The NaNo Debate -- A bit of a rant.
Written by
Julie Jeffs
November 2010
Written by
Julie Jeffs
November 2010
This post was also posted at Beginning a Life at 50 About the beginning of October, I began to hear the buzz, as writers prepared for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. (In case you don’t know what it is, it is writing a novel in 30 days, well at least 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days.) I’ve never done it before. A few years ago, just the thought scared me; I didn’t know what 50,000 words even looked like. Last year I was in the midst of the memoir and couldn’t imagine working on something else, I mean really, what would I write? This year I once again told myself and anyone else who initially asked, that I was in the midst of revisions of the Memoir and although I would like to imagine working on something else, I still didn’t have anything to write. As November 1st approached, the buzz became a loud droning sound as many writers on She Writes as well as women I follow and respect on Twitter talked about starting NaNoWriMo on November 1st. I wished all of them the best of luck. I now knew what 50,000 words looked like; it looked like about one quarter of my first draft of my memoir, not so overwhelming within some context. E. Victoria Flynn (@PennyJars) had weeks before been commenting on being a NaNoRebel and I assumed, without asking mind you, that it meant she was not participating in NaNo. On October 31st she again mentioned NaNo but with a different tone, so I asked her if she was going to do it. She replied she was and asked, “And you?” I originally told her no, then it started to swirl around in my oft-empty head and the little bit of competitiveness in me started to kick in. The whole business starts at 12:01 a.m. on November 1 and I made the decision to join at about 10:30 p.m. on October 31. Maybe not one of my brightest moments. I still had no clue what I would write. I would very much like to blame here my twitter friends who were and are like cheerleaders prodding me on and telling me how “You can do it Julie!” But, I must take responsibility for myself, I’m the one who registered on that site and said I would do it, or at least give it that old college try. I had looked through some notebooks at notes I had written about ideas for stories and there it was, a voice and character I had only started to think about but already was in love with. On the first, I met with my writing friend Charissa, told her about my idea, and asked her to read my first 500 words. We talked about where I thought it was going. She gave me such positive feedback and lots of ideas about all the different directions I could go in. So now I am hooked and all signed up for NaNoWriMo and as is my usual way I am already behind in word count. It is good for me though. It gives me deadlines and the competiveness forces me to put butt in chair and try at least to write something. What has surprised me though is the debate about NaNoWriMo. One of the women on She Writes who I respect and admire wrote an entire post about why it is not for everyone. I’m in complete agreement. It, I am certain, is not for everyone, but not only her post but also many of the following comments seemed so negative. At least to me it felt like many were saying that if you rushed to put 50,000 words down in 30 days you weren’t really writing well, you weren’t honoring the craft of writing and you were, in a sense, taking to the extreme Anne Lamott’s suggestion that it was okay to write “shitty first drafts”. Although many people agree with Lamott that your first draft is just a that, a draft and doesn’t have to be and won’t be publication ready, much of the comment on She Writes and other places, was that to write 50,000 words in 30 days was hurrying so much that crap was too nice a word for whatever was produced. Participants were somehow then making a mockery of real writers. Today I also read a blog post by Laura Miller on In it, she asks that those of us considering it please just not write that novel. The title to her article is “Better yet, DON’T write that novel Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy". Miller thinks we should spend more time reading rather than writing “crap”, and she goes on to write: "Writing a lot of crap" doesn't sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November. And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it's clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they'll shortly receive. "Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?" tweeted one, "Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter ... or make it clear that it was LAST year's NaNo." Another wrote, "Worst queries I ever received as an agent always started with 'I've just finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel and ...'" As someone who doesn't write novels, but does read rather a lot of them, I share their trepidation. Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it? Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it's likely to produce more novels I'd want to read. Okay, I get that certainly there are plenty of people who aren’t smart enough to realize that the 50,000 words they blurted out during NaNoWriMo are not ready for publication. They are, as they are meant to be, the beginnings, a shitty first draft, the bare bones of the novel that you may then spend the next year editing, revising and rewriting. Those people, who hit the send button for the queries to agents on December 1, are the same people who will send any crappy first draft out to agents and editors without a second thought. Miller points out that it appears there has been at least one true “hit” that came from a NaNoWriMo participant and that is Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen. I would probably bet that what Sarah Gruen wrote for NaNo is nothing like the finished product that became a New York Times Bestseller, but it was a beginning, an exercise in writing every single day and getting a crappy-bare-bones-first-draft down on paper. Those who don’t like the idea of NaNo have every right to ignore it. But why do they have to be so negative about those who dare to try? Can’t we all just be a little more supportive of each other for those things we do that scare us, which test our boundaries, which stretch our limits just a bit? I have no intention or desire to skydive, my sense is, "Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane?" I can, however, still be supportive of someone else who finds it exhilarating, who uses it to face fears or push themselves to do something that scares them a bit, or someone who just enjoys it. Because that skydiver isn’t spending their time doing something I consider more worthwhile or better for the world at large, doesn’t mean I have to put them down for it. Miller actually, in my mind becomes rather mean-spirited when she writes: The last thing the world needs is more bad books. But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced. Here's why: NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it's largely unnecessary. When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. "Write Your Novel Here" was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing. Rather than squandering our applause on writers -- who, let's face, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not -- why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built. After all, there's not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there's no one left to read it. Wow, sorry I’m not the good person you are Ms. Miller, I’m just a lowly stinkin’ writer. But wait, Ms. Miller, you are a writer too are you not? Do you not write a column for Salon? Why would you so quickly denegrate the profession that earns you your living? Some of us would love to have that ability, to earn our living writing instead of squeezing our writing into the other spaces in our lives while we do something else to support ourselves and our families. Miller does however offer a suggestion of something to do in place of NaNoWriMo which is called the 10/10/10 challenge in which a couple of women, Melissa Klug and Kalen Landow read ten books in ten categories in ten months, that is 100 books in 10 months. They chose to read books outside their normal tastes to challenge themselves. You can read about their challenge here. I am impressed and would love to take on such a challenge, when I’m done with NaNo. I mean we all agree the way to be a better writer is to be a better reader. For now, I will continue to try and squeeze out my 50,000 words by the end of the month. I will at least give it my best effort. If I try my best then in my mind I have won. I will not have a finished novel even if I do get 50,000 words written but I will have started and pushed myself beyond my normal limits. If I fail, it does not make me a failure at being a good, intelligent, worthwhile woman and human being. So to all of you who choose not to participate in NaNoWriMo, I hope you have found your own challenge that helps you to grow and reach your dreams. I support you in whatever it is you choose to do. For those of you participating in NaNo, best of luck, I hope you are enjoying it for whatever reasons you choose to do it. Now, if only I could use the words in this blog post to add to my total word count for NaNo I would be set.

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