Why You Should Burn Your NaNoWriMo Novel

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If you’re reading this, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is over and you have one of the following in your quivering, coffee-stained hands:

  1. A string of nonsensical words that closely resemble the ramblings of a mad centaur.
  2. 50,000 words that are mostly just alternations of “I hate this” or “Crap!”
  3. A pretty solid attempt at something that might be considered a novel someday, somewhere, somehow.
  4. Something ready to be published, by George!

I’m assuming none of your answers are #4. If your answer is #4, then you’re a more talented and braver soul than I could ever be. Good luck to you and your prodigious career as the most awesome writer who ever lived.

However, if you answered #1-3, you may have a different issue on your hands. Maybe the best answer would be to burn the screeching banshee of a manuscript and hurl it back into the swirling abyss where you jerked it out one painful, gut-wrenching word at a time.

Yes, I said burn it. Throw it away. Hide it. Delete it. Whatever.

“But no!” you may say, “What did I spend this whole month doing then? That can’t be the only option, right?”

If you’re not cursing me by now, I may have a series of answers to your questions.

1. You Practiced Writing for a Month

You spent the whole month practicing writing. That’s not a terrible thing, is it? You learned what doesn’t work and what does for you as a writer. Maybe you’ve found pantsing was the biggest mistake since socks with sandals. Perhaps you need to outline way better next time you attempt something on this scale. There’s even a chance that you found that elusive voice people keep telling you about. All in all, you got a lot of practice at writing. Even if it all amounted to you smashing your head against the keyboard for thirty days, you wrote. Something.

If you wrote 50,000 (more or less) words in a month, that doesn’t necessarily mean what you’ve created should ever see the light of day. It may hiss at you when you approach it, but don’t be afraid to kill it. It’s OK. Take NaNoWriMo as your chance to learn your craft, experiment, and “find yourself” so to speak. If your project is truly, truly not salvageable (and it hurts me to say this because I’m in the “Finish everything” camp) then burn it.

Disclaimer: please don’t actually burn your hand-written manuscript or computer.

By burn it, I mean put it away somewhere to use as a bloody badge of honor, a reference for why you shouldn’t rush anything, or to steal great ideas from now and again. Label it “50K Word Spew”, or “Howling, Dagger-Eyed Witch Sloth”, whatever stands out so you know this particular novel was only for practice. No one need ever see its ugly face. Just because your NaNoWriMo novel faltered to the finish line, doesn’t mean you have to never use anything from it. Plagiarize from yourself if you can.

2. It’s Time to Relish in the Edit (AKA Descent Into Madness: Part 2)

You may have a manuscript that causes you to wake up in a cold sweat screaming about meandering exodus of the goat people sub-plots and elven love triangles. However, if something deep down inside of you says, “Hey, this might actually be good,” then you may burn selectively. Look at your manuscript as a gooey, blackened marshmallow you left in the fire too long. Pick away the inedible parts and dig into the delicious, hot-lava wonderment of wood-flavored mush. Or dig for the good stuff in your writing.

Editing is one of the only clear paths to the best NaNoWriMo project you can manage. If you “allowed yourself to suck” as the saying goes, then you must realize that your novel needs a lot more love than it can get in one month. Ignorance of good editing techniques is not enough to survive. Well, maybe it is, but you can do better, right?

Editing is your chance to kill every single horrible word you wrote in November. You don’t have to accept that what you wrote looks like goblin scratch. Editing is the fire that burns brightest. Your light in the darkness. Your–it’s good, OK?

Let’s take something that may have been written during NaNoWriMo:

a. Rajarth the Rhinoskinned cracked the goblins’ heads together like two overripe coconuts. His muscles rippled and a large vein in his forehead looked ready to burst like the dam of Glazeria or an overstuffed Ladronian hell-serpent. A massive boulder tumbled down the snow-capped mountain toward him, threatening to crush the ever-loving Thunderjackal spirit from his glistening, muscle-cabled body. The mountain housed the Thousand Forked Tongues of the Gigantor Beetle Snakes, which if Rajarth could take but one, could resurrect his fallen unicorn Prettybighorn so they may ride together in the gray hills of the Deadlands of Haaath. It had three “a”s because it was different than Haath which was about three miles away and much dingier. Haaath also had much finer scrambled eggs in their local inn. After Rajarth finished with the dastardly, blood-crazed, whining, smelly, snaggle-toothed goblins, he would have a plate of steaming scrambled eggs, perhaps with a nice sliced tomato drizzled in Mazzari olive oil, not the runnier Trakal version.

Boom! Got that word count goal for the day! Yeah, I’m so awesome!

You might edit this down to:

b. Rajarth cracked the goblins’ heads together. “I’m hungry. Anyone else want scrambled eggs?”

Feel free to argue which version is better.

Editing your NaNoWriMo novel can cut out a lot of superfluous words, festering sub-plots, and characters that just stand there waving with blank looks on their faces. Don’t be afraid to cut or add. Hopefully, you put notes on your novel as you went like, “This majorly sucks” or “I want to shoot this character out of a cannon” or “I’m never writing another elven love triangle as long as I live. This month anyway.” If you didn’t, maybe it would be a good idea to do so before you tackle a heavy edit.

I believe in January and February, NaNoWriMo does a feature called “I Wrote a Novel, Now What?” It may be worth checking out.

3. Live and Learn

Perhaps you feel your NaNoWriMo novel didn’t teach you anything. You didn’t finish it because it was horrible and you decided to spend your time on other things. Maybe you were too busy or just didn’t plan well enough. There are all sorts of reasons you may not feel like NaNoWriMo worked for you.

If this is the case and you feel like nothing good came of it, great. That’s perfectly fine. Don’t be discouraged. Live and learn. Maybe writing 50,000 words in one month isn’t something you should try again. Or maybe November just didn’t work for you. Try doing it another month (CampNaNo allows this as well). It’s fine to be a slower paced writer that takes time if that’s what works for you. However, the key is getting words down so you have something. If you spent all month laboring over each word, then that’s fine if that’s your style and you achieved what you wanted.

NaNoWriMo is really just about setting goals for yourself and trying to accomplish them. Sometimes we don’t reach our goals. That’s fine. Prepare better next time or even continue on with what you DID write. Nothing says November is the end, except the Mayans. Oh wait, that was December. Never mind. Even if you burn you novel and never look at it again, try to learn a lesson somehow.

  1. I can’t write 50,000 words in a month, but maybe I can try 25,000?
  2. I don’t like writing fast, so I’m not going to do that again.
  3. I don’t like putting pressure on myself. My life is already too stressful. I’ll set smaller goals for myself and attempt them.
  4. Maybe writing a novel isn’t for me. I’ve always wanted to try underwater welding. I’ll spend next November learning that.

Your options are limitless. The best thing about doing NaNoWriMo is learning something about yourself as a person and a writer. It’s not always about having something you can one day publish and show to the world.

A note: I’m a big advocate of NaNoWriMo and finishing things. However, sometimes you have to take one in the arm and keep going. Hopefully, you’ve learned a lot from NaNoWriMo and can carry on as a stronger writer. Most of all, if you do burn your novel, try to make it the last one you do. Because all those ashes are going to crowd up your writing space.

So how do you feel about your NaNoWriMo novel? Was it worth the effort or should you just burn it and cast its ashes into the sea? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. And no matter what, keep on writing!

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

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Philip Overby

Philip Overby is a nomadic warrior, indiscriminate troll slayer, undead unicorn enthusiast, former indie wrestler, and lover of all things fantasy. He lives in Yokohama, Japan.

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28 comments
HughASullivan
HughASullivan

Mine's probably somewhere between 3 and 4. There are bits that are wonderful, and there are bits that are just running commentary and sound rather forced when read out loud. That's what happens when you're frantically trying to write on a deadline. However, I did myself a few good services ahead of time that helped me not make a complete mess.

First, I spent all of October doing my own little OctoPlanMo. I came up with an outline. I rewrote the outline. I added to the outline. I rewrote it again. I filled character/plot niches. I rewrote it again. By the time November came around, I had the entire first 3/4s of the novel planned out so well that I rarely had to add or subtract anything from the plot as I was writing it. Unfortunately I didn't get to do the last few outline rewrites on the last act of the story, which is why I handily beat the 50,000 word count mark, but did not actually finish the novel. Second, I started writing a couple of other smaller serial fictions during that month, just to get used to sitting down and writing a thousand plus words a day on a regular basis.


Thanks to that, my output was actually pretty decent. Not fantastic, but easy to edit/rewrite/fix into something that's probably going to be pretty publishable.


... or I may just say "Screw it," and break it up into bite-sized chunks and publish it as a serial. Either way. :)

authorvotey
authorvotey

I finished my NaNo in 14 days and continued writing it. I am somewhere between 3 and 4 in that I intend to publish this, but only after I make a name for myself. I am proud of the work and look forward to it being published.

KuokMinghui
KuokMinghui

The problem with NaNoWriMo lies in a lot of writers seeing this as a serious practice. I don't know about the rest, but NaNoWriMo will always be the last thing I'll touch with a ten feet pole. One of the most contentious issues surrounding this crazy 11th month is this: do you view success in terms of result or process?


If your answer is "result", then you've finally proven to me why NaNoWriMo shouldn't be the end of everything. In a world where publishers are more interested in punctuality, there will be a risk where authors ended up compromising their finest standard even though they could have done much better otherwise. A lot of hardcore purists have lamented the decline in writing standards and it's not hard to see why.


If your answer is "process", then congratulations. You know what is important and what are the red herrings. Writing is all about learning as you go, NaNoWriMo shouldn't be seen as anything more than a mere learning process.


Sadly, it seems that a lot of writers are taking every 11th month way too seriously. Someone better remind them how long it took G.R.R Martin to complete one volume of A Song of Ice and Fire. From 1996 till 2013=only 5 books outed.

elle may
elle may

I managed to stick with nanowrimo to the end this year and finished a 50000 rambling novel with no real structure. something that usually takes me 6 months and never gets finished. i'm about to sift through it and salvage what i can.

Nano certainty turns off your inner editor because there isn't enough time.

Chris Garrison
Chris Garrison

I just won my 6th NaNo. Two have been released by small press publishers, one is about to come out, and the rest are slated to be published as part of a multi book deal. So I guess I'm in the #4 category? Not all that glitters is gold But not all that's written in November is trash.

Caroline Laxon-Abbott
Caroline Laxon-Abbott

I did a pre plan this time round. It's my second attempt at Nano and I am hoping this time round I have something to actually practise editing on. My first attempt is best left in a drawer, but it did at least get me writing rather than lots of all talk and no hard copy. :-) I give my word spew a couple months and then I'll tackle the monster and see what comes of it, but it's too early to say whether its and all burn or not. :-) Most likely, if it can be pruned down, I may only end up with say ten pages, but hopefully a lot easier to read and understand. :-D

John Robert Sermon
John Robert Sermon

After my 2nd nanowrimo challenge win in as many years, I'm not burning anything. I'm proud of what I've done. But now, its all about the edit.

Monnanon Kirsty
Monnanon Kirsty

I an happy with my nano project this year. It is the 7th version revolving around the same sort of idea and finally it feels solid. Once it is finished it will need so pretty heavy revision but at least its now a coherant story.

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer

I attempted NaNoWriMo this year, but basically did not get further than some notes about the mythology, concepts and main characters along with a very short first chapter. Life got in the way, but that's not all. It became very evident that I won't be able to make use out of NaNoWriMo unless I am a great deal more prepared going into it than I was. I'm not currently in a position to be able to write fiction as a stream of consciousness without any outlines and notes. I do like the ideas that I came up with, and would like to pursue them further, after some tweaking.

Marie D. Jones
Marie D. Jones

Both my past NaNo novels will be released next year by a major publisher. No burning for me!!!

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani

I didn't do NaNoWriMo in the traditional sense this year. Rather, I used the month to rework an already existing project. Overall, I'm very happy with the progress made, so I won't be burning anything this time around. :)

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

Hi Philip

Great post, thanks

Also, great discussion in the comments. I agree, trashing something you spent time on can be counter productive, and help you avoid getting to the descent into madness of editing :)

Having said that, I write compulsively, and tend to meet NaNo figures every month. My challenge for this November was to write a YA novel, outside of the fantasy/scifi genre. I wanted to develop the character side of my writing, and thought getting rid of the continual threat of the three headed zlog beast appearing at any moment to slay the hero would help. 

It did. I also discovered that YA romance is not my strong point. I completed a thirty thousand ish word novella, which features a distressingly large number of arguments, but nothing even remotely resembling entertainment. 

So, to get to the point, I willingly trashed it, hiding it deep within the recesses of my hard drive. It could, I believe, be salvaged, if I felt inclined, but I wasn't fired up about it. I struggle with getting motivated for editing, and if I'm not excited about what I'm working on, there's even less chance of me doing a good job. 

So, if you finish NaNo with something you really don't like, then I think trashing it, taking the learning, and moving on, is excellent advice. 

Sorry, a bit long-winded...

cheers

Mike

LisaWEngland
LisaWEngland

Interesting points, and a very fun read! Thanks!

But personally, I have to admit, I question whether it's wise to encourage writers to trash a novel because it was written for NaNoWriMo? I already find it easy enough to trash first drafts and chase some other shiny idea, rather than buckling down to the hard work of revising what I've written. 

Overall, in my experience, most first drafts fit the level of incoherence described here--whether or not they're written in a month, or in November. Any competent writer should know to write a first draft fast, put it away for as long as possible, and then revise/edit ruthlessly from the concept up. Points 1 & 3 are fine -- but I'd personally err more on the side of Point 2.

At the end of the day, tossing first drafts can become a bad habit that prevents us from ever finishing. If NaNoWriMo gave me anything, it gave me a book TO revise. That gift is an opportunity to practice the less-popular skills of revision ... an opportunity I'd lose if I trashed (yet another) first attempt.

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@KuokMinghui I've always found NaNoWriMo as a time to practice, but also a time to produce. I don't necessarily think everything I'm writing during November is gold, but I do learn a great deal about myself as a writer each time I write it. For example, I learned several times I cannot simply pants my way through a novel. Secondly, I learned that a single POV story works best for me at the moment. Thirdly, I learned that epic isn't always best; sometimes it's best to just tell a focused story that doesn't encompass the whole world. However, I feel whatever people get out of November, it's what they get out of it. I don't begrudge others how seriously they take any given thing in life.


Thanks for your comments!

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@elle may That's one thing I like about it myself. Turning off the inner editor is key for many writers. Writing anything quickly is going to sacrifice some quality, so it's important to always be prepared afterwards to piece things together.

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@Caroline Laxon-Abbott Easier to read and understand is always good! Here's hoping you can salvage your project.

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@Nathan J. Lauffer I find the same, Nathan. I need an outline as trying to "pants" my way through just hasn't worked for me multiple times. I always recommend the Snowflake Method. It's worth checking out to get a well-organized plan before writing.

Greg
Greg

So, a slightly hotter fire then? #refining

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@Marie D. Jones That's great to hear! Two novels that escaped the burn are always good news.

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@Tony Dragani I did the same thing Tony. I'll probably do this from now on as it seemed to work pretty well for me.

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@Mike Cairns Thanks Mike! Glad to hear (well, maybe not glad to hear) about your NaNo project. This is something I didn't mention in my article that many people do in November: take a chance to experiment with an unfamiliar genre or style. Sometimes they may find a new genre they completely love and other times they see why they don't write in that genre. It's great to experiment and see what works. But yeah, if it didn't work, then I don't see the need in forcing something that you're not excited about. I'll actually be doing a "genre" challenge at the beginning of the year (meaning I'll be writing short stories in a different genre for one month.) So this will be another opportunity for me to find what works and what doesn't.. Good luck with your future projects and I wish you success!

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@LisaWEngland Sorry, another point I wanted to make was that writing 50,000 words should probably be the least important goal for the month. I think this is why many people abandon NaNo projects. They're not used to writing that much and it just totally doesn't work for them. I'd suggest writing what you can (25K) and try to make it good, rather than rushing through something just to say you "won."

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@LisaWEngland I agree to a certain extent. I also err to the side of point 2 that is why I mentioned it hurts me to even mention trashing it. One thing I mentioned was if it's so horrible that you feel you can't possibly make a comprehensible draft out of it, casting it aside and using it as a "salvage novel" so to speak, could also be helpful. By this I mean even if you completely hated your plot (and I've seen many writers mention this), you could supplant characters you liked and put them into a new plot. If at all possible, I'd say not to chunk your novel. But I know from several years of writing rambling NaNo projects that sometimes it's best to just take it as a learning experience and move on. I've since learned how to outline, so the rambling has been decreased. So overall, I'd say finish that first draft and edit. But there may be times when NaNo is best served as a practice novel, something as a teaching tool to one day get a coherent first draft so there's not as much chucking being done.

LisaWEngland
LisaWEngland

@Philip_Overby - Thanks for taking time to respond! I totally hear you. The points are well taken and make logical sense. 

I used to think the same things as you've expressed here, too. But then I noticed that I was spending years writing "quality" first drafts by going slower and outlining heavily ... only to really get nowhere. And then I started to wonder: What is quality? Does a new writer even know? What if I'm OVER-thinking the subconscious creative phase?

I was shocked time and again when I labored over what I thought was a better (slower, more methodical, or more precisely-outlined) first draft, only to learn from my mentors that it really wasn't good at all. Time and time again they turned to stuff I'd written fast and sloppy and said, "The good stuff is actually buried in there. You need to learn to transform the nuggets of THAT instead of over-thinking and over-working a first draft that's just a launching pad."

I think that probably falls under your "take the chunks you can and work with them." And I agree: a lot of writers just need to start sitting down and writing, 50K or 25K or 10K or 2K, whatever that means. 

But for intermediate writers--or writers bogged down in perfectionism--learning to increase word count while decreasing obsessive edits on a first draft (under deadlines) can be a VERY good thing.

Like all things, balance is helpful. Each writer has to find it for him/herself. Thanks so much for sharing this article!

LisaWEngland
LisaWEngland

@Philip_Overby - Long posts are what we writers do, right? :) Thanks for this great discussion! And I LOVE your breakdown of the various types of writers. Can I "borrow" it with a proper credit?

Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@LisaWEngland @Philip_Overby You make some good points here as well. Here's how I breakdown people who do NaNoWriMo:

1. Curious would-be writer: Maybe someone who thought about writing something, but never had time. I take it this is who NaNo originally targeted. I'd say these people may either find out a. they want to be writers or b. it's harder than they thought and maybe they're not cut out for it. 

2. Beginner writer: This is the audience I'd encourage to practice or find what works. Take bits and pieces and see if you can make something out of it. These are ones that don't plan on quitting writing, so they just have to learn what works best for them. Of all the kinds of writers, these would be the ones I'd suggest do a "practice novel" just to see how things go. I wish someone had given me this advice. Just do a paint by numbers novel to show that you can complete it.

3. Intermediate writers: These have figured a lot of things out about their writing, but are missing one key piece of the puzzle. This could be over-editing, allowing the internal editor to take over, or Creative ADD. I would not suggest writers at this level to "burn" anything. They should be at the point where their writing is solid in first draft form, but what may be holding them back are doubts and distractions. Not sure what camp I fall into, but if I had to guess, I'd say this one.

 4. Advanced writers: I don't think they need as much advice as they have figured out their rhythm by now.

However, I would agree with you that  the "edit as you go" technique definitely kills a lot of novels. It has for me anyway. Some can pull it off very well, but I think this is a skill one has to hone over a long period of time. So I also think increasing speed and productivity is a skill that a lot of pro writers figure out over time. 

One thing about NaNoWriMo is that I think it's an excellent way to learn. I don't always think it's the best way to create a book worth publishing, but it most certainly can be. 

My overall point about "burning a novel" is more about beginner writers allowing themselves to fail or not live up to their expectations so they can grow from it. Maybe they find out they need to outline or the genre they picked doesn't work. So I think NaNo can just be a month long writing exercise. For me, it doesn't always have to have the goal of a book worth showing to people.

Long post again! Sorry! Thanks for having this discussion with me. I do err on the side of "finish what you start," but for this article I wanted to offer some alternatives.


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