NaNoWriMo is upon us, and several of my friends have retreated to their bunkers.
November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately called NaNoWriMo, or NaNo. I am not participating for a variety of reasons, most notably the fact that I am still suffering from some headaches and intellectual lethargy from my head injury last month.
The goal of NaNoWriMo, for the uninitiated, is to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in thirty days. This is a short novel, almost a novella, but the word count goal is a good one, making the accomplishment accessible for almost anyone.
I participated in and succeeded at NaNoWriMo twice, a decade ago. I had previously despaired ever being able to maintain enough steam to get through a whole novel and had more or less given up on writing entirely. It is, of course, stupid to give up on anything halfway through your twenties, but it never seems that way in the moment. It wasn’t until I completed my first NaNo that the possibility that I could write anything of length and substance even occurred to me.
There are a few reasons why NaNoWriMo is great, especially for new or young writers.
1) It Sets a Goal That is Reasonable But Which Must be Worked For. People say all the time that setting goals is the key to success. They say it in terms of ones professional life, in terms of losing weight… really for anything that anyone might want to change in their lives. And it’s true, and it works, but you have to do it right. You have to set goals that are achievable and measurable. By setting a goal that can easily be accomplished with a little bit of effort (if you know any NaNo participants, don’t let them catch you calling it a “little bit”), NaNoWriMo puts novel writing within the grasp of anyone who’s interested. The really cool thing is that once that goal is reached, you know you can plop down fifty thousand words again no problem. At the same time, it’s just enough of a challenge to leave one feeling accomplished at the end.
2) It Doesn’t Have To Be Good. Freeing yourself from your inner critic is key to being able to write volume without becoming paralyzed with self-doubt. Young writers, I think, often expect genius from themselves and perhaps don’t really understand that writing is work, and that nobody sends a first draft for publishing. NaNoWriMo’s casual expectations regarding quality allow the writer to put down words, even if they’re not great or even particularly good, to achieve the word count goal. This is key because if you ever write a novel that you want to sell, parts of it are going to be terrible. This is what the revision process is for, and the revision process sometimes takes even longer than the writing. When you enter the revision process, the more volume you have the more you have to work with. The chunks of text that you remove in the revision process aren’t mistakes… they’re like the pencil lines erased from a painting. It was an underlying structure that was needed to get to the finished piece, but which doesn’t need to be seen by the consumer. The casual air of NaNo encourages writers to loosen up and plunge forward and just… write.
3) It Teaches Discipline and Rigor. There has been this idea floating around for a while that artists don’t work; that their job is their pleasure and that they create, sell, and then go on vacation. This is not at all true… art, whether it’s fiction, poetry, music, or painting, takes WORK, and it’s difficult work because nobody will tell you how to do it. The artists I know are some of the hardest working people I know, writers certainly included. All of them work day jobs (square jobs), and whatever it is that they produce is treated as a second, possibly unpaid, job. NaNoWriMo drives home the idea that if you’re going to write for a living, it must be done every day. One cannot flit about and write when the mood takes them, when their muse brushes soft fingers across their brow. You have to put in the effort, and with creative endeavors this can be really difficult. You can spend hours in front of a blank screen or an empty piece of illustrator’s board sweating bullets. It’s not easy to create things… you can go to an office and file any old day. It takes almost no personal investment or mental effort. The idea that artists (including/especially writers) don’t work is completely backwards.
So if you have ever dreamed of writing a novel, but have never thought it might actually be possible, or if you’ve had a few false starts, but never had the momentum to finish, I would strongly encourage you to give NaNoWriMo a try. If you’re an experienced writer and you want to do some stretches and engage with a community, you should do NaNo too, especially if you’re in between projects. It’s an opportunity to mentor folks who are just getting started.
It’s early in the month still… you can catch up.