Thoughts on NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month.

Every November, for the past few years, tens of thousands of people have signed up, gone to writer groups, and made a pact to write 50,000 words in one month.

Since it began, it has also been easy to find people criticizing NaNoWriMo in all sorts of ways, and for all sorts of reasons, most of which focus on how smug such writers can be. I cannot speak to all the criticisms here, but I can say that writers are not just insufferable in November; they’re insufferable the other 11 months of the year too.

Present company, uh, excluded.

There is, however, one criticism that I would take with the idea. It has to do with goal setting.

Setting goals is a positive thing. It might be the most positive of things. When you set a goal and you realize it, you feel great. You feel powerful, and you want that feeling again. This creates a positive feedback loop, driving you to achievement.

Writing a book, even a poor one, is a great goal. Like any big goal, it takes a great deal of endurance. You have to manage your energy, and careful about doing so. The act of simply typing 50,000 words is taxing, let alone a book with structure, plot, and characters. But 50,000 words is definitely doable. People write books all the time, usually with 90,000 words or more.

However, the picture darkens considerably when you try and do that in a single month. The day-to-day math of NaNoWriMo writing works out to a bit over 1600 words.

Every day.

To compare, it would be like me sending you all an entry and a half for Traditionalistic every day for a month straight. I could not, and still can’t, manage that kind of production. Many professionals couldn’t.

Goal setting, in such a way as to create unrealizable goals, can backfire in spectacular ways. In weightlifting, you might try to lift a weight for which you’re not ready, and spend months not lifting anything heavier than a fork. In business, you might set sales goals for your auto repair shops, and end up with angry customers when they’re charged for unnecessary and unfinished repairs. In writing, you might become so focused on an arbitrary word count that you actually cut and paste Wikipedia articles just to reach that goal.

Setting goals in this way encourages cheating and shortcuts, because people want to meet their goals. They want to do what they set out to do. The alternative is failing, over and over.

Even though failure is something you need to understand if you’re going to succeed in anything, being unrealistic in your goals means you’ll risk becoming weighed down by that failure. If your goal was to lose weight at a pound a day, and you never ever met that goal, in spite of how hard you trained or how well you ate, how would that make you feel? How motivated would you be to get on the road, or to cook, or conduct all the small, daily wins that your larger goal entails?

Those small wins, too, are going to cost you. I’m not talking in terms of money. Money is rarely the issue with a thing like writing; literally, you can scribble on anything, almost anywhere. What I’m talking about is opportunity costs.

Opportunity cost is a microeconomics term that few people think about when they’re talking about their lives. Basically, it’s the cost of choosing to devote limited resources to one of multiple choices, preventing you from using them towards others. For example, you might buy a new car instead of going on a trip to the Bahamas with your savings. The opportunity cost of buying the solid Toyota Camry you so wisely purchased is the trip to the Bahamas, which you couldn’t take because you’re driving your solid, fine looking silver Camry which complements your beard very well.

But the biggest currency of our lives is not currency at all, but our time.

Committing to doing something like NaNoWriMo, you will have to give something up. It doesn’t matter if it’s ten minutes or ten hours, you will have to make calculation based on opportunity cost for your life. The world’s business gurus will talk about how you should stop wasting time, but the fact is, you don’t waste time. You might watch six hours of TV or got sucked down the BuzzFeed rabbit hole daily; that might be a bad time investment, but it isn’t time wasted. The fact that you were doing it on a regular basis means that thing was important to you, at least more important than doing nothing. Rare is the persons that spends their days laying in bed staring at the ceiling.

In NaNoWriMo, people say: “I’m going to write a novel.” It’s rare that someone will say something framed in the proper way, as in “I’m going to write a novel instead of hanging out with my friends,” or “I’m going to write a novel instead of taking overtime at work,” or “I’m going to write a novel instead of getting in shape.” But that is the choice you’re making, especially if you’re going to write 1600 words every day. Understanding that is key.

Even if you do everything I’ve outlined here, you will likely fail at some point. Nothing is automatic. Every time you reach to become something greater than you were, you risk stumbling and falling flat on your face. And you will do so. Pretending you are a machine will only make that more difficult, because your day-to-day will be hellish.

But it need not be hellish. Anyone must manage energy properly to keep chipping away at their goals. Anyone can do it, but they need to be realistic about what kind of work they can do, and what they’ll need to give up in doing so.

Don’t wait for November. Whatever your goals are, do them on your own terms. Be gentle with yourself. Nobody will cheer you on louder than me.

Tweeting about it, though, is still ill-advised.

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