NaNoWriMo Favors Outliners

Quick background for those who aren’t at all involved in the creative writing world: NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It takes place in November, and the idea is that a bunch of writers (mostly aspiring, I think occasionally a small-time published author deigns to the event) get together and provide support and encouragement to one another while attempting to write a 50,000 word complete novel. All kinds of dirty tricks are seen as perfectly valid to make this work, and considering all the dirty tricks I’m pulling to get my “one blog post daily for a year” goal completed, I can’t fault them for that. For example, if a fantasy writer is having trouble, they can add a few hundred words just by doing a find/replace for their main character “Grothnar” and replace it with “Grothnar, son of Grognar.” It’s a rule that the story has to be not only 50,000 words long but also complete by the end of November, which leads to a lot of literary rocks fall everyone dies endings. It’s against the rules to do any writing before or after the month of November and there’s a sort of gentleman’s agreement, I know it when I’ll see it sort of rule against simply copy/pasting huge sections of work over and over again. The border on this is fuzzy, though, because copy/pasting, say, a prophecy every time it’s recited or a song’s lyrics or that “Grothnar, son of Grognar” trick all fall within the purview of dirty tricks that flagging writers are absolutely allowed and encouraged to use if they need it. There’s not a cash prize for winning or anything, so ultimately the rules are whatever the writer says they are, but these ones seem to be mostly agreed upon.

NaNoWriMo is really popular amongst amateur writing circles, so it’s a bit of a big deal to me that it (unintentionally) prizes one writing style over another. Another bit of background: Fiction writing styles can be broadly divided into a spectrum between two opposing types, outline writers and discovery writers. Outline writers create a skeleton in advance and then put meat on the bones, starting with an outline which in extreme cases (the Snowflake Method, for example) will involve scene-by-scene outlining prior to actually writing a single word of the novel. Discovery writers start with a few ideas, and again using an extreme example, might have nothing but a desire to write at all. Different writers find they do their best work on different points of the spectrum. Discovery writers tend to require many drafts and revisions to turn their first draft into a finished work, while outline writers tend to require fewer. I haven’t heard of outline writers who require no revisions at all, but outline writers who require only one or two revisions to get publishable material crop up now and again.

Clever readers will have seen where I’m going with this already: You can’t write actual words during the month of November, but outlines are totally kosher. Outline writers can do a significant chunk of their NaNo in October, but discovery writers can only play around with ideas in their head and wait for them to gel. The further to each extreme a writer gets, the worse this issue is. Someone using the Snowflake Method will walk into NaNoWriMo with a scene-by-scene outline and character profiles with well-plotted arcs. That’s not to say that using the Snowflake Method will give you an advantage in NaNoWriMo, because if that’s not how you write you’ll just be shooting yourself in the foot, driving out the passion needed to sustain such a project. If you happen to be the kind of person who uses the Snowflake Method (or similar), though, you are at an enormous advantage. You never have to waste a moment on what happens next, because you already figured that out. While you might find yourself needing to do some research for specific details you didn’t think would be relevant until you reached them, most of your research is already done. Additionally, since you have a heavy outline, if you’re not feeling one particular scene, you can dash out a 300 word summary of it and move onto the next, and your outline means that later scenes will not be significantly harmed by the incredibly glossed over nature of the earlier scene.

You’ll also have an easier time in March, which is the much less popular National Novel Editing Month, since editing is generally easier (but not to be overlooked) for more outline-heavy writers. There is no NaNoOutMo, so the part of the year where you meticulously outline your novel is entirely shrouded from view. Even if there were a NaNoOutMo (or really, more like National Novel Outlining Weekend, however you’d hipster that down to one word), discovery writers just wouldn’t be participating at all, so they wouldn’t have an easier victory to balance out the outline writer’s NaNoWriMo advantage. Outlining’s like a a third of the work of a heavy outline process, work that gets offloaded into the drafting or editing stage for discovery writers, who must thus cram that work into NaNoWriMo or NaNoEdMo.

I don’t really have a solution and to the extent that NaNoWriMo has a function at all, this isn’t really a big deal anyway. Particularly, since I lean towards outlining (if you look closely at this blog, you can see that a lot of my posts are filling in outlines, and when my buffer tends to dry up, it’s usually because I’ve run out of outlines and need to lay down some more before I can get any more blog content out), this is really just me having an advantage over the other ~60% of the spectrum who lean more towards discovery than I do. Basically this is just an observation without any real point or argument attached to it at all.

EDIT: After making my own attempt at NaNoWriMo this year, I have discovered that NaNoEdMo is still running, but apparently not really? Like, the website has a list of 2017 winners of the challenge, so clearly it’s still a thing, but also the months of January and February are considered a “Now What?” phase where wrimos (I don’t come up with the nickname) figure out what to do with those 50,000 words they wrote last November, and this Now What? thing is facilitated I think on the NaNoWriMo forums and not, like NaNoEdMo, by a separate group on a separate website? Maybe some of the people exit the Now What? phase and go directly into NaNoEdMo? I dunno, guys. I guess we’ll find out in January.

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