At its best, NaNo will make you fall in love with writing, help you unlock your hidden talent, and challenge you, making you a better, more daring and confident storyteller.
It can also, however, be a ticket straight to the land of NaWriWhoNoSu and, although the word “NaNo” is in there somewhere, you don’t want to enter the club of Narcissistic Writers Whose Novels Suck. Believe me, it’s already way too crowded.
Alternatively, if narcissism isn’t in your nature, NaNo could simply ensure that you become – or remain – a bad writer. Nothing wrong with that, provided you keep the unwieldy, blabbering creation to yourself…
If you would like to avoid falling into one of the previous two categories, but you still want to participate in NaNo, I offer you the following observations to ponder, possibly disagree with, but at least consider.
Observations To Ponder, Possibly Disagree With, but At Least Consider
1. Crash Diets Always Fail
If you think that drinking lemonade for 3 weeks will help you lose the 50 pounds you put on by stuffing your mouth with Doritos and S’Mores for the past 3 years… you are wrong. And you know that.
Similarly, beating the keyboard like a madman on crack for the next x days (where x = however many days you’ve got until the end of NaNo) is probably not the best shot you can take at becoming a good writer.
And yet, we always fall for these easy fixes: you lose 10 pounds in 5 days, or write your first 10,000 words, and you feel an enormous sense of accomplishment. Soon enough, you reach your 50-pound goal, or the 50,000-word limit. You tell yourself: I can be skinny! I can be a writer! I can do anything!
Then, basking in the glow of success, you inevitably start to drift off course. You find yourself munching on potato chips while watching Dancing With The Stars, and tell yourself that “I’m only going to eat a couple;” or you neglect your writing for a week, and reassure yourself that “I’m going to start writing again next week. I deserve a break…”
Two months later, you have gained 60 pounds, and your word count has plateaued to absolute zero.
If you ask yourself what went wrong and how to prevent it, know that…
2. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
And it stinks.
One of my greatest friends used to say, “Only the weak tread the easy paths.” The problem is, we are all a little weak, and we all sometimes need a little encouragement. And, lo and behold, here comes SuperNaNo, pledging his support from the cyber clouds, telling us that he will love our novels unconditionally, that quality doesn’t matter, that we only need to reach the 50,000 goal and we’ll all be winners.
To me, NaNo talk is disconcertingly reminiscent of the Italian saying, “Ogni scarafone e’ bello a mamma sua,” meaning: every cockroach looks beautiful to his own mother. But – unless your are Gil Grissom from CSI – cockroaches probably don’t seem particularly appealing to you. Similarly, if you give birth to a novel that is the literary equivalent of a cockroach, you can’t expect anyone but your parents -and maybe your partner, if his/her senses are muddled enough by love – to think it’s worth reading.
How can you avoid the Cockroach Effect? (which. by the way, is almost as misleading as the Cheerleader Effect). Easy! By reconsidering the importance of…
The inventor of National Story Planning Month very appropriately writes that no one forces you ”to suddenly leap out of bed on November 1st, crack open your head with an ice ax, and let the story come pouring from the cleft.” That would not only be painful – and, in all likelihood, lethal – but might very well lead to a meandering work with inconsequential characters and an “open-ended” conclusion.
NaNo believers often argue that there are some successful authors who have completed their novels in 30 days or less, and I don’t dare contradict them, because they are right. However, even the article 6 Famous Novels Penned in Under a Month stated that the writers had not mechanically sat in front of a computer come November 1st. According to the piece, Kerouac had taken detailed notes for seven years before sitting down to write On the Road, and some, like Elizabeth Jenkins, were writing about an event that had so deeply affected them that they had felt the urge to write about it immediately. Additionally, many of the authors on the list, such as Fyodor Dostoevski, were experienced storytellers, so writing already came naturally to them.
Hence, if you are not an experienced writer and you have no particular desire to rewrite 90% of your novel later, it might be a good idea to plan ahead. Use the months before NaNo to think about a topic, research, write an outline, cover the corner of your notebooks with nonsensical scribbles, go through the Insanity Workout series…. and, in general, do whatever it takes to put yourself in the right frame of mind to write.
4. Writing and Shitting Are Not The Same
I know. They bear many similarities, and it’s easy to get confused. A writer can get constipated, or have diarrhea (there’s even a term for it, it’s called hypergraphia) and writing can hurt just as much as the other activity. One of my favorite singer/songwriters, Daniele Silvestri, even admitted that his best ideas come while sitting on the John, and I know lots of artists who second that, although, sadly, I’m not among the “lucky few.”
Nevertheless, unleashing your innermost, darkest and smelliest secrets in an endless stream of consciousness of autobiographical reverie is no novel (unless it’s Incubus, by Giuseppe Berto. But then again, he is Italian, and Italians like to read unreadable things. It makes us feel cultured.)
What you need to do instead is to write whenever you genuinely have something you want to say… and stop whenever you find yourself just twaddling on, completely out of ideas but unwilling to quit until you reach the 1,666 daily quota dictated by NaNo. (And, by the way, isn’t it a little disquieting that the number 666 is also the Devil’s?). This brings me to my next point:
5. Writer’s Block Is Your Friend (Sometimes)
The internet is replete with articles on how to combat the nemesis of writers, that unnameable force that mysteriously draws us towards reading other people’s work, listening to NPR, cleaning our roommate’s dirty dishes, taking our imaginary dog out for a walk…. basically, engaging in any activity that will forestall the inevitable: the moment in which groggy-eyed, sleep-deprived us will be confronted with – and almost blinded by - the endless white of the page.
But, at least for me, procrastination and writer’s block have often proved useful. That’s because the hesitation to write is different from the Absolute Paralysis and Abject Terror to write. We all agree that the latter is bad, and should be fought bravely, through yoga lessons that may or may not leave you physically paralyzed, or by sifting through the myriad articles dispensing advice on how to combat writer’s block.
Writer’s hesitation, however, should not be fought against, because it can be greatly beneficial to your novel. The reason is that the hesitation to write is an instinct of self-preservation that takes hold of us when we have depleted our creative reservoir; when we find ourselves writing disturbingly repetitious content, Shining-style. Too Much Work and No Play don’t only make Jack a Dull Boy (and a killer), they also make him a poor writer.
If you find yourself needing a break, don’t panic. Go for a walk, set the project aside to work on something new, spend time with friends, read and, most importantly, have a life! We all know that, although you don’t need to be a firefighter or a drug addict to write an engaging story, it’s also true that the world can be an invaluable source of inspiration. I thereby invite you to consider ol’ Chuck Palahniuk’s advice: “Have your adventures, make your mistakes, and choose your friends poorly — all these make for great stories.”
As for me:
During my most recent “period of hesitation,” I read Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, collecting invaluable little nuggets, such as the fact that listening to audiotapes of a medical encyclopedia is not the best way to learn French. I also cooked parmigiana for all my house-mates, and even the ones who didn’t like eggplants – the main ingredient – still enjoyed it a lot! Lastly, I had the “brilliant” idea of cutting the hair of the Assistant Editor of this website, while cunningly omitting the fact that none of my “ample” hair-cutting experience had involved the use of actual scissors… Anyway, after a few minutes of utter despair, he did mention that he “digs this hair-cut,” so it mustn’t have been all that bad! You can admire the Before and After pics below.
Silly prattle aside, I have actually never stopped writing – I couldn’t! But I have focused on other endeavors. I have edited other people’s work, brainstormed for a co-authored piece entitled Invisible Barriers, written two rambling posts for this site, and simply let my novel further develop in my subconscious. It seems like I haven’t accomplished much in the way of completing my book, but if I can sit down tomorrow and surprise myself by noticing new connections I hadn’t seen before, coming out with interesting plot twists and completing another decent 10,000 words before my next creative burnout, my break will have served its purpose.
Although the creator of NaNo cogently said in an interview that you can’t edit a blank page, it’s also true that you can’t not edit a first draft. Neglecting this key process will send editors crawling in a corner, while beating their heads against their laptops and wishing they had listened to their parents, and studied law. Thus, even if you have rushed through to the finish line, and even if you hate editors, you should still set some months aside to Tackle The Mess that is your NaNovel.
Why put yourself through such torture, you ask me?
To which I must ask you: why did you put yourself through so much trouble writing a novel in only a month, then?
If the point of NaNo is to unleash the writer in you, then you can’t just stop once the game gets rough. Otherwise, you’ll become a NaNo addict, churning out new black-on-white disasters each year, and never actually finishing any one project. Most importantly, don’t be discouraged if your first manuscript is far from perfect. As author Luke Geragthy explains in The Madness that is Editing, revisiting your novel, although not necessarily a fun process, can greatly enhance it.
(On the other hand, if the cliches in your book make The Bold and The Beautiful pale in comparison, and your plot is as insubstantial as that of Crossroads of Twilight, Wheel of Time, Book 10 - FYI, You can read reviews of the book here – you should probably put your entire novel on a USB stick and smash it to smithereens with a hammer.)
8. NaNoAno – Nanoer’s Anonymous
I’ve done some research online, and have made a troubling discovery: many writers participate in NaNo each year, “win” it, and later righteously decide that their novels are utterly unpublishable. Although I appreciate the fact that they have the common sense to not flood already exasperated publishers with the sketches of a novel come December 1st, it saddens me to think that those novels who do have potential get relegated to a corner of one’s hard-drive, incapable of fighting against the allure of a New Novel, a New NaNo, a New possibility to complete another 50,000-word first draft the following year.
If you have participated in NaNo a couple of times and nothing good has come out of it, chances are that the NaNo method simply doesn’t work for you. Don’t give up on writing, but don’t continue going down an unsuccessful road, quieting your fear of incompetence with the intoxicating excitement that takes hold of you every time you reach the 50,000-word finish line. Too many writers go back to NaNo each year, erroneously believing that, if your liver doesn’t explode and your teeth don’t fall out, you are not self-destructing. However, by trying to impose a formulaic approach to writing on yourself, instead of finding the rhythm and method that work best for you, you are not only self-destructing: you are also throwing your dream of becoming a published writer out the window.
Rage Against The NaNochine!
No, I don’t want you to crash the NaNo site with a deadly computer bug (though that could be fun, I guess), to stop donating your money to a hopefully well-meaning Chris Baty, or even to abstain from participating.
But I do want you to stop writing on NaNo’s terms. The objective of writing a novel should not be to win 50% off of Scrivener (although I admit that when I saw that offer on NaNo’s website, participating suddenly started to feel mysteriously attractive.)
However, don’t let shiny offers sneakily take away the joy of writing for the sake of sharing a part of yourself with the rest of the world. You should write on your terms, with the aim of developing a habit of dedicating a sizable chunk of your life to words, instead of limiting yourself to a November tour-de-force. If you try NaNo once and you end up with a wonderful novel…well, then do it every year, you have my blessing! But, if you discover that you do your best work when you write 500 words a day, or when you write 2,000 and take a break once in a while, then don’t worry about NaNo. Most importantly, if you participate in NaNo and lose, don’t let that bring you down. You might have 10,000 words of a promising novel there, and you don’t want to leave it collecting dust inside your old computer, hidden shamefully away in a musty garage. Know that the only losers are the ones who give up after NaNo, the ones who don’t put in the work to turn however many words they have into a readable novel.
And the winners? Well, the real winners are those who can go through the seemingly endless revision process, sift through a pile of rejection letters, finally get a contract or self publish something they can be truly proud of, and touch other people with carefully chosen words, thought-out plots and unforgettable characters… however long it takes them to do so.