Fat Books & Thin Women

Let Us Join in Protest of Nanowrimo….Or Not
November 6, 2010, 10:19 am
Filed under: Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

Salon’s Laura Miller wrote this pretty scathing opinion of Nanowrimo, which though perhaps unfair to the aspiring novelists banging away at their computers all month, does raise a few interesting points about the basic tenants of Nanowrimo. And as easy as it is to protest Miller’s points by saying, “It’s Nanowrimo, it’s for fun, it shouldn’t be taken so seriously” (these things are all true), I think the whole topic raises some good questions about why and how we write, and what sort of dedication is necessary to make a writer successful if not in the publishing world, then in terms of dedication to craft.

Nanowrimo is based on the idea that, for one month at least, quantity is more valuable than quality. Better to spend a month churning out something resembling a novel (in length if in nothing else, judging by my own efforts) than to spend a month Not Writing. Nanowrimo doesn’t bill itself as a means of writing a publishable novel in one month (or even a novel that will ever be published), though doubtless there are people who view it this way. Possibly some of the people who sign up to write a novel this November are the same ones who approach “real writers,” the ones who sit down and work at it every day, to say, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I just don’t have the time” – as if time is the only thing standing between a person and a successful writing career, and as if they don’t have excesses of time that are, however, spent doing other things like watching The Wire or Gossip Girl or The Office[1] But the people who will “win” Nanowrimo by knocking out their 50,000 words this month are probably not those people, and we should give some credit to them for having the nerve to sit down and focus on their writing, however terrible the product may be come November 30th.

This is the fourth time I’ve signed up for Nanowrimo in the past ten years. I’ve completed two “novels” – and that is a term I use loosely. The first was of such low quality (with no semblance of a plot) that I’m not sure I even have a print-out – it’s simply not worth it. The second completed novel is of occasionally higher quality. There are a few sentences in there that I want to save, and the story itself is something I’ve wanted to return to ever since finishing the “novel,” though one fault of Nanowrimo is that though it can encourage a lazy writer (like myself) to write a novel, it can’t force that same writer to do the hard work of editing.

This year, I’m participating in Nanowrimo with no intention of completing a novel. I’ve learned, from the two novels I have finished, that if I make an honest effort to write 1,667 words a day, I will end the month with a work with such rare moments of quality that I will be forever unable to return to it in order to extract the promising bits. It is, I think, harder to face a work of formidable length and middling quality, needing to trim it and rewrite it and reform the plot and ultimately make it longer than its original length of 50,000 words (exactly 50,000 words if, like me, you give up the moment you pass the finish line), than it is to write at a slower pace, writing daily and without a finish line and with the freedom to take a day to reread and make notes on plotting and to tweak the work in progress. But wait, that’s not what I really mean – that dealing with the final product of Nanowrimo is “harder” than the task of sitting down daily and writing, unsupported, alone. Oh God, but that is kind of what I mean – but only partly.

Writing is hard work, and if Nanowrimo has a fault it’s that it focuses so exclusively on just one part of that hard work. To start writing is, no question, difficult; and especially, to start writing after a long break, like the years since I’ve written daily, seriously, with the goal of publication, is wrenching. If most people don’t become authors because they simply aren’t talented writers, there are also people with the ability to write skillful, moving works who aren’t because they lack the discipline to come home from work and work some more, rather than watching Law & Order reruns.

But Nanowrimo tries to make writing a novel “fun,” and to make it something community-oriented. People are encouraged to share their novels for support; there are forums where they can “give” their abandoned characters and plots to other participants. This isn’t writing done with the goal of publication; it’s writing done for fun, for the challenge of it. Maybe I say this because I can’t imagine any publishable novel being sourced from a plot device found on a web forum, and maybe that’s wrong or narrow-minded of me. But all the same, Nanowrimo and actual, year-round writing are different in so many details that maybe we should not try to compare them too much.

For most people, Nanowrimo probably will never be linked with publication. It is too goal-oriented, and as a person who sometimes has trouble continuing to work after reaching some arbitrary goal, I think it would be a mistake for anyone with goals of publication to take Nanowrimo too seriously. I’m writing this based on my own experience, which includes two novels sitting in manila envelopes somewhere in New Jersey, and a fledgling history of publishing short stories, that withered as soon as I hit my seemingly unreachable goal of being published in a certain magazine I read and admired.

Writing is goal-oriented, sure, but not in the way that Nanowrimo is.[2] Nanowrimo is fun, and caffeinated, and a month of the freedom to throw your writing up on a web forum and have it critiqued moments after writing it.[3] And if you can take away those web forums, and the desire to get instant feedback, Nanowrimo is maybe a good introduction to a Writer’s Life; as Chuck Wendig notes at Terrible Minds, 1,667 words a day is not All That Much. When I still wrote seriously I wrote a couple thousand words a day, and could easily spend three or four hours a day doing that. There are probably a few people who are doing or at least who signed up for Nanowrimo, who are of the “I’d write but…” school, and by golly! If this project can teach them that writing is not That Easy, I am behind it.

At end, while I guess I can understand, a little bit, why some people criticize Nanowrimo, I can’t get behind their criticisms even slightly. What’s wrong with thousands of people writing for a month, even if the bulk of what they produce is total shit? What’s wrong with people making writing something fun? What’s wrong with thousands of people expressing their pent-up creativity, if only for one month, and even if the “novel” they produce at the end of that month is not really a novel and unlikely to see the editing it needs and deserves? Why do we have to take writing so seriously all the time – why can’t people have fun with it for a month?[4]

[1] Guilty. Back to text

[2] I speak for the sort of writer that I am, namely one without a long and impressive publication history, or a book contract. I assume that James Patterson has deadlines. Back to text

[3] And surely I am not the only person who thinks this would be a poor habit for most writers. I need to keep my work private until I’m a few drafts in, lest by sending it someone for critique I forget that I am not even close to done editing. Back to text

[4] There is an argument in here that it’s insulting to the life’s work of Serious Writers when people come in and treat writing as a matter of simply sitting at their computers and completing four 500 word challenges in a day, kind of like when my dad walks through an art museum and says he too could have painted a small box and a circle on a canvas, but why bother with it? I am pretty sure that most people participating in Nanowrimo understand that they are not the next Nabokov (something I am still struggling to come to grips with), and that their pleasure in writing is not particularly insulting to those for whom writing is a torture they can’t live without. Back to text



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