November is just around the corner and writers everywhere are making plans to participate in the unique program NaNoWrMo — short for National Novel Writing Month. The question is, should you join all those others?
First, a few specifics about the official program. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. The process is to register at the official NaNo site, then report back at the end of November and download your work to receive official recognition for “winning.” The stipulations include writing a brand new novel, not one you’ve already been working on.
What are the advantages of this program? Everyone I’ve asked who has participated says NaNo works as a form of motivation and accountability. There are forums where writers can ask questions or congregate with others writing in their genre. There are Pep Talk articles and word count badges or scoreboards. In other words, NaNo turns a solitary activity into a community event. Lots of people participate, I suspect, simply because they don’t want to be left out.
In addition, serious writers report they come away from NaNo with the skeleton of a story that they can flesh out in the days ahead. NaNo may not deliver a finished product (let’s face it, only middle grade novels clock in at 50,000 words), but it helps the writer push through until that difficult first draft is either finished or firmly in hand.
With those pluses, what then could be the disadvantage? I see several drawbacks. For seasoned writers, writing between a thousand and two thousand words a day ought not to be too demanding, but the pace doesn’t allow the new writer to collect himself when the story bogs down, to learn what might be the problem, and to discover how to get out of it.
In addition, new writers might be fooled into thinking that their “winning” manuscript is now ready for publication. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fellow editing pal Jamie Chavez wrote a helpful blog post about how good writing takes time to learn. She concludes with this:
A great manuscript is a good first step. But it’s going to take time, grasshopper.
Should someone who has done little to no study of how to write fiction set out to write a novel? Apart from the possible harm of discouragement, I can’t see that it would damage someone’s writing. I don’t know that it will help either unless the writer gets feedback from knowledgeable writers — not from loving family members.
My own writing journey started with an idea and a couple chapters that I took to a writers’ conference. I got enough encouragement that I finished the story and went back to that conference. Again I received positive feedback which led to consideration of publication by a particular publishing house. That might have been the worst thing that happened to me. Though I ultimately received a rejection notice, I assumed from that point on for a number of years that my story was ready for publication because one person showed interest.
As I queried editors and agents and the “not for us” notices mounted, I concluded the problem was my genre (Christian fantasy). It was too hard a sell, I reasoned, because editors and agents weren’t being open-minded enough. After all, there was that one industry professional who liked it.
During this time I was doing some study, but honestly I dismissed much of the writing advice I was receiving because I thought it was too demanding — no one in his right mind could do all the things these writing instructors were suggesting. On top of that, I didn’t understand everything I was reading. Some times I thought I understood, and other times the specialized termonology passed me by. (When exactly did a scene end and where did a sequence fit in? What was a sequence?)
Even though I did revisions based on the few things I learned and understood, nothing changed dramatically in my writing until I joined a critique group and began to get feedback from knowledgeable people who gave me honest criticism.
The relevance of my story is this: essentially I used the NaNo method of writing, though I took longer than the thirty days to produce an entire manuscript. But when I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with the thing I’d created until I got help.
Beginning writers who do NaNo will be at a crossroads when they finish — will they take their baby, which they undoubtedly love, and let the evil eyes of critique partners or some profession freelance editor such as myself tear into it so that they learn how to write by having written badly, or will they try to show it to the world as the next president or beauty queen or star athlete, fully formed, ready to go?
If the latter, NaNo will be a bad experience. If the former, then it has possibilities.
I’ve said often, if I could begin my writing career over, I’d write short stories while I studied the craft and had critique partners give me feedback. For one thing, short stories allow for experimentation. I can write in first person in one story, for example, then switch to a close third person limited in the next story. The two offer me a chance to see which I like better, which fits me, what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. But writing a novel, I’m locked into the point of view I’ve chosen and might not learn until twenty thousand words in that it’s really hard to sustain.
But that’s me. Others may find that hammering out a novel in thirty days is exactly what they want to do. It will give them something from which to work, and it will validate them as writers because they will have finished what they set out to do, and they’ll be NaNo winners.