Sunday, 30 November 2014

Working Through My Issues With NaNoWriMo

From the moment I first discovered NaNoWriMo I was convinced that it was about the dumbest,
most self-defeating idea I'd ever come across.

I only mention this here and now because someone - specifically, Sam at the SRFC-style event in York last weekend - did a surprisingly (well, surprising to me, anyway) good job of convincing me that just possibly I'd gone and got the wrong end of the stick.  And so, as much as a part of me would like to, I can't just write a post full of seething anti-NaNoWriMo vitriol. 

Still, I've been irritated by the thing for so damn long now that I can't just let it go, either.  So to kick off, here's at least a little bit of vitriol:

- 50'000 words, the NaNoWriMo base goal, is by no definition a novel.  I know that's an obvious and much-made point, but there's no exaggerating just what a useless length 50'000 words is: too little to expand into an actual novel, too much to trim to a novella.  When the heart of your concept is that flawed, surely there's reason for a rethink?

- 50'000 words may not be a novel, but it's still a whole hell of a lot.  At 1600 words a day and change, it's not like it's not doable; but writing that fast, every day, around other commitments?  Odds are that most people, working at that pace, assuming they don't just give up altogether, are pretty quickly going to start flinging crap at the page like a depressed monkey in an about-to-close zoo.  A few writers are well-suited to working flat out, day in, day out; many aren't.  In this sense, it seems to me that NaNoWriMo is pushing something that will be productive for only a tiny minority as a writing-apathy panacea.

To take that point further: writing at full pelt for one month in the year goes against the single piece of advice that every professional seems to agree on: write every day, even if it's only a little.  Becoming a writer isn't about throwing words around like crazy for thirty days in the month and then forgetting about it for the other 335; it's about writing often enough, and well enough, that writing well becomes a habit.

- Put that all together and it seems like you have a finely tuned system for generating millions of crummy none-novels, at least some of them from people who might be producing good work if they weren't following all of these arbitrary rules; if, in fact, they stopped imagining that novel-writing is (or can be, or should be) an easy win and accepted that if it's worth doing it's worth doing properly. 

There we go then: my objections.  Well a few of them, anyway; I mean, I could easily go on.  Yet as much as I still stand by all of that - Sam was persuasive, but not that persuasive - what I perhaps didn't fully appreciate until last weekend is just how much people are taking the NaNoWriMo framework and subverting it to their own needs.  It's not that those doing it necessarily fail to see that it's problematic; these days, it's maybe more about taking that existing model and contorting it into something that's genuinely useful.

Perhaps the reason that NaNoWriMo sometimes seems a bit like a cult to those of us on the outside is that, well, it is a bit like a cult.  But there are reasons people join cults, right?  And since it can't be all about the robes, one of those reasons is clearly mutual support.  Although I'd occasionally seen it in action, I hadn't fully grasped just how much group spirit there is around NaNoWriMo, or how cool - and work-enhancing - a thing that can be, until I heard Sam enthuse about it.  Similarly, because I'm basically a slow-and-steady writer at heart, I'd maybe forgotten just what a buzz it can be to chuck out words like your life depends on it, and how doing that can sometimes trip you into that awesome state of writing-on-purified-brain-drugs that's one of the holy grails when you're learning the trade.  I mean, I almost always enjoy writing, and even on the days when it makes me want to tie myself in a sack and throw myself in the river I'd still rather do it than any other damn thing.  But crazy, adrenalin-fueled, hell-for-leather writing?  I can see how a month of that might be an appealing prospect.

So maybe NaNoWriMo doesn't have to mean writing that useless 50'000 nonentity.  Maybe that 50'000 words can become 70'000 or 80'000 words; maybe it can be well planned and plotted in advance and so become the core of something that might actually end up being a real novel.  Or maybe it can be split over a load of different projects, but with the benefit of an awesome support network watching your back, ready to throw some enthusiasm your way the moment you start to flag.  I hope I'm not paraphrasing too much if I say that the impression Sam gave me was this: for those who take writing seriously but still do NaNoWriMo, it's something almost like a holiday.  They're still writing, but for that one month they're writing flat out, riding inspiration and mainlining motivation, surrounded by like-minded people who genuinely give a damn if they succeed and are there to offer support when things look dark and scary.

Anyway, I don't entirely know what the point of all this.  I realise it's not like NaNoWriMo, vast global leviathan that it's become, much needs my approval; nor do I imagine that any of the kerzillion people who've done it this year will much care what I think.  But hey, it's healthy to have debate, right?  Especially when it comes to something that affects so many lives and as has become such an integral part of the industry as this. So please, wade in with your thoughts.  I'm genuinely curious on this one.  Was I right in the first place?  Are my objections mistaken?  Are there more NaNoWriMo virtues that I'm missing?

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