Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The NaNo Monster

If you know anything about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) you know it's an exciting and daunting marathon/undertaking for most people who get involved during the month of November. Despite having only a vague idea of the monster task they're taking on* (not the least of which is themselves),  these writers dip - no, fling! - their hooks and lines into the abyss and go fishing for whatever stories lie in the deep, murky recesses of their minds, intent on reaching that forbidding goal of capturing (at the least) a small - complete - novel  of 50 000 words in only 30 days. As if that weren't forbidding enough, this year the NaNo critics have crawled out of the mud(dle) and blogged their scorn all over the web, adding another layer of obstacles for the writer to struggle through in their dream of bagging the big one.

I'm very sad at all the backlash I see NaNo getting this year. In fact, this post was originally a comment I left on a blog in response to one of the many "Is NaNo Good for Real Writers?" posts floating about the web right now.

The criticism is sounding either a heck of a lot like elitism or, alternately, a convenient set of excuses to avoid the true grunt work that real writing is : just you and the page, persisting putting words together for the purpose of a recognizable result. When every man and his dog really IS doing it you realize two things: 1) it's not as easy to be a writer as you might think (the minimum word count per day for NaNo is an average work day for a pro - and working writers HAVE to end up with 'good' words to keep their jobs) and 2) putting words on the page is where the writing begins, not ends. It's up to you how much quality you aim for.

NaNoWriMo is a wonderful concept, motivator and activity to participate in. It's also, in principle, more necessary than many would admit. It's very easy to dismiss NaNo because, yes, quality is not the aim of NaNo. Instead it's about showing you that a) writing is consistent, hard work and b) that it IS more possible than you might think to do. For those people who don't regularly write under deadline, NaNo does three things:

1) It brings home just how much WORK there is to writing by forcing you to do it. It's not all about crafting words  - first you have to have some words to craft. And if you want to ever be a pro writer, I'll say it again: the minimum daily requirement for Nano really is a fairly average day at work.
2) They say it takes 30 days to make (or break) a habit. NaNo goes a long way to getting the 'write EVERY day' necessity for serious wannabes going (and if you've been a little slack in the previous year it's a great way to get you back onto the writing wagon).
3) It shows you that, if you persist, you CAN write even when you don't feel like it, have crazy schedules getting in the way and more. And sometimes you even write GOOD stuff. (The many book contracts emerging from manuscripts birthed/unearthed/bagged-and-tagged during NaNo are testament to that.)

NaNo also teaches you things about your own writing that aren't possible any other way. For me, I've discovered that while I can do NaNo just fine, I'm happier with my writing if I can edit as I go, so writing a novel "NaNo-style" (ie. keep writing, don't stop and don't look back until you've hit 50 000 words and/or 'the end') is NOT the best writing method for me personally BUT other principles of NaNo DO apply - write every day, keep going when you feel you can't, some words are far better than no words, a little every day adds up quickly, you CAN achieve a big goal in a short period of time if you persist despite all manner of obstacles and limited time and yes: sometimes you HAVE to write through the crap in order to get to the good stuff. If you're writing something new - a new genre, new issues, a new style etc -  do you REALLY expect to get it right without putting in the learning effort in the first place? You cannot run a marathon without the regular exercise needed beforehand to build up strength, stamina, effective race techniques and strategy. At least not without putting your health in serious danger. Writing is the same. (That's the reason for the little NaNoWriMo logo of the guy running holding a pencil.)

If you're feeling disgruntled with NaNo (or similar undertakings**) I urge you to take a hard look at yourself - are you using other people's results as an excuse NOT to get involved? Isn't it YOUR result*** that counts? Or are you secretly worried that you'll end up being one of the many average people 'just writing'?

I suggest you challenge yourself. The best writers and the best writing come from facing the hard stuff. Nobody said it was easy. The terms of winning are even set BY you to a large extent. If you feel 'churning out words every day = crap' and you're not OK with that, work harder. That's the whole point. You are the only one who affects whether you win or lose in this race. Unlike the rest of your writing life, though, it's during November that you don't have to face the difficulties alone. There's a built in network or support, fans, cheer squads and even expert research help standing by to help you.
There are plenty of excuses not to try. NaNoWriMo is not one of them. If you're not up to getting involved then at least cheer on those who are. They're taking their dreams seriously and that is an achievement in and of itself.
 *Totally monstrous - because, no matter how many novels you've written before, that's what starting a new project from scratch is like.

**I just discovered GothNoWriMo (another unofficial offshoot of NaNoWriMo using the same concept) now exists - write a Gothic Novel during October in time for Halloween (so still 30 days only). That would be a fun group of people to connect with!

*** There are a ton of helpful tools available to help you quality-check along the way during NaNo - the community is very helpful in providing assistance to those who really are interested in producing quality. This website HERE for instance, has a quick quiz to check if you're falling into the Mary Sue trap with your MC. It works best if you're brutally honest with yourself and the process may actually teach you a few things along the way too. Either way, your writing will get better. Oh, and how did I find the website? Through a NaNoWriMo connection.

Note: Image at head of post by Monica Langlois as indicated. Ms. Langlois' work  also has a lot lurking under the surface. please click on her picture "Lolly the Unsuspecting" to go to her website & see her extensive portfolio.
Image of Kraken - artist unknown