It’s been a few years now. A few years of not finishing, of wondering what was different. This is a requiem.
Not to be melodramatic, or anything.
I used to love NaNoWriMo. Some of my best writing experiences have been with NaNo. I’ve made friends there. I’ve brought friends to it. It was mad, riotous fun. Until it wasn’t.
We’ve been drifting apart in recent years, growing in different directions, in that sad and strangely inevitable way that some relationships end. Year after year I try to recapture that manic excitement of October, and year after there it isn’t there, and I wonder… what happened? Is it me? Did I change? Year after year when November rolls around I start strong and then fail, and year after year I wonder where the magic went. The joy, the frenetic fast-paced writing, the disjointed babblings, the NaNoisms, the laughter of the forums.
Last year was the first time I consciously noticed how different things had become. It was stark. Eighty, a hundred thousand people online and logged in, but the forums were noticeably quiet. None of that joyous lightspeed conversation that once was. All these people, and none of them talking.
As I browse the socials, I’m starting to get a feeling for what changed. Because it’s not just me. Nor is it just the new forums, hideous and unusable as they are. This has been going on for a while. And goddamn, is that painful. For those of us who have been with NaNo for ten years or more, who have built up social communities around it, it’s seriously upsetting to find out you don’t fit any more.
It’s contrary to what you’d expect, but the more rules you give yourself, the more creative you can be. This was one of the key factors, I think, of NaNo’s early success, and it bound all its writers together with one shared goal. It wasn’t just “write a book”. It was 50,000 words, thirty days, brand new manuscript. Fiction. There were infinite variations, but we were all along on the same adventure, taking on the same challenge. Glory for the winners, disappointment for the losers. That was what kept you going.
Somewhere along the way, things changed.
The rules were relaxed. The 50k goal is, as far as I know, still firmly in place, but a lot of what made NaNo a shared experience is gone. Now you can add that 50k to a 200,000 word manuscript already in progress. People aren’t writing new any more, and that matters. It has a real impact on the community culture, because what NaNo used to be is fun. Mad fun. Inventive fun. But if you’re working on something that’s already in progress, you don’t want to ruin it with what Chris Baty calls “exuberant imperfections”. That was the point of starting something brand new, that was the joy of it. There’s so much less of that sense of discovery, that low-stakes high-velocity fun.
You don’t even need to write a novel any more. People are writing poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, fanfiction, memoirs. All those things are, in their own right, tremendously good. But they aren’t novels. They aren’t the point of NaNo. And when everyone is doing something so different, that cohesive sense of community just isn’t there. It’s not NaNoWriMo any more.
The forum culture has been in decline for years, and it’s not just about participation declining. A weird kind of hierarchy has developed. Coming into NaNo with a new project and no real plans has become almost gauche. What do you mean, you haven’t been spending the last three months pre-writing this project? Humble-brags abound. Writing a new novel, for fun, has turned from the point of the exercise into something people look down on you for. The forums are full of judgement and snobbery.
Or they were. When they were functional.
NaNoWriMo has a new site and it is painfully slow. The forums are ugly as sin, difficult to read, and arduous to use. Instead of useful pages, each thread is infinitely scrolling. In the old site, threads could run to hundreds of pages long. How on earth are these going to load? How are people supposed to find what they were reading if they navigate away?
They are unusable. But if you express as much, if you say how disappointing it is to a NaNo veteran that the new forums are so clumsy because the community has always been such a major part of the experience, someone will jump in to tell you that if non-functional forums ruin it for you then you’re not a serious writer. That you can’t really have ever enjoyed NaNoWriMo if broken forums harm your experience. Never mind how many times you won, how many manuscripts you got out of it, how many friends you made, how many November 30ths you clicked validate with triumph in your soul.
The new forums might be the nail in the coffin, the thing that decides me on not doing NaNo this year, but the sad fact is that I don’t recognise it any more. And I think I’ve been fighting that for a long time. Fighting the idea that something that meant the world to me no longer has a place for me in it. Somewhere along the way it turned into something else. It just took me a long time to notice it.
The magic has gone. Old regulars have drifted away, and others are hovering on the shoreline hoping it will change back into what it used to be. I am one of those regulars. For thirteen years under three usernames I participated in NaNoWriMo, but now it may be time to say goodbye. I hope that as I drift off from NaNo Island, the winds will blow me somewhere new, a writing community or tradition or state of mind where I feel at home… the way I used to do here.
For those still participating: Godspeed. I wish you all the joy in the world. It’s just not for me any more. And I’m bummed as hell about it.