Saturday 31 October 2015

Not NaNoWriMo-ing?

November brings with it dark nights and a sense of escalating panic as Christmas and the end of the year loom ever closer. This is, of course, fertile ground for NaNoWriMo. It's hard to imagine anybody reading this blog and not knowing what that is, but for the avoidance of doubt, it's the (inter)National Novel Writing Month - when participants are encouraged to write 50,000 words over the course of the month.

I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I tried it a couple of years ago, with limited success, and I wholeheartedly support anything that encourages passion and commitment in writing. However, my reservations come from the way the thing seems set up as a flash in the pan - a month of concentrated effort and then you're left on your own. There's also a tendency for people (at least quite a few of those whose tweets and Facebook posts I read) to focus squarely on the word count for each day, and cheerfully talk about writing rubbish to fill that day's bar on the graph. Of course, the intention is to go back and edit it when it's all over, but I never hear about that actually happening.

There are some high-profile novels that have come out of NaNoWriMo, but I get the feeling these are the (extremely rare, considering how many people take part each year) exceptions. I worry that without the support and camaraderie of the NaNo site, the enthusiasm dries up and many participants file their 50,000 words away. And then start the process all over again when the next November 1st rolls around.

Writing is rewriting. It's an old cliché, but it's been around for so long because it's true. And I think that's what my main objection to (some of) NaNoWriMo comes from - it's all about the relatively easy process of first-drafting. And - in my opinion - writing a lot of first draft in a short time doesn't make you a better writer. At least, not in the same way that revising, editing, and all those other less exciting (and harder to measure) aspects of "the craft" do.

I think all I'm saying is by all means do NaNoWriMo if it appeals, just find a way to fit it into a broader habit of writing than just that one month-long splurge. If you genuinely only have 30 days where you can find the couple of hours required to write your 1667 words, there may be things you can do that will have a bigger and more beneficial effect on you as a writer.

For instance:

Finish that NaNo novel you started last year. If you made it to 50,000 words then congratulations, that's a terrific achievement. But you don't need me to tell you that's not a novel. Be a NaNo Rebel and get the rest of it written. Ignore the shiny new idea(s) bouncing about in your head and press on. Finishing things is difficult, a real slog. If it wasn't so hard there would be far more actual NaNo-written novels in the bookshops. But getting all the way through and writing "The End" is way more of an achievement than filling up those progress bars.

Write, edit, and submit one complete short story. This is perhaps more for novice writers than established ones, and admittedly there are significant differences between writing novels and short stories. But there is a lot to be learned from the short form. It's more manageable to work with something a couple of thousand words long, but even that can take as much time and effort as a first draft ten times longer. Additionally, as well as finishing and editing the story, you should aim to send it off somewhere. A competition is one possibility, but why not be brave and fire it off to a literary journal of some kind? It gets your writing out into the world, and whether it results in an acceptance (Yay!) or a rejection (Boo! Revise it and get it back out there!), that's something you can learn from too.

If you are already writing and submitting regularly, you could always write your 50K words in the form of short stories. Della Galton did exactly that last year, and her publication rate and financial results are impressive. Much better than half a novel lying untouched in a digital drawer somewhere, right?

Read, read, and read some more. I don't know if there's a NaNoReMo. There should be. I've never heard a published author saying they wish they hadn't spent so much time reading, and in any list of writing tips, reading will pop up. So put down that pen/laptop and pick up a book. Read stuff you like, stuff you've never heard of, something you enjoyed years ago (Is it still any good?), read the classics, read trash. Learn from it all.

Personally, I'm going to be doing a mix of all of it. Trying to tackle my to-read pile, working on at least one short story, and ploughing on with the novel. How about you?


Chloe said...

My published novel was a NaNo novel! But I spent a year re-writing it before submitting it to agents. Some people try to submit in December which is crazy! I was quite against the idea of writitng crap for a month just to get it done, but actually the big advantage I found is that because I hadn't spent months and months crafting a first draft, I didn't mind slashing it to pieces for the next draft. It made me more bold at killing my darlings (perhaps because I hadn't had time to make any darlings!) and completely restructuring - changing the voice and tense and cutting whole scenes. I don't know if I'd do it again but it was unexpectedly successful at making me a braver writer.

Dan Purdue said...

That's great to hear, Chloe (and of course I am kicking myself that I didn't remember The Art of Letting Go started off as a NaNo novel!). And I hadn't really thought about the fact that people might be less 'attached' to their prose if they kept in mind that it had been blasted out in such a short time. That's a good point (although I'm not convinced my brain works that way).

However, I would say that you weren't exactly a novice writer when you sat down to start your NaNoWriMo stint, so you'd already have had that understanding of the need to edit and refine what you'd written. That's why you took the time and effort to finish and polish and only then submit it to agents.

I think NaNoWriMo is a good idea, I just think it needs to work harder at showing how the writing it promotes fits into a much longer process. A year-long novel writing programme would be ideal, although I guess it wouldn't have the same 'quick fix' appeal, and be a nightmare to run.

Chloe said...

Yeah, I guess they intended it to be a bit of fun and then it grew and people started taking it seriously and it became a monster as well! I think they do pretty well with their pep talks and mentors and support groups and everything, but I'm sure they could do more.

I think it's probably at its best for people who either just need shaking up and who go in as an experiment (like me), or for people who are just doing it for fun and aren't ever planning on doing anything more with what they write. The danger zone is the people who desperately want to "be a writer" and think this is what writers do!