29 November 2010

Why I ignored NaNoWriMo

I've never really felt the need to sign up for National Novel Writing Month. It first came to my attention in grad school, and back in my weekly workshop days it wasn't like I was hurting for motivation to get writing. When I graduated, I was part of a community of writers, and it was second nature to sit down and pound away at my WIP for a couple of hours per day. That's pretty much been the case every November since: I've never felt the need to sign up for NaNoWriMo because National Novel Writing Month has looked like... any other month in my life.

This year is different. Maybe it's that I've lived in London long enough to make the motivation of my literary New York social life seem very far away; maybe it's that my volunteer work is starting to seriously pick up. Maybe it's fear of rejection--or, as my therapist theorized for years, fear of success. (One of those two things has to happen to my WIP once I finish it, after all.) Maybe it's just the year I've had, which, without getting more personal than I'm willing to be on a public blog, has involved a lot of non-writing-related bad news.

In any case, with one thing and another, this past month I could have used the motivation of announcing myself as part of a community of people all typing away.

I just have one issue, though, and unfortunately, it's a doozy. I disagree with the entire premise of NaNoWriMo. I don't agree that the best way to write a novel is to keep your fingers moving across your keyboard until you've filled up about 175 pages--50,000 words--or that a first-time novelist needs to start by racking up as great a wordcount as possible. The website makes no claims that a quality work of art will result from this exercise; this is all about getting the "shitty first draft" (thank you, Anne Lamott) down on paper, in a very limited time period.

I know writers who work this way. I know published writers of great books who work this way. For that kind of writer, NaNoWriMo is a great boon.

I cannot work this way (and I know published writers of great books who can't, either).

Oh, I can do a shitty first draft of a scene, maybe even a chapter. That was the first skill I picked up in grad school. But a whole novel? I tried it with my last MS, and all that happened was an anxiety attack and several weeks of writer's block. I couldn't move forward with the manuscript when I had fifty pages I was seriously unhappy with. As fifty pages turned into sixty, writing that novel lost all the joy of creating something new, and felt more and more like walking through a huge airport carrying increasingly heavy luggage. When I finally gave up and went back and fixed what I knew was wrong, thereby giving myself permission to keep doing that as needed, the rest of the book was a lot more fun to write.

NaNoWriMo's website makes clear that they expect the people participating to be beginners: one of the FAQ's is, "If I'm just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?" And the answer has a lot I agree with: giving yourself permission to make mistakes; giving yourself a reason to just start already, without any "once the kids are in school"/"once my workload lightens up"/"once I'm retired" procrastination. I'm all for encouraging would-be novelists to get started, and for reassuring them that the first sentences out of their keyboards will not live up to their expectations, and that's okay.

But I wonder how many beginning writers end up discouraged with their efforts and feeling like they'll never write a novel, when really, the NaNoWriMo format just isn't for them. As far as I can tell, NaNoWriMo's website doesn't offer any advice for what to do after you've written your shitty first draft. It doesn't refer its participants to any books on the craft of writing. It does have a list of published NaNoWriMo authors, but no articles from any of them about the amazing amount of work that must have come between the month of writing 50,000 words and the publication date.

I want some kind of NaNoWriMo for the slow writer. Maybe NaNoWriYe. The website would say, "Some days it's about hitting your word count. Some days it's about fixing what's wrong, or outlining the next bit you're going to write, or re-vamping the whole project to make room for the brilliant idea you had as you were falling asleep that totally fixes that huge hole in your plot." Participants would still spend a couple hours a day at their work, and would still write together, for those for whom that's helpful. We'd take time out to review what we'd written and brainstorm solutions to any issues we were having, and tell each other when it was time to stop fiddling with that one scene and write the next bit, on an as-needed basis. We'd all focus on doing whatever it took to produce good work, not just to write 175 pages of whatever. We'd work under the impression that writing is an everyday activity, not a once-a-year blast.

Oh, crap. I just figured out what seems so familiar about that scenario: it was grad school.

Anyone know of a UK-based PhD in Writing for Children?

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