08 November 2010

NanoWriMo: A Cautionary Tale

by P. J. Kaiser (@pj_kaiser)

I used to thrive under pressure.  I worked many years as a management consultant and I was all about deadlines, timelines, lines at airports and lines at Starbucks.  When I first began writing, in spite of being the primary caregiver for my two young children, I kept the same go-get-‘em attitude. 

If there was a challenge, I accepted it.  If there was a deadline, I met it.  When I first heard about NaNoWriMo last year, my first thought was “That sounds like fun, but I might not have time for that.”  I should’ve trusted my first instinct.  Somewhere along the way, in spite of myself, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and worked on my outline.

Allow me to rewind a bit and tell you that the reason I began writing in the first place is that I have a story to tell.  It is fictional, but is roughly based on the life of a friend of mine.  I saw NaNoWriMo as my chance to dive into the novel and begin the real work of becoming a writer.  Never mind the fact that on a good day, I could only scrape together maybe an hour of writing time without staying up until the wee hours.  Did I mention that I was also taking an intensive writing course at the same time with Stanford Continuing Education? 

If you’re thinking, “This has disaster written all over it,” then you’d be right.  Halfway into the month (after a boatload of some truly golden words), I started to get uber-stressed.  I was staying up late and my daughter was frequently still waking up at night.  But like a bulldog that wouldn’t think of letting go of his favorite bone, I just couldn’t back down.  I figured I only had two more weeks, right?  I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that I “won” the word-count but at great personal cost.  My health suffered and my family life suffered. 

I think if it had been any other project besides “the” novel, then I might have let it go.  But when you’re waist-deep in a project that you’re that passionate about, it’s difficult to take a step back and say, “Pace yourself.  Find a balance.  Don’t burn out.”

Doing NaNoWriMo, for most people, requires sacrifice.  Unless you’re already a regular writer, meaning that you already have a regular writing time scheduled into your day (I mean more than the fifteen minutes that you spend writing over your lunch hour), you need to sacrifice something.  You choose to not watch Dancing With the Stars in order to write.  Or you choose not to go shopping in order to stay at home to write, for example.  These sound like pretty good trade-offs.  If, however, you choose to stay home from work to write, there might be an issue.  If you choose to write instead of eat or sleep, there might be an issue.  If you choose to write instead of spending time with your spouse or children, there might be an issue.  Sacrifices are necessary, but consider what they might be before embarking on NaNoWriMo.  The types of sacrifices necessary and the level of acceptable sacrifice are, of course, different for every individual.

If at any point during the month it seems that the sacrifices are too great, then please have the sense (unlike me) to gracefully bow out.  There is absolutely no penalty for trying and not finishing.  In fact, many people who do not win indicate that they still feel an incredible sense of accomplishment for just having tried.

There are plenty of naysayers out there who would try to dissuade you from writing at all, let alone participating in NaNoWriMo.  If you read this recent article on Salon by Laura Miller you might have felt very disheartened.  Make sure, however, that you read Carolyn Kellogg’s rebuttal in this Los Angeles Times article

NaNoWriMo can be an incredible source of camaraderie and inspiration.  It might just give you the nudge necessary to begin a project that’s been lolling around in your brain or to embark on a shiny new project.  If you decide to do it, then I am sending you all the writing pixies that will fit in a Fed Ex envelope – I hope they are enough to see you through to the end of November!

P.J. Kaiser stays at home with her two young children and finds time to write – generally in thirty-second increments.  She writes mostly flash fiction and serial stories in a variety of genres.  Her work has appeared at the “Soft Whispers” site and has been included in anthologies such as “12 Days 2009,” “Best of Friday Flash Volume 1,” the chapbook “Dog Days of Summer 2010 – Not From Here, Are You?”  and, most recently, “50 Stories for Pakistan.”  Earlier this year, she won the February writing challenge at “Write On Online” with her story “Waiting for Spring.”  She can usually be found hanging around at her blog “Inspired by Real Life.”  P.J. is also the co-moderator of “Tuesday Serial,” a weekly collection of links to the latest installments of some of the web’s best online serials.  P.J. lives with her family in Hoboken, New Jersey.


  1. This is actually a really interesting perspective! As someone who writes on a regular basis, I never really thought heavily on the process of making sacrifices for NaNoWriMo, but this really shows what could happen!

    Congratulations, however, on what you did get done, and hopefully it was cathartic, to get it out. Hopefully the toll was not to great!

  2. You made some good points. This is my first nanowrimo and already I've found it to be a great learning curve. Although I REALLY REALLY want to get to 50000 I'm mainly approaching it as a tool to learn about myself and my writing process. I didn't plot and just jumped in on Monday and thought I'd go with the flow. It's been tough but at other points really fun. If I get anything I can use then I will be chuffed. I'm hoping to come away with a decent 25000 words and the knowledge of what I can do when pushed. Any nano book isn't going to be ready to meet the world as of Dec 1 anyways...so I see nano as the running start of something that has the potential to continue on long-term.
    But while sacrifices have to be made, things do need to be kept in perspective. If you run yourself down then surely the writing will suffer anyways.
    Good post and lots of food for thought!

  3. Sadly I've already had to bow out of NaNoWriMo this year. Started out okay with a great idea (least I think so ;) and a decent plot outline... just haven't had the time to write tus far other than the paltry 400+ words I managed on Nov 1. After thinking about it and weighing what I would have to sacrifice to reach 50K i decide it wasn't worth it to push that hard and risk my health and home. Maybe we need a mini month that's only 20 or 30K for people with full time jobs :)

  4. I didn't sign up this year either. I wanted to but knew the month of November would not work for me. So I am going to do my version of it in January. New year, new words. That is going to be my motto.

  5. Thanks for your insight and emphasis on balancing drive with other demands. For about 10 minutes I was very tempted to join the crowd but saw very quickly that the I was already more than challenged with the needs in our home right now. Those needs are more urgent and important than my desire to improve my writing and "learn about myself and my writing process." I hope what you have written lifts the burden from others as well.

  6. I've not yet participated in NaNo - I've always been in the midst of a manuscript. Plus, for the reasons you've mentioned in this post, that method of writing wouldn't work for me. I edit and tweak as I go, and when I'm finished, I have a semi-polished first draft. Plus, I fear losing critical threads, as I don't plot far in advance. I set my own word count goals, and frankly, when the choice is writing or laundry or cleaning, writing always wins.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Great post! I totally agree it is all about the sacrifices and knowing where to make them. I guess that is why I have taken a much more casual approach in writing with NANO this year. No daily word count updates, no writing down words just for the sake of writing. I'm actually going to enjoy this process and write when I can. Again, great post!

  8. I'm doing Nano for the 3rd year in a row this year, but I've carefully budgeted my time for it. I also have my publisher's backing me up, so in a sense it's work. That's not to say that I haven't let writing get the better of me. I was once so possessed by an idea that I hardly slept four hours a day, barely ate and wouldn't talk to my family. After 2 weeks, I was a zombie that was working herself to death. I was saved by an ovarian cyst that forced me to sleep and sort my priorities. I still get those phases every now and then (I call them demon days) but I know better now than to let them take over my life. No trophy, contract, or 'other' is worth that.

  9. Great post! Writing intensely does require sacrifice, though I think for most people you can squeeze out a few minutes here and there and make the quota. You are right though that if you're already stressed, this might not be for you.

    I was actually considering not doing it this year, but my son begged me to because he wanted to nanowrimo with me. So that allows me chunks of time or I stay up late writing. I'm glad that you are taking time for yourself and encouraging others along the Nanowrimo journey. I'm sorry you didn't have time to do it, but I think a lot of people have more time than they think (cutting out a half hour of tv or cutting out Twitter, etc).

    And here's the perfect example. I just typed a bunch of words into the comments instead of writing on my novel. :D I'd better go for now. Thanks for sharing your advice! :)