Halfway: A NaNoWriMo Blog

by krstaten

For those unfamiliar, November is NaNoWriMo–National Novel Writing Month, the month in which writers everywhere call in “sick” to their obligations, stay home, and consume unhealthy amounts of coffee (or tea, or the caffeinated beverage of their choice) while frantically attempting to write 50,000 words in thirty days.

There has been a lot of criticism about NaNoWriMo, from that which focuses on the technical side of writing (50,000 words is really more of a novella than a novel) to that which focuses on the philosophy of writing (regarding whether it is ultimately helpful to focus on quantity over quality and whether NaNoWriMo encourages unhealthy or inaccurate ideals about what it means to be a novelist). These criticisms seem to resurface every year, and it always gets me thinking. Not about the technical side, because quite frankly I don’t care what you label a piece of work in terms of genre as much as I care what kind of impact it has.

Which brings us into that philosophy of writing: What kind of impact DOES it have?

Today marks the halfway point of NaNoWriMo and I know a lot of you are kind of losing steam, so I figured it’s a good time to talk about what it is we’re really doing here. (The timing of this blog might also have something to do with the fact that that I actually started it on November 4 when NaNoWriMo was fresh and your novels were just embryonic Microsoft Word files, but I ended up procrastinating because I am not as strong as those of you who actually have been writing every day this month.)

The argument that I see, over and over again, every year since I first became aware of NaNoWriMo back in 2007, is that putting quantity of words over quality inevitably produces poor writing; it is creating art for art’s sake and will inherently lack meaning; and it ultimately creates a piece of literature that will have no influence over the writer OR the reader.

I think what such critics fail to realize is that usually the first draft isn’t supposed to be influential and profound, and it’s not supposed to be a high-quality finished draft. Critics come at NaNoWriMo to argue how damaging it is to REAL writers who write EVERY DAY and AGONIZE over writing the PERFECT WORDS…forgetting that most “real writers” also write first drafts that, in all reality, are probably pretty terrible and serve the primary function of getting the story laid out on the page.

I’ve referenced it time and time again, but Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Drafts is an inspiration to me. Why? Because it’s a reminder that, contrary to what some critics of NaNoWriMo seem to think, the author’s first draft is usually NOT the one in which they’re agonizing over which punctuation mark to use or finding the perfect word to describe that color or making a character’s speech bloom into believable poetry. The first draft is the one where they get everything on the page and it’s terrible and they hate it but they thank the good novel-writing gods for the existence of revision. John Green’s original drafts of The Fault in Our Stars was submitted to his editor with an ending that got the response of, “The last 40 pages, I can’t tell if you’re kidding.”

And THEN the revision happened. And that’s another issue that NaNoWriMo critics have–it puts the focus on writing, rather than on editing, and we all know (and this is a legitimate and true statement) that the story really happens in the editing. But the revisions would not have happened, and the heartbreaking and touching story we all know would not have happened, if it hadn’t been for that original “problematic” and “ambitious” (according to Green’s editor) work of putting the story on the page. And THAT’S what NaNoWriMo is about.

Finally, a heavy amount of criticism of NaNoWriMo declares that all participants do is write, and none of them read, making it seem like writing a novel is easy and you can do it without even having read all that many novels first. Which I will agree is just not true; but it also has never been the spirit or culture of NaNoWriMo. For one thing, very few people will claim NaNoWriMo or the overall process of writing a novel is easy. There are special places on the NaNoWriMo forums for writers who are going absolutely insane, for whom the process is eating away at their brain, or for whom the prospect of hitting that 50,000 word goal seems more like a dreaded obstacle than an exciting adventure (I’m looking at you, writers who haven’t broken 10k yet. I was there last year.) No one thinks this is easy, and while it certainly is fun and exciting, no one will argue that they have this novel writing thing all figured out now.

And furthermore, I’ve never known a NaNoWriMo participant who didn’t love to read.

That said, the two articles I’ve cited in this post have one point that I would like to emphasize, loudly and repeatedly: CELEBRATE READERS. Not only do readers fill our world with a more informed, empathetic, and well-rounded populace, but more importantly, they give our writers an audience so that they can open up a dialogue about the world they’re writing for and about. (Ending a sentence in a proposition. Take that, prescriptive grammarians.)

So, NaNoWriMo participants, keep writing. Even if you’ve only written 3,000 words this month, keep writing. And when November is over and you’ve written however many words you’ve written, your novel will not be over, so keep writing then, and keep editing. And above all else, keep reading, because that’s how you’ll make the next novel (and maybe even this one) (and certainly the world) better.

On a closing note, because so many of these critics like to tell you how NaNoWriMo is not how you write a publishable book, here’s a link to Barnes & Noble’s list of seven YA novels that started as NaNoWriMo projects. So go forth and kick some ass.

*I originally wanted to write this blog to be exactly 1,667 words long, in honor of NaNoWriMo’s daily average word count to reach 50,000, but I fell about 600 words short. And it took me almost two weeks. Just in case anyone needed a reminder of how much work this actually can be, especially for us amateur/beginning writers.