Every year during November, the impossible happens. Thousands of writers, both professional and avocational, join in something called the National Novel Writing Month -- NaNoWriMo or Nano, for short. During this scant 30 days, everyone has the same goal -- write a novel. There's no delusion that these will be bestsellers (at least not during November) and the metric applied to this endeavour is a mere 50,000 words. There's no monetary reward being chased. "Winning" Nano simply means you get to download a certificate that you can print. Security is lax and it's rumored that more than a small percentage of "winners" upload "fake" novels to achieve their prizes. But no one seems to really mind.
There's a website where participants can register, host a profile (complete with a running wordcount and excerpts of their masterpieces) and participate in a forum where questions like "How do you kill someone with taffy?" or "If I jump out of a speeding car, how much skin would I really lose?" are asked in volume with little fear of the FBI or Homeland Security showing up at your door. It's really a heddy atmosphere to be in. After months of living the writer's life of solitude where no one understands what you mean when you say "I have to close my door because I'm going to kill someone with a circus tent and I might externalize, so I don't want to bother you." being thrust into the midst of literally thousands of like-minded people from all over the globe is something that has to be experienced. There are local write-ins, where participants get together in bars and coffee houses to write side-by-side in a show of maniacal solidarity. It's truly amazing.
But is it useful?
Or, I guess, the correct question is, does it need to be useful? Two basic facts bother most writers who are in the game for more than just one month a year:
50k ain't a novel
Now, before you go running to Amazon or some other online bookseller to look it up, you're right that there are a handful of books published every year that are 50k or less. But only a handful. The fact is, unless you're writing children's or Young Adult fiction, a "novel" is expected to be in the 100k range. And, more often than not, considerably more. (I believe James Rollins books come in somewhere around 160k. I don't have the energy to count up what those Fantasy and Romance tomes add up to.)
Typing ain't writing
Here's the one that tweaks my muse's nose out of joint. There's a prevalent attitude out there (there being writers' groups and forums) that putting your butt in a chair and writing with blinders on is better than editing as you go. While I do agree with this to a degree (I mean, if you never reach The End, what's the point? I know some writers who have been reworking the first few chapters of their books literally for YEARS.), there's simply more to writing than running full out every time. Especially at the start of a book.
Think of it like this. When you were a kid, you were playing with your toy car and you saw a board laying on the ground all innocent like. It didn't take too long before you had that board leaned up against something, your car poised at the top ready to be launched. (If you haven't done this, you've seen it done, I'm sure.) But what happened when you let go? Sure as shit, halfway down the ramp, the stupid car ran off the side and killed the driver. You looked at all that open pavement you had the board aimed at and wondered what went wrong. So you tried again, making a slight adjustment to your car this time before you let go. Hey! You still ran off the board, but this time you made it 3/4's of the way down. And so on. Eventually, you figured out where you had to aim with this particular board and car to make it all the way to the end. Same thing for a novel. Unless you're some sort of prodigy (and if you are, I hate you more than Junior Mints that stick to the bottom of the box), your first shot at a certain book was not exactly a dead-on bullseye. But given enough time and patience, you make adjustments until you get it right (or as right as you're going to get it).
But with these issues (and I'm sure there's more) can Nano be useful to the more than momentary novelist? I think it can. Many writers use Nano and similar competitions to work the dust out of their writing cogs. More than a few novels started during Nano -- with a lot of post Nano writing, revision and polishing -- actually make it into print. It's also a great way to make invaluable connections.
Nano is also more than just a competition. During November, donations are taken to not only support the competition, but to fight illiteracy around the world. Any group of people who tackle such a worthy cause, in my book, exemplify the word "useful" before a single person has typed a single word.
Now where's that board?
(If you're wondering, I used Nano to work the dust out of MY cogs this year. I'm just over 20,000 words into a new book and damn greatful for Nano.)