Why I’m Not Too Cool for Camp NaNoWriMo

I used to be.

I didn’t hear about National Novel Writing Month until I was in college, working hard for my English degree. NaNoWriMo, as the official website abbreviates it, occurs every November, when thousands (and now hundreds of thousands) of people make it their goal to write a 50k word novel from scratch within the course of a month. If you succeed, you win bragging rights and coupons for writing goodies. If you don’t, well… there’s always next year!

The first year I heard of NaNoWriMo, I just shook my head. Crazy kids—what would they think of next? Everybody and their cousin was writing a novel at the time; did they really need to be encouraged? The next year, I was feeling pretty lonely for some of my high school story ideas, so against my better judgment and superiority complex, I signed up. I did it in secret; only one or two people knew what I was trying. I also failed. With a thousand other projects due for school and no support network for my creative writing, I just didn’t have the will to push through 1667 words each day.

After that, I went back to snubbing the event. NaNoWriMo was for the wannabes, the teenagers who thought they had a book in them but were only amusing themselves. Good writing, I reasoned, couldn’t just happen in 50k words in one month. Real writers took their time and got published. Real writers started with a solid education like the one I was getting.

There was just one problem—I wasn’t writing. Oh, I was producing the professional and creative pieces that my classes demanded, but for all the craft I poured into them, my heart wasn’t in the process. After I graduated, I wrote absolutely nothing for six months. I was too burned out from trying to get it “right.” For several more months, all I wrote creatively was a blog. It was a full year before I tried to write a story again, and even then, it was hard.

Then things changed.

That July, I accidentally stumbled upon Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is the April and July version of National Novel Writing Month with two big bonuses: flexibility and community. I knew I needed something to get me out of the hole, so I signed up.

In Camp NaNoWriMo, you get to set your own word count goals. Rather than burn myself out on a full 50k, I set my goal as 15.5k, which came out to 500 words each day. I also got to choose to focus on short stories instead of a novel, giving me the chance to finish pieces during the month. All online “campers” get put into “cabins” of writers that can be filtered based on word count, age (it’s not just teens!), friend invitations, etc. Those cabins come with a message board so that participants can encourage each other in their goals.

Not everyone in the cabin system chooses to chat about their projects, but that July, I found several supportive cabin mates who created an outside forum where we could share our work with each other. They didn’t all have the training my degree gave me, but they had the heart for story that I had lost and cared about me as a writer whether or not my first drafts were any good. I “won” Camp NaNoWriMo that summer, but I’m more grateful now for what I lost: my delusions of being too cool.

My editing thanks me, too.

You wouldn’t have wanted me for an editor back when I had my nose in the air. Who wants to work with someone who thinks they’re better than you? An editor is the author’s partner in the writing process, so it’s important for that editor to care about the story as if it were their own. Did I have the training to know style and grammar better than the amateur writer? Yes. Did that mean that those NaNoWriMo stories that I snubbed deserved to be looked down on? No.

Every author has to start somewhere, and so does every story. With proper attention and revision steps, even the messiest 50k words can be reshaped into a story worth sharing. In the last ten years, hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, and many more have been self-published. Now that I’ve walked in those shoes, I don’t judge anymore. There will be both good and bad stories coming out of NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo, but yours doesn’t have to be the bad one any more than mine does. For the writer, the exciting part is getting those words out on paper. For me as an editor, the exciting part is helping the writer bring those words into their full potential. There’s no such thing as starting too low.

Camp ParticipantAs for my writing, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves once I’ve dealt with all of my editing and teaching work. That’s why, in April, I’ll be joining the camp festivities again. If you’re participating in this spring’s Camp NaNoWriMo, tell me about your goals so I can cheer you on! If you have a past NaNoWriMo project that doesn’t deserve to gather dust, come back next week for a series on revision—I’ll walk you through the process and help you show the world that a good story can come out of anything.

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