This week, in honor of Halloween, I want to talk about an event that I used to think was a Trick but I now think might well be a Treat. This is NaNoWriMo, which officially begins tomorrow, November 1, and ends at midnight on November 30.
What is NaNoWriMo? It’s often described as a “contest” in which the goal is to write a novel (defined as a 50,000 word piece) in a month. I think “contest” isn’t actually the best word for this event. It’s more like a great, writerly group hug in which people involved in the otherwise solitary act of writing can feel they’re part of a larger effort.
When I first heard about NaNoWriMo, I really wasn’t a fan. I’m what is usually considered a “fast” writer and 50,000 words in a month seemed pretty ambitious to me. If I’ve done my math right, that comes out to just over 1,666 words a day or about six pages a day, every day, no holidays.
(Note: The usual translation of a “page” into words is 250 words a page. This dates back to the days of old, before computer word counts let you know exactly what you’d written.)
As I said, I’m usually considered a pretty fast writer, and I consider five pages a day, five days a week, good output. It must be, given that I’ve managed to write 22 published (and several not-yet-published) novels in under twenty years. Add in that most of those years, I’ve also written a lot of short fiction and non-fiction (go over to my website bibliography if you want to see the details) and you’ll see I’m no slacker.
So, the first reason I thought NaNoWriMo was more a Trick than a Treat was because I thought it set a pretty impossible goal. Add into this that the end result was actually a fairly short manuscript by modern standards and I thought the participants were being set up for disappointment.
Another thing that bothered me was the idea that people were being led to think they could write a novel in a month. Writing a novel is more than writing down a lot of words. Writing a novel – even if it’s set in the here and now and contains none of the outlandish elements that characterize SF and Fantasy – involves research, character development, and, most importantly, polishing.
Well, you say, “Of course, it does!” However, apparently, many of the people who participate in NaNoWriMo don’t know this. I have heard from more than one professional editor that immediately following November 30th, the mail is filled with submissions of short novels written during NaNoWriMo and sent with minimal – or often no – polishing at all off to the publisher.
These writers apparently believe the publisher will now recognize the brilliance of this highly inspired piece and buy it, typos, poorly developed characters, skimpy plots, and all. I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing that self-publishing venues like Kindle and Nook see a huge up-tick after November 30th, too.
All of this made me feel that NaNoWriMo was not encouraging people to be writers but doing exactly the opposite – setting very high production goals that would only produce unpublishable, even unreadable, material and therefore set the participants up for disappointment.
What made me see the Treat side in NaNoWriMo was a chat I had with my friend Rowan last week. Possibly because she has known me for quite a while, Rowan knows that writing a novel isn’t just a matter of getting a bunch of words down on the page. Therefore, I was surprised to find out that she was eagerly intending to participate in NaNoWriMo.
I started out to offer my usual warnings, then I decided that I should hear what why Rowan was prepared to invest so much time in this project. Her words reminded me of a lesson I’d learned so long ago that I blush to say I’d forgotten it: If you want to write a novel (or even a short story), you need to make time to sit down and write.
Rowan talked about how easy it was to let the day slip by without writing. She’s has had an idea for a novel for a while, but has never got around to putting more than a little on paper. NaNoWriMo (and a cheering section of her friends) was going to be her incentive to actually write it down.
As we talked, I was reminded of myself in college. I scribbled a lot, but I never finished anything. Then, in my senior year, I took an elective writing course. I can’t say it taught me a lot about writing (as in the craft), but it did force me to finally finish something. That was a huge benefit and I’ve always had a soft spot for that course because of that.
Next, I asked Rowan questions about her novel, focusing on character and plot. I became convinced that Rowan had the basics in place. I started getting excited. Who cares if the finished product will be a bit short? She’ll have a good idea where to expand. Who cares if some of the characters will be a bit sketchy? She’ll know them better than she would if they remained vague in her head. Rowan knows she’s going to need to polish but, by the end of November, she’s going to have something to polish.
Talking to Rowan made me really glad that I’d accepted an invitation to give a presentation at my local library (Taylor Ranch Branch, Albuquerque, November 1, 6:00 to 7:00 pm) as part of their launch of their NaNoWriMo program. I’m going to talk about beginnings, middles, and endings. I hope I’ll be part of inspiring people like Rowan to do their best, to move closer to fulfilling the dream of becoming writers.
Have any of you ever done NaNoWriMo? What do you think of it? Are you taking part this year?