November is upon us and with it the strange and bewildering beast that is National Novel Writing Month or, as it is better known, NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month, for those of you lucky ducks still kickin’ it analog, is an internet based creative writing competition that offers writers incentive to complete 1,666 words a day starting at midnight on November first and ending at midnight on the 30th, with the end goal resulting in a 50,000 word ‘novel’. The competition discourages editing during that period and urges the contestants to throw themselves into the writing process, forsaking important things like research, outlining, or brainstorming. At the end of the month contestants upload their text into a word counter and if they meet the 50,000-word requirement, they ‘win’ and get …wait for it…wait for it…a printable PDF certificate.
Understand that I’ve never really published anything substantial; I serve you all here at Luna Station as a humble slush editor, and I am a mild mannered secretary by day. I have a graduate degree in creative writing which really just means I have a very expensive case of writer’s block. For these reasons, when the leaves crunch underfoot and all the ghosts and goblins are put away for another year, I kind of hate November.
Being a successful author has always been my life’s goal, but nagging self-doubt and the need to eat have made me push aside my writing. Accepting this as my reality, I’ve taken to jotting down chapter notes during my lunch break or doing Wikipedia searches about Lizzie Borden while waiting at the dentist. I go months without writing, even though I think about it every day. Sometimes I like to lie to myself that opening a word document and then looking at cat gifs on the internet for five hours counts as a solid days work. I am, by definition, a shitty writer. Despite my lack of any substantial work, NaNo rolls around I scoff to see so many of my peers putting on their ass-kicking shoes and jumping into the fray. I balk with a kind of guilty pride and think to myself . My smugness is encouraged by the fact that a lot of bloggers, publishers, and bestselling authors have pooh-poohed the entire process. One of my professors likened NaNo to the monkeys with type-writers scenario: eventually somebody would come out with MacBeth, but there’d probably be a lot more poop flinging than Bard-worthy prose.
With this in mind, I read tweets and Facebook posts about #Writing! and #NaNoWordCount winky face smiley icon and I throw up in my mouth a little, mostly because I abhor the hash tag phenomenon, but also because that kind of once a year exuberance makes me flinch. Many of the participants I know only show this kind of fervor once a year and then it peters out. No more hash tag winky face barf on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, nothing but radio silence. And even while I scoff arrogantly and ignore my dust-encrusted laptop, a dark and ugly shame stronger than my egotism starts to seep in: I’m terrible at deadlines. I should do this just to get the words on paper.
Or maybe not. NaNo is mainly about word count and “getting an end result”. And while they stress that the end result doesn’t have to be first-rate, from the attitude that most publishers have about NaNo, most results aren’t good. NaNoWriMo results tend to be, as author Chuck Wendig puts it, “suckity-ass”. What is unfortunate here is that I can see his point. Some of NaNo’s phraseology is really off-putting: calling the participants ‘contestants’ and people who finish ‘winners’ feels misleading. As if at the final stroke of midnight on November 30th, the Literary Fairy comes down the chimney and spell checks, proofs, and formats your manuscript. It even writes your query letter for you, too. All you, you NaNoWriMo winner you, all you have to do is put that fabulous bastard in the mail and bingo bango. Six figure book deal. Because you’re a. I encounter this attitude a lot, usually from the kind of people that tell me they are writing a book based on their life because writing is, like, really easy and their lives are super interesting.
NaNoWriMo isn’t for me, but for others it has been a perfectly successful beginning process. Participating in NaNoWriMo is more of a way for aspiring authors to reach out to one another, establish relationships, and gain inspiration than it is an actual writing tool. Nobody but nobody writes a perfectly marketable first draft, and essentially NaNo is promoting a thirty-day free-writing sprint. While marathon in its intent and somewhat ambiguous in its language, anything that encourages writers to write is at its core a good thing. That first draft is a daunting task and you have every right to feel accomplished and proud, but do not lose sight; it is merely the foot of the mountain. You are not done.
The very first manuscript I submitted was a free-written mess: I didn’t edit a damn thing, not grammar, not spelling, nothing. I didn’t check for plot inconsistencies which was stupid as hell because I created characters that did nothing for the plot and who I forgot about two chapters later. I changed a character’s name half way through the manuscript; I even changed the location and didn’t do anything to correct it. I was just so stoked that I had this huge pile of paper in front of me covered with words I’d thought up. It wasn’t a story, it was just a pile of words. It goes without saying that I got a big fat no from the agency I submitted to. In retrospect, I’m happy a rejection letter is all they sent me. After wasting their time with my pile of garbage, a flaming bag of dog shit would have been a more deserved response.
That experience taught me that editing and research are important. Every successful story starts with research, no matter the genre. I’ve been scoffed at many a time for discussing my research for a sci-fi fantasy series, or a dystopian series, or even a short story collection. I research under the assumption that the more I know about what’s popular in my genre, the better chances I have to be original and stand out to a publisher or agent. Poor research, much like, to steal a phrase, suckity-ass spelling and grammar, can also be a very big turn off for agencies and publishers. If you don’t understand your universe, how will anyone else? Look no further than the Silmarillion if you don’t think authors map out their world.
NaNo in a nutshell is a good spring board. It is the perfect tool for people like myself who won’t get off their asses and write. To the wide-eyed excited newbie, it presents some misleading twists and turns, and has the possibility to encourage one great habit with a bunch of shitty ones. NaNo or not, let’s all get out there and write. Just please don’t hashtag about it.