Ill-Advised Writing Contests Are Good for Drafting

Not that I’m supposed to be drafting right now. I’m supposed to be revising the novel I’ve been working on nonstop since 2012 (2013?), but that’s beside the point.


If you know me literally at all, you know I love National Novel Writing Month. In case you haven’t heard of it: NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge that takes place each November, with more casual “camp” events in spring and summer. The goal is quantity – to churn out 50,000 words of prose in 30 days.

Some people are not fans. “But all you’ll get out of it is crap,” they say.

Well, yeah. You’re writing a novel in thirty days. It’s not going to be Shakespeare. Sorry.

But I hold that NaNoWriMo is still incredibly helpful, if you’re like I used to be. Which is to say: possessed of an inner editor who won’t shut up. If you want to win NaNoWriMo, you’ve got to tie him up and throw him in a closet for the month, because there’s no way you can write 50k words in 30 days if you keep going back and editing what you’ve already written.

So NaNoWriMo broke me of frequent, horrible writer’s block and a complete inability to work when I’m not inspired. Awesome.

But the current ill-advised writing contest is even better for drafting.

NaNoWriMo is ill-advised because it’s crazy and you’ll hear a lot of people say things like, “If I had time, I’d do it. But I just don’t have time.”

Although as someone who’s done NaNoWriMo while holding two jobs and going to school full-time, I say: you’d have time if you really wanted to do it. Moving on. Anyway, the current writing contest is mostly ill-advised because it requires you to write a brand-new story, one you’ve never written before, and I’m supposed to be revising.

But where’s the fun in working on one project at a time, right?

This contest is called The Last Man Standing, and it’s hosted by a user on Young Writers Society, the only writing website where I spend any time. I could go on at length about YWS and its virtues, but not today.

LMS is in its third incarnation, and it’s exactly what you’d think from the name. Each week, participating writers have to post a new installment of a new novel by 11:59p.m. on Sunday. If you miss the deadline, you’re out. The last writer still posting wins.

The last round went 76 weeks, so you see what a commitment this is. If you want to win, anyway.

The installment has to be at least 1000 words, and it has to be written the same week it’s posted. This, plus the weekly deadline and the long-term goal, are what makes this contest so great for me. I work best on a deadline, provided it’s put forward by someone else – I won’t stick to deadlines I set myself, alas. So the weekly deadline ensures I’ll work on my new story consistently. The 1000 word minimum ensures I’ll write a decent amount each week, rather than getting stuck at 200 words and calling it quits.

But then there’s also the fact that you want to stay in the competition as long as possible. Which means that while you have to hit a thousand words each week, you don’t want to write too much. You’re gonna run out of story a lot faster than everyone else if you’re posting 5,000 words a week – unless you plan to write a monstrosity of 380,000 words, which No.

So I put my cap at around 1500 words a week – enough to meet the minimum and stay above it, should I give in and do any editing on prior chapters while waiting for the new week to start. But it’s also little enough that I leave off wanting to write more, knowing just where I’m going next, and excited about the story.

Hence the brilliance. By doing LMS, I’m writing a new novel with relative ease. I’m having a lot of fun. And when it’s all over – when my story is done, whether that’s before or after someone has won – I’ll have a story that’s probably more cohesive than something written in the frenzy of NaNoWriMo.

If only I could get someone to hold me to these guidelines every time I’m writing something new.

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