As I write this, we are well into November, the month known in writing circles as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s an annual, voluntary event in which writers sign up to work like crazy to finish the draft of a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.
All kinds of activities, tips, progress milestones, contests, camps, and supports are available for writers who take part.
If you’re interested, there’s more information here: https://www.nanowrimo.org.
As you can tell from the website, what started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 with 20 people who, as the founder has said, “wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands,” has since grown into a monster 501(C)(3) nonprofit extravaganza, with local chapters, competitions, and other activities to help writers start and finish the draft of a book.
I have seriously mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, I totally understand why people want to take part. Every writer has her own reasons; jumping into a novel is daunting, and finishing it is even harder. Something that helps you get started and keeps you going till the end can be helpful and necessary.
And the sheer pressure of the mass of other people who are doing it, too, can be comforting, even inspiring.
And it does work. The web site lists some of the well-known books—some best-sellers—that resulted from NaNoWriMo.
I know several people who take part in it. If you’re one of them, I wish you well, along with all the other tens of thousands of participants.
On the other hand, I know that I would never take part, even if it had been available when I started out trying to become a writer, way back in the pre-word processing days when typewriters roamed the Earth.
Challenging myself to write a novel of a predetermined length in a set time-frame is just not how I work, and it’s not how I believe novels (or, indeed, anything) should be written.
I know, it’s a cranky thing to say.
When I’m in the drafting phase of a book, I’m writing every day, just as NaNoWriMo participants do. But for me, a novel unfolds itself in its own time (it “glideth at his own sweet will,” to use the wonderful phrase from Wordsworth). I need to give it (and myself) time for that unfolding and gliding to happen.
This includes time to let the plot go off in directions that may or may not not be useful; time to let ideas and characters develop and realign; time for “Aha!” moments when I figure out what the novel, or a scene, really wants to be about; time to struggle with decisions and revisions; time to think about where the book is going; or time to let it glide along where ever it wants to while I trail behind, trying to get it all down.
While I understand the purpose is to have a draft that can be revised and reworked, if I were writing with one eye on the calendar and the other on my ultimate word count, I know none of what needs to happen would happen.
Maybe some people can pull it off. I can’t.
I’ve often said that the most important thing about a first draft is that it gets done, but I know in my heart that’s not entirely true. Yes, it’s important to get it done, but it’s also important to respect—and enjoy—the process. The novel you’re working on may (and probably will) need to be longer than 50,000 words (possibly several times longer), yet if you’re aiming for 50,000 just to be able to say you did it, then you’re not being fair to the novel that you should be writing.
Additionally, while I understand that writing the draft of a novel is hard, for me it’s also a singular, solitary, even (dare I say) holy activity. Sorry, but I don’t believe if a writer is truly called to the profession, she or he should need to be part of a competition with others to write the same number of words on the same days at the same time of year.
Like I said: cranky.
NaNoWriMo reminds me of those HGTV shows that give themselves an artificial deadline for finding, remodeling, and selling a house. Sure, it adds drama (30 days till the open house! Now 29! Now 28! Now 27 and the roof needs replacing!), but it’s an artificial drama ginned up by the fake pressure of a reality show. Even the producers of those shows admit they’re rigged.
Finally, the last—and maybe most important—thing that bothers me about NaNoWriMo is the heartbreaking number of admissions I’ll start to see around now by people who fell behind in their word counts or otherwise had to end their attempts because life got in their way. I feel badly for them; their disappointment is real, and I empathize with it.
But I want to tell them, Don’t worry, this really isn’t how it has to be done.
If you disagree with any of this, I salute you, and respect your difference of opinion. If you’re in NaNoWriMo this year, and it works for you, I wish you all the best. I get it.
If you have to drop out, or decided not to take part because it’s contrary to your thoughts about how writing should happen—well, I get that, too.