cat and computer

Oh (na)no, it’s November again

cat and computer
Image by Barb Wewers/Flickr

Well, it’s almost November, so here’s a post about NaNoWriMo (if you have no idea what I’m talking about and wish you did, you can visit the National Novel Writing Month website here).

I’m going to do nano again this year: it’ll be my (counts inaccurately in head) seventh go at this thing. Seven. I think. One year I wrote about 100 words on November 1st and promptly gave up (though those 100 words did eventually get recycled into a short story that showed up in Sleepers Almanac one year). Another year I kind of cheated and wrote the 30,000 words I needed to turn a previous nano-novel into an actual novel-length manuscript.

Nano has worked really well for me. The kind of stories I enjoy writing seem to be generated by the frantic feverishness of having to hit an unrealistic word-count every day for a month. I am not a calm and patient crafter of beautiful, lucid prose. My 2000 nano effort was Formaldehyde, which was published this year (after 15 years-worth of rejection and rewriting) as a Viva la Novella winner. More recently, I wrote the first draft of A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists over two Novembers. And I have another two very drafty manuscripts I’m still hoping might turn into something readable one day. This year, my plan is to add 50k words to my current, very slowly progressing ‘novel’: I’m hoping some enforced speed writing will give it the kick up the bum it needs.

A lot of people hate NaNoWriMo: they reckon it creates unrealistic expectations, terrible manuscripts and overwhelming feelings of failure in people who don’t deserve it. And sure: it’s not for everyone, because everyone writes differently. If you are already a disciplined writer, or you prefer to plan extensively, or you like to rewrite every sentence until it’s absolutely perfect before moving onto the next one, you don’t need and won’t enjoy the hectic pace of nano. (I’m also a big fan of the nano-compromise: setting yourself a smaller word count so you don’t have to totally wreck your life to produce a decent chunk of work. Why not do 35,000 words each year for two years, for example?)

But I reckon those who dismiss nano because it produces both sub-standard manuscripts (which of course it does) and unrealistic impressions of how books get written (which I think is unfair to participants: almost no one thinks you can write an actual publishable novel in 30 days) are missing the point. The point of writing – maybe any writing – isn’t to produce a publishable, saleable book. Almost no writing process will do that. However you write your manuscript, there’s next to no chance anyone will publish it. If someone does, you can safely assume very few people will buy and read it. I reckon the point is just to discover what it feels like to write a substantial work: that feeling of becoming immersed in your story, of dreaming about it, of having your characters take over their own lives, of discovering parts of your subconscious you never knew existed. And it’s the feeling of setting out to do something very, very hard and maybe even achieving it. These are joyous, worthwhile things. Even trying and failing can be a great feeling: it’s ok to discover that the thing you thought you really wanted to do you maybe don’t enjoy that much after all. It frees you up to get on with discovering the next thing you might like to do. Or maybe you’ll find you like to do it once, but never again: tick it off and move on to learning trombone or rock climbing.

Because for me doing nano is kind of like challenging yourself to run a half-marathon. You want to do something hard you’ve never done before, and you have a deadline you have to do it by. A lot of people who think they’ll do it will never get around to starting training, or will get partway through training and get distracted, or will train until the day and start the run and not finish it. That’s OK. Some people will do the run and think ‘thank god that’s over, I’ll never do it again’. Others will do it again the next year, or maybe two years later. Some will train to run a full marathon. And a very, very small proportion will make running a serious, everyday, important part of their life. The main difference is that professional runners don’t get on the internet and talk about how much they hate fun runs and how no one should take part in them because they produce an unrealistic sense of what the very important profession of running is all about. In running, people accept it’s OK to dabble, to just have a go. And I reckon in writing it’s totally OK too.

If you started reading this post because you were hoping you might get some useful tips and you’re now desperately disappointed, I recommend Anna Spargo-Ryan’s actually helpful 5 tips for winning nanowrimo with your head intact.


11 thoughts on “Oh (na)no, it’s November again

  1. I’m in good company then – I’m with you in the chaos and the pain…tossed up whether to use it to work on my previous Nano work, but have decided to use it self indulgently to write essays that are buzzing in my brain. This is a great post Jane; glad to see I’m not the only person going in haphazardly hopeful 🙂

    1. oh what a great thing to do with November: good choice. yeah, as always: haphazardly hopeful. my brain has got me through this four or five times before: surely it can do it again, right? right???!!?

  2. Okay….I think I’m in. I’ve got a couple of kids novels I’m mulling over so maybe I’ll just choose one and go for it? Do half the word count ( cos you know I’ve got all these kids and a dog). I love the sound of it – the discipline of it and the crazy way it pushes you to do more. I did Blogtoberfest a few times and I thought blogging everyday was beyond me but when I put my mind to it I managed it….and I’ve done a half marathon once…so I am one of those people who throws themselves at these sorts of crazy challenges….sounds like it just might suit me!

    1. Yeah, I reckon setting yourself a more achievable word count is totally legit – it’s not like you’ve written a novel when you’ve written 50,000 words, so that number is arbitrary too. Haven’t you also created an amazing new outfit for each day of the month? This should be a bludge for you.

  3. I’m not a writer, well, not the sort of writer that you are, but I get the concept of deadlines absolutely. I always do my best work when I’m under pressure…

  4. I did NaNo last year and smashed the word count… But I suspect the manuscript is a steaming turd of a story. It’s something I needed to get out of my system, but I don’t think I should subject anyone else to it.

    This year though, I’m planning on making the ‘No’ short for ‘Novella’ – crank out 1k a day instead and end up with a (hopefully) tight SF novella at the end of the month.

    1. I reckon the ‘make it what you need it to be’ approach is a good one. And I bet there’s stuff amidst the steaming turd that you could ferret out if you could find the right gloves and face-mask to do so.

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