Better than some people do, not as good as other people do. I’m okay with that nowadays.

    My only mandatory goal when I decide to sit at the keyboard is “write a good story”. Everything else is gravy.

  14. John Allenson

    One really big piece of advice that is common that does not work.

    “Write what you know.”

    I write what I can imagine. I write what I can research. I write Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magic Realism, Horror, Mystery, and Historical.

    Not each and every piece of writing need be a memoir.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Ah, yes… This is one that gets misconstrued a lot. I think it would probably make more sense as “Extrapolate from what you know for adding sensory details and character reactions,” but that’s not as punchy.

      1. John Allenson

        My experience was not that the advice was misconstrued. I’ve been in many a writing class and/or writing group who told me that genre is a meaningless waste of everyone’s time.

  15. Mariah Avix

    The thing that always trips me up is the endless advice on cutting. All the things to cut, all the words, the amount, the kinds of things, the characters.

    My problem is I write too lean, it seems there is almost no advice for plumping up your writing. It’s all cut it down until there is nothing on the page and quit. At least that’s what I’m hearing.

    Then after reading the hundredth thing about what to cut I start to feel really alone, like no one else wrote anything that wasn’t an epic exposition tome.

    1. Leigh Hays

      You are not alone with the lean bit. I think I took show not tell to heart and my current story is suffering from a complete lack of tell. Apparently there’s a point where you have to actually tell the reader something. 🙂
      I’d love to see something out there that talks about that.

  16. John Allenson

    The best writing advice I ever got was from Karl Schroeder.

    While I doubt it was original to him he’s the only person I saw who said this.

    Figure out whether you are good at creating Ideas, World Building, Structure, or Typing vast amounts of words. Once you’ve figured that out put all of your energy into the things you are bad at and ignore the thing you will do automatically.

    Myself, I come up with ideas but find it near impossible to write large amounts. NaNoWriMo is perfect for someone like me.

    Most of the books for people wanting to be writers are focused on stimulating ‘creativity’ but with the assumption that once the writer has a good idea that they can then sit down and type out 60,000 structured words. It’s useless information for me.

    The worst advice is assuming that what works for one person will work for another if you do not have the same problems.

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