It's NaNoWriMo time!
November is the month where tens of thousands of writers — professional, amateur, devoted, casual, long-term, first-time — gather to pound out 50,000 or more glorious words into a single project within 30 days.
Of course, this is also the time of year when many writers start to pooh-pooh NaNoWriMo, saying that it produces nothing but garbage, that it makes normal people think they can be writers, that it's useless, that it's a waste of time, that it kills creativity, that NaNoWriMo is fine but REAL writers know about NaNoWriLife. To them I say: that's nice for you, but don't go urinating in someone else's swimming pool.
Today's post is not for the detractors, trying to sway them, and it's not for the defenders, championing for them: it's for the fence-sitters. If you scroll through tweets with the #NaNoWriMo hashtag on Twitter, you'll notice countless people saying "I'm thinking about doing NaNoWriMo, but …" and "Should I do NaNoWriMo?"
Those people, this is for you.
There are a few main "I want to do NaNoWriMo, but …" excuses. I'll do my best to help alleviate your fears.
1. I don't have any good ideas.
That's okay! Many, many people jump into November with only a concept, a character, or the faintest image. If that terrifies you — and believe me, I understand — then here are a few things you can try, to see if something sparks:
- think of something you've always wanted to read, but don't see enough of. For me last year, that was girls, being friends and having adventures and NOT fighting over a boy. I decided to write that, and it was fantastic.
- think of the most self-indulgent, happy-place things for you when you read — the sort of thing where, if a story includes it, you'll forgive a whole bunch else. A friend of mine loves winged horses. Another friend loves unnecessary steampunk. I love repressed Napoleonic-era British characters. Make a list of things that make you happy, then write a story with as many of those as you can.
- what-ifs. What if cats were telepathic? What if South Africa were the world's dominant global power? What if movies became illegal? Play around with "what-ifs" and ask questions. Built a world from there.
- mergers. Take your favourite plot and transport it somewhere. Watership Down, my favourite book ever, is basically Odysseus … WITH RABBITS. David Drake's RCN series is Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series … IN SPACE. Think of a story you love to watch and put it somewhere else, or switch the genre. Married with Children … WITH ROBOTS. The Shining … as ROMANTIC COMEDY.
- "I could do better". Think of a story — book, movie, TV show — that you had high hopes for, but which fizzled out at the end. If you found yourself thinking, "Ahh, if only they'd done xyz …" then you have yourself an idea. Start with that and build yourself a whole new world.
Whatever you do, just make sure you're enthusiastic about the idea. A good idea is not necessarily one that you think you could see on a shelf of a prestigious person's home library; but it is one that you can't stop talking about, even when your loved ones' eyes start to glaze over. Even if you think it's silly or has no long-term merit, that's much better than the serious, literary, guaranteed-to-make-Oprah's-list bestseller that you're not really thrilled about. Guess which one you'll want to keep ploughing through in week two once the glow fades? Yeah.
2. I won't write anything good.
This DOES NOT MATTER. Many detractors focus on this point — better to write nothing at all, than to write crap, isn't it? Well, sorry, but they are DEAD WRONG. Writing anything, no matter what it is, is better than writing nothing. Bad writing can be fixed. No writing can't. The worst novel I'll ever write, as the saying goes, is better than the best novel you never did.
NaNoWriMo is not about writing garbage. The thousands of writers who churn out stories this month are not just vomiting onto their keyboards; they're plotting, and characterising, and everything else necessary to writing. The difference is that they're giving themselves the freedom to go crazy, to bypass boundaries and self-imposed limits, and just to create. For many, this means that instead of saying "One day …" they made the choice to write RIGHT NOW, when the community is strong, the pressure high, and the joy infectious.
Being afraid you'll write something bad is no reason not to NaNo. Part of the fun of NaNoWriMo is setting aside fear for those 30 days. If, for some reason, what you end up with on December 1st is 50,000 words of stinking dung, who cares? It's 50,000 words more than you would have written — and 50,000 words closer to honing your craft, to writing something good. Unless you're just banging away on the keyboard like the proverbial room of monkeys, you're actively working to improve — even if you don't think so. Even if you look at the end and it's terrible, you now have a good idea of various things that don't work in a story — and that puts you closer to finding the things that do.
3. I don't have time.
This is a tricky one, and I'm going to say something controversial: unless you're a parent with children too young to be in school, YES YOU DO.
The thing about NaNoWriMo is, it's sort of like the Misery Olympics. You know — "Man, today sucks. I lost my job." "Yeah? Well I lost my job AND my dog died." "Well, I lost my job, my dog died, AND I got evicted from my house." No matter how busy you are, there will be another person who's busier than you, and writing more. No one is going to sympathise with you saying you have no time; they're all going to tell you that they have it worse.
Competition aside, we always, always have more time than we think we do. We're just not willing to give it up. An exercise recommended by Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo's founder, is to track your habits for an entire week. Mark down every block of time when you're not doing something absolutely essential. You'll be shocked how much time you actually have, but you spend foofing around online, watching television, or just staring into space.
NaNoWriMo is about taking command of that time. Parents of young children know exactly how much can get done in a suddenly-free 15 minutes, or — joy of joys! — half an hour. Set your alarm an hour ahead. Turn off the Internet. Put your laptop on the treadmill. Don't check your work email when you're not at work. Unplug your TV. Bring your laptop into the bathroom. Bring a notebook on your commute. Buy a timer and set 15-minute breaks in the middle of your homework time, where you write until the timer dings, then go back to work. Whenever you find yourself flicking over to your favourite time-wasting website, STOP. Pull out your novel instead. If that sounds like a drag, then your excuse isn't that you have no time — it's that you have too many excuses.
If, however, you have small children, you're exempt from all of this. Honestly, I don't know how you people have time to dress yourselves in the morning, so hats off to you! In my world, parents who manage NaNoWriMo are like novelling superheroes.
4. I'm afraid of failure.
This is the only one where I'm willing to issue a real caveat. If you've never written substantially before and you're just afraid you won't make it to 50,000 — no time, no ideas, no talent — then give it a try. At worst, you'll wrote 0 words and be no worse off than before. At best, no matter how many words you write, you'll have more than you started.
However. If you're the sort of person who punishes yourself for perceived failure, then I do advise you a bit of caution. Even though NaNoWriMo is entirely voluntary, even though there are no penalties for NOT making 50,000 words, even though any pressure is entirely self-inflicted, there are people who, if they don't make it, will feel a disproportionate amount of failure directed at themselves.
There are people who can say "Oh, darn, I didn't finish — better luck next year!" or just "Ah well, guess it's not for me" and then move on. But there are also people who will spend the entire month in a stew of stress and depression, begrudging their friends every word count update and doubting every session of their own — not enough, could be more, what's the point. There are people who, if they don't make 50,000 words, will want to stop writing, or think that they can't, or shouldn't.
Some of my closest friends — fantastic writers year 'round — just aren't suited to the structure of NaNoWriMo. Having the deadline sucks the fun from their writing, and casts doubt on themselves and whether they're any good, just because they can't write fast during this particular month. If you're one of those people, be careful. This is the only time I'm going to tell someone that maybe NaNoWriMo isn't for them.
NaNoWriMo is, most fundamentally, insane. It's fun, but torturous; it's a rush, but exhausting; it's at once uplifting and soul-destroying. It's no accident that you'll see people posting in the official "This Is Going Better Than I Hoped" thread one day, then "NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul" the next. Some days, I'll pound out 8,000 words and finish feeling like I need a metaphorical cigarette; others I won't manage to add a single word to my draft. Some others I'll end up with fewer words than when I started. But I do it every year.
Some novels will get published; some novels will get shoved in a drawer or backup drive and never looked at again. And that's okay! NaNoWriMo is about the process of creating. It's about giving people who've always wanted to write a novel but…. the chance to throw off their excuses and just do it. It's about giving habitual writers a time to do what they always do, but to feel connected to others instead of isolated. It's about giving professionals an excuse to let loose, have fun, and not stress about marketability and agent deadlines.
Bottom line is, NaNoWriMo is not for everyone, but I do think everyone should give it a chance just to see if it is for them. As for me, this is my 8th, and I'll be ready and waiting, in my tiny apartment here in Japan, at 11:59pm on October 31st.