Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Op-Ed - An Alternative to NaNoWriMo

I love the end of October. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Nothing about it is scary for me, unless it’s scary in a good way. I love the cider, the bobbing for apples, the carved pumpkins and the pumpkin pie, the costumes, the shocks of corn, the rustling leaves, and so much more. What I dread is the first of November.

November usually brings dreary weather where I live – not cold, but sometimes overcast. People stay indoors more. Some fix steaming cups of hot cocoa topped with big, bobbing marshmallows. Others rent a bunch of DVDs and watch movies. Still others curl up by a blazing fire and read. And reading brings me to the thing I dislike most about the month of November – NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo began in 1999 as a motivational “prop” for a small group of writer friends who were having trouble getting started and staying focused on their writing. Innocent enough. However, over the years, it’s grown. It’s now a registered non-profit organization, with a staff, several sponsors, and even a fundraising gala. Last year, 120,000 would be novelists participated in NaNoWriMo and 21,683 of them “won.”

So, what does a participant have to do to “win” NaNoWriMo? All he or she has to do is complete a novel of 50,000 words or more during the month of November. It doesn’t matter how terrible that novel is. It doesn’t matter if it’s unpublishable. It doesn’t matter if it even makes sense. All that matters is that it’s finished. It sounds like terribly misplaced energy to me.

Now I don’t think NaNoWriMo is all bad. Would be writers and even some published authors have problems setting a writing schedule and sticking to it. Writing is hard, hard work, and some people tend to procrastinate. Other writers get blocked simply because they edit far too much as they write the first draft. NaNoWriMo helps people get over that – if they are disciplined to write every day in November. And, to its credit, NaNoWriMo doesn’t expect the manuscripts finished during its “contest” to be deathless prose or even remotely publishable. They tell participants that if they finish they will have a first draft and can then move on to the only thing that does produce masterpieces of deathless prose: revision. In fact, the NaNoWriMo Website counsels: “Make no mistake, you will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.”

I can buy what NaNoWriMo is really selling. Getting over the procrastination and writers’ blocks and just getting that first draft done. The problem is that so many of NaNoWriMo’s participants just want to blast through that first draft and then forget about the all important revision process. No writer who’s any good thinks he or she is going to get anywhere without revision. And I don’t mean just one revision of the first draft, I mean several revisions. As many as it takes to get the novel as perfect as possible. Because if you’re going to complete a 50,000 word novel (that’s a novella, really) in only thirty days, you are going to be “writing a lot of crap” and a “lot of crap” is definitely not what agents and editors want to see.

Instead of “writing a lot of crap” every day in November, why not take the month to really hone your writing skills, so that when you do produce that first draft, it will be something with real promise?

Do you know all the “rules” of writing a novel? Yes, I’m aware that brilliant books break those rules all the time, but one can’t break the rules and get away with it unless one first knows the rules and can write confidently within their constraints.

Are you really conversant with point-of-view? Think long and hard before you answer this one. Point-of-view can be a very tricky thing. Even people who are sure they have all the different points-of-view down pat sometimes make mistakes. I read a Grand Prize winning short story last year, and in the very first sentence, the author went out of point-of-view. Had I been the judge, I would have disqualified it for that alone. You can be sure agents and editors will, too.

Do you have an outline for your would be novel? I know some authors who say they prefer to just “dive in and see where the characters take them,” but I’m sure those authors never see their finished work on the bestseller lists. I’m not a fan of following a novel outline slavishly, but I am a fan of knowing where you’re going before you set out on the journey.

Why not devote a month to doing nothing but learning about the craft of writing a novel? Writer’s Digest Books offers a wonderful series of instructional books, all written by published authors, on the craft of novel writing. There’s Plot by Ansen Dibell, one of the most successful. There’s Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. (Both are superb.) There’s a book on point-of-view, one on dialogue, one on creating characters, one on theme, one on voice, etc. There's even one titled Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, written by Nancy Kress. (I've noticed that so many NaNoWriMo authors have trouble with the middle sections of their books.) Until you know everything in those books, your own chances of producing a publishable book are slim-to-none, no matter how much imagination you have and how good your story ideas are.

So many times when I’m at a party or a dinner or just a backyard barbecue, people will come up to me and say, “I’ve been thinking of writing a book. What do you think of this idea?” I often ask them just how much they know about the writing process, and invariably, they don’t seem to think knowing about that process is a necessity. It is. Far too many people have the strange idea that writing, unlike music or painting or dance requires no study. They believe that people are “born writers” (no one is, some just have more imagination than others) and that once they set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the words will magically flow. Be assured, they won’t. Do you think Van Gogh learned to paint the first time out? That Prokofiev composed wonderfully with no musical training or that as soon as Baryshnikov donned ballet shoes, he danced like an angel? If you know where to contact Baryshnikov, just ask him how much work he put into perfecting the art of dance. The answer might surprise you.

Grab a copy of The Daily Reader by Fred White. This little book has readings for every day of the year and writing exercises specially designed to help you sharpen your writing skills. Turn to the month of November and do the exercises on a daily basis. I can guarantee you won’t be “writing a lot of crap” and that you’ll be a better writer when you’ve finished than when you began.

It's also very eye-opening to read Al Zuckerman's (top New York agent, who founded Writers House) book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. You many not be aiming for a blockbuster (though most of the would be writers I know are), but in this book, bestselling author, Ken Follett shows us first and successive drafts of The Man From St. Petersburg and he explains all the changes he made and why he made them. His first draft, as he's quick to admit, is rather vague and really not very good. Every subsequent draft improves his book. Until you can revise like that, and are willing to revise like that, you should put your hopes of publication aside, at least for the time being.

Take the opportunity to acquaint yourself with a new author or authors, or read a few books in a genre you’re not so familiar with. All good writers are voracious readers, yet so many of the people I know who participate in NaNoWriMo say they “don’t have time to read.” These are the same people who ask me at parties and barbecues what I think of their novel ideas. Invariably, I ask them what they like to read because most of the time, we write best what we love to read. When they tell me they “don’t read” because they are “concentrating on their writing,” I know they are doomed before they even start.

I don’t mean to throw cold water on anyone’s efforts, but NaNoWriMo strikes me as being rather self-aggrandizing. It’s a bunch of people patting one another (and I do mean “one another,” if you’d been inclined to write “each other” then get yourself a grammar book post haste) on the back for “writing a lot of crap” during the month of November. To me, that just isn’t a worthwhile achievement, and yes, I’ve written two novels and ghostwritten many more. I’m writing a new novel now. I know how much time and effort and just "plain hard work" one puts into a book.

Rest assured, there is no shortage of good, even spectacular books out “there” to fill the very long lifetime of any serious reader. No voracious reader will ever be able to read all the books he or she wants to read. We’ll all die with a huge TBR stack next to our bed or favorite chair. And NaNoWriMo simply isn’t necessary. Those who feel compelled to write, those to whom a well crafted story, executed in beautiful prose is important, will find the time and have the discipline to write those stories, NaNoWriMo or not.

Yes, I am aware that at least one NaNoWriMo novel made it to publication and even bestsellerdom. Sara Gruen’s lovely Water for Elephants was reportedly written as a NaNoWriMo first draft, but apparently Gruen took NaNoWriMo’s advice about revision and revision and revision very seriously. Rest assured, she is the exception, not the rule.

The last thing the world needs is more sloppily written books. I know I’ve probably wasted my time with this little rant, but as a voracious reader myself, I crave wonderfully written books, books whose execution is as near perfect as possible. Next year, why not at least think of skipping NaNoWriMo and devoting yourself, instead, to the study of the art and craft of novel writing. If you’re going to do it, at least do it right.