National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) is approaching. How do I know? It’s ALL I’ve heard about since the first of October. From “Oh, I have to get ready for NaNo” to “Are you doing it? Are you doing NaNo? Why don’t you try it? It’s so long till NaNo. OMG, I want to start right now. But I can’t. I mustn’t! NaNo NaNo NaNo NaNo NaNo…”
Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but this is what my brain hears as soon as the NaNo insanity begins. I’ve never understood why grown people get so damn excited about this. I mean, if you’re a grownup who has chosen to write “seriously” and try to publish your work, aren’t you focused on your writing during the other months too? Why wait for November to begin a novel? How does this pressure to reach that word count goal affect your home life, your work life? Does your family hate you at least once each year?
Will I be participating? No. Will I ever? No. Why? The answer is simple: If I want to write 50K words in a month, I’ll do so. Any month. I have done it before and I’m sure I will again if my brain feels so inclined but NOT by intentionally putting myself in the position that if I don’t do it, I’ve failed at…what? Being a writer? Because word count is obviously the most important thing when writing professionally right? Of course.
I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s begin at NaNoWriMo the definition, and work our way back to my tirade, shall we?
Let me backtrack by saying the NaNoWriMo program does really awesome things for some people. First, the young writers program teaches our youth “perseverance, and radically alters their relationships with writing and literature.” according to the NaNoWriMo website. Anything that gets kids interested in their own creativity is awesome. Yes. However, I wonder at the youngsters who don’t reach the target word count or that wind up with a wonderfully awful hunk of story at the end? It’s meant to encourage self-esteem, but I think there is the potential for utter devastation. I know that the “environment” is designed to be a back-patting encouraging sort of thing, but some kids are sensitive. The intensity that NaNo brings with it is going to affect some kids negatively if they can’t do it. No amount of back-patting is going to put those crushed dreams back together. What if a child who is destined to be a truly great writer gives up before she’s given it a good chance? NaNo is not that good chance and this should be clear to these kids. Finishing or not finishing doesn’t make one kid more of a writer than another. Rather than a target word count, why not use this event to teach them the process of writing and how each writer works a different way? The goal tracking, progress charts, and such set my irritable bone on edge. It is NOT what they should be taught about writing, but sadly it is what most of them learn if their comments in discussion groups is anything to go by.
NaNoWriMo which is run by OLL (Office of Letters and Light) is described on the official website as a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing.” The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November in an event that focuses on “valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft” and is targeted at “everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.”
If you’re scared by time and effort then a writer you will never be. Writing is all about time and effort. Lots of both.
Well, I don’t really want to work at writing a novel. So why don’t I just take 30 days each year to churn out some stinky word vomit instead?
That made absolutely no sense to me. But then I read a little further…“the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.”
And then there was this: “You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”
Okay, so in that little bit is a gem. I mean it. I like the last paragraph. We do need to give ourselves permission to make errors in the rough draft. That first draft should be a great rambling mess.
However, I fear what is focused on by many participants is the whole “it’s all about quantity, not quality.” I can’t tell you how many times I want to thump “writers” who obsess over word count. I mean really thump them. I want to thump them so hard with a big heavy object so they’re unconscious and bleeding on the ground and not typing a single fucking word.
I used to be one of those writers, so it’s not like I don’t understand the sense of accomplishment you feel when you meet a target. But I also know that focusing on your output crushes your self-esteem and the natural process as well. It’s not how much you write every day; it’s THAT you write every day. By writing I don’t just mean churning out new words, I mean editing, writing queries, outlines and synopses; working on your craft in whatever way needs doing at that time. Hammering out words is not important. NaNoWriMo has played a large role in this “word count” obsession. Perhaps that wasn’t the intention, but I’m telling you, it’s what many, if not most, writers take away from it.
“Must write this many words today no matter what I have to sacrifice to do so.”
Erm…no. You must work at your craft. But if your kids want to go to the park, the words aren’t important. If you have a million things to do around the house, the words aren’t important. If you have to work at 5am in order to pay the bills, the words aren’t so important you should stay up until 2am to get them done. Doing this will burn you out. Believe me, I know. Quantity should never come before quality in fiction writing. Never.
That mentality, folks is why agents and publishers either hide away, or drink copious amounts of hard liquor from December through…oh, about June. Not because all of what is written during NaNo is crap, but because as soon as the thousands of participants finish their novels at the end of November, many feel these novels are worthy of submission. Agents and publishers are buried under these manuscripts which, no matter how kickass a writer you are, cannot possibly be close to publishable. The submission process for those of us who took the time to polish our work becomes a pit of hopelessness. Not that it isn’t usually a pit of hopelessness…it’s just a deeper, darker pit with lots of crap on top.
Worse than the crap-submitters are the “winners” of NaNo who promptly log on to Smashwords, Lulu, Createspace or whatever platform they prefer and self-publish said novel. Yikes.
Of course these people are proud of their accomplishment and eager to be considered a real writer. I mean the site says participating in NaNoWriMo makes it possible “To stop being one of those people who say, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” and become one of those people who can say, “Oh, a novel? It’s such a funny story–I’ve written three.”
No, you haven’t written three novels. You’ve written three drafts. Now, become a real writer by rewriting.
I was all for the “spirit” of NaNoWriMo, even tempted to participate at one point, until I read over the site and now, it makes the serious writer in me, the one that busts her as every day of the year to become the best writer she can be, cringe. Why? Because writing IS about quality. It is NOT about churning out the most words. It’s about churning out the BEST words. It’s about writing a book that is worth reading and worth publishing. A writer isn’t simply someone who can hammer out 50K words of awfulness. My seven-year-old can do that. A writer is someone who can hammer out the story and then wants to edit the shit out of it so it’s perfect.
I am not against NaNoWriMo, although most of this rant certainly feels like an anti-NaNo rant. I’m saying that those participating need to do so with the understanding that this process does not make you a writer. It is a launching point. It can kick-start a sleepy muse, or get a new writer over that all-important first novel hump and onto bigger and better later on, or it can get young people passionate about creating more than LOL’s and emoticons with their keyboards. If everyone would realize that, or if the site stated the reality rather than a bunch of hype so that participants could understand this from the beginning, it might be enough to justify the annoyance I must endure every October through December. (no, you guys don’t shut up about it until at least the New Year)
Perspective: Here’s something to chew on. In 2010 OLL reports over 200,000 participants in NaNoWriMo. Out of that huge number, only about 30,000 “won”, completing the 50K word goal. That’s not even half. Get it? Even if you can write, achieving that many words in that short span of time is really hard if you’re not really into writing…or have a life. And all you get is a badge for your website. I mean…pffft.
But at least NaNo takes a reasonable amount of time to complete a novel. The 3-Day Novel Contest is another story. “Entrants pre-register and then grit their teeth, lock their doors and try to produce a literary masterwork in 72 short hours.” A literary masterwork in 72 hours? I just puked in my mouth at the thought. And the winning novel is published…
And with this one you pay a fee to participate in this insanity.
No, I won’t even begin to describe how this makes me feel. Besides, I’ve ranted enough for one day.
So, if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, good for you. I wish you luck. I also want to ask a couple of favors.
Could you not start threads in discussion groups that have nothing to do with NaNoWriMo? As a moderator of a couple of these groups, I have to say, by about mid-November, I lose the ability to be polite about deleting these threads. I mean, you guys have a whole site and all to do these things, so keep it over there. Could you also try to avoid clogging up social media feeds with hourly updates? I’m not saying not to update your progress, but once every 24 hours is plenty. Seriously.
And when you finish, if you “win”, could we all promise that what you’ve written doesn’t see so much as a beta reader until you’ve edited and rewritten at least twice…preferably three times? Thanks. The rest of the writing world appreciates it.