NaNoWriMo: a waste of time and energy?

Salon’s book critic Laura Miller is not going to make very many friends with this article, but I actually think she’s right in a lot of ways. Her article points out most of the elements that still make me uncomfortable with the concept of NaNoWriMo. You should read the whole thing, but if you are too lazy, here’s an excerpt:

NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary. When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. “Write Your Novel Here” was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.

I say “commerce” because far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter. [...]

Rather than squandering our applause on writers — who, let’s face, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not — why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built. After all, there’s not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there’s no one left to read it.

Recently, I ran into someone I know at the book launch of a mutual friend. While chatting about the abundance of books published within a certain group of our acquaintances, this person revealed to me that she attends every single launch and buys all the books to show her support. “But I never read them,” she says. “I just don’t have the time.” This person was a published author herself, and I’m sure she expected most of her friends to read her book. While her comment surprised me, I’m sure she was just admitting out loud a practice done by many, many other writers.

The cheerful “Write a novel in 30 days!” suggested by NaNoWriMo has annoyed me from the start. There’s something in all the excitement around the event that seems to imply that anyone can write a novel. That kind of thinking is not doing anyone a favor, as Laura Miller judiciously points out. While the NaNoWriMo promoters do insist on the fact that what you’ll end up with is a first draft — and a messy one at that — I know that many people will still turn in their unedited manuscripts to editors, or force it upon their family and friends, “just to see”. The idea makes me cringe. I love good books too much and I admire good, hard working writers too intensely to ever dare show one of my first drafts to anyone. But that’s just me. Over-analyzing, terrified and proud me. Trust me: it’s not that I’m elitist. I just have too much respect for this stuff.

So why did I join in this year? For the purely artificial pressure of the self-imposed deadline. I’ll confess that I’m not that excited about the support group aspect of the exercise, though I know it’s a central part of NaNoWriMo. I don’t really believe that the 175 pages I’ll end up with in November, if I do manage to write that many, will be the true first draft of a novel. At best, it will be a decent start to a longer piece of work that, knowing myself too well, and the fact that I do have to work to make a living, I’ll probably take a couple of years to edit. If I don’t get sick of the characters and the story before I manage to finish it, of course, but that’s another story.

Nine years of freelancing, combined with an ever-increasing online presence have turned me into a scatter-brain in constant need of stimulation, which I probably always was anyway. I have been scared of writing a novel all my life, or at least as long as I have been able to read. When I was 10 or so, I sat down in our unfinished basement in front of an old typewriter and I decided to write a novel. I managed to type about 2 pages and then left the project aside for a while. When I came back to it a few weeks later, I was humiliated to see how naive, earnest and just plain bad my words were. I think it scared me for the following 30 years.

Yeah, I’m that crazy when it comes to writing and I am that hard on myself in general. So if I don’t publicly hold a gun to my head and risk further humiliation by not completing this damn NaNoWriMo, I’ll probably be hiding in a hole for another 30 years. A hole where there is no pen, paper, or laptop. (I’ll probably manage to find an Internet connection though, which I’ll wire directly to my sad, full-of-regrets brain and then I’ll surf and refresh my Twitter feed until I die from bitterness after reading all of your wonderful accomplishments.)

There’s nothing wrong with being “just” a reader. I’m a huge reader. Hell, I even think that I’m a GOOD reader. I’m sure writers would love me if they knew how well I read their books. But at this point in my life, because I’ve been seeing myself as a writer since I was a little kid — though I pretended that I wanted to become a helicopter pilot because it sounded more realistic — I need to write the damn thing. I need to just give it a freakin shot.

Damn. Look at this. I’ve written a 1000-word blog post. And to think that I am behind on my NaNoWriMo word count for the day!

Comments (8)

  1. I think I prefer your wraparound article to the original.

    Good work and good luck :)

  2. Yeah. Good essay, Martine! And good luck with today’s word count.

  3. Going deeper: for me, it’s kind of a question of which terror is the worst: confronting the blank canvases/pages now; filling them up with potential worthlessness; or thinking about them when I’m on my deathbed. As for the critics: well, let them try too. In the end we really only answer to ourselves, right? And we learn something with each page we write.

  4. @Jamrock: Merci!
    @Beth: Yeah, it’s indeed a matter of choosing your “terror”. Not always an obvious pick!
    And thanks for your comments! It’s nice to know you are still reading this good ol’ blog. It keeps me going. :)

  5. When you mentioned this in the previous post, I thought it would be a fun idea. I’ve never been a “writer” and actually I’ve always been average in regards to language. But the thought of working out a concept for a story, structuring it, and fleshing it out over a set timeline really intrigued me. It’s a process that I haven’t done since high school. But it would require at least a couple hours a day to do it right and I barely have time to relax at the moment. Something to keep in mind for the future. Good luck with it.

  6. @Frank: One of the reasons I’ve haven’t been able to do this before is because it’s just about impossible for me to write in “my spare time”. Coming up with 1667 words a day is taking me more than two hours right now (I’m on day 4). I don’t have a lot of contracts right now, and it’s still a challenge to do NaNoWriMo, even though writing is actually what I do for a living.

    So I can completely understand how someone who has a full time job AND children would not manage or actually even want to do this!

    Plus, reading is so much more fun anyway. ;)

  7. Hello Martine,
    You make some good points here. I read Miller’s article a couple weeks ago (partially to dissuade myself from completing a 3rd nanowrimo). Most of what she says, I agree with her.

    The problem lies with the Nanowrimo participants, the ones who disregard any standards of quality and think that their 50,000 word first draft is golden and worthy of a postage stamp.

    Their self-importance is a little inflated.

    But I think a lot of observers miss an important point regarding participation in nanowrimo. The idea isn’t to have a finished novel, but to have finished something.

    The point is developing the discipline to sit at the desk and write everyday for thirty days.

    Not to have a finished novel, but to have written.

    People need structure, and Nanowrimo provides it.

  8. Hello Seth,

    Thanks for your comment. You’ve got a great Web site, by the way!

    I agree with you when you say: “The point is developing the discipline to sit at the desk and write everyday for thirty days.”

    It could be true for other art forms as well. But NaNoWriMo is all about writing a novel and with the excitement around the event, it might foolishly make people conclude that an actual decent novel can be written in that short amount of time.

    As I am struggling to balance unexpected contract work this month (which involves writing) with my Nanowrimo daily writing, I’m realizing that the challenge is even bigger than I thought! I write for a living, so this is not a huge surprise for me. But I can imagine a lot of non-professional writers going through Nanowrimo and realizing how intense it can get. If there’s a side effect to Nano, it might turn out to be that people will appreciate a little bit more the discipline and talent of writers. They might even start reading more than they did before…

    But that sounds a little too optimistic, doesn’t it? ;)