A Novel Approach

Is there anything better about November than National Novel Writing Month?

While Thanksgiving’s origins are foggy and contestable and the holiday generally has people whispering about its imperialist undertones, NaNoWriMo has people all over the world–over 200,000 members this year–excited for all the right reasons: creativity and collaboration and encouragement and ambition. (Just what 1621 Plymouth should’ve focused on, really.)

While I’ve never participated in these “days and nights of literary abandon,” as the site (now in its 13th year) calls it, I can appreciate this organization for its lovely simplicity as much as anything else: if you write 50,000 original words between November 1 and 30, you’re a winner. Period. Being unable to read through 200,000 novels, the site’s largely based on an honors system, and even the Rules Page of the site is like a trusty pep talk — “if you consider the book you’re writing a novel, we consider it a novel, too!” 

That sort of attitude is bound to be a blow to the small-but-powerful community of literary elitists, for whom the only novels worth talking about are by those who’ve already been talked about for a minimum of three decades. You know the types: the ones who conveniently forget that  Lord of the Flies was found in Faber and Faber’s slush pile, or that Hemingway was once a petulant child who hated his cello lessons. To these Glen Duncans of the world, it may be distasteful to so democratize the activity of writing. Because this much is true: not everyone can do it well. But everyone can do it. And everyone should try. This month, everyone’s being invited to. As I see it, it’s not overly idealistic to think that of its 200,000-plus participants and 30,000-plus winners, amidst its billions of words and millions of sentences, we could see some truly great works emerge from the month of November and far beyond it.

And, being less than the ideal idealist, I can also say that there’s one aspect of this whole friendly competition that ever so slightly sticks in my craw. That is, the way the notion of “quantity over quality” is tirelessly conveyed by the NaNoWriMo powers that be. Now, don’t get me wrong, as an undergraduate creative writing major, it was often stressed that, in order to produce writing of any caliber, you had to, you know….actually produce something. A recommended exercise was to choose a particular block of time every day and write continuously throughout it, not allowing oneself to stop due to concerns like writer’s block or, indeed, concern over the quality of what was pouring onto the page. It was always in our best interest to write everything in order to sift through to find the salvageable something. And that last part is what the rules of NaNoWriMo seem to gloss over. In stressing the 50,000-word mark, there’s no mention of the very necessary sifting process thereafter. And without it, no one’s writing could possibly improve.

Is that Glen Duncanesque of me to say? If so, maybe this will clarify: having produced 50,000 original words is definitely something to be proud of, and I commend all who, by the set rules, qualify as winners. But a novel-length word count alone isn’t what makes the writing process all that it is. That part is the most raw, as well as the most solitary; it is in editing and revision that we bring other eyes and voices to what we have created—and, notably, National Novel Writing Month has little to say on that phase of the thing. On their Wikipedia page, it’s noted that “novels are verified for word count by software…It is possible to win without anyone (other than the author) ever seeing or reading the novel.” But then, are we ever able to write only for ourselves? Much less to be declared victors because of what we’ve produced for our eyes only? The writer Ray Gonzalez gave a talk in one of my English classes and had this to say on the subject. I paraphrase:

“No one has the right to write only for themselves. When you produce art, you’ve irrevocably injected the world with something.”

I’ve thought about that a lot since, and I’ve always leaned toward agreeing with him. Because it is in hearing input that we not only improve what’s on the page, but find a voice to defend it. We learn what we ourselves are passionate about, how much we agree or disagree with our initial readers. We gain a multitude of perspectives that is impossible to access at the tip of our lonely pencil. Given that’s the case, how can we possibly become better writers in the absence of it?

NaNoWriMo knows what it’s doing, and what it’s doing is glorious: it’s getting people started. Thousands of them, many of whom wouldn’t have put pen to paper without that particular and emphatic boost. This non-profit hosts pep talks and houses online forums and fosters a strong community of writing. Its only flaw, as I see it, is an easily mendable one: they can, for starters, think about ditching their slogan, “No Plot? No Problem!” which, for all its supportiveness, seems to be too flip about what happens after those first 50,000 words—the part that seems indisputably to be the writer’s most defining and consequential moments of all.

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2 thoughts on “A Novel Approach

  1. I love the idea of NaNoWriMo, and would like to try it someday – between grad apps and GRE study, this wasn’t the right year (but is there ever one?)

    I like that NaNoWriMo champions the idea of producing crap simply because writing begets writing. Most of us with vaguely literary ambitions have a story inside of us that has to be perfect and might take us years to get down – NaNoWriMo engenders a sort of bravery that some people might need, or at least find useful to equip them to move on to a more valuable project.

    There is another even more manic 3-day novel contest in September. http://www.3daynovel.com/ They have a much lower word count, of course, and do select a winner (although everyone who finishes gets their names on the site, or something.)

    If I have one real issue, I guess it is similar to yours. I think that a lot of modern creative writing instruction and popular wisdom seems to downplay the importance of plot, which results in a lot of heady character sketches that are all but impossible to read. So, maybe NaNoWriMo-ers should have a plot – they should just be open to it changing. Also, sensitive young writers are hereby forbidden to read “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or anything by Hunter S. Thompson. Starting now.

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