This column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 November 2017.
Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, in an 11/14/17 tweet: “I just stumbled on this quote and thought it was good advice for this point in NaNoWriMo. ‘One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going.’ — Goethe . . . Sometimes you have to write as if you’re Mr. Magoo.”
In a month otherwise dominated in America by Thanksgiving and the increasing notoriety/hysteria that characterizes Black Friday, NaNoWriMo has become a thing, to the point that even non-writers have heard about it. Having originated in San Francisco almost twenty years ago, National Novel Writing Month urges its participants to do one thing: write.
Yes, there are “rules”: the stated objective is for participants to write 50,000 words of a novel within a thirty-day period. For reasons unclear to folks responsible for planning, preparing, and hosting a major holiday—not to mention being on the hook for the one that follows hard upon—that period was chosen as November 1-30. Not April (taxes, I suppose), June (end of the school year), or September (start of the school year). The Scots have copied the concept as “Write Here, Right Now,” with the less-overwhelming objective of producing 28,000 words during February (29,000 in leap years?). Certainly, it’s hard to be overly ambitious in February.
Perhaps the inherent point is that there is never an optimal time to write, and we can all deliver a universe of excuses for why right now is worse than any.
Many structures have sprung up nationally in support of NaNoWriMo—a bureaucracy of sorts—and activities are organized at state and local levels to urge writers forward in achieving their word counts. Oddly, many of these are social activities, on the theory that being around similar-minded folks will serve as a focusing function rather than a distracting time sink. Writers can officially upload content to the NaNoWriMo servers so that word counts can be toted up and graphed, and official prizes are awarded to those who slog or blast across the finish line with 50K words or better.
(I’ve listened in on earnest discussions about the validity of word counts, since it’s entirely possible to cheat, as well as the concern voiced by so many over the possibility that, by uploading their work, someone will steal their words and ideas. Turns out someone has come up with a solution to that anxiety: feed your words into the app and it neatly replaces all the letters with Xs, complete with original word breaks, ready to be uploaded and counted. I wonder if someone programmed that app instead of making their word count.)
People who consider themselves “real” writers are typically dismissive of NaNoWriMo, finding it both laughable and insulting that anyone could imagine they will produce a viable work of fiction banged out over thirty days. These folks are missing the point as much as those who worry about word count cheaters.
I consider myself a “real” writer, but the amount of time I have spent avoiding or procrastinating, forgetting to write or preventing myself from writing, taken together, could legally go out and buy itself a drink by now.
I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo as such—I don’t announce my intention or join any of the groups, nor do I agonize about achieving a particular word count—but I completely appreciate the intent behind the hoopla: Write. Write. Write. Stop over-thinking it, stop pre-editing yourself, stop stopping. Sit down, shut up, and write.
Writers are often asked whether they are planners or “pants-ters”: that is, whether they plan out their story in advance or write by the seat of their pants. My problem is that I’m an inherent pants-ter who somehow believes that it must be preferable to be a planner. But I’ve learned the hard way that forcing myself to plan causes me to freeze into inaction. The best way for me to figure out where to take a story is simply to start writing. I figure out solutions to problems on the fly. Ideas flow, characters and situations emerge onto the page, sometimes fully formed, like Athena erupting from Zeus’s forehead and bellowing a battle cry. I find myself wondering, “Where did that come from?” The answer: it came from writing.
Leading up to this November, I made a pact with myself that I would write something on my novel-in-progress every day, which I have not been doing for the better part of a year. It’s my intent to use my thirty days to re-establish the habit, the discipline, of working on this project daily, because—another thing I’ve learned—that is what keeps my brain working in the background on all those characters, situations, and solutions, so that when I sit down to write, they might erupt onto the page as though I never needed to think them into existence at all.
At the end of November, I will not have a completed novel. Nor, I would argue, will anyone who delivers their official, award-eligible 50,000 words. What we will have, though, is wildly more written material than we would have had otherwise, and—at least for me—a reminder that this is how the work gets done. After all, it’s impossible to get to your second draft if you’ve never written your first.