Since I started 12 books, I have never encountered a word of criticism. Surprise, disbelief and one count of “yeah but you don’t actually expect to manage it, do you?” – but never anything overtly negative.
However, since my return to NaNoWriMo – the worldwide phenomenon that started it all – I have seen a few articles which show that not everyone thinks drafting a novel in a month is interesting, laudable or fun.
First, Laura Miller’s infamous piece for Salon, which was actually written last year but I first came across it last week. It got quite a furious reaction, probably because of the aggressive tone – although some of the points raised are quite important.
In it Miller is concerned that “NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision” and send their hastily scribbled manuscript out in December. She points to the evidence of editors and agents she follows on Twitter giving the advice, “submitting novels in Nov or Dec? Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter.”
Assuming she is correct and writers are doing that in their droves, you can see why NaNo would be a pain in the backside for anyone working in publishing.
However, as many people have already pointed out, the organisers constantly point to the importance of revision. This is a first draft, or as journalist Jason Arnopp refers to it Draft 0, and conventional wisdom tells you that once a first draft is done you should put it in a drawer for three months minimum before going back and rewriting the thing. That’s part of the reason 12 books happened – it was an answer to the question ‘what do you do in those three months?’
The fact that some people ignore this advice clearly isn’t the fault of the NaNoWriMo founders, who make it clear the point is to get over your writer’s block and defeat the inner editor so you can go on to create something special from the seeds you sow in November.
Miller concedes this too, but goes on to say, “even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.”
This is because she feels “cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.”
Because writers hate reading, don’t they? Everyone knows that… (She wrote, incredulously, reading the article back just to make sure.)
According to Miller, “an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter.”
I’m not sure who she’s discussing, here. Citation needed, as Wikipedia might say. However, the people I know who are doing NaNo this year are a mixture of book bloggers, poets and other literature enthusiasts (including a few published writers, actually) and the idea that none of them read is laughable.
That Miller reckons readers are “a truly endangered species” is not a new suggestion, and I agree it is a cause for concern. But I don’t think discouraging people from writing is the way to encourage reading – who comes to the conclusion they want to write books if they never read any? This is not a chicken/egg conundrum; reading definitely comes before writing.
“Consider turning away from the self-aggrandizing frenzy of NaNoWriMo and embracing the quieter triumph of Kalen Landow and Melissa Klug’s “10/10/10″ challenge,” she suggests in conclusion. This refers to a project to read 100 books in 10 months, which sounds brilliant fun to me; I’d love to do that.
Because I love reading. As well as writing.
What I’m saying is, the two are not mutually exclusive. I think Miller shot herself in the foot by being horrible about NaNo (the full title of this piece was ‘Better yet, DON’T write that novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy’), because she had some valid points to make which didn’t really come across in the end. Shame.
A more recent article by Michael Park in Hecklerspray (a slightly surprising outlet, perhaps, as they generally deal with celebrity gossip) took up the ‘self-aggrandizing’ theme in a slightly more effective way.
The main thrust of his article was that whilst he can see how some folk find it helpful to have the level of structure and support provided by NaNo,
“The only reason to sign up and dedicate a month of your life to writing a novel is so that everyone can give you a nice big pat on the back and say, “My word, look at how clever you’re being. I can’t wait to read it.” ”
To be honest, I don’t have an argument against that. I’m not doing NaNo or 12 books exclusively for my own enjoyment, I harbour aspirations of being a published author and of having other people enjoy my stuff too. I have done since I was a kid, I’ve never tried to pretend otherwise, and I’m not going to apologise.
Yes, I like it when people ask me how it’s going or say they’ve read an excerpt or a story and enjoyed it. I would go so far as to say I would like this to happen more, continuing throughout my life, with the involvement of monetary gain. When people ask what I’ll do if writing for a living doesn’t work out, I don’t have an answer. Truthfully, the thought that I might be one of the millions that don’t make it is not something I am ready to consider.
I actually asked Michael if he would be willing to have a debate with me about NaNoWriMo in the style of LUV and HAT, a tumblr page where Stuart Heritage (The Guardian) and Robyn Wilder (Hecklerspray) take a topic and bicker about it in a humorous manner. He said he didn’t care about it enough, so Stuart and Robyn took it on themselves. The result is here and is irreverent and entertaining (although it didn’t make me laugh as much as their thoughts on Haribo). Isn’t it interesting that the articles on this by UK journalists feel so much more reasoned…?
Oh, wait a minute; I’ve not mentioned the article in The Economist which was doing the rounds at the start of the week. Scrap that, then.
I had a couple of problems with this piece. The first was the assumption people must be doing it in work time – why must they? It only takes an hour a day. Last year I did 90% of my writing in my morning commute, and whilst this time round I’ve done quite a lot during lunch breaks, most people in my twitter feed seem to be getting up an hour early or utilising evenings and weekends. Last year I met a particularly dedicated member of the NaNoBeans writing group in Edinburgh who took most of November off in honour of NaNoWriMo.
The journo behind this piece (the enigmatically named A.C.) also took issue with the fact that NaNo participants can now self-publish, bypassing editorial slush piles and beaming straight into the homes of unsuspecting kindle owners without so much as a by your leave. The eBook market is already saturated with crap and NaNoWriMo only exacerbates the problem.
“It stands to reason that few established writers welcome a small army of amateurs biting into that shrinking pie,” A.C. proclaims.
This would be fair enough, were it not for the fact only a few paragraphs previously A.C. also said, “professional heavyweight authors such as Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem and Audrey Niffenegger cheerfully encourage all these scribblers, reasoning that forcing writers to sit down and write is no bad thing.”
Make your mind up – surely established writers aren’t simultaneously upset by the competition and actively encouraging it? That’s madness!
Or could it be that there are mixed opinions? That it works for some people and not for others? That there is no magic formula for producing a good and readable book, but that the universal starting point that we can all agree on whether we are readers, writers or miserable curmudgeons, must be to sit down and write? OK, for every Sarah Gruen 100 or 1000 or more might not come up with the goods, and maybe they’re only doing it to boost their own egos. So what? The fact that your favourite authors might not have started out with NaNo doesn’t mean their first draft was any better.
Having said all that, you must bear in mind this diatribe is coming to you from a biased point of view.
Of course I support NaNo – it encouraged me to start something exciting; a year long project that has challenged and stimulated my creativity more than is reasonable, introduced me to new writers and readers and friends, and has ensured I have a conversational icebreaker that should be good for several years.
I’ve also read the fine print and know that the first draft is only the tip of the iceberg – finishing all these books to a decent standard might take years and with some of them it probably won’t be worth the struggle.
For some disgruntled hack to tell me there’s no point in rushing out a first draft because I’ll only junk half of it in the rewrite (which I probably won’t actually get around to finishing before sending it to an agent, presumably along with a misspelt cover letter written in green ink) insults my intelligence and assumes I haven’t done the most basic research.
It also totally misses the point of the project – to do something creative and fun for a month instead of slumping in front of the TV waiting for mince pie season to arrive.
Excuse me while I ignore them all, and go back to writing my book.
November 11, 2011 at 11:46 am
What a fantastic post! Hear hear!
Of course there are going to be some idiots out there who send off there first draft unrevised and unedited come December 1st, but that sort of insanity is going to happen with or without NaNo.
This is my first year participating, and although I hardly expect to finish with 50,000 words of bestselling literature, I do hope to develop some ideas that have been brewing for a while and use this as an opportunity to battle some pretty chronic inertia. If I get to November 30th with just one good paragraph, one perfect line or one fresh idea that will move my story forward in the future, then for me it will have all been worthwhile.
Whatever it takes for creativity to flourish, I say!
November 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm
Well exactly. A lot of writers are terrible procrastinators, this seems as good a way as any to break that cycle… good luck with your book!
November 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm
Brilliant post. It’s my first year too, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much fun it is. Any decent story idea or line of dialogue that comes out of it is a bonus!
Interesting that your project gets such different responses to the ones you describe for NaNoWriMo. Do you think that’s because people know you as a person? Versus a different perception of ‘NaNo writers’ as a group?
November 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm
That might be why – none of those articles take a personal angle, it’s against this perception of all NaNoWriMo participants as fantasists sitting in Starbucks penning an epic fanfic about a boy wizard meeting a vampire or whatever. Most of them concede that one or two people getting involved in NaNo might be good, and may create the beginnings of something publishable, but maintain the majority will be crap. As if the majority of published books are literary wonders…
I think my main problem is that these articles skim the surface of the project (except maybe Luv and Hat, which is frighteningly accurate). They go ‘can you write a good novel in a month? Clearly not’ – as if anyone has said at any point you can; or implied what you have on the 30th of November is anything more than a very rough draft. It’s like a learner journo going – “Hm, most people seem to be in favour of this slightly silly internet initiative – I shall take the opposite view, and perhaps stir up a small amount of controversy on the way, for it is my job as a hack to ask the questions other people do not.” Well done that person, you have irritated some bloggers. A saying involving fish, barrels and firearms springs to mind.