Just say NaNo?

November 1, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

Today is November 1, which marks the first day of the annual writing marathon known as NaNoWriMo. For those of us who despise cutesy acronyms, this must serve as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, standing as it does for National Novel Writing Month and not, as one might be forgiven for assuming, Nah, No Write More. The project, which is based in America and is now in its 11th year, is kind of the marathon version of Canada’s annual Labour Day weekend sprint, the 3-Day Novel Contest.

NaNoWriMo was inaugurated in 1999, when a group of 21 friends banded together during the month of July to see how many of them could write a novel over the course of 31 days. Their rationale was simple. They wanted to be novelists so that they could get laid:

[O]ur July noveling binge had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front. Nor did it reflect any hopes we had about tapping more fully into our creative selves. No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.

What they discovered was that turning the practice of novel writing into a kind of month-long block party made the entire process enjoyable in a way that “would have rightly horrified professional writers.” In the words of NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty:

We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.

We called it noveling. And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.

Ignore (for the moment) the way in which “noveling” has been reduced to the literary equivalent of knitting, or the unbridled ambition involved in wanting to write “passable” novels. It appears that Baty’s sense of possibility was not misplaced: in the decade following that summer’s literary block party, NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially: last year, over 119,000 people participated, according to the website for The Office of Letters and Light, the non-profit organization set up to run NaNoWriMo, among other endeavours. NaNoWriMo corporate sponsors include Amazon, Scrivener, FW Media, and literally dozens of individual sponsors who have donated sums of money anywhere from $10 to $2,500. Donations to NaNoWriMo underwrite the annual writing marathon, but more importantly, they fund the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, which is specifically targeted at classrooms, offering lesson plans and forums for teachers and opportunities for students to participate in deadline-driven events (tied to NaNoWriMo) meant to encourage the students’ enthusiasm for writing.

Which sounds like an undeniably noble endeavour, so it is perhaps churlish of me to complain that the whole premise behind the project (in both its adult and youth forms) is based on an erroneous perception of how novels are written, and why. According to the NaNoWriPo website, the goal of the project is to write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1 and midnight on November 30, then upload this to the NaNoWriPo site for verification, at which point successful participants will be declared winners of that year’s challenge.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

All of which, again, sounds good in a kind of self-help, writer’s craft way; writers are encouraged to write without paying heed to the nasty editor in their heads, the one that tells them to refine, delete, excise, rework. The vocabulary of the NaNoWriMo site testifies to the way in which it has bought in to the tyranny of diminished expectations where writing is concerned. Instead of deliberation and focus, writers are encouraged to let loose and be free, and pay no heed to trifling matters such as talent or technique. Writers are encouraged to be great warriors who contact first thoughts and write from them. (In case you think I’m making that up, you are advised to consult a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, a heartfelt, new-agey text that could easily have served as the inspiration for NaNoWriMo.)

But this is not the way novels get written. One is reminded of Paul Sheldon, dreadfully injured in a car crash and trapped in a small cabin’s bedroom, frantically churning out the latest installment of his Misery Chastain series at the behest of his “number one fan.” But as Paul points out, novelists don’t work to artificially imposed deadlines (although their in-house editors would likely have apoplexy to hear that uttered out loud), and they don’t write to order. Novels – at least the ones that endure – take time, commitment, and patience, all things that are in short supply in today’s jacked-up, Internet-driven society, and all things that are antithetical to the very idea of NaNoWriMo. On one level, the only difference between Paul Sheldon and the participants in NaNoWriMo is that the latter don’t have a crazed Annie Wilkes standing over them with an axe and a blowtorch.

Additionally, NaNoWriMo entrenches the invidious notion that writing is less a craft to be learned than a hobby to be practiced on weekends and in snatches of spare time:

In 2008, we had over 120,000 participants. More than 20,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

The NaNoWriMo website offers the promise of recognition and sense of accomplishment, but says nothing about how this devalues the work of countless underpaid, underappreciated professional writers who have spent the better part of their lives honing their craft. Instead, it buys into the cult of celebrity that is inescapable in what passes for North American culture these days.

Perhaps I’m taking all of this way too seriously. It’s clear from reading the NaNoWriMo website that the organizers have no illusions about turning out works to rival Tolstoy or Dickens. Still, in a culture that increasingly marginalizes the important work that novelists do, I can’t help but feel a certain frisson surrounding this kind of literary challenge. NaNoWriMo supporters will line up to brand me an elitist, which has become one of the most damning insults conceivable in a society based around the “democracy” of the Internet. My response would be that novel writing is an inherently elitist activity. If it weren’t, everybody would be doing it.


11 Responses to “Just say NaNo?”
  1. Andrew S says:

    The most significant effect of NaNoWriMo has been to enable Chris Baty to write a book on how to write a novel, despite the fact that he’s never actually written one that anyone would publish.

    Writing about how to write is the oldest scam in the book, but conventionally we come to it by writing a few novels and then running out of things to say. Baty found a way to get direct to the scam without actually having anything to say in the first place.

    Other than that, though, isn’t picking on NaNoWriMo a little like stealing a baby’s Hallowe’en candy?

  2. Finn Harvor says:

    1.”My response would be that novel writing is an inherently elitist activity. If it weren’t, everybody would be doing it.”

    2. “Other than that, though, isn’t picking on NaNoWriMo a little like stealing a baby’s Hallowe’en candy?”

    Andrew and Steven,
    Well-stated arguments, but aren’t they sidestepping one of the reasons why these contests exist in the first place? They’re not simply there to juice up the engines of wannabes who otherwise can’t locate the self-discipline to write; they’re also there because the vetting system by which manuscripts are normally passed through The Filter has broken down. Yes, of course writing is a time-consuming, care-demanding activity …. What does that matter when agents who control access to acquisition editors speed-read submissions, and/or toss out some subs on the basis of cover letters (while taking seriously others; “he’s published in HuffPo *and* the Guardian? — well, I’ll read on!”), and/or otherwise cope with their workloads by taking short cuts? (And this is nobody’s “fault”; it’s built into the system.)

    The primary problem facing literary production as it exists in the culture isn’t contests of this sort; it’s the fact that mss. are vetted according to all sorts of weird criteria. I’m not saying legitimate vetting doesn’t happen. And I don’t belong to the Everything That’s Published by the Majors is Crap school. All I’m saying is, good work doesn’t see the light of day. Two the best short stories I’ve read, bar none, are Canadian, and remain unpublished.

    So, then, a challenge to the two of you: I’ve got an ms. that I think is both artistically accomplished and would sell. It’s somewhat on the experimental side, but that’s okay; CanLit is an enterprise which needs the occasional fire-cracker.

    I would like you both to read it. In exchange, I’ll read anything of yours that you wish (non-fiction included), will comment on it, and will interview you about it if you so desire.

    There it is: my little CanLit challenge — not based on manuscript-writing, but manuscript-reading. Make November Canadian Mss. That Can’t Get Published the Regular Way But Should Month. Or something. And it’s open, incidentally, to any other writers who read this site and are honourable, trustworthy sorts who respect copyright (including copyright of ideas).

    Hell, Heritage Canada might even fund the coffee.

  3. Don Doggett says:

    I dunno, I’m really of two minds about the whole thing. On the one hand I’m in favor of anything that encourages people to express themselves; amateur writing, amateur art, amateur sports, whatever. On the other hand, it’s pretty ridiculous to think that you can write a even a decent novel in a month- maybe if they called it National Extreme First Draft of a Novel Writing Month I could get behind it.

  4. london says:

    But i can’t say……I say NaBlPs…
    National Blog Posting……and i will do that..

  5. Finn Harvor says:

    Replace “vetting”/”vetted” with “choosing”/”chosen”.

  6. Finn Harvor says:

    Or “selection” (i.e., selection process)/ “selected”. [Apologies — doing this between breaks at work (and while rasslin’ with the site’s unforgiving spam filter).]

  7. Andrew S says:

    Finn, I may just take you up on that. I’ll email you.

  8. DGM says:

    A few years ago there was an opinion piece at Salon.com where the writer complained that the sport of marathon-running had been overtaken by amateurs. Running, the writer claimed, had become a middle-class pastime with an emphasis on the runner’s accomplishing his or her own personal goals by training and participating. Professional athletes felt that the importance of their sport was being diminished, while the amateurs retorted that the pros were being ‘elitist’ in their judgement. And besides, at least they were all getting exercise, right?

    The NaNoWriMo phenomenon, perhaps, is part of a similar syndrome affecting literary culture. Thanks to advances in computer technology and an increase in leisure time, along with what might be called the ‘American Idol’ effect (i.e. Anyone can be a Star! and Everyone should Try!), there are far more people writing novels than there were fifty years ago. Even though publishers are releasing more books than ever, there is simply no way to keep up with all of the wannabes sending in manuscripts, which in turn leads to the counter-charge that the Powers That Be are abdicating their job as gatekeepers. Yes, publishing houses are elitist by nature, but there is simply too much competition for everyone to get a book approved.

    Not everyone deserves a book contract. In fact, websites like Lulu.com were set up to answer that very overflow of demand (confession time: I self-published my own novel due in part to a lack of publisher interest). While I agree that publishers in general need to broaden their concept of what is fit to publish (in terms of subject matter and tone, not quality), the economics of publishing are dead set against the hordes of hobby writers pecking away at their laptops in Starbucks.

    There’s also a bigger question that no one seems to have an answer for: who is gonna buy and read all of these novels that everyone wants to write?

  9. “Readings got you a piece of ass sometimes. Rockstars got ass; boxers on the way up got ass; great bullfighters got virgins. Somehow, only the bull fighters deserved any of it.”
    – Charles Bukowski

  10. Vickie Irwin says:

    As a “traditionally published author” (Vicki Raymond, Carcanet, if you want to google me), I took part in NaNoWrimo for the first time this year, for three reasons:
    1. I had never written a novel before, poetry being my genre
    2. I had the seed of a story rattling around in my head for the last 40 years
    3. I wanted to see if the NaNoWrimo experience could be used/adapted in my other life as a teacher

    My expectations of NaNoWriMo were minuscule- a skeleton plot, and perhaps the first draft of a first draft. I certainly did not plan to take part in any of the write-in events (60-year-old skeleton at the feast) but I contributed to the forums, especially those where participants were asking about life in antiquity…

    I ignored the organisers’ advice and listened to my inner editor from the off, In the first week I worked very quickly and produced my basic story. I then went back and added layer after layer until I had reached the magic 50,000 words…and kept going. I ended up with a spoof bodice-ripper which I think will make people laugh.

    I agree with Steven W. Beattie in that this is not the way serious, complex, memorable novels get written, but an exception could surely be made for comic novels which often depend upon contemporary references. Actually, come to think of it, many classical novels were first published in serial form in magazines, so tight deadlines are nothing new. A merry Christmas to you, Mr Pickwick!

  11. Johnny says:

    Seriously, I don’t see what the problem is. I doubt that many participants have illusions of becoming real, published authors. Even if they do have those illusions, once they do NaNoWriMo and face the product of their labor, they’ll be forced to confront reality.

    I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I have no aspirations to become a real fiction writer. I’m a computer programmer, and I love my job. Here are my motivations for doing NaNoWriMo

    1. It’s an exercise in self-discipline. It requires that I spend enough time being productive every day to meet my target.
    2. It’s an exercise in writing prose: I think I’m becoming a better writer by practicing. Everyone has to write, so it’s worthwhile to practice.
    3. I like reading fiction, and spending a month attempting to write fiction gives me a better understanding of it.
    4. Maybe I’ll find out I’m actually good at it. Probably not, but I’ll never know unless I try.

    Literature comes out of an amateur storytelling tradition. I really don’t see why professionals should feel threatened by modern amateurs engaging in long form storytelling. A major rock band doesn’t complain about all those little bands playing in bars throughout the world, or about all those amateur musicians playing in their own living rooms. Or maybe they do complain about it, but to do so is silly. If anything, amateur creators are great consumers for the product of professionals.