Trick or Treat?

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.

The Trick of Writing is to Write! So is the Treat…

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?

9 Responses to “Trick or Treat?”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    I’ve done NaNoWriMo four times, finished it twice. I’m thinking about it this year.

    However, I’ll admit I “cheat.” I’ve never actually written an entire novel during this event. Usually, I realize that I don’t understand what I’m working on, so a lot of the 50,000 words is background, character studies, and figuring out how the world works. All of this is necessary, but none of it is finished novel.

    I also realized that things like an outline count towards the daily word limit. I count Nanowrimo as 50,000 words of progress even if 20,000 words of it gets deleted on December 1st. The two novels that resulted from it (months later) were 70,000 and 120,000 words respectively.

    The times I failed to finish, I got stuck writing some other projects early on, and getting them done derailed the Nanowrimo effort. I don’t think that will happen this month, but I could be wrong.

    In any event, I do recommend it, for the same reason you do. I can’t think of a better way to get people’s hands on their keyboards.

  2. Paul Says:

    Our library wanna-be-writers’ group is trying a variation on this, getting together with our laptops for each of the four Saturdays in November for five hours of intensive writing at the library, all being our own support system. Of course, finishing anything means working in between, too. Some of us are cheating a little, using starting-point work already done instead of something entirely new. But it will get us to sit and write.

  3. shibiku Says:

    I’m flattered to be featured! It was really great to have that conversation with you, because it helped me to cement some ideas and also follow new ones. I think that my personal goal is just… forward progress, in general. This helps me do that.

    • janelindskold Says:

      And thank you for helping me to learn something new… I must admit, I get really jazzed when that happens. It’s like having doors opening and clean air rushing through and clearing away all the cobwebs cluttering up my brain.

      That’s one reason I like doing these Wanderings. Sometimes the Comments show me an entirely new approach.

  4. Dominique Says:

    Well you both inspired me. I wrote 20 pages last night, reviving my efforts with a story I haven’t touched in about 2 months. Thank you for the motivation boost!

  5. Emily Says:

    I’ve decided to try NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve never tried it before. LI also had my reservations, similar to what Miss Lindskold pointed out. I figured it was kind of pointless to write “unedited”. I’m giving it a try so I can press myself to finish first and edit later. Too often I give up on writing projects because it’s not everything I expected it to be.

  6. Eric Says:

    I’ve tried to get involved in NaNoWriMo both of the past two years, but my college studies always interfere to a great degree. I only wrote 1,200 words last year! I probably won’t try this year, which I suppose is a shame since I’ve got ideas bouncing around. 1,000 Chinese characters to memorize before the final though…

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Very glad people have been inspired to write first, then edit!

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