Fall into Anxiety

“We want to do everything all at once. Grand plans! Sweeping gestures! Epic 23-book fantasy cycles! Don’t overreach. Concentrate on what you can complete. Temper risk with reality.” 
Chuck Wendig

November. It’s quite possibly my favorite month of the year, at least in my neck of the woods, it’s when fall truly begins. Usually arriving in near Halloween with kids running around in thin, fluttery costumes as it’s windy, freezing or both – like we don’t live in the midwest.

It means sweater season. Homemade hot cocoa in tall mugs – no marshmallows, please (I’m something of a purest when it come to cocoa [insert snooty face here]) – made from a doctored version of Alton Brown’s Hot Cocoa recipe. Wooly socks and crackling fires in the family room fireplace (which turns my office into the arctic).

November also brings with it Nanowrimo. My relationship with Nano is multi-colored knot of confusion, anxiety and guilt. I first heard of it in 2004 with only a week or two remaining for the month. I think I was able to pull something like ten-thousand words out before all was said and done. The following year I was determined to complete it (and the grand fanfic novel I was working on at the time) and I did. It was the first time I’d ever written anything on that scale so quickly and it was exhilarating.

Sure, there was no physical reward beyond my own internal satisfaction, but it was fun and I’d made a friend or two along the way. But somewhere around the fourth or fifth year, it stopped being fun. Slowly shapeshifting into a yearly event where I wrote myself in circles and completed nothing. After several years of this, I gave up Nanowrimo entirely in 2009-10, but each year it bounces onto my radar. Loud and shiny and enticing.

Now, before we go any further, let me set some parameters:

This is entirely my experience. If you’ve been doing Nanowrimo for years and it works for you? Go get ‘um. Keep at it. If you need a cheerleader on the sidelines, I can emotionally support you like a boss. My intent is not to bash the spirit* of Nanowrimo, I did it for 5-7 years (I’d give you an exact number, but I deleted my account). So please, no comments on how I should “just try it” and the like. Believe me, I have.

I am well aware that writing – especially as a career – isn’t always “fun”. I understand that as a writer I won’t always shit sunshine and rainbows (and if I do, I should probably see a doctor). Despite the fictional portrayals (coughCastle** (cough) and the mythical, magical ideas surrounding creative fields, writing is work. Perhaps not as physically demanding as a 9-to-5 or a trades career, but to be successful at writing there’s a lot of discipline, stamina and stubbornness involved.

As it expands with each year (there are now three books and at least four related events, last I checked) the Call of the Nano is beginning to feel almost unavoidable. As the saying goes, all the cool kids are doing it. Which eats at me for at least the first week. Because I feel like if I were a “real writer” I’d be able to handle it. If I were truly committed to wanting to finish a project, I’d jump at the chance to use Nanowrimo as a springboard.


Except … Nanowrimo states as it’s first rule that you must start a new project each year. Sure, you can plot and write character backgrounds and world-build to your heart’s content, but the meat of the book has to be brand-spanking-new. This is a very, very bad rule for me. Because I am pro at starting shit (see the first blog post). I have three novels that I consider “active” in my brain (plus three more that are waiting in the wings), as well as four short stories and one children’s / young adult series.


I do not need a Start a New Project That You Will Bail on in Thirty Days competition. I can do that just fine without an audience, thank you. I need a competition called FAFFS – Finish Anything, For Fuck’s Sake – that would actually be useful to me. Nanowrimo taps into my all too well honed ability to get carried away by the New and the Shiny. Now, I know, you’re thinking: Jess, you can break the rules, it’s not like the NanoPolice are going to come knocking on your door …

But the Start New rule is only part of the problem. Nanowrimo is often lauded as a way to “get writing”, “build new habits” and “set goals” and herein lies the problem. Because Nanowrimo is none of these things for me. Perhaps for the first week I’m writing like an addict with a fresh high, but usually by the second week the misery has started to seep in on a slow trickle. By the end of it I’m burnt out and putting down words just to survive. Rather than igniting the fire to write, Nanowrimo dumps a bucket of ice water on my creativity. Leaving me numb and loathing the entire process of writing often into January / February of the next year.

Then there’s the part about building life-long habits in only 30 days. It’s extremely appealing. All told 30 days is a small window to commit to something. Nanowrimo dangles the lure in front of authors that if they just vomit out words for thirty days, they’ll end up accomplished and published authors. But habit forming doesn’t work that way, and neither does writing. Writing – like anything worth pursuing – is about time, dedication and resilience. Nanowrimo can certainly jump-start your creativity, and if that’s what you need? Dive in with the knowledge that it’s a brief but intense mile run, but not the full marathon required for writing and publishing a novel.

Lastly, when it comes to using Nanowrimo to create goals … it doesn’t work for me. At least – again – not beyond two weeks. I’m not a person that can write every day. Now,before you get on some high horse named Writing Rules, hear me out. Even during Augnowrimo this year, using a word count goal half the length of Nanowrimo, writing every day burnt me out. I still ended up exhausted by the end of it (though the quality of work and my enjoyment of the event was much higher). Goals and deadlines are absolutely something I need more of in my life, but I want goals that are realistic, sustainable and satisfying.

So if you find yourself conflicted among the madness of November, know you’re not alone. Nanowrimo isn’t one size fits all (or maybe even “most”), find goals and motivators that work for you and turn down the NanoNoise. If, however, you’d like something positive to look forward to during the mania – to help block out said noise and guilt – let me offer a few suggestions:

Desert Bus “combines video games and tedium to benefit charity” – I pulled that straight from their FAQ – I would also add the word “insanity” in there. Or at least “shenanigans and hijinks”. Watch the Loading Ready Run team and their compatriots play the world’s worst game for a week straight, while bending to the will of their paying audience. It’s also associated with Child’s Play, another charity near and dear to me. DB is something I look forward to all year, and I have no doubt that DB8 is going to be a blast.

Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing competition that knows you have a life. If you need an alternative to Nanowrimo, I offer up ROW80. With the ability to set your own word count, a weekly check-in system and a strong community on Facebook, ROW80 is something I’m planning on diving into with my latest novel ASAP.

Worldbuilders is a yearly fundraiser for Heifer International created by Patrick Rothfuss that helps family raise themselves out of poverty and starvation, but it’s not just a handout or a bag of rice. Heifer promotes education, sustainable agriculture and local industry all over the world. Also, watch the video, if for nothing else than Pat’s laugh. It’s magic.

* I do appreciate the concept behind Nanowrimo, of breaking through and releasing creativity. But I don’t agree with the arbitrary rules that they promote.

** Seriously, when does that bastard ever actually write? Do they show him doing his actual day job anymore? I haven’t bothered to watch since Season 2.

Categories: Life, Writing
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