Sunday, October 27, 2013

NaNoWriMo: My Annual Battle with Ambivalence

Here comes November, National Novel Writing Month.  Once again, there is a flurry of texts and Facebook posts and emails as the big kick-off approaches, and once again I find myself faced with that question - "Are you doing NaNoWriMo?" And, once again, I amsteeped in an ambivalence that the overly introspective part of me feels compelled to examine. Is it laziness? Fear? Skepticism? Healthy cynicism? Is it the anti-joiner in me, the side of me that will refuse to do something simply to declare my independence from the crowd? ("We're all individuals." "I'm not!")

Something about the concept of National Novel Writing Month feels wrong to me. It seems to support the notion that anyone, everyone, indeed the entire country, can and should be writing a novel. Do I really believe that? I certainly believe everyone has a story to tell, and that the process of telling our stories is fundamental to who we are, and who we can become, as human beings. But I don't believe that everyone's story should become a novel. I don't believe everyone should declare themselves a writer. I do believe there already exists a glut of people who call themselves writers, myself among them.

I know diluting the name of "writer" or trivializing the process of writing a novel is not the intention of NaNoWriMo. I believe the intention is to inspire writers to push through the blocks and the tough spots, to challenge those who claim the name of writer to live up to that name by finishing a novel-length work, and to create a community of support that will allow you to reach your writing goals. These are all worthy purposes.

Still, something about the phrase "National Novel Writing Month" sticks in my craw. Maybe it's the bandwagon nature of it or the cram-for-exam component, the idea that those 50,000 words churned out in a month will actually constitute a novel. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say "National First Draft Writing Month?"

On the other hand, maybe this is envy and sour grapes speaking. I know quite a few writers who approach this month with seriousness and planning. They do their advance work. They have an outline, character sketches, everything you need to justifiably commit to a month-long intensive push that will, in fact, result in what could legitimately be called a novel. I salute them. They represent the best of what NaNoWriMo can be. Until I have approached it as they have, I have no right to criticize the concept.

My ambivalence may, in the end, come down to the age-old debate between "the plotters" and "the pantsers," between those who believe in the divine inspiration of the muse driving them forward, and those who believe you must outline and plan first in order to create something meaningful from that drive. For myself, as so often seems to happen in my life, I find I am a mixture of these two styles, an uneasy detente between the abstract-random thinker and the linear-analytical thinker. The plotter and the pantser coexist within me, attempting to sit down together over coffee or lunch and work out a compromise. And every year around this time they stare at each other across the table of my mind and ask, "Now what?"

Do I join the crowd? Do my own thing? Ignore the whole hullabaloo and fuss? Or throw in on it just once to see what happens and make me better informed?

I suppose I should end by throwing that question at you - "Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?" Why or why not?


  1. I did it (and "won" by writing more than 50,000 words) last year. But I put all my projects and life on hold for that month, and it has taken me until now to get back to that draft I wrote last November. So, for me it doesn't really work. I'm a person who always has two or three projects going at once, and putting them all on hold so I can write something completely new and different throws a wrench into my life. But for people who need a push to write, it's a definite push. If next November comes around and I don't have another book in the works, or a new play that has to be done by the end of January, I'll do it again. I will say it felt like a great accomplishment.

  2. I don't mind NaNoWriMo because I think people are clearheaded about it. For some it's a personal best, and that's fine. If we replace "writer" with "marathon runner," we know that the bulk of people who run in a big city marathon don't view themselves in the same league as the true racers who win. People looking for professional careers as writers who I know are doing it all view it as a month-long sprint to make a first draft to return to later. As one said, "Will it have sentences? Maybe." Considering that winning NNWM is 50K words, and these days for first novels, 85-90K is considered ideal, a month jamming on a big outline could be productive. This year I am really focused on short stories and getting published, so a whale of an effort to do something different has no value. But I am thinking about a second novel, and if I do a lot of reading and researching over the summer, maybe a hardcore month would be just the thing to clear my path.


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