Oct 31

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No Plot? No Problem!

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, is hailed by many as an opportunity to try their hand at writing and complete the entire first draft of a novel. The goal? To finish a 50,000-word, original novel in the rainy, grey and otherwise not very impressive month of November. Now, although this is theoretically a competition, I would put the words in quotes, because:

– No one reads your manuscript

– Quality doesn’t matter – hence the slogan: No Plot, No Problem!

Photographer: Nick Veitch

– According to Chris Baty, the creator of the event, most people don’t even go on to revise their manuscripts.

– Out of the myriad would-be writers who have participated in the last 12 years (200,500 in 2010 alone) only a handful have been published.

Consequently, I suspect that at least some of you are raising their eyebrows, thinking:

Why Bother, then?

To quote the inventor of NANOWRIMO, the “competition” is built on the premise that “you cannot edit a blank page. Unfortunately! I would love to edit a blank page, it would be so much more practical!” However, in his interview to Writer Unboxed, Chris noted that, since most people who wish to be writers are also usually avid readers, by the time they start writing they expect every sentence to be as lyrical, descriptive and grammatically correct as those of the last draft of a novel on the  New York Times bestseller list. And so many people quit, or never even bother to try.

By giving you a chance to put both your brain and fingertips into the challenge of writing an entire novel without the pressure of having to write anything good (or even remotely coherent), NaNo releases word lovers from the fear of trying to be a successful writer… and failing. To “win” NaNo, you don’t have to be a good writer, you just need to be able to put words together and make sure they reach the 50,000 mark by the end of the month. Anyone who is diligent, persistent, or enough of an insomniac to find the time to type away at a computer until their fingers bleed can “win.” And, if you end up with something publishable, so much the better for you.

Being Published After NaNo

Although the percentage of writers who do get published is so abysmally small that it seemed too depressing to calculate it, some writers, like Anna Sheehan, do make it into paperback. Sheehan participates in NaNo every year and, in 2008, her NaNo novel A Long Long Sleep was published by Candlewick Press. Today, the book is sold also in Germany, Russia, France, Brasil, and the UK. In an interview on the NaNo blog, Sheehan promised that she will participate in the “writing marathon” also this year. “I need my monthly pilgrimage to another world, worshiping at the alter of the computer screen, to keep myself sane,” she said.

Sheehan herself, however, admits that not all the novels she has rushed to write during the NaNo frenzy have turned out to be as good as A Long Long Sleep. “Sometimes” she said, “at the end of NaNoWriMo I have 60,000 words of disconnected, incoherent prose that will never, under any circumstances, see a bookshelf.”

My Humble Opinion

I have been working on my novel since July, trying to write at least 1,000 words a day. As of now, I have 26,000 words, divided into 7 chapters, most of which have already been revised multiple times. As I am preparing myself psychologically for NaNo, in the hope of being able to write the next 25,000 or 30,000 words necessary to finish my novel, I am painfully aware that I will need to work on it for a lot longer than 30 more days to turn it into something publishable.

On one hand, I think that Chris Baty’s idea of getting that messy and spotty first draft out of the way as quickly (and, therefore, painlessly?) as possible is a great idea.

On the other hand, I am wary of writing without placing particular attention to language or plot. At least for me, this strategy doesn’t work, because part of the joy I derive from writing comes from the careful choice of descriptive words and creative plot twists.

Ok, so the cat’s out of the bag – I’m a perfectionist, one of those people who is constantly rewriting the first chapter, while procrastinating on getting the first draft finished. So, maybe, something like NaNo could be useful, just to force me to get more fresh writing done, instead of spending so much time revising the old stuff until it becomes almost impossible to find the most recent of 561 slightly different versions of the same passage.

Still, I also know that being a slow writer has its advantages: leaving a passage “to rest” for a week or so triggers a surreal, almost miraculous process. I come to the text afterward with a fresh eye and, suddenly, new ideas start to emerge, new links to form, and everything begins to come together more smoothly. Thus, I think that a writer needs both: the NaNo period, to write feverishly and get something out there, and the reflective period, to edit away and think about how all of the different fragments, adjectives and characters can come together to form a novel. Although the NaNo period is important, writing non-stop for 30 days is too much. By the time the 30th day arrives, you have likely just been spewing crap on a page for the last x* weeks. You are an exhausted marathon runner chasing a word count, instead of the observant writer who follows his/her characters calmly, watching to see where they go.

I am therefore not fully convinced that writing a novel as quickly as possible, and without too much care, is the recipe for success. But, maybe, NaNo is not necessarily about becoming a published writer. Maybe it’s just about finding the courage to try to pursue a dream, or to celebrate, at least for a month, the power of words, and the joy that writing can bring to our lives .

*  where x = one month – however long it takes you to run out of ideas

What do YOU Think?

I am really curious to know what other writers think of NaNo. If you have any opinion about the topic, or want to share your experience about participating in NaNo, please leave a comment!


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  1. eezywriter

    Frankly, in my opinion, NaNo is a complete waste of time. I equate it to running on a treadmill–you might get some side benefit from it, but in the end you get nowhere. I’d think it was more productive to spend your time on your main “worthwhile” manuscript as opposed to chasing after some kind of “competition”. Hell, it’s competitive enough out there just trying to get something noticed, let alone published!

    P.L. Reiter

    1. Valentina Nesci

      Reiter, That sounds very reasonable. I wouldn’t want to rush into my manuscript either. I was wondering, did you ever complete a novel? How long did it take you to write it? And if you know anyone who did NaNo, what were the results? Thanks for your comment!


  2. Kmuzu

    I think a writer would be much better off reading a novel in November than trying to write one. I’ve worked as a writer on several video games and have published a few short stories and neither experience has prepared me for writing a novel.

    I try to read at least three times more than what I write. I read with a critical eye. I parse out sentence structure. I draw mind-maps of plots, setting and movement. I track each characters development and arc.

    1. Valentina Nesci

      Kmuzu, I like your philosophy. I don’t understand “wannabe writers” who boast that they haven’t read a single book.

  3. Catherine

    I was going to write a novel anyway and it turns out this is what it took to get me to do it. I have alot to say and tell in my Fiction based on a true story. They say Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky in 30 days because he was desperate and broke…I can relate. I am in the same situation and my story is excellent and interesting. I am pursuing publishing as soon as it is done. I will be continuing on past 50,000 words by a long shot. I am an avid reader. I have nothing but time so 2000 words a day seems like nothing. I work for two or three hours per day and am very happy with my work. The writer of Holes spent one year writing that novel working on it for exactly one hour every night after work and that was all he had to give. That also turned out well…to say that fast writers are wannabes is a stretch. There are too many examples of people who have done it with wild success. Since it is all I have to do right now I am still managing to do a very nice job.

    1. Valentina Nesci

      Catherine, thanks for leaving this comment. I guess you are the proof that there is always the exception. Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of our time, also writes 2,000 words a day. So kudos for you if you can keep this rhythm and also come up with a publishable book! Let us know if you do end up publishing your novel.

      I don’t think that fast writers are wannabes. I do think, however, that not all accomplished writers are fast, and that not all fast writers are good writers.

      I also appreciate the fact that you want to write more than the 1,666 words needed, and that you don’t want to stop at 50,000 words. That shows that you are following your own rhythm, and pursuing your own goals – as you mentioned, you were going to write a novel anyways.

      Ultimately, I think that the people who do have a shot at becoming good writers are the ones like you: the ones that would write even if NaNo didn’t exist, that try to find their own rhythm, and that dedicate time to writing. As you said, having so much time on your hands is also a good thing, and you are very wise to exploit it.

      I hope your novel is successful. Thanks for your comment,


  4. Kim

    I am a fellow NaNo’er, and I think that NaNo is actually more positive than what you put here. You seem to think that you NEED to do 50,000 words in the month, then after that, you cannot continue (or something like that). I just want to tell you that being a ‘winner’ for NaNoWrimo isn’t really the goal here- it is writing a bunch of words, most people otherwise wouldn’t write. I get what you mean by being a perfectionist- I myself am one. But I found that if I share my stories with my friends or family, they seem to like the ones I took less time on, and edited less. I know what you mean by finding the ‘perfect words’, but the thing is that sometimes the more conversational writing then fancy writing is better. But anyways, isn’t a bunch of words strung together in an over-all messy story better than no story at all?

    1. Valentina Nesci

      Kim, thanks a lot for your comment. I definitely agree about this: “a messy story is better than no story at all.” I’m sure that it’s better to write something that’s not perfect…than not to write. However, I do think that a messy story is still a messy story..and not really useful in that state. NaNo and the Internet (blogs) definitely have their pros – they lower the playing field, and encourage more people to write. But they also have a negative side: by focusing on quantity rather than quality, we are downplaying the importance of an essential aspect of writing: rewriting. I think it’s a dangerous thing to do, and you can see its effect every day, in the many typos and grammatical mistakes you can now find virtually anywhere – from emails to blogs to traditionally published books.

      As for what you say about conversational vs. fancy writing, I think you are absolutely right – fancy writing is almost always bad writing. If the whole point of the writer were simply to use altisonant words that no one knows the meaning of (like the word “altisonant”) he or she would be a terrible writer. But elaborate writing is not fancy… it has a texture, like Arundhati Roy’s. And it’s beautiful – not because it’s fancy but because it serves a purpose, it is a living being of its own; the writing itself is the story. But, of course, Arundhati Roy is a slow writer…and it took her a long time to finish and polish her book.

      This ties in with the second comment I wanted to make – the fact that your readers like best the stories you edited least. I think a possible reason for that is that you may be re-writing things the wrong way (I know I tend to do it a lot!) It’s very easy to take the rawness out of your writing while editing it, and that sort of takes the life out of it, too. The key to being a great writer (and the reason why there aren’t many, although there are many people who write) is that they can rewrite something 1,000 times, and still keep the rawness and energy of the first draft intact. It’s not an easy thing to do, and I don’t pretend to know how to do it well, but it’s something that I wish NaNo and blogs would give more weight to. For instance, in my opinion, NaNo writers could greatly benefit from a National Novel Rewriting Month. The aim of that month would not be quantity, but quality, and writers would simply be encouraged to rewrite the first chapter of the NaNo novel so that it flows, and it is easy and effortless to read, but still has life in it. If they did something like that, I would applaud NaNo. I think they need something like that. Writers need something like that.

      The reason I wrote this piece is not that NaNo is the Devil, but that it encourages this belief of our modern, ultra-fast-paced society, that we need to get everything quickly and that it’s better to get something that’s okay than nothing. It almost doesn’t matter how good the final product is – what matters is that we can check it off our to-do-list.

      “Written a book…check!”, “Married…check!” …”Earned graduate degree…check!” By doing that, we miss out on all the wonders of life. The beauty that is inherent in the struggle of writing that second draft (which seems worse than the first) then writing a third draft (which might be even worse) and, finally, going for a walk, setting the novel aside for a couple months, then writing a fourth draft..which ends up being “The One.” We never know when writing is going to become an effortless effort for us… but we need to keep writing and rewriting, until both us and our readers will forget that we are writing, that the words that come out of us are just “a bunch of words.”

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