My Complex Thoughts On NaNoWriMo

I seem to be an unwilling participant in NaNoWriMo, since for two out of the past three Novembers, I’ve started a novel in November.  I never finish them in a month, sadly – I’m a sloooow writer – but it’s kind of like going out for a casual jog and finding out that you’re accidentally running in the Boston Marathon.  People are puffing next to you.  Crowds are cheering.  It feels somehow more convivial, and yet more pressure is brought.

For all that, I dunno if I like National Novel Writing Month.

I like the idea behind it – that you should create art.  I think that there’s this rather silly idea that Art is made by professionals, and unless you’ve put your time into the mines you can’t possibly understand the mysteries of Art, and then some unknown untrained horrid thing like Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins comes along and sells a billion novels that cause people to fall in love with their words, and then people start frantically redefining “art” as “something else” because my God, the plebes got in.

My personal take is that art is about connection.  Sometimes you can do that with a lot of talent and little technique.  Everyone can create beauty.  And I think the more we encourage people to open up and start creating, the more wonderful the world becomes.  Even if you never publish it, you’ve had the experience of creation, and that’s a good thing.

What I don’t like is the relentless push on words.

Look, I’m a slow writer – if I get 800 words done a day, I’ve been very productive.  Sometimes, I squeeze out only 250 words, and then I have to erase them tomorrow when they’re wrong.  The important thing is that a) I eventually get the story done, and b) when the words are complete, they’re the right ones.

Yet NaNoWriMo is measured entirely by words.  How many did you write today?  How close are you to the finish line?  Gotta get to 50k or you’ve lost!  And that’s all ridiculous, because 50k isn’t even a real novel by most publishers’ standards, so we have this completely arbitrary number where you’re pressured to shove out 1,666 words a day, or you’re falling behind.

Are you creating good characters?  Are your descriptions interesting?  Is your plot bouncing your people around like merry pinballs?  Doesn’t matter.  Make the words.  And I think, you know, that encourages people to write a lot instead of digging deep and writing well.

And hey, I get that you need a spur to get you moving sometimes, that the roar of the crowd and the ticking clock helps set the fingers in motion.  But I think once the deadline’s gotten you started, it rapidly becomes a weight that starts to drag people behind, and they give up because they won’t achieve victory.

Hey, girl; the secret goal is not to write a book in thirty days.  The actual goal is, write a book.

But that failure to completion brings out the most uncomfortable thing in NaNoWriMo for me, which is the realization that some people don’t have much of a story to tell.  They have an interesting idea, a set of characters, but then they start to write it and it dribbles into nowhere.  That’s not their fault, but it is deeply terrifying to me because I’ve never had a problem finishing stories; if I don’t finish it, it’s because I can’t figure out a good ending, and even then I’ve usually written a good 70% of the buildup.  I’m never sure whether that’s because I’m just some Creative Genius, or I know some trick to finishing stories that people don’t, or maybe I’ve lucked out for twenty years and one day I’ll fall into this sort of creative leakage.

I dunno.  I’m not judging, but how do you not finish a story?  People have explained it to me many times, and I can’t get it.  When I get a story, my mind can’t stop thinking about it.  It stays with me in the show, pesters me at bedtime, occupies all of my transitional spaces.  It’s a puzzle I obsess over until it’s done, and seeing all of these incomplete tales makes me sad – a graveyard of tales, left to be told, died aborning.  Some of them were interesting, and now we’ll never know.

(I kind of want to make a post on “How to finish your story,” but given that I don’t really fathom the root problem, I’m not sure I’m the one to apply solutions.)

So NaNoWriMo feels like this strange parallel contest to me.  I’m sitting in my basement, working on my new crazy-ass novel, knowing that thousands of others are with me.  But they’re doing it for different reasons, and they’re being driven and driven back by motivations that are alien to me, and most of them won’t finish.  I can feel the millions of novels cry out in terror, then suddenly silenced.  And that’s like writing with some demolition derby at my elbow.

Write with me, if you’d like.  I’ve started with you since I agree, this is a nice encouragement to get me down the lane.  But I’m going to meander on this path, and look at some roses by the side, and if there’s a particularly difficult patch I’ll take my time and ensure I don’t break my leg getting over the hedgerow.  There’s a finish line at the end, and yes it has punch and pie, but the goal is not to break records; the important thing is that we make it there in the finest form.

Follow me, if you will.  It’s a nicer path, I think.

 

9 Comments

  1. Laura
    Nov 2, 2012

    I’ve started writing for NaNoWriMo mostly because I think I need the kick in the ass to get this story out of my head and onto paper. It’s riddled with problems, and the world isn’t completely formed, but the idea is pretty cool and I’d like to see where it’s going. I don’t think I’ll know until I just start writing.

    But I know if I don’t start now, it’ll keep circling the “I oughta do that one day” drain in my head and never get out there. So I’ll end up with some crazy-long word document that has bits and pieces of story in it and hopefully I can pull the good out of it and make a cohesive story.

    Hopefully.

  2. Seamus
    Nov 2, 2012

    I feel much the same. I have kidded friends who take Nano very seriously that I am more interested in Nanolifemo, as consistent behavior as a creator trumps a frantic sprint.

  3. Kelli
    Nov 2, 2012

    I did notice in the intro to nanowrimo, it says to just write & not edit. It says editing is for after you make the goal, which is odd to me because editing will certainly bring my numbers below the 50k total.

  4. mollydb
    Nov 2, 2012

    In March of 2011, I started writing a story. 63,189 words and counting.

  5. Shawn
    Nov 2, 2012

    They should make December National Novel Rewriting Month.

  6. Katherine Marie
    Nov 3, 2012

    For me it’s pretty simple. I’m a perfectionist. If my goal is to write my story in it’s best form, I will write and rewrite the first few pages over and over and never get any further. The word goal is the distraction I need. It gives me permission to move forward and do my editing and rewriting later, rather than let them stop my story from being written. I agree that it’s silly, that 50,000 words is an arbitrary goal, but sometimes that’s exactly what I need to help me get out of my own way.

  7. Kathryn Scannell
    Nov 3, 2012

    This articulates some of my problem with Nano. There are more though. I understand that the idea is to encourage people to try writing, and to compress the attempt into a period short enough to contemplate committing to, after which they will hopefully have made habits and will continue. I fear that doesn’t work in many cases.

    It’s redefined an artificial goal which sets the projects up to fail. A novel, particularly in first draft where the writer is not polishing anything as they go, is not 50K words. It needs to be more like 75 or 80K, so that you’ll still have a reasonable length novel when you’ve gone back and pruned and polished.

    Also the huge emphasis on word count encourages people to write bloated prose. I’ve seen tip lists that suggest padding your word count with extra adverbs, adjectives, and long detailed descriptions. In short, a laundry list of things an editor will probably tell you to get rid of later.

    Then there’s the idea that all the people who have lives and can’t spend hours a day, every day, including the holidays, will probably fail. So, if they walk away without “winning”, how many of them will keep going?

    Then there’s the fact that you need to start a new project, and it has to be a Novel. Writing 50K that’s 2 novellas, or 10 short stories, or another 50K on the 100K novel you were already working on doesn’t count. So if you’re already a writer and want to play you end up putting aside your current projects, to start something brand new. One of the people in my writing groups has five or six partly finished novels thanks to her trying this every year.

  8. Alexis
    Nov 5, 2012

    I’m trying NaNo for the first time this month. It is nice to get encouragement from other writers, and to motivate myself to finish my book. But like you, I’m also a slow writer, and I like to revise and edit as I go. I’m not sure if I will finish this year, and I’ve already broken the rules since I’m focusing on a novel I’d already started working on. I think it would be nice to have the camaraderie without the judgment or competition. Maybe it should have been called, National Finish Your Novel month.

  9. Aerin
    Nov 7, 2012

    NaNo is perfect for me, because I need structure and motivation and incentive. Watching my little bar climb, having people cheer me on, and getting a certificate at the end is enough to jolt me out of my doldrums and put words on the paper. The need to press on and get something on the page often gets me through to moments of unexpected brilliance. I tend to be a somewhat slower writer and try to produce work that’s at least somewhat polished the first time through, so it means that I have to spend more time each day trying to hit my goals. I also have a rule of never planning in advance for NaNo, so it becomes a sort of extended writing exercise for me and gets me to try to break out of my comfort zone. Not everything that comes out of it is useful, but I can’t really edit and spiff up something that doesn’t exist yet.

    That said, Sturgeon’s Law is very much in effect here. I hate to say it, but looking at some of the excerpts that my friends are posting, they’re positively dreadful. Not everyone who thinks they have a story to tell has the ability to do it, and there seems to be a lot of derivative, boring sameyness going around. Now, writing is as much craft as art, and the only way to get better is to practice, to get the crap out and make room for the gems in your brain, to learn to recognize rhythm and structure and all of those other things that make it easier as time goes on.

    But people need to stop trying to turn around and publish November’s 50K words in December. The first draft may be one of the hardest parts, but by no means is it the entire journey. OLL does try to emphasize that, to get something that’s actually marketable, you’re going to have to continue it past 50K and polish and refine the hell out of it, but that message tends to get lost in the enthusiasm of, “Hey, I’m a writer now! The world must see this!”

    I don’t think it’s really a magic bullet, nor a good fit for everyone. I will say, though, that the community that builds around it is remarkable, and the support and encouragement of other writers is invaluable. Even if you’re a rebel (doing anything other than 50K words of a new fiction project), there’s still a great deal to be gained from those interactions.

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