Friday, November 19, 2010

My Little Beef with NaNoWriMo

I know I'm going to get some flak for this, but every November I get this nagging urge to share my thoughts on NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month. My intent is not to sound snobbish or superior; I'm not a published novelist, so I wouldn't have a leg to stand on. I am, however, an editor and a lifelong literary enthusiast, and there's just something a little disquieting about the NaNoWriMo hype that I'd like to work through here.

In case you're unfamiliar, the premise of NaNoWriMo is that participants set out with the personal goal of writing an entire 50,000-word novel in one month. The focus is to get yourself to write as much as possible and not limit yourself with the burdens of tweaking and editing and over-thinking the story elements. As their website points out, "Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes." By midnight on November 30, you might end up with a publishable novel, or you might end up with a messy stream of consciousness, or something in between. The point is that you set a goal, you wrote your heart out with unrestricted passion, you participated in a huge event with thousands of other writers, you (hopefully) had fun, and you crossed the 50,000-word finish line with a complete novel.

At first glance this seems like a great idea. Why not? Free writing is an important exercise in an aspiring author's life. Even if your goal isn't to become a published novelist, it's still a fun event, right? Sometimes we over-analyze and over-plan a creative project so much that we stagnate, paralyzed by our relentless second-guessing. Sometimes we absolutely need to give ourselves permission to make mistakes in order to unfreeze our minds and let the creative juices flow. And when we're embarking on a journey to release these restraints and let the words pour out of us unhindered, it helps to know that we're not alone, that others are taking the same challenge. We find the motivation to write, no excuses. I don't have a problem with this.

. . . Well, not really. I'm talking about free-writing exercises, and that's not exactly what this event is about. NaNoWriMo entails cranking out a complete novel in 30 days. That's where I start to feel uncomfortable with the idea, and I have a harder time getting behind it. We're placing the value on quantity, not quality. Word count is the only standard we're using to determine success in this month-long endeavor.

Let me give you a little background. I've been editing manuscripts for the last five years. When I first started this job, I was a bit of an idealist. When I came across a manuscript that needed far more help than a mere edit, when a complete overhaul of the writing and the plot would be necessary to even make sense of the story, in my mind I tried to give the author a pat on the back for at least putting in all the time and effort to type out a few hundred pages of manuscript. I desperately wanted to find something positive about the story, and at least I could give them credit for that much: time and effort, and the courage to send it out into the world.

However, after years of evaluating and editing manuscripts, I have a more difficult time giving out credit for merely typing a story. Trust me, I want to say that it's a big accomplishment, but it's gotten harder to do so. Please realize that I'm not trying to pick on first-time writers; there almost always is something redeeming to find about a person's story (and the fact that they're contacting an editor means they're interested in improving their writing skills, so that's redeeming in itself). However, I can no longer look at a book's page count alone and call it a special accomplishment.

Technology plays an undeniable part of this. Word processors make it damn easy to sit down and crank out text. Hey, it's just a fact. In addition, most of our research is simply a Google query away. Let me emphasize that I don't think software is a bad thing . . . but it does make a word-count goal considerably easier to achieve. And with the changing book publishing industry, where e-books and self-publishing are becoming more and more popular, getting from idea to print (or e-print) is deceivingly simple.

Therefore, how does writing a novel in one month really improve your skills as a writer? I feel like this event is the first necessary step that gets writers in the habit of writing every day -- I will praise it for that. But my concern is that not nearly enough attention is being given to the critical stage of revision. To me, that's the part where you transform your writing into something extraordinary. It worries me when your ultimate goal is word count, and every day you're obsessively monitoring that number without giving thought to your novel's quality. I believe there's a valid concern here that people will have a false sense of accomplishment (and entitlement) once that counter reaches 50,000. No doubt that some authors are capable of cranking out a best-selling novel in one month, but the vast majority of new writers need to do significantly more work than simply typing out the words in such a short period of time. It's undeniable that too many people prematurely believe they're at the novel-writing finish line when really the work is just beginning. And I'd imagine the revision stage is possibly even more difficult, since in-progress planning and adjustments are discarded in favor of meeting the deadline. When the goal is quantity, a writer is in danger of believing that publication is right around the corner.

To reiterate, I applaud the free-writing aspect of this undertaking. But I believe the emphasis is misguided, disillusioning many of its participants into thinking they're Authors when there's more work to be done. In my line of work, I see so many people who think their novels are just a proofread away from the printing presses, when in reality they need help with plot, characterization, viewpoint, suspense, etc. Unfortunately, NaNoWriMo only seems to encourage the mentality that word count makes a novel.

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