Challenge,  On Writing

Caution on the November Writing Challenge…

It Can Be Deadly…

If not done with the right attitude.

What most of the people running the November challenge believe is that if you produce 50,000 words of typing, you can turn it into a story later.

They push writers to write sloppy. 

And that is deadly.

The math for 50,000 words in November is not that tough to figure. Basically 1,700 words a day. That’s about two hours a day. Not hard.

So why not write a novel with those 50,000 words? Why write sloppy and then put the typing in a file and never go back to it??? Seems like a total waste of a month.

Why not instead do the best you can, write clean draft, not sloppy? Cycle to clean up stuff every 400 words or so, then hit the pace of a couple hours a day of writing and end up at the end of the month with a novel you can publish.

Nothing left sloppy as you go along. Write like your words matter.

All of you know I have nothing against challenges. But I have a great deal against a challenge that actively hurts the writers it is supposed to help. Producing a sloppy bunch of typing and then believing you will fix it later is just silly. How many writers who have hit that 50,000 words in November still have those manuscripts in files?

Most. It is a rare person who spends the time to fix sloppy.

And it makes writing fiction painful and boring and thus forces writers who might be great one day to quit.

So if you are going to take the challenge, write clean draft. Don’t write sloppy. Have something to publish when you finish.

And make the entire process fun.

And if you want a real challenge, write the 50,000 word novel in the month and publish it in the same month, meaning you have to have it done ahead of time enough to get the typos fixed and to do a cover. Now that’s a real challenge. Write and publish a book in the same month.

That challenge does not allow for sloppy writing. But it means you might have to spend three hours a day writing instead of just two.

And that, folks, is my yearly rant against the stupidity of that national November writing challenge. I just hate to see so many possible writers hurt every year.



  • emmiD

    Totally agree with this, and have anecdotal evidence. I had heard about the Nov. challenge for years before I finally participating.

    In 2017 had my first opportunity. Met with a local group of about 20-25. Lots of teens. Anyway, two of the mid-30s participants running the show talked about the number of times they had participated– 4 and 7. Participated and WON, that is, which means they had 4 & 7 50,000 word manuscripts.

    Everyone applauded, of course, so I had to be the dirt on the shoe and ask “What had they published in those 4 & 7 years of participation?”

    Answer was nothing.

    And you are correct, Dean. They promote sloppy writing. They don’t promote good daily writing practices or how to publish afterwards.

    I haven’t returned. One-trick wonder.

  • John Bredesen

    Hi Dean,
    I have read some of your other writing and I get your point. I hope to get there…some day. As a brand new writer, I have a lot to learn. The month is useful for me as it gives me a goal. Interestingly, last year (when I wrote a pile that I haven’t gone back to…to your point), I learned that I can write for longer periods of time than I had before. I had never written that many words in one story before. That learning was more valuable to me than the words I produced. I’m coming at it a little more strategically this year by writing a short story each week and then Heinlein-ing them (after the month) until I have a stack of rejection letters to wallpaper my writing room. The motivation and structure of the month are helping me learn the craft and the business, and I find that helpful. I think I need to learn to write a good story to help me learn to cycle. But, again to your point, I am trying to cut down on throw away words.

    • dwsmith

      John, not sure what you mean by “throw away words” but doesn’t sound like something I meant. I’m just saying that when writing, finish what you are writing while writing it, write the best you can as you go (not sloppy), and when finished, leave it alone and get it out to readers. Heinlein’s Rules. And John, if you want to jump your craft forward, take the Depth in Writing workshop we offer every month. I promise if you fight through the assignments with me, it will jump your writing a long ways forward.

      • Rose

        Seconding the advice to take Depth in Writing. I dragged my feet on taking it, and it seriously kicked my ass during those six weeks. But I really think I leveled up and learned a ton about pacing, too. It was super helpful in just bringing certain techniques to my attention (though now hopefully I can forget about them and let it all steep into the back of my mind where they belong).

      • Nathan Haines

        I think he meant “throw-away words,” which I took to mean sloppy writing that he doesn’t end up doing anything with.

        I have to say that for as absolutely simple (in concept) as the Depth in Writing is, and for as much as I was sort of trying to do it before, just having it all laid out so simply and comprehensively was revolutionary. Talk about an epiphany! I don’t think anything’s improved my writing more, and so immediately. And now that my creative voice knows it’s a tool to use, it’s completely automatic.

        A writing friend finally got tired of hearing me ranting and rave about depth and signed up for the workshop, and he said, “I love that Dean gives one sentence and then builds it up each time so that you can actually see what it *means* to add depth. Other workshops I’ve taken mention something superficially and then move on without giving any concrete examples.” He’s a fairly prolific ghostwriter and immediately got compliments from his clients. Trying to help him get off that treadmill, because with his dedication, he would far outshine me in the near future…

  • Sam Linton

    I wrote my first novel during this challenge and it was EXACTLY as you described it. The benefit was that I realized that I could get my butt in the chair. But after the challenge was over and I realized that I had a manuscript that was filled with a lot of mistakes that I wouldn’t fix while writing, I felt overwhelmed and miserable.

    It wasn’t until I started writing the way you describe that I’m actually producing clean content. So thanks for screaming the same song from the rooftops with the same consistency!

  • Brenden Shouse

    I agree that Nano can be good if you look at it the right way. I finished my first novel by writing an “insane” 27k in November of 2018. I tried to write sloppy at first and realized that it was idiotic so I stopped and just had fun telling myself a story. It was an absolute blast to write while studying for finals. I ended up putting that novel on a shelf, because a book needs three rounds of editing before its ready to send to a content editor, then a copy editor, then a line editor, and lets not forget the proofreader. Oh, and sometimes your agent will request several rounds of editing and there’s no problem with that. What a load of horse crap. It’s amazing anyone goes through that process to JUST TELL A STORY. I wish I’d found this blog and your ‘Writing Into the Dark’ book sooner. You would’ve saved me so much time and heartache on my writing journey.

  • Greg P

    I’m planning to use November to write or at least mix in a new genre (romance-ish) and to try writing on my macbook vs pen and paper. I’m really sick of typing the story after the it’s done (boring), even if it’s worked for me so far. Hopefully I can get it out of my head the stories will still show up if I type.

    So I thought nano whatever you call it would give me an excuse on the calendar to try something new. But I’d still write into the dark, come out with something clean and published.

    I can’t wait to find out what it’ll be about.

    I have your classic mystery writing workshop…I’m going to replay the romantic suspense videos…see if I can get some sort of an idea what I’ll be doing.

    Should be fun.

    • dwsmith

      Actually, challenges of any kind are a good time and place to focus on trying something new. So you are right, it should be fun.

  • Tony DeCastro

    The sad reality of the November challenge is that there were two big mantras about it when it started. One was “Write shitty first drafts”… this was taken directly from Lamott’s Bird by Bird by Nano’s originator. The other was “No Plot, No Problem” – which wasn’t that your story shouldn’t have a plot…it was that you shouldn’t plot the thing to death before starting to write, but let the creative process develop it. Sadly, the NaNo community seems to have chosen to cling to the “shitty first drafts”, while abandoning No Plot, No Problem. So much so that now October is “Preptober.” That’s right, “No Plot, No Problem” has become spend an entire month planning your story to death, only to write a “shitty first draft” the next month. I’ve always wondered why heavy outliners, also seem to be the heaviest re-writers. I mean isn’t the logic of outlining supposed to protect against a story that needs fixing? 🙂 FWIW, I am greatful for those early days of Nano (all the way back to 2001)…the challenge did help me realize the possibilities. Sure there are a lot of venues that could have and have helped just as much, but it was NaNo I found. But it’s become a huge example of “book as event”…write your 50k words and then fix it for 11 months (or 10 I guess if your prepping in October), before November comes around again.

  • Kristi N.

    I always looked at NaNo as an investment of time for a particular return (the prizes). In a regular year, 50K is an okay month. This year, because of some serious life rolls, I’m not even trying. The knots I’d have to tie myself into just to reach 50K would take me another year to fix. So I’m working out of the chaos of the shift in my life and taking the time I need. No pressure, just the anticipation of returning to the fun part of telling stories.

  • Kate Pavelle

    I might be strange, but the whole hoopla around Nanowrimo makes me all stressed and ornery, and it takes the fun out of writing for me. It’s just too many people talking about too many words, and my imposter syndrome decides to knock on the door. This year, my goal is to sail through with my usual writing and publishing plan and see if I can finally just simply ignore it 😉

    • Maree

      I feel very similar. For the last few years my main focus during October and November has been on not letting the build up of anxiety and drama stop me from writing at my usual speed, because it’s definitely stopped me dead in the past.

      Despite never having outlined in any sucessful way, and getting more and more confident about writing into the dark, it still gets to me. Having everyone and their dog talking about their outlining process triggers all my insecurities. And saying anything against it leaves me feeling foolish and petty. Especially when the ‘pansters’ seem even more intent on the terrible first draft than anyone else.

      Although I did find Dean’s blog via a link someone posted (dismissively) on the nano forums. So there’s that.

  • David Anthony Brown

    Agree 100%. I’ve watched people rewrite the same story year after year. Finally, my choices were either quietly go insane, or walk away. I walked away. The November challenge is how I got started and I used to consider it a great place to meet like-minded people. Problem is, once you advance a little bit, it becomes harder to make friends when trying to explain depth and Heinlein’s rules.

    I want to do a novel challenge this November, and I might even chat with folks on the local Nano forum, just to reconnect with people. But there’s just so much toxicity on that website. Best to keep a distance.

  • Cora

    I use it to get my butt into the chair every day. I’m not as consistent as I would like to be. From there, I write short stories and as you’ve suggested, I pick something to practice (especially depth), While I’m writing, I cycle back and forth through the story, and when it’s done I submit it. November is usually a good month production wise for me. I enjoy the month because it’s not a huge investment in time to write about 1600 02 1700 words per day. I avoid all the write-ins though because I don’t like the general attitude of simply writing crap to get a certain word count. That’s a waste of time. I like the metrics the website gives me. Lots of little goals.

  • Connor Caple

    My problem is keeping anything that short. My first November novel a lot of years ago was a mess at 60,000 words or so and I never published it.
    I ‘write into the dark’ these days and my brain seems to be wired for 90,000 words. My current WIP just hit 100K and isn’t done. Naturally my ego critic thinks it’s a pile of crap, which is why I wait for my wife’s opinion. Everyone needs a good First Reader.
    If I figure out how to keep a novel that short I’ll tell someone.
    My November Novel 2020 will be my usual 3,000 words per day for 30 days. Edited as I go, and ready to hand over to my wife after a quick (usually 5 or 6 hours total) run through looking for glaring errors and typos. She finds the rest and hands me a list a few days later. ?
    I may have to pause the next novel at the end of this month so I can start the November one.
    I finish one, I start the next. I can’t sit on my hands for 10 days waiting for November. ?

  • Sheila

    I’ve tried to do NaNo, but I just can’t stick with it. The whole attitude of writing the shittiest draft possible, just to hit some number and “win” makes me crazy. What’s the point of winning if you don’t end up with a publishable book? Or at least, pretty close to one?

    It’s gotten to the point I try to avoid all talk of NaNo. I feel bad that I can’t do it, and that just makes me write less. I don’t need that in my life, after this crappy year.

    • Connor Caple

      If you work the way some authors do, and edit as you go, you end up with a publishable work at the end.
      I have not written a ‘crappy first draft’ since that first November when I saw what a useless mess it was.
      I write a scene, or 500+ words if my brain grinds to a halt, take a short break, edit it and get going again. I know Dean works the same way.
      You only need one draft if you don’t give yourself permission to write crap. Write for yourself. Write what you want to read. Bugger what anyone else thinks. It’s your story, not theirs.
      Just turn off the ego-critic and have some fun, but edit as you go.
      Or, stick with your idea of telling NaNo to shove it, if that makes you happy. There is no wrong answer.

      • dwsmith

        What Connor said. Except the wrong answer is to go ahead and write crappy, sloppy drafts and then believe you can fix it.

        As Algis Budrys once said to me about a young writer’s story, “If you have a pile of crap and tell someone to go back and stir it with a stick and make it bigger, it will still be a pile of crap, just larger.”

        • James Mendur

          For NaNoWriMo this year, I have Algis Budrys’ book on how to write stories (Writing to the Point) and I’m going to focus on learning how to write short stories instead of the flash fic & vignettes I’ve been writing for the past few years. The goal is to internalize that story structure (like playing scales on a piano), then write cleanly (I’m going to try cycling like you’ve explained), complete 50,000 words of short stories, and then start sending them out to people who might pay me for them. (Heinlein’s Rules are tough to follow.)

          I’m keeping my expectations low in terms of selling stories – I have a lot to learn – but I have to start somewhere and I *do* enjoy writing stories.

          The NaNoWriMo crowd will be useful for providing a tracking mechanism for the goal to keep me focused, and a place to find resources to help keep my stories fresh.

          As for “Preptober” – I’m going to brainstorm a bunch of story ideas and character facets and put them in a file without judging them and then, during NaNoWriMo, I’ll take one (or mash a few of them together) and write the story. It’s sort of a poor man’s version of your “jam two halves of titles together” method of inspiration, but I think it’ll work for me.

          And I guess that’s the key. It’s whatever lets you end up with finished stories at the end.

  • Annemarie

    There is one point though you might not dismiss: It helps wannabe-writers to ban their inner editor and put pen to paper without fear. In my mind that is huge.. People have to be begin their journey somewhere.
    I know published writers to start that way.

    • dwsmith

      Sadly, for every published writer who made it over all the bad things it teaches, there are thousands and thousands whose dreams are killed by the process. Not even close to even.

  • Stefon Mears

    It was doing NaNoWriMo back in 2007 that let me convince myself I could write a novel and maybe make it as a writer. Of course, I didn’t do it the way most people do. I set up a training program for myself months in advance. And the idea of “writing sloppy” or any of that crap didn’t even occur to me. I was just having a blast and telling a story. (Boy, I fell headlong into a bunch of myths after that, but I never did buy into writing sloppy.)

    In fact, this year I finally wrote a book about the program I put together, figuring it helped me. Might help some others.