Thursday, November 5, 2009

NaNoWriMOhNo

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the birth of NaNoWriMo, or "National Novel Writing Month." If you're not familiar, NaNoWriMo works as follows: you sign up in early November, write as much as you can during the month, and if you break 50,000 words by midnight on November 30th, you win. Hooray, you! You wrote a novel!

...or did you? Here's the deal: first, 50,000 words is not a novel, unless you're writing middle grade. You're going to have to beef it up to 60,000 words—minimum—and would probably be better off getting it into the 75,000 – 90,000-word range. Over 100,000 is probably pushing it.

Second, even if you have 75,000 – 90,000 words, that is not necessarily a novel. Unless you've got all the necessary parts in place and working, it's just a pile of words.

Third, no one in his or her right mind should be submitting a manuscript to agents if it isn't the absolute best piece of writing he or she is capable of. If that's true of whatever you churned out in a month without editing, you probably shouldn't be writing. Period.

Last, it seems that a lot of people are missing the point of NaNoWriMo altogether. Despite Chris Baty's invitation to "write laughably awful yet lengthy prose together," a lot of folks are getting really amped up about having finally written a piece of fiction of substantial length and are more concerned about FINALLY BECOMING AUTHORS ZOMG than about having fun writing crap, which is what the contest is really about. If even one sentence of whatever you concoct in the spirit of NaNoWriMo leads you into a publishable novel somewhere down the road (with substantial editing and revision, of course), you should count yourself lucky.

Think of it this way. Over 119,000 people signed up in 2008. If even one in ten of those people thought they could pass off what they'd written that November as a finished novel and tried querying agents, that's eleven thousand nine hundred queries (thanks to Marshall in the comments for correcting my mega-sweet math skills), assuming each person only wrote one. And who only queries once? No one. Especially not people who think they've got a representation-ready novel after a month of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing. As you can imagine, it gets kind of annoying when a small minority of NaNoWriMo-ers believes they're done at 11:59 PM on November 30th and starts the Query Machine going at full tilt at 12:01 AM on December 1st. It's especially annoying because the holiday season is the industry's busiest time, meaning agents and editors are already swamped and really don't want to have to deal with an influx of terrible writing from writers who may or may not understand anything about the book publishing industry.

So, in summary:

· If you're participating in NaNoWriMo, have fun!
· Don't send your 50,000-word MS—or even 90,000-word revision—to agents until and unless it is the strongest piece of writing you could possibly forge in the fires of Mount... Your Imagination.

Tomorrow: Laura! Round-up!

51 comments:

  1. Hate to be picky, but 10% of 119,000 is 11,900 (call it 12,000)

    OK, that's still a lot of queries.

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  2. I think you're overgeneralizing with a) why people do nano b) how people do nano and c) what they do afterwards.

    Some people aren't just using nano to write pieces of crap. Some ppl are using it to jump start that novel idea they've been working on for a long time. Of course, the first draft isn't expected to be good, but that's gonna be true regardless of whether you're writing in Nano month or any other month, regardless of whether you're already published etc. First drafts are always crap. That doesn't mean that Nano first drafts will always be crap (even crappier than regular first drafts to the extent that, as you wrote, if even one sentence is publishable they should count themselves lucky) and therefore will probably never be able to be crafted into a legitimate, queriable novel.

    There are actually quite a few Nano novels that have been published. But I definitely agree, NO novel written at any time - whether during Nano or any other period of the year - should be submitted to agents unless it's been revised to death and crafted to the very best of the author's ability. It's just a waste of everyone's time otherwise.

    By the way, what goes on in the industry during December? I actually do have a novel I've been revising since August and have passed over nano to keep revising it. Is December a bad time to query because it's so busy for agents? Would it take longer to get a response? or should I just wait for January?

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  3. I think on a blog like this you might be preaching to the already converted....

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  4. I agree with Anonymous - I know I'm signed up to build community, meet other writers, and get motivated to spend as much time writing as possible. A lot of the people I've met (not all of course) are just doing it for fun. They have no intention of submitting their stories about their boss's untimely death (by zombie) for publication.

    Your advice is good of course, but if people are reading publishing blogs like this one I think they probably already know: don't submit until it's awesome, and the best work you can do. It has to be stellar. We know :) Just because we happened to write it with a big support group doesn't mean we've lost our minds!

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  5. And i think you're missing the fact that all over the Nano page and in his book No Plot No Problem it's stated that December is the time to begin revisions and editing. It's not nano's fault if a few people skip that part. Those people are the kind you're going to get queries from regardless. The only thing Nano changes is that you may be getting them all in December instead of spread throughout the year.
    Janet Reid had a post on the same thing and she said that she's never really noticed any change in the amount or quality of queries she receives after nano.

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  6. I have resisted so far. Regarding word count, what would you do with something that you considered completed but only 35000 words?

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  7. This is a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe I'm the one missing the point, but I don't understand all the ire directed towards NaNoWriMo these days. Are there really a lot of NaNoWriMo-ers that truly believe they're done once they hit 50k? It's not that I doubt they're out there, but I've never come across one. Also, it's my understanding that agents are deluged with bad writing and naive writers all the time - is it somehow more annoying when it comes from someone who wrote a novel in a month as opposed to someone who's spent years on their novel?

    Sorry. This is a theme I've notice around the blogosphere lately - and it seems to be directed at the program, rather than directed at the minority who might not understand the true aims of it.

    Just my two cents.

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  8. Huh.
    I guess I never thought of that. I had always assumed the point of NaNoWriMo was to get people writing no matter what the cost and worry about the carnage later. But...definitely deal with the carnage later.

    It's a help to get first drafts written, definitely not to actually finish a novel. I think Falen's point is good: those dumb people are going to query agents regardless of having won NaNoWriMo or not.

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  9. I'm doing nanowrimo because I am currently working on a novel thats close to 50k words. It's no where near completed, but I've been working on it for 8 years... I'm participating to see if I can actually write something I could consider 'finished' (beginning to end) without getting stuck editing, rewriting and revising the same 61 pages... :)

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  10. Isn't writing all about the love of doing it? And if you love doing it, shouldn't it be fun no matter what? I love NANO. Thanks for a great blog.

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  11. It's a...
    kick-your-butt-boot-camp-but-you're-still-not-Laura-Croft-Tomb-Raider-extraordinaire.

    It's a...
    purge-it-out-now-diet-in-the-Biggest-Loser-kinda-way-but-you're-still-not-ready-to-be-Tyra's-Next-Top-Model-or-Heidi's-Project-Runway.

    It's a...
    desert-drag-race-with-your-geek-made-prototype-with-a-fiery-finish-line-and-back-to-the-drawing-board-again.

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  12. I've said it before, I'll say it again... December is National Finish Your novel Month (30K words in 30 days, to get you to a publishable LENGTH of 80K). And then March is National Editing Month, which will hopefully get you closer to having publishable QUALITY. Anyone who reads the "I wrote a novel, now what?" section of the NaNo website will NOT see any encouragement to submit to agents right away.

    Furthermore, last year over 120,000 people signed up, but only about 18% of them won. That's approximately 21,600 winners. Then let's say that 10% of these people are clueless enough to think that this work is publishable RIGHT NOW. That's only 2,160 querying morons. Reesha and the others are right -- they were going to query you ANYWAY. In fact, they probably would have queried with "a great idea for a novel" even if NaNo didn't get them to actually write a novel.

    I started doing research about agents a year after I finished my first NaNoWriMo, and I learned so much about the process; I bet that NaNoWriMo's website and forums educate enough people to balance out any crazies they might be encouraging.

    I love NaNo, and my 2005 NaNo project is currently on submission to agents (yes, that's 4 years between first draft and querying).

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  13. So far NaNo has been good for me. Usually after working full-time and distracting myself with various hobbies (singing group etc etc), I find an excuse not to write. But writing every day has been great for me, and I'm bending the no-revising rule a bit. I'm not obsessing about every word as I usually do, but I'm not settling for crap either.

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  14. I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2004, and sold my manuscript in a two-book deal to Grand Central Publishing in 2007. When I finished NaNoWriMo, I was 50,000 words into a 90,000 novel. I spent the next 18 months editing it!

    I love to motivate people to participate in NaNoWriMo by sharing my success story. I tell them that it is a way to get their idea out, like conditioning a big hunk of clay. AFTER NaNoWriMo ends, it is time to craft that blobby hunk of clay into an art piece.

    Was my first draft a hunk of crap? YES! But at least it was a starting point, I wouldn't have written my book if it weren't for NaNoWriMo!

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  15. It would be interesting to know if similar posts showed up on websites dedicated to long-distance-running before the NYC Marathon. "You people think you're marathoners just because you're trying to run a marathon? You don't understand marathon running at all."

    Is it really that painful to reject too-thin, poorly written novels? Is it really that hard to distinguish a well written submission from a NaNoWriMo self-indulgent farce? Do you really think that if it weren't for NaNoWriMo you would have fewer bad novels sitting in the slush?

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  16. I think you're preaching to the choir. Anyone who is participating (I am) and reading this blog clearly doesn't think NaNo is about having a query-ready novel by December.

    But NaNo is really helping me get a first draft on paper.

    And I agree with Mandi. I don't know a single person doing NaNo who thinks this is his or her chance to become a published author at last. Although, all of the people I know doing NaNo, including myself, are not attempting their first novel, so that probably helps.

    Lovely blog, though. I love reading it, and just thought I'd actually comment for once. :-)

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  17. Great post!

    There is an alternative to NaNoWriMo...
    http://nanodemo.blogspot.com/
    hehehe
    :-)

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  18. You might add to your post that only 15% of people actually reach 50,000 by the end of the month. That decreases the number of viable manuscripts to maybe....one or two!

    I do NaNo because it is a month in which to indulge in writing, no excuses.

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  19. Anonymous--

    Actually, there were articles like that about the NY Marathon. In fact, even if you finish the marathon but aren't basically a car on legs, serious marathoners won't consider you a marathoner (and it's not even from a running blog, it's the NYTimes!).

    Like running for a million hours in a row isn't difficult enough. Womp womp.

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  20. I think nano is a terrible idea--for me. I don't like revising. I do it, but I don't like it. So if I penned 50K of crap just to get a word count, the aftermath would be depressing.

    Since nano is NOT a complete novel anyway, why the 50K? I think if you cut that in half, you'd get a good start, feel motivated, etc. but you'd also be less likely to have written a bunch of crap. I'll take 25K decent--not great, but decent--words over 50K crap words anyday. It will take a lot less time to write the next 25 than to put lipstick on that 50K pig, let alone turn it into your masterpiece.

    The proper analogy isn't someone trying to run a marathon for the first time. It's someone whose maybe only run a mile or two signing up for the NYC marathon. You know they'll be on the subway about 40 minutes into it.

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  21. sorry, that should be "who's"

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  22. Actually, this year is the 11th anniversary of the noveling event.

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  23. I can understand why NaNo might scare the socks off agents and editors expecting (seeing?) a deluge of queries for badly written novels in December.

    But.

    Writers don't often get the support they need to finish a novel, much less edit it to perfection. NaNo seems like a great opportunity to meet writers in your area (Write Ins!) or bond over the writing process. The realities of publishing are grim enough. I think a little early-holiday heart-warming community-support for writing is just the thing to lift the spirits. (which is required if you're going to Never Give Up!)

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  24. I've never done NaNo. I spent four months writing a 103K novel, and the last 22 months workshopping and revising it three times. It still might not be publication worthy, but I think it's getting close.

    This month I'm doing FiMyDaNo (Finish My Damn Novel).

    For those who use NaNo for the community and the encouragement, or to develop daily writing habits, cudos. But if you think it's going to help you create a publishable piece of work, sorry. There's much more involved in writing a novel than slapping words together on a daily basis. Even writing a novel with polish, might not get published, unless you can find an agent and editor who think it will sell.

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  25. I'm with NewGuyDave here. FiMyDaNo! I'm a year in and on my third edit.

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  26. Eric, you have a seriously tough audience. Thanks for the post.

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  27. I think this is an uncharacteristically negative post for the blog - who cares if people want to try and write something in a month? How do you know how long it takes them? Every writer is different and there will always be people who send manuscripts that are unpolished. Why bash NaNoWriMo? It appears to be something that many people find a positive experience. I say let it ride. I know there are many, many people out there who have been working on a novel for years (myself included)... just because it is taking us this long doesn't mean that's the case for everyone - ok, enough of that :) Not saying it's genius, but Cecilia Ahern finished PS I Love You in only 3 months... Seems a lot of people liked it. Ok, sorry for the rant and good luck to all of you writing this month!

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  28. What is with all of the NaNo hate? I believe most writers who want to seriously submit something from NaNo will take the time to edit and complete their manuscript. I am sure you get some pretty bad submission, probably written on the back of a napkin or envelope, but you should support writer who want to generate a first draft and follow it through to submission.

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  29. Chris Baty and the WriMos state repeatedly that NaNoWriMo is an excercise to get you started creatively and crank out a pre-rough draft--basically a writing exercise to explore ideas and try out elements of a future rough draft, such as plotting and characters. They reiterate all over the website and book that it will take at least 18 months of adding material and editing to create a submission-worthy draft.

    I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this year with friends and blogging about it. Most people are just doing it for the community support and as an exercise to "force" creative ideas onto paper without worrying so much. It's an exercise, not a formula for a finished novel. No one I know is under the absurd impression that NaNoWriMo results in a publishable book in one month. I've never heard of an influx of WriMos submitting slush in December. Have any other editors found this to be a problem?

    I did NaNoWriMo once before (and my manuscript is still in a working rough draft form) and ironically, learned as much or more about the craft of writing by wading through it sloppily during that month than I did in college writing classes, which were nit-picky. Focusing for an hour on one sentence can be intensely educational, but so can slamming all your creative ideas out on paper and then picking up the pieces to create something unexpected.

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  30. Huh. And this was the year I was going to finally take my writing seriously, work on the completed NaNo MS, edit the crap out of it and then possibly, maybe submit it somewhere. Good to know there's a lot of support out there for first timers who use NaNo as a kick in the pants.

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  31. I've never participated in NaNoWriMo, and I'm sure I never will. Not really for or against it. Just don't care.

    Speaking of cutting agents a break (at any time of year), check out this recent rant from Jennifer Jackson.

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  32. I see your point, and agree. If NaNoWriMo was producing incredible writing, why aren't there more NY Times best sellers written as NaNo novels, right? Thanks for the advice!

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  33. While there may be some writers who think they can query directly after finishing a Wrimo, I hardly think that's the norm. People who actually complete the process tend to be established writers, who know Nov. 30 is not the end, it's the beginning of a whole lot more work.

    NaNoWriMo was designed to help people get a first draft of a novel onto paper. Chris Baty, creator of this marathon, makes it very clear that it is only a first draft. As others have pointed out, there is NaNoFinMo in December, to finish the novel at a more sedate pace. This allows for the research you cannot really do to make the 50K in November.

    And then there's the Edmo in March, where you spend fifty hours editing.

    I find it interesting that none of the other Wrimos, in July, August, and ScriptFrenzy in April, get the kind of ire directed at it that NaNoWriMo does.

    I find the Wrimos very effective, although I tend to do two of them back to back, so I end up with 100K. I have only queried on one of the five novels I've done this way, and that was one I edited for two years before I considered it done.

    WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was a successfully published book that started as a Wrimo winner, and it's done pretty well. Don't knock the process till you've tried it.

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  34. I'm doing Nano for the second time. I loved it last year, and this year I'm working on a novel I spent months outlining and plotting. My 8 YO is doing the kids'NaNo version. He's shooting to 3,000, which is still a lot for a little kid. The feeling I have while writing side by side with my son is priceless. Even if that's the only thing I get out of NaNO, to me it's more than worth it. We set a goal, and we both cheer each other on. That's heaven to me.

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  35. Like other commenters,I'm shocked that anyone who actually participates in NaNoWriMo would do what you say: believe they wrote a finished novel because they achieved their NaNoWriMo goals and actually send that draft to agents.

    I've found that NaNoWriMo provides an excellent structure to support the development of a daily writing habit. It also encourages writers to write freely and creatively, setting aside their internal critic/editor in order to dive more deeply into the creative consciousness.

    NaNoWriMo is a tool -- an excellent one, at that -- for many writers. That said, it's not the best one for "vertical" writers -- those who write best by pondering each word and sentence carefully before committing it to paper.

    To blame the tool for the way some choose to use it seems a bit narrow-minded.

    P.S. I love your blog -- and was surprised to see this attitude expressed here.

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  36. I'm a technical writer by trade, so I entered the NaNoWriMo anonymously, with a pen name. I told my editor that I was going to take a break and just "write fun stuff" for 30 days.

    I proceeded to write the most vulgar stuff I had ever written; not even editing-- I felt total release. I uploaded the manuscript-in-progress to Smashwords and created a blog to post my daily writing. Incredibly, I already have dozens of downloads and two write-ups on some well-known book review blogs. It’s only been five days.

    Now I'm a little scared. I didn't expect the writing to get any attention, and I don’t want to jeopardize my technical writing work, which is my bread-and-butter. I’m having fun, but it’s a little scary. I really want to complete the project, but I’ll have to be careful not to cross-contaminate my real business with this little flight-of-fancy.

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  37. "FINALLY BECOMING AUTHORS...than about having fun writing crap"

    Cracked. Me. Up.

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  38. Agents and editors don't even get the most Nano crap flung at them in December! Most people who do Nano inflict the results on their unsuspecting friends, asking for "honest" feedback (i.e. tell me you love it or this friendship is over).

    No thank you!

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  39. i wrote 35k of my debut, silver phoenix, using nanowrimo. to me, nano isn't about writing 50k in a month, it's about altering it for your own writing needs. i had 40 pages of my first novel and stopped for 6 months, scared stiff to move into The Dreaded Middle. well, nano got me through it. i finished my novel two months later and revised for another year before querying.

    i think it can be really useful if you go into it with the right personal goal for you.

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  40. THANK YOU! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

    It's nice to see someone in the industry actually put into words what I've been saying for the last nine years. (I don't know the exact year I heard about NaNoWriMo, but I've hated it ever since.)

    If someone's serious about being a writer, they should be writing all year round, not dithering for 11 months. And they shouldn't need an event to give them a "kick in the pants" to get them started.

    NaNoWriMo undermines the entire concept of the novel and vulgarizes the very act of writing itself. We'll all be better off if it disappears.

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  41. Wow, such fear and loathing directed at the NaNo! Scarier than vampires, ghosts, and bad novels about vampires and ghosts! Oh, save us!

    Is there any basis for this? Or is it just fear of the unknown? (Check out the actual site for reassurance.) Or envy of people who can write productively, just for the joy of it?

    If NaNoWriMo created problems for the editing and publishing industry, I wouldn't feel as positively about it. But I have seen no evidence that it results in an increased number of junk queries. I have only seen evidence that it results in people discovering the fun of creative writing and finding a supportive community. If that burns your butt, then you might want to seek shelter this month. Bah humbug!

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  42. What's with people defendng NaNo, there's no need. Eric's post didn't say that NaNo was wrong or bash it. Here merely clarified some things. NaNoWriMo doesn't produce useful novel length, and its format doesn't encourage quality.

    As Eric and others have pointed out, including myself, there are benefits to NaNo, like having fun, regular writing, and community support.

    I can't comment on an influx of NaNo mss ending up on agent's desks, but if many people submitted unfinished mss before, and now there are more people writing 'novels', it only stands to reason that more mss will be sent out. Maybe not in December, but in general. If you don't believe the lack of quality of some mss received by agents, read some agent blogs, and learn about some of the quality issues they see when reading queries.

    If you're doing NaNo, great, have fun. Just don't get your expectations up about publication, sitting down to write is only the start.

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  43. That's just the thing--it's a false presumption that this "clarification" is needed, that "NaNoWriMo doesn't produce useful novel length, and its format doesn't encourage quality." That is stated clearly on the website and in the book. The purpose is, and I quote Chris Baty, to write "wonderful shit" and get your creative ideas on paper before you even craft a real first draft. Anyone who participates already knows that. Where is this false presumption coming from, that all the WriMos are sorely deluded about what they're doing, and motivated to swamp publishing houses with more slush? Does this ever happen?

    There are all these bloggers getting upset that people are participating in NaNoWriMo and acting all concerned that it will result in X, Y, Z or that the participants are trying to accomplish X, Y, Z when there is no evidence that that is the case. I just don't get all the outrage at a fun program that gets people excited about creative writing. This isn't the only blog warning about potential dangers or catastrophes resulting from NaNoWriMo. I'm not personally insulted or anything, just amazed at the level of outrage all over the web. Who cares if somebody is typing dumb garbage on their computer right now and having fun?

    I find it psychologically interesting that a program encouraging unskilled people to write freely and in lighthearted communal format is so controversial.

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  44. "We'll all be better off if it disappears"
    WOW - how about letting people work, play or create art (even if it is crap) in their own way without judgement? What if we told everyone who wanted to learn a musical instrument that they should only do it if they are very talented and expect to practice six hours a day to play in a symphony? The world would be a lot sadder.

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  45. I'm seeing a lot of criticism from agents and publishers towards NaNoWriMo. And, in my opinion, and trying not to denote any of the great people who feel that way, but that's kind of judging it by the worst people involved.

    I, for one, actually OUTLINE my novels and do RESEARCH. I write novels in a month. It's the way I work. And the first-drafts are actually pretty good. But they're in no way ready to be sent of, but they're good. And plenty of people have gone off to be published after NaNoWriMo. They put serious work into their books and they turned out good enough.

    It's not against the odds to write a good novel out of NaNoWriMo. But, like in everything to be done, the largest percentage of people are just crazy. Yes, that's absolutely true and I'm not saying it isn't. But there's a lot of people who send queries IN GENERAL who aren't done with their book or haven't even written it. But people don't just say 'queries are a failure because too many idiots are involved'. No. So, what I'm saying is, NaNoWriMo is an excellent thing that gets people to finally sit down and write; a problem known throughout the writing industry.

    Again, not denoting anyone. Just stating my opinion.

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  46. One thing I forgot to say: I wrote a novel in a month, from midJune-midJuly. I'm doing NaNoWriMo and I plan to write another month-novel in another 3 or 4 months. I don't goof off all year, I just give myself a break. The only reason I do NaNoWriMo for the community support and stuff.

    I have a 60k goal for my novel this year, not 50k. Because I KNOW 50k isn't suitable for a novel. But it certainly is good for a start, to get someone to actually dedicate to writing. It's made for newbies to writing from what I've seen. More experienced WriMo-ers should up the stakes a little and make themselves work harder.

    AND OUTLINES. YES, OUTLINES ARE SUCH WONDERS.

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  47. Do people really try to submit an unedited nano work to an agent? Really? Because I don't think you should really submit any sorta first draft to an agent. Unless, of course, you are God and everything you do is perfect!

    I did nano last year. My first draft is 60,000 words. I wouldn't dream of letting my dog read it as is. I will edit it (at some point) and if it's remotely marketable, I'll start making motions...

    PS 119, 000 might have signed up, but nowhere near that number completed a novel anyhow :)

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  48. I think you're definitely not undestanding the intentions behind NaNo WriMo.
    I see it more as "Woo I wrote a lot of words in a short amount time, despite being a college student with papers and rehearsals!" and I have the bonus of being able to say that I've "written novels." Despite the fact that while this is true, I know they won't be published.
    Of the 4 years I have won NaNo WriMo, I have never sent a single query. This is because one look over a NaNo novel and anyone who has read a novel in their lives knows it's not publish-worthy. At least two of my novels will never even see the light of day again. One has potential, but too much revision for me now. The one I just did I am actually considering doing the editing process and possibly sending a query or two out... in a year or so.
    Most people stack their novels with dares and ridiculous plots and characters, and we do it because we love writing and because it amuses us and connects us wth others who think that writing and reading nonsense is fun, without seeking compensation for it, except enjoyment.
    I think that saying 12,000 NaNoers sending out queries is a gross estimate, considering only about 30,000 of them even finish per year. Of the many people I know who do NaNo WriMo, myself included, only one person has ever done a thing with their novel - they sent it into a competition. That's one entry per about fifteen NaNoers. And even I think that's an overestimation.
    Don't get down on us - the more discouragement the publishing industry sends out, the more it dies and kills new work and scares away readers with it.

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  51. Unfortuantely, I think YOU have missed the point. The point of National Novel Writing Month is to allow people with dreams to have them and to teach people that ANYONE can write a novel. Why do you believe a novel is so ~sacred~? Are only some people allowed to write novels? Do you hold all the cards on writing?

    Writing is free, anybody can write anything they want and call it a novel if they please.

    Your elitist attitude is exactly what is killing these people's dreams in the first place. You are telling them they can't. Maybe you should try inspiring people instead of telling them what they can't do.

    And besides, its fun. So why the hell do you care?

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