Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NaNoWriMo reality check

I find the concept of NaNoWriMo slightly delusional, and more than a little masochistic.

I know, I have writing friends who have done it, and when I first heard about it I thought, Cool– it's like boot camp; set aside a time, throw everything else to the wind and go for it. But upon reflection it kind of encapsulates everything I hate about amateur writers (and I don't mean unpublished writers. I mean writers with an amateur mindset. Hobbyists. Dilettantes.).

Firstly, NaNoWriMo promotes the idea that everyone has a novel in them. This is false. People may have words in them, just like they have earwax, saliva, snot and other unpleasant substances in them. But generally people have the sense not to preserve their sebaceous secretions with the expectation of praise and reward. I've seen too many people who think that just because they slapped down 100 thousand words they have a novel, and they think that running spellcheck, maybe moving a few commas around, will render it publishable. No. I'm sorry, but no. Quit clogging up the slushpiles for the rest of us. I am firmly convinced that NaNoWriMo is the reason many agents and editors close to submissions during December. There really ought to be a cooling-off period for manuscripts.

Second, NaNoWriMo pushes the self-punishing idea that you can really accomplish something if you let everything else slide. This is classic defeatist/perfectionist thinking. Trust me, I know. I have three vocations that constantly vie for my attention, plus a husband I like and the occasional need to earn a living. Whenever I focus exclusively on one thing, even for a week, everything else suffers and I get real unhappy. Then the thing I'm focused on starts to suffer as well, because I'm not taking care of myself or my environment. Routine is a good thing. Routine is what feeds our brains and allows us to create. We'd be far better served by eliminating some complications from our lives than adding the stress of trying to create something meaningful in an unrealistic time span.

Third, NaNoWriMo embraces the uniquely American idea that something large and difficult can be accomplished in a short time and without any real experience or practice––just a sudden burst of frenetic optimism. This is just plain bullshit. If you're not already writing daily, what makes you think you'll do it in November? If you don't already have a story to tell, what makes you think you'll come up with one? If you don't already have the plot in mind, what happens when you get stuck and don't know what comes next? I'll tell you what happens––you fall back on stock characters and lame plot devices that have been beaten to death in every TV serial ever aired. Because you don't have time to think of anything else.

The only person who might benefit from NaNoWriMo is that odd unicorn whose writing muscles are already strong and limber from daily exercise; who has a story idea firmly in mind and has done all the research and a fair amount of outlining beforehand; who has sent the kids and pets away, or secluded herself in a nice vacation condo somewhere (I should mention, she's independently wealthy)... that writer might be able to turn out a workable product in 30 days. But if she's that well prepared and that determined to get it done, she doesn't need a designated month to make it happen.

Friends, if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo, then abandon the word-count flog and just use that month to develop the habit of writing every day. It will take at least four weeks to train your family to leave you in peace during your designated writing time. Get a digital timer and set it outside your door. Don't let anyone interrupt you. Then, set a timer for yourself. Spend an hour on research and pre-writing––character development or plotting. There is no sin in outlining, or at least brainstorming the arc of the plot. Then spend two hours actually putting words down.

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. Writers can find enough reasons to beat themselves up without the sword of NaNoWriMo hanging over their heads.


Alien Life Form said...

Yeah, if you expect to actually write anything that anybody else would actually want to read. If you approach it from a mindset of just getting motivated and writing "something" it's a good thing. If one gets stuck in perfectionistic thinking that you can't write something until you have something "good" then we never do anything.
An artist must spend a lot of time doing studies and slogging through a lot of crap sketches before they get to a point where they're actually any good. Photographers take dozens of mediocre pictures for every really good one. Writing's much the same insofar as one must practice any art to get better.
That being said, I do agree that balance is a good thing. Hyperfocusing on any one thing to the detriment of all others is a great way to make yourself miserable in the long run. :P

Freyalyn said...

Sensible. Wish more people would read it.

Holly said...

Eh. People will do what people will do. My kung fu teacher says, if you learn one thing (from any given experience), it was worth it.

Jan Gephardt said...

I most often fall for the second one you mentioned, "the self-punishing idea that you can really accomplish something if you let everything else slide. This is classic defeatist/perfectionist thinking." You are right on.

I've seen a number of such "write that novel NOW!" schemes over the years, and my response was always, "Oh, really? No, sorry--I have a life, plus I want to write GOOD fiction."

Seems to me that you are right on!