Wednesday, 4 December 2013

If You'd Entered NaNoWriMo You'd Have Written a Novel By Now


Along with silly (but charitable) moustaches, November has become synonymous with locking yourself away in a garret with a typewriter, where you will subsist on coffee, cigarettes and whisky while clutching at your hair and possibly developing repetitve strain injury. Why? It's National Novel Writing Month!

This little internet project (known as NaNoWriMo) began in 1999 with 21 members; this year 
over 300,000 people took part. (That's a helluva lot of novels.)

The idea is that you commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days (about 1667 words per day). I've heard many professional writers say they aim for 1000 words a day, which has always seemed a laughably puny amount
– what do they do with the other 23 hours? (Actually, I can't scoff – I'm writing a piece for Den of Geek and it only needs to be about 7500 words, but it's taking forever to finish. Writing's the easy bit; editing is the killer.)

So why do so many writers hate NaNoWriMo? 

Firstly, they don't like amateurs encroaching on their turf. They complain that NaNoWriMo encourages non-writers to think that churning out a book is simple; a matter of speedily filling pages rather than thoughtfully refining style, plotting and pacing. Some rather pretentiously wail that it "cheapens the art" of writing. That participants "like the idea" of being a novelist but have no idea of the blood, sweat and tears that goes into producing a readable book. And if they really cared about writing (like we do!) they would do it anyway, without a special month and a bunch of cheerleaders to help them out. (How dare they make it a group activity, when they should be toiling in solitude and misery, as nature intended!)

Of course, the main issue raised is that valuing quantity over quality and
forcing yourself to write will only produce crap – a kind of "mental diarrhea" as one blogger charmingly put it. Those people who do finish with 50K words (or, as the cool kids like to say, those who "Win NaNoWriMo") have simply completed a tough assault course for the sake of their egos, will probably never write anything again, and have nothing to show for hitting that word count except a pile of bilge.

Ok, so maybe once in a while a decent novel is produced (Erin Morgenstern's
The Night Circus and Sara Gruen's now Hollywoodised Water for Elephants began life as NaNoWriMo projects) but it's just a "monkeys with typewriters" experiment – throw enough shit against the wall and some of it is bound to stick. 

And the parting shot: 50k words doesn't even make a novel
– only a novella. So nyah nyah, stupid wannabe writers, joke's on you! 

                                 Asking a forum what your villain's motivation should be...
And cheapening the craft for all of us.
It's all a bit mean, isn't it? 

It may be a hothouse environment rather than a sensitively artistic one, but NaNoWriMo has plenty of good points. Lots of creative people have ideas floating through their heads on a permanent basis, but day jobs, TV and life itself get in the way of actually committing them to paper. What's wrong with a little push to get them motivated? In fact, what's wrong with people writing, generally? David Beckham doesn't resent guys having a kickabout in the park. Picasso never said that children's finger-painting debased his work. So why do writers get all sniffy about amateurs who enjoy tapping out a story? If anything, taking part in NaNoWriMo might shut up all those people who think writing is easy (and say to authors "Yes, I might write a novel one day, when I have some time on my hands"). 

We're told that it takes 28 days to form a habit; if nothing else, NaNoWriMo develops the discipline of daily writing. Nobody is suggesting that by the end of the month you'll have a finished novel; the focus is simply to produce the "vomit draft" (the one where you get everything out of you and worry about cleaning it up later). You stop over-thinking it or worrying that nobody will like it. You tell yourself "It doesn't MATTER if it's any good. Write it anyway".  Because the first rule of Write Club is WRITE
– as the saying goes, you can't edit a blank page. (And just knowing that you're capable of dashing off 50,000 words could be an inspirational surprise.)

The most valid criticism of NaNoWriMo is that you can't sit down and expect your creativity to flow just because you want it to. Novels take time to mature and writers need to get away from the page to reflect, fill their creative wells and get inspired. Sometimes I can see no way out of a paragraph which has become bogged down in gloop; after a good night's sleep or a walk in the park, it's somehow malleable again and I can breeze through it easily. Ira Levin mentioned a character who would always write two books at once, "turning to the second when he struck a snag on the first, and back to the first when he struck a snag on the second." Attempting to bulldoze your way through 50k words with no breathing space is aiming pretty high.

On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for the discipline of writing when you don't feel like it in order to meet a deadline. (It's what professional writers do, after all.) Let's not be precious about it; sometimes you just need to get your butt in a chair, start without your muse and hope that inspiration will kick in. 

The community aspect of NaNoWriMo is a mixed bag: it can be a great launching pad for people to pick up tips, collaborate, find mentors and feel supported. However, it could also be likened to prison – a place where people who might not have been so bad left to their own devices are now surrounded by bad influences.

Some of the advice on the forums is execrable. One thread on "dirty tricks to reach 500k" suggested replacing the word "suddenly" with "all of a sudden". Forgetting for a moment the insanity of throwing random words in just to fill your daily quota, this advice will cement your reputation as a hack. Rightly or wrongly, using the word "suddenly" is considered cheesy by many writers, along with "seems" and any kind of variation on "said". (You already know what I think about that little rule.) Filling out your manuscript with dream sequences, flashbacks, boring technical information and pointless adjectives may be de rigueur among NaNoWriMo-ers, but all those snobby professionals will savage it faster than you can say "Suddenly, she flicked her head and let her eyes roam around the antiquarian, old-fashioned vintage-style room, which seemed to stare back at her with sinister eyes and sigh miserably." (Attributing emotions to inanimate objects is my personal favourite. When you've seen one house "standing proudly" on a hill, you've seen them all. What works for Stephen King (a sinister, grinning typewriter) sounds corny from anyone else.)

It may not be "art" but I do kind of like the idea of a novel which is a gigantic game of Consequences: the NaNoWriMo forums offer an "adoption society" where you can use other people's abandoned first lines, tragic pasts, even plot twists. Similarly, novelist (and co-creator of King Kong) Edgar Wallace is said to have patented a kind of magic 8 ball for those with writer's block; his "Plot wheel" suggested events such as "a fortuitous arrival" or "heroine declares her love". Plenty of writers (including Shakespeare) create stories made up entirely of recycled ideas
– ultimately, it's the way you tell it that counts.

Because there ain't nothin' new under the sun...

NaNoWriMo is sponsored by a number of companies who welcome self-publishers (Amazon, Createspace, Lulu, Bookbaby etc) but while there are persistent rumours that "LOTS" of people run to upload their novel to Kindle on 1st December, I haven't actually seen any (and it's very easy to spot new releases). Apparently some agents refuse to accept submissions in December, fearing a swarm of egomaniacs who all believe they have written a groundbreaking (albeit barely cobbled together) novel.

Skipping the crucial leave-it-for-a-few-weeks-then-heavily-rewrite-and-edit-it-to-death step gives NaNoWriMo "winners" a bad name - but fast writing doesn't
guarantee a crappy result. Sylvester Stallone is famous for penning Rocky in 3 days (although it should be noted that like NaNoWriMo, this was only a first draft and Sly gave it NINE rewrites to polish it up before he was able to sell it). Paulo Coelho wrote his acclaimed bestseller The Alchemist in TWO WEEKS. (Makes you sick, doesn't it?) A classic monster was created when Mary Shelley joined in a writing competition with friends (one of whom was John Polidori, whose entry The Vampyre is considered the first novel concerning the  blood-sucker found in folklore. Not too shabby for one little contest). The first Sherlock Holmes novel took Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only three weeks to write, and John Boyne wrote The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in two and a half days. (Proof, perhaps, that when a story wants to be born, it will be.)

Most of us mere mortals take longer to come up with writing of any real quality.
Catch-22 was the result of eight years of toil from Joseph Heller. (To be honest, I wish he'd been a bit more brutal when editing.) Truman Capote took seven years to finish In Cold Blood. His pal Harper Lee has only published one novel in her life; apparently she's attempted more but has always given up because she isn't satisfied with her work. I guess once you've written something as successful as To Kill a Mockingbird, the thought of rabid critics devouring your next effort could freeze up your creativity. Harper Lee needs NaNoWriMo! 

In the words of Julia Cameron in
The Right to Write; "in order to be a good writer, I have to be willing to be a bad writer... In other words, let it all in – every little detail that catches your fancy. You can sort it out later – if it needs any sorting." 

And this is why I can't agree with the haters; if you're one of those imaginative people with a million ideas buzzing around your head, NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to see if any of them actually work. As the website points out, "99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It’s just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists." If you have a story that's haunting you, a scribbled synopsis on the back of an envelope, or an abandoned first draft, you have an excuse to give it a go. Even if you produce 50,000 words of utter tripe, you're developing your writing muscles. And if you'd started back on November 1st, you'd have finished by now. 

If you're still anti-NaNoWriMo, let's just make December NaNoReaMo and concentrate on reading all those classics we've somehow missed out on. Great stories are a masterclass  in how to write, and we'll be honing our skills for next November...

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