I was talking with a good friend and colleague of mine this week, and he expressed a serious concern to me. His social media feeds were lighting up with people participating in National Novel Writing Month as they bragged about their progress so far. “These people are going at it all wrong,” he told me. “It’s not about how many words you got done today or who you ‘write like,’ it’s about writing a fucking novel.”
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the gist of what he said. Now I’m all for recording milestones and being proud of your accomplishments, but the slow evolution of NaNoWriMo from a collective, creative event meant to support and encourage writers to a competition instead is a serious concern. Here’s the thing, folks: you’re not going to get very far if you’re coming from a competitive mindset, especially when it comes to a creative pursuit like fiction writing.
The problem with a competitive mindset is that much of the time it’s spurred on by feelings of envy and lack. “So-and-so can do this, why can’t I? Well you know what, I’ll show them I can, too! I can write just as much as he can! In fact, I’ll write more than him! That’ll show that smug bastard!” You don’t actually think you’re going to produce something worthwhile if you have that mindset, do you?
This is the mistake many would-be authors make during NaNoWriMo – instead of approaching it like an opportunity to tap into their creative selves and take a major step towards the crafting of what could be the Great American Novel, instead they’re looking at it as a competition between themselves and everyone else participating. It turns into a contest to see who can write the most in the shortest period of time. Since you can “win” NaNoWriMo by producing at least 50,000 words of content, the word count suddenly becomes the most important thing.
I hate to break it to you guys but word count is the least important part of writing a novel. Yeah, it’s true that you can’t really call what you’re writing a “novel” unless it’s 80,000 to 100,000 words or so – otherwise it’s more of a novella – but it’s the content of those words that counts. Things like plot, setting, characterization, theme and dialogue, not “oh well I wrote 13,000 words this week, I’m such a good writer.”
You know what? You might be a great writer. Those 13,000 words you wrote this week could be the best fucking thing ever written by man. You could be total garbage as well, and out of that 13,000 there’s maybe only 3,000 to 4,000 that are actually any good. The thing is it doesn’t matter how many words you write a week – it’s how well they’re written.
Word count literally means nothing. Through my regular standing orders for my clients, I write anywhere from 12,000 to 25,000 words of original, unique content every week, but volume doesn’t mean anything to me. If my clients don’t like the content of what I’m writing, it doesn’t matter how much or how little I’ve written for them; it’s either high-quality stuff or it isn’t, and you don’t get paid for producing garbage.
So if you’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo, do yourself a favor and don’t pay too much attention to word count. The reason it’s set at 50,000 for the month is to get would-be writers into the kind of consistent work schedule that’s required to produce content. To hit 50,000 words in 30 days you’ve got to do, on average, a bit over 1,600 words a day. It doesn’t sound like much, and it’s not – it’s the day-in, day-out routine that’s the difficult part. That’s 1,600 words a day for thirty days straight – and if you can do that, you’ve got the discipline to write for a living, but it doesn’t mean you’re producing anything that’s better than your typical Spock/Obi-Wan Kenobi slash fiction.
Of course, if you’re lucky maybe someone will publish it anyway. Just change the names and call it 50 Shades of Jedi or something.