NaNoWriMo and a note to writers about process

Participant-2014-Twitter-ProfileDuring NaNoWriMo, it’s pretty common to see people who doubt that they can write, because they are struggling with NaNo. I love the event and it works well for the way my brain is wired. It’s not for everybody. Just because I work better with a deadline doesn’t mean you will.

I’ve also seen people slamming NaNo because it doesn’t work for them. Just because it doesn’t work for you, doesn’t make those writers that enjoy it wrong.

But really, this is true of every writing process under the sun. So here is the most important thing I can say to you about process from one writer to another.


Everybody’s brain is wired differently. The process does not matter. Only the end result matters.

If you work best solving things in outline before you get there, great! If you work best by discovering your story and then tossing the manuscript and writing an entirely new draft? Great! Try a bunch of different things. Figure out how your brain works best.

But do not judge your success as a writer by comparing your process to another writer’s.

Your audience will never see your process. They won’t see your mistakes and stumbles or any of that. All they will see is the finished book. Your process does not matter to them. Only the end result matters.

So if NaNo works as well for you as it does for me? Go forth and write like the wind this month. And if it doesn’t? Go forth and write in whatever manner works well for you.


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14 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo and a note to writers about process”

  1. At least one writer I know is approaching writing a novel based on short stories. Meaning, each vignette is considered a short story (less intimidating) in a grander scale.

    If I understand the concept of NaNoWriMo, the idea is to write. I think the IDEA of writing a novel is what’s scary, or at least scarier than writing a short story.

    So, don’t commit to writing a novel . . . if it helps you write, commit to writing 30 short stories 1,667 words each.

    They don’t even have to be connected, but if you want to challenge yourself a bit, weave them around a particular event.

    For instance, 30 short stories regarding 9/11, or the moon landing, or a cruise . . . anything, really . . . just not broccoli. I hate broccoli.

    Also . . . you don’t have to “join” to participate. I eschew the community, but still hold to the goal. Then again, if being a part of a group helps your motivation, go for it.

    The point is, and always was, to write. Figure what works for you.

    That’s my advice . . . then again, no credentials to speak of, so all this advice might be crap.

    1. That is a great idea. I have actually been wondering about spinning some short stories based on the novel/world I am working on. Going in as a pantser I see the idea growing and growing making me realize – I may not see the end of this for a few years; in fact, starting at 55 years of age, writing one hour a night, I may never see the end. :/ Writing some stories that tie into the main concept, without mucking with the main story line too much (since that may still evolve), seems like a great way to get my feet wet, discover additional aspects of the world, and maybe flesh out characters I like who will get slimmer treatment in the main novel. Thanks..

  2. Truth! I was once told by a writer that the ONLY way to write a novel was with an outline, and if I didn’t use one, I WAS DOING IT WRONG. I schooled him. It really doesn’t matter what an author’s process is as long as they get a novel at the end.

    I do coach other authors who struggle to get to the end-result novel to try other approaches because the one they are using isn’t working. Sometimes it take a few novels to realize what works and what doesn’t. I have a pantster friend that tried to be an outliner forever and struggled. Why struggle when you can do what comes naturally! We can learn a lot from other people’s processes, but we should never judge.

    1. That was my problem – I could never get past the outlining stage. I thought an outline was mandatory. I started pantsing at lunch earlier this year and stuff started coming out – not even the story I expected. It has just grown. I am just starting to make some outline-ish notes as I realized I will box myself in to a corner, without some general idea of what these characters are up to. I’m glad to hear others are the same. Truthfully I thought something was seriously wrong with me because I seem ‘smart enough’ but couldn’t force my ideas into neat rows and columns.

        1. Thanks. I finally got that, though for hmmm… 35(?) years I thought it HAD to be that way. Not sure why that got stuck in my head. It’s like when I discovered during an oral presentation – in high school- that horizon was not pronounced hoar-iz-ohn (like horizontal) and that you swallowed medicine in capsule OR tablet form – I swallowed capsules but chewed tablets for many years (I mean why would you make them different shapes if they were supposed to be taken the same way right). :$

      1. Along the lines of figuring out one’s own process, it’s useful to keep in mind that each individual person is the ultimate arbiter of the NaNoWriMo rules, and they can change them if they want.

        If a writer’s process doesn’t work with writing a bunch of words in a month, then they shouldn’t write a bunch of words in a month. But I would recommend identifying a different, comparable stretch goal that will work with their process, and aim for that.

        To provide an example: I have a friend who set a goal of writing a season’s worth of TV scripts for November. He’s still a writer, just not a booky-writer. The “Novel” of NaNoWriMo didn’t work for him, so he nixed that part of the rules and made his own to replace it. Because he’s the one who gets to decide what rules he’s bound by.

      2. Burt, that’s awesome! After some time, I realized I fall in the beats-pants column (I need to come up with a better name for that… discovery beats? That sounds like the name of a band!) I start off my novel with an idea of what I want for the first act. I get through the first act, and every chapter after that, I write a quick two or three sentences of what I want to happen for the next chapter before I close the computer each night. I never “plot” more than one chapter or so ahead. This way, I open the computer the next day and I know what to do! It’s great for me, and I figured out that process on my own after I realized I don’t HAVE to do it a certain way.

        Thanks for another great post, Mary!

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything with an outline. Even papers in grade school where you were supposed to do the outline first — I’d write the paper and then backdate the outline from that.

    The only thing deadlines work for is when I’ve gotten the meat of it done and there’s just those stupid linking scenes and details (like the poem in Mary’s current project) that I find boring. I will avoid those and write all the interesting, fun stuff first and then put the dull connecting stuff in.

    And a bunch of short stories is, actually, a whole book! Who doesn’t have a collection by a single author on their shelf? The fix-up of related stories is also a common way (at least in SF) to create a novel. You might have stories set in the same world at the same time but each told by a different POV character… at which point you might be gaming for thrones and singing about ice and fire.

    NB: I feel this is the edited-for-television version of advice Wendig might give. No cussing, no violence, shorter. 😉 It’s the PBS version instead of premium cable.

  4. Some years NaNoWriMo works for me, some years I end up with 20,000 words cobbled together into a whole so abysmally awful that I cringe in horror. It’s similar with outlines: for some projects they can work brilliantly, for others they choke inspiration at the root. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Different stories require different methods, or at least that’s how it works for me.

    I really enjoyed your post, Mary–so glad I stumbled across your blog!

  5. Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts and experience with NaNoWriMo, Mary! 🙂

    I know a *Lot* of writers really struggle with this. And I have reposted this in a writing group, to whom NaNoWriMo is virtually unknown. Who are struggling with the challenges it’s presenting them, as they try it out for the first time.

    I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed both your writing, and your thought process while discussing it. And always appreciate your willingness to share your insights with others! 🙂

    Be well, and thank you again for your willingness to help the writing community as whole! 🙂


  6. but it’s fun to compare my process to other writers’!

    seriously, i get your point. but some of us are pedants who love to categorize and systematize and always want to try something new. think of it as our hobby. but in the spirit of your admonition, people like me should make an effort not to paint that as a universally valuable approach….

  7. I love Nanowrimo because last year I used it to push myself to finish my first rough draft. And this year I am using it to begin my second one. I think the “50K in 30 day” formula helps people overcome the fear of the size. But I found myself changing the way I wrote this year. I don’t see any point in slamming another’s creative process. No one I know writes like you do, or like I do, or like Hemingway, unless writing in a particular way means we record words, hoping to convey ideas to another. I personally do study other’s processes, simply to see if there are tricks I have not tried that will make the whole easier in the end.

  8. At the same time, if some other writer does something that sounds like it’ll work for you, there’s nothing wrong with doing it yourself. Like Mary says, just don’t judge yourself if it doesn’t work for you.

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