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.