November 18, 2004

NaNo lives

Those of you who have been reading me for a while (ie: years) may remember a rant I wrote the first time NaNoWriMo came around. (NaNoWriMo, for those not in the know, is a novel-writing project, the goal of which is to generate a 50,000 word first draft in the course of a single month.) I was against it, felt it fostered bad writing. That a writer's mindset becomes poisoned by page count obsessions and that good writing needs time to simmer on the stove, it can't rush out of you in a month-long spew.

I've changed my mind. Oh, I still believe this is not the ideal way to write a good novel. But I think it's a damned good way to exorcize the devil that keeps most people who yearn to write from ever getting past the first page. I think I've also gotten past a kind of unconscious elitism. It doesnít matter if your novel is National Book Award material. If you want to write, if you enjoy the process and feel like you have something to say, something to explore or even just a plot idea that feels like fun to write, why not spend the time in that world? I donít have to win blue ribbons at baking competitions when I bake pumpkin pies or chocolate chip cookies, I do it for the fun of it and because I love to eat the results. Writing carries its own deep satisfaction (less caloric, too).

Diane turned me onto NaNoBlogMo the other night, a blog portal for people who are posting their novels in serial form on the web. With a great and dreadful trepidation, I clicked the links and read bits of prose. Found one extremely well written chunk, though I suspect if I read too much it might start to feel self-indulgent and young. Read another, not so good. Not terrible, though, just awkward and filled with storytelling mistakes. But I find something oddly endearing about that, about someone writing a story she wanted to tell, no matter that her words weren't coming easily.

I browsed a few more, none as good as the first or as bad as the second. Many seem to be perfectly acceptable first drafts, outpourings of words and sentences waiting to be honed and sifted and clarified. Whether they turn into good novels depends on the rewriting skills and knowledge of their authors. Also on those authors' desire to do the hard work of rewrites. I suspect most of these manuscripts will end November 30th and stay just as they are for all eternity or at least until the pixels start to blur and the hard drives no longer spin up.

But why not? It's process, not product. It's about trying something out. I'm always telling Damian not to worry so much about being perfect, that we all make mistakes, that's how we learn, that you have to practice to get better. If NaNoWriMo gets people past writer's block and lets them loosen those muscles, discover they can get past Chapter One and even meander all the way to the general vicinity of THE END, then it seems to me that it's a good thing.

All that said, I have no intention of ever trying it myself. I seem to be drawn to write much like being sucked into a vortex, I don't need a timer or a deadline to keep myself on track. And I'd rather start and stop and examine and revamp and go at my own stuttering pace than rush full speed ahead on the A Novel In A Month freight train.

Then again, if I ever get so seriously stuck that I stop writing fiction for months and years on end, then yeah. Sign me up.

Posted by Tamar at November 18, 2004 11:54 PM

I did NaNoWriMo last year primarily because I figured it would be a good activity while I was recuperating from foot surgery in October. But for me, it was really all about the challenge of producing a certain amount of words in a specified amount of time. Would this really be possible? Could I truly complete a writing project if I could only devote an hour per day to it on a regular basis?

I did finish but haven't looked at the text since, because it wasn't really anything that was screaming to be produced. It was more just knowing that I could think of a project and work on it in bits and pieces amidst the other commitments in my life.

I've had several writing projects mulling about since I finished grad school, but I didn't have time to pursue them over the past few years when I was working at the university, so I needed to prove to myself that I could somehow find time for this type of independent research & writing work even if I could only carve out a few hours a week for my personal projects. And NaNoWriMo allowed me to prove that to myself.

So yes, I think it can be a helpful kick-in-the-pants for some people or just a useful goal for others. But at the same time, I agree that it doesn't necessarily produce great writing - my 50,000+ words on "The Secret Life of Rolling Thunder" (narrated from my cat's perspective) is much more at home in my file cabinet than anyplace else more public!

Posted by: jms at November 19, 2004 07:54 PM