Posted by: dougery | December 5, 2010

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

Shhh… don’t let just anyone hear you utter the phrase ‘NaNoWriMo.’ To some it’s a dirty word. They would have you believe that the word Writing should be written with a capital ‘W’ and that ‘good’ Writing can never be produced under such pressure and terrible time constraints as November is National Writing Month. Some would go so far as to claim that there are already too many writers, too many people trying their hand at scribbling down their thoughts. Yet what these people are really getting at is that there is too much amateur writing when what we need, when what we will forever and always be searching for (in vain, oh what a world!) is Writing.

The kind that only comes from agonizing, soul-searching, blood pouring from your eyes and fingernails as you type each perfect word Writing.

While I agree that the world truly could use a few (hundred thousand) more good readers, this line of argumentation merely duplicates the inanity of ‘Harry Potter readers will only grow up to become Stephen King readers’. As if intelligent, thoughtful folks can’t read their Rowling right alongside their Thomas Bernhard or Imre Kertesz or whichever obscure European author one feels isn’t getting enough attention. Just as folks can and do alternate their genre fiction with their canon, writers can labor through (and beyond) NaNoWriMo, turning what some feel is a ‘pile of crap’ into something others might enjoy or even love. What these critics are ignoring is criminal:

a) Writing is terribly terribly hard. Not everyone can do it, and plenty who might actually be able to never get around to setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

b) Writing, like every other professional skill on the planet from plumbing to farming to dancing is something that can only be improved by practice. Pages and pages and pages of practice.

c) Writing is incredibly lonely. It is an art-form that cries out for community and camaraderie.

d) 90% (or whatever enormous percentage you fancy) of ‘good’ writing comes from editing and rewriting. The problem is most aspiring writers will never get to the point where they (and others) can critique their work because for whatever reason, they just can’t get it down in the first place.

The way I see it NaNoWriMo was designed to explode all of these hardships all at once. By creating a community, by forcing one’s hand to finally get your story down however half-baked it might be, by making you realize just how hard it is to write and sustain a story, and finally to allow yourself to get to the point where editing and rewriting is even an option. And a gentle “F— you” to the author of “Better Yet, DON’T Write That Novel” for undermining so much good will and hard work. Yes, “all one has to do to ‘win’ NaNo is write 50,000 words…” yeah, that’s all. Nothing major. Just as easy as tying your shoes or getting a full 8 hours of sleep. Anybody can do it. Except that they don’t. Because it is really really freaking hard to write even deplorably mediocre prose.

How do I feel about what I’ve managed to accomplish? The first thing is a truckload of relief. NaNo hangs over you all month. Every time you sit down you think to yourself “I really ought to be writing.” When you lay in bed before falling asleep you are teasing out plot points. When you drive to work you are contemplating dialogue, wondering what kind of music your characters listen to, thinking about running over Salon columnists as they cross the road. And yes, a lot of what I’ve written is crap, so you got me there, freshly run-over Salon columnist. But I’d say I’m delighted with 4 or 5 chapters worth of material, something on the order of say, 15,000 words. It ain’t gonna get me the National Book Award and future generations of Norwegian hipsters aren’t going to name drop me when they are telling their hipster friends which obscure American authors they should be reading 20 years from now, but it’s a start.

And I’m not sure I will even touch what I’ve done ever again. It might not be anything anyone needs to read. It certainly isn’t going to be hastily printed and stuck in an envelope and sent to agents who already have too much work to do. Now I can’t say all of my fellow NaNo-ers (Nanites?) will show such restraint, but I’d wager there’s one or two, maybe even a baker’s dozen who will buckle down and torch their NaNovel, burning away all of the fluff and filler. They’ll sift through the ashes that remain and be on their way to, gasp!, Writing.

But I suppose it would have been much better they never got around to writing at all.

Listening to: Girl Talk “All Day”



  1. This book, The Outliers, discusses a study or set of studies indicating that the amount of time it takes to master a craft is 10,000 hours. If nothing else, one could look at NaNo as taking a real chip out of the 10,000 hours that separates the beginner from the master writer.

  2. One of my favorite authors, Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Runaways, the tv show Lost) says something very similar. Something like a writer needs to wade through 10,000 pages of crap until they get to the good stuff.

  3. Beautifully said, Dougo. The actual putting the pen to the paper (or fingertips to the keyboard) aspect is so important and I think people often miss that and that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about. Pens on paper.

  4. Bravo.

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