Monday, November 22, 2010

In Defense of NaNoWriMo (Guest Post!)

This week we have a super-special guest post from my friend and coworker, Amanda. By day she wrangles late reviewers and herds books towards publication as an Editorial Assistant; by night she blogs about classic films at A Pocketful of Nickels; and for the entire month of November, she puts her nose to the NaNoWriMo grindstone and churns out 50,000 words with the best of them.

She took some time out from her NaNo novel (which is at 30,000 words, at last count—I'll give you a second for applause) to write this response to an article I tweeted at the beginning of the month. In the article, "Better Yet, DON'T Write that Novel," Salon's Laura Miller argues that a month spent writing novels in an already flooded fiction market could be put to better use by joining the dwindling numbers of avid readers who keep the publishing industry alive. The article spurred a lot of discussion at my office, where NaNo is popular, and I invited Amanda to share her response with us. So with no further adieu...

November is a time of leaves turning and pumpkin pie consumption, but for many people around the world it is also the time to dabble in to the art of writing. The article Rachel mentioned has stirred a lot of talk amongst those embarking on the adventure of spending a whole month writing a book. In fact, I’ve heard so much about that article and counter arguments to it, that what I really want to do in response is talk about writing.

I started National Novel Writing Month (or NaNo for short) last year and immediately fell in love. I had gotten away from my writing due to some difficult emotional times and then I just fell out of the habit and life; well, life just got too busy. At least that’s what I thought. But here this contest, involving this teeming mass of aspiring writers all pledging to write 50,000 words in the span of just 30 days, had a way of drawing me in. Suddenly I wanted to do it just to see if I could shake loose those writer’s hands and let the mothballs out of my creativity closet. And you know what happened? I wrote again.

I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. It was part of a culture in my family, this telling and sharing of stories, and it was then as a little girl listening to my grandfather that I learned how storytelling is an ancient art. It connects us within our culture and allows us to share with one another our history and our dreams. It also requires both the teller and the listener; or in writing terms, the writer and the reader. Both are involved and both keep this culture of storytelling alive. We cannot have one without the other.

NaNoWriMo has helped me expand my writing life as well as my reading life. It was through the seemingly impossible competition that I met some great friends and also joined a book club. I’ve read more books since my first encounter with the contest than I had at any time previously. It’s wonderful! The more I write, the more I want to read. I found that I am continuously inspired by other writers, like my new favorite author, Richard Russo. I just read his book Empire Falls and fell in love with his ability to craft characters and such memorable depictions of life. To learn the writing craft, you need to study the masters. That’s a lesson true of everything from painting to music to really any of the other arts. Writing in a bookstore is perfect—what a wonderful way to connect with the masters who have made it to publication. While I’m there amidst the shelves of books, I pick up ones that I may not have otherwise noticed and read through them as I write. I’m engaging in both sides of the literary cycle.

Now, not everyone needs a competition like this to kick-start their writing lives, and I applaud those people who don’t (and envy them a bit). But what it all comes down to is the simple fact that writing is fun. Thousands of people sign up for NaNo every year. Do not judge their intentions, for one thing is common—they all have a crazy desire to create. That is the reason we write. Certainly we may all harbor a secret desire to one day be published, but that isn’t our driving force. Writing is a good way to channel frustrations, sadness, anxiety, whatever emotion that you might have trouble otherwise expressing. In some therapy centers, writing is even prescribed as a way to work out problems and understand emotions.

Writing allows us to be on the other side of the page, to appreciate what an author does to produce a work. I have far more admiration for writers after writing a few full length (and rather awful) novels of my own. And you know what? I have never met a NaNo writer who would willingly share his or her writing with me or anyone else. That doesn’t bode well for anyone with dreams of one day publishing their work, but does that really matter? I talk about my novel just as much as I write it; my friends and I are all familiar with each other’s plot and characters. The telling and the writing are part and parcel. No story is polished from the outset. Talking to readers and other writers will help, as will taking the time to revise and edit. As writers, we have to accept that there will be a lot of “crap” at first. Think of the first draft as a pile of cars in a junkyard and ask yourself if there is anything you can salvage. But we aren’t alone. Everyone goes through this process, even if we never see it: photographers, painters, choreographers, filmmakers, even journalists. In the ever-growing markets, it might seem bleak to think that your beloved novel may never see a bookstore shelf. People with poor writing skills have national bestsellers solely based on a brief brush with fame. Anyone who can make headlines can publish a book, but so many aspiring novelists cannot and thus will not. That is the grim truth of NaNo, and one we tend to put in a corner under a blanket to shut out of our minds. We ignore the fact that we are pouring energy into works that have little hope of surviving in this world.

So what should we do, we who want to write the stories as much as we want to read them? Do we take the philosophy that we should write for writing’s sake? Do we give up in desperation? Do we turn our backs on the cruel world of publishing and keep that blanket handy? Do we sit in a cruddy apartment in our bathrobe and stubbornly churn out two original stories a week that won't sell?* I agree that not everyone can be a great writer. Not everyone can be a great painter either, but should that stop anyone from picking up a brush to try?

I say we write. Yes, it is a selfish, lonely, narcissistic and sometimes maddening endeavor. But it can also be wildly entertaining and rewarding. For one month a year, let us give voice to our inner writers and set free all those thoughts, characters and adventures. Let us enjoy that freedom provided from being on the other side of the printed page. Most of all, let’s read and keep reading, to celebrate those who have made it to publication and to find the inspiration to tell our own stories.

*Yes, this is a reference to a movie because I’m pimping my own blog. Find out which movie here.

Thanks so much, Amanda!

Whether you're participating in NaNo or not, here are some great resources for both writers and readers:

  • The NaNoWriMo webpage is a great source for NaNo resources, pep talks and community for participants. Use it to find write-ins near you, or meet fellow writers online!
  • NaNoFiMo follows right on the heels of NaNoWriMo in December and challenges writers to finish long-untouched works in progress.
  • Similarly, NaNoEdMo invites writers to commit 50 hours during the month of March to editing their novelsI can't say I know too many editors would would claim that time is wasted.
  • The 10-10-10 Reading Challenge invites readers to tackle 10 books from 10 self-selected categories that they wouldn't normally explore before October 10th. Participants say it's a great way to broaden your horizons, find new favorite authors and genres, and support the industry.
  • Plenty of writers and readers prefer to spend November (or August, in some cases) working on their NaNoReaMo goals and reading as much as possible.

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