Monday, October 31, 2011

To NaNo or not to NaNo?

That is the question I ask myself every time this year, ever since National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) made its debut in 1999. Its premise is simple: write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November, a challenge which has attracted more and more participants every year- from just 21 in 1999 to over 200,000 brave souls for NaNoWriMo 2010. I took part in '06 and '09, finishing (or "winning") both times, and heinous as my schedule is this November I'm seriously thinking about making another go of it this year.

Why NaNo? For those who have never written something ambitious as a novel-length work of fiction before, NaNoWriMo is a dare to stop talking about writing that book and just do it already. Many would-be writers get themselves fatally tripped up over whether or not what they have to say is any good, with the result that they endless obsess over every single word they write. With its strict and unforgiving deadline, NaNo takes that kind of self-consciousness out of the equation. In order to write 50,000 words in a month, one must crank out an average of 1,667 words per day, which means if you attempt to stop and edit yourself as you write you will never make it to the finish line.

Just keep writing.

The other brilliant thing about NaNo is that it readily accepts the fact that most of the fifty thousand-plus words that each contestant writes will be crap. Of course it's crap! The point of National Novel Writing Month is not to produce a perfect literary specimen in thirty days or less, it's to produce. Many would-be writers are experts at starting things, but NaNoWriMo challenges you to take an idea and see it through to its conclusion. Yes, it's going to an unholy mess, riddled with plot holes, gaping continuity errors, and more typos than a text message conversation between a couple of teenagers. But it will be finished. And that's an accomplishment to be proud of no matter what you end up doing with your novel.

I get tired of the NaNo haters who come out around this time every year like clockwork to deride the whole event as a gimmick at best or in the worst case an affront to "real" writers, who as they are so quick to point out spend their whole year writing and do not appreciate having the market flooded with NaNo hacks who think that just because they finally wrote that novel that they deserve to have it published.

How to respond to these criticisms? First of all, simply hating on NaNo in general is like giving a person shit for wanting to run a marathon. Both of these things are extremely hard, each in its own way pushing a human being to the absolute limits of their physical or creative endurance, and I honestly cannot think of a reason not to encourage anyone who is brave or foolish enough to attempt either endeavor.

Second, I happen to know a lot of writers-- including published authors-- who participate in NaNoWriMo. Although this event is often negatively portrayed as one extended Amateur Night for literary wannabes, there are many people (such as myself) who have no problem with getting words onto the page but view NaNo as an opportunity to shake things up creatively. To return to the running metaphor, even if you do write or at least try to write during the other eleven months out of the year, National Novel Writing Month is like suddenly running wind sprints for thirty days. Even if you've already won in a previous year, the effort itself can still be exhilarating nevertheless.

And as for the concern that we who NaNo are flooding the fiction market every December 1st, if you look at the broader trends of digitization and self-publishing which are currently causing the publishing industry to implode, I think the literary efforts of each year's NaNoWriMo cohort are merely a drop in a vast ocean of radical change that is only just beginning to redefine our notions of writing and authorship in the 21st century and beyond.

So if you're thinking about participating in National Novel Writing Month, I say go for it. Whether I decide to join you or not this year, be sure that I will be cheering you all along the way next month. One of the best features of NaNoWriMo is the sense of community which it engenders, from the NaNo message boards to the Municipal Liaisons program providing mutual support and encouraging people to gather and write together in public, as well as the lively NaNoWriMo groups on Facebook and the Twitter hashtag. If you choose to NaNo, you are never alone, and many times that feeling that you have a quarter of a million people pulling for you is all you need to muster all those extra adverbs to get you across the 50k mark.

Good luck, all, and remember to just keep writing!


Suzanne said...

Great points. I'm going for it this year just to get some work done. Good luck to you and thank-you for that motivational post.

Jessica Olin said...

I work & am sort of friends with a published YA author, for reals hardcover books and everything, and she's planning to do NaNoWriMo.

Genie said...

As someone who's watched Finding Nemo 894 times recently, I hear Dory in my head saying "Just keep swimming!"

And I'm doing NaBloPoMo so here's hoping it works!