On Nov. 2, 2010, Salon.com Co-Founder Laura Miller wrote a scathing review of National Novel Writing Month. I came across this article, ironically, in one of the forums on the NaNoWriMo website. The Salon article touched off a firestorm of controversy, and I must say, it definitely helped me define my own thoughts on the matter.
I’ve long credited National Novel Writing Month with saving my writing career from dying a slow, painful death. I still hold to that now that I’ve won for the first time in five years of participation. Why did it take so long? I am a long-time fiction editor, and frankly, it’s damned hard to shut up my critical editor’s brain so that my shy creative side can finally whisper its ideas to me. NaNoWriMo’s insane goal of 50,000 words in one month made it impossible for me to stop and edit myself. I’m a deadline-oriented writer. And it is the same for many others. NaNoWriMo helps us to focus. That was certainly the case for me, and I applaud anyone who even attempts this colossal feat.
A published author and book critic herself, Miller inexplicably appears to attack not only NaNoWriMo, but the very art of writing itself: “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.”
Misplaced? Hmm . . . No more so than any individual attempting a new creative endeavor, be it painting, music, or filmmaking. And I’ve tried and loved all of those too. Yes, surely there are NaNoWriMo participants who don’t have a clue about how to write or sell a novel. Yet we all have to start somewhere. What better way than to learn the discipline of 1667 words a day within a community of other passionate, knowledgeable novelists? And how is the fast pace of NaNoWriMo any different than the driven pace of a successful and prolific published author working hard every day?
Miller also notes a list of promotional ideas for bookstores that she came across that mentioned NaNoWriMo’s “Write Your Novel Here” motto: “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.”
Narcissistic? Having written nearly all of my life (since about age nine), I say with sincerity that I cannot fully live without writing. First and foremost, I write for myself. If that is by definition narcissistic, then so be it. I’ve known and spoken with hundreds of writers over the years. Not one of them has ever said they write for fame or money. In fact, most assume they won’t make a dime. For me personally, the act of writing helps me to make sense of my life, both of my triumphs and my failures. It helps me to work through the concepts of love and hate, of forgiveness and sacrifice. Creative expression is the only way I know how to cope in this life. My gift is not my voice. It is my voice channelled through my pen. I have to work with what I’ve been given.
Secondly, I write to be read. I don’t have a burning desire for fame or fortune. When I was nine, such an idea had not entered my mind. Back then, it was simply the only way I had to voice my longings and my fears. It still is today. I learned something about the art of novel writing and life during the course of writing my first book. And I want to share that hard-earned knowledge and experience with others.
We humans are storytellers. As writers and readers, we begin to learn other ways of working through the confusions and horrors of this life, even as we sit in the safety of our homes with an innocuous book in our hands. We learn when we read. And for some of us, we learn when we write. This is not something to be scoffed at; rather we should applaud those who try their hand at this. Each writer’s journey is different. And each writer’s reason for writing is different. We cannot be categorized into neat little stereotypes.
When I re-read my first novel, which I wrote and revised for ten years, I’m struck now about how much I re-wrote it so that it could be read. The first versions of it were just for me, so that I could learn to express myself, so that I could learn to write well. Those first chapters that I wrote in my teens would have been the equivalent of what Ms. Miller might deem a NaNoWriMo novel. It was full of purple prose, esoteric thoughts, and hackneyed phrases. It wasn’t a novel . . . yet. And it didn’t become a fully realized novel until I finally discovered NaNoWriMo, until I learned how to let go of the inner editor that had been strangling the life out of my story. I’m profoundly grateful to Chris Baty and his whole team at NaNoWriMo for allowing me to realize the one and only dream I ever had for my novel, then and now: to finish it.
I think Nano is a marvelous idea and I know lots of people who have drafted work during it.
To be honest, what Nano encourages is the way I write. Can’t imagine doing it any other way. Glad that others have the excuse.
You know, for many NaNo novelists, it isn’t the first attempt. A lot of us have written for years, and are using NaNoWriMo for extra inspiration. I, myself, love writing with others, so the write-ins are my favorite part. =)
Though I don’t fully agree with Miller, and I DEFINITELY don’t agree with her tone, I also think that there is something to be said about NaNo and people’s expectations and reasons for participating. I think if you are a career writer (or editor), NaNo is just sort of an extra cherry on top, like if you’re a mom and it’s Mother’s Day.
I wrote about it last month… My thoughts are there, if it adds to discussion!
Thanks for weighing in on the discussion, Joey. I hadn’t seen this LA Times article you linked to, so I thought I’d share that here as well.
What I truly take issue with is anyone who would stereotype NaNoWriMo participants as unmotivated nonreaders who have no talent and have no concept of the industry or how to finish a novel. Yes, there are those who fall under that category, but in truth, I’ve never met a writer like that who has participated in NaNoWriMo. What I’ve found is that writers who participate in online or offline writing groups, forums, and associations are the most educated in the craft of writing as well as the business side of publishing (i.e., query writing, submissions etiquette, etc., etc.). This is because they communicate their knowledge with each other. In my own experience, I’ve learned that the writers who never reach out to writing communities online or off are most often the ones who lack the basic knowledge needed for writing, submitting, and marketing their novels. This is not always the case, but it is what I’ve noticed working with authors of all levels and ages.
I got to this part of her article “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?”
…and wanted to stop reading, because being someone who reads a lot of books doesn’t put a seal of My Opinion Matters on this article. Everyone SHOULD read. It really is no more specialist than watching television.
I tried hard not to be offended by her article, but as a writer, how could I not, with such a quote that suggests I’m just itching to force my bad writing on people just because it’s November? She has no sympathy for writers and their journeys because she doesn’t write, and most unfortunately, her dialogue sounds all too much like the whining of one of those stuffy literary types who gets her fiction fix from the genuinely bad ‘experimental’ literary fiction that pops up in the New York Times every month. It’s people like her, readers like her, who put writers in the slump that they were in for decades, unable to see their very brilliant works in print because the publishing industry had become the worst of the worst, elitist, stuffy old boys clubs.
People like her are in a panic now. Weeping because the industry is enduring rapid change, and through events like NaNoWriMo, brilliant minds will continue to surface… not to the suffocating stillness of the stagnant old publishing industry, but to a new era where works can be more readily experienced through self-publishing, iBooks, and Kindle.
Keep on writing, all of you. When the peanut gallery is in tears, you’re doing something right.
However, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of writers who were “trying out” NaNo in my sphere of social perception fall into the former category. It may be geographic, age-related, or any other demographic reason, but for whatever reason, during November my online and offline worlds are filled with exactly the sentiments Miller is targeting (and over-targeting) in her criticism. Essentially, people who are catching fire with the “trend” of NaNo rather than the theory, which is propogated by NaNo’s own website and publicity material.
So what to do with a great idea that’s getting distorted with popularity? I’ve no idea…
Perhaps it is just that we are traveling in different literary spheres, Joey? My experience has been so dissimilar to yours. Have you participated in NaNo yourself as yet? It may look quite differently from the outside vs. the inside. What I’ve found in the NaNo forums are passionate folk sharing knowledge, triumphs, and failures, just as in any other writing group. It may be a perception issue more than anything. I do see some writers who fail to complete NaNo novels, and they either plan to try again the next year or decide that writing isn’t for them. I think in either case it is a worthy exercise. Frankly, professional writers need to work at nearly that pace to keep a book a year coming out into the market. It’s good practice, if nothing else.
What I don’t really understand is why this bothers folks who don’t participate. Perhaps a discussion on the topic is an annoyance to non-participants. But would I have missed out on the opportunity to get 50K of my second novel done in order not to annoy NaNoWriMo haters? Um, no.
As a 6 time participant (& winner) of NaNoWriMo, I have to pipe up to defend it, too. I told myself I wasn’t going to do it again this year (too busy, late start, been there, done that, etc.), but I wound up madly writing a novel last month anyway. Why? Not to add another certificate to my wall or because I have delusions about the quality of my novel (it’s quite bad), but because I love writing. I love the freedom of NaNoWriMo, to write fast & turn off that damned editor for just a few weeks. I love the surprise of what can come out under those conditions, plot twists & characters that I might never have thought of if I was focused on writing well. (Yes, I’m a seat-of-the-pantser.) I love the fact that I talked a good friend into writing his first ever novel last month. How could that possibly be bad? It just doesn’t compute. So viva NaNoWriMo! I’m already looking forward to next November!
You make an excellent point, Tanya. I discovered many twists and turns in my story that I would not have if I’d been focused on making my prose “pretty.” Writing hard and fast has its pros and cons, sure. You can end up with a messy first draft that needs to be heavily edited. But hey, you’d at least have something to edit! Yet a messy draft can be littered with pearls…
Wonderful summation, Cheri! I have participated in NaNo twice and won once, and for me as you, the trick is fooling the “censor”. That doesn’t mean that 50,000 words are ready for publication as you well know, only that now they are lassoed and wrestled to the paper for later butchery (LOL)!
Anyway I do think there are a lot of dreamers trying to pub their NaNo novels, and with the eve of e-book revolution, why not? After all it will be their money spent on self pub and promotion, and more power to them. I just feel sorry for the inboxes of editors and agents in December when NaNo is over… but the marketplace will hopefully regulate itself and the cream will still rise to the top.
One hopes my personal cream is still rising… *sigh*
In the meantime, I’m using NaNo as a tool, in November and throughout the year as I’ve learned I’m most productive in planned sprints and spurts, NaNo-style. To each her own, right?
“Now they are lassoed and wrestled to the paper for later butchery (LOL)!” I love it, Toby! And you’re darn right. 50K does not a novel make. Agent/editor inboxes are always full. This is the nature of the business. If a NaNo writer sends off his/her freshly minted manuscript Dec 1, it is an easy rejection for an agent, yes? I think most writers have made and learned from that mistake: submitting too soon. But we all have to learn it sometime. Yet, I still attest that participating in NaNoWriMo is less likely to result in that mistake than a writer who never ventures into the literary community, online or off. I’ve learned from mentors, editors, writers, how-to books, experience, practice. But none of these helped me finish a rough draft. Only NaNoWriMo did that.
“We humans are storytellers. As writers and readers, we begin to learn other ways of working through the confusions and horrors of this life, even as we sit in the safety of our homes with an innocuous book in our hands. We learn when we read. And for some, we learn when we write.”
Yes, yes and YES! (That was so beautifully written, btw!) And to turn off the self editor…that is SO hard. I find that, when I’m writing, that is, when I’m writing for ME and not for the approval of others, it allows me to be quieter in other areas of my life. I no longer feel personally the pain of dissatisfaction, of disappointments, of disillusionment. I let the characters feel it instead, and watch them deal with it. Sometimes constructively. Sometimes unconstructively. And I learn while I watch.
I didn’t do NaNo. I never have. But as I’ve watched my friends do it, I’ve seen, universally, that it has provided the same opportunity, to turn off the inner critic and to lay the words down, slap-dash, if necessary. And usually what they find when they go back is that they have much more to work with than they ever could have dreamed they would, because it was raw, honest and uncensored.
When someone raises such a voluble objection to something that seems inane and harmless, I find I have to ask myself why. The ego that seems to be the ubiquitous baggage of the writing life, is also the millstone that hangs about the writer’s neck. The moment we begin to feel threatened by other writers doing the unforgivable by WRITING, we need to take a break and look ourselves in the mirror. It’s an art, for Pete’s sake. And everyone, great or small (whatever that means),has a right to their talents and to express their creativity. It sounds to me as if someone is afraid of competition.
And yes, there is always the danger that the world of published and self-published and almost-published books will be watered down by a tidal wave of unworthies, but then…it is not for us to decide what is worthy and what is not. Leave that to agents and readers. They’re well enough equipped. NaNo. Is it a threat to national security? Is it robbing children in Africa of food? Is it ravaging crops and causing disease? No. And so I say…put the ego away and WRITE for crying out loud! And quit worrying about what everyone else is doing.
“I let the characters feel it instead, and watch them deal with it. Sometimes constructively. Sometimes unconstructively. And I learn while I watch.”
Wow. I couldn’t have said that better. But that’s it exactly. That’s why I write. So that I can learn other ways of dealing with pain and anger and love. The books I admire? They all have this trait. This ability to teach through story. To show me a better, stronger way to live. This is what writing–and reading–is all about. And it doesn’t matter if NaNoWriMo or some other method helped a writer get that book out there. If you have something to say, to share, give writing a shot. At the initial stage, time is all that’s required. And imagination.
The only thing I agree with in the Salon article is its insistence that writers revise when they’re done. And if all the NaNo-related merchandise and advice didn’t reinforce the hell out of that, she’d have a decent point.
Even then, that long-irrelevant point would still be buried beneath the bag of burning crap that makes up the rest of the piece.
Laura may need to follow her own advice and take the time she spends hanging out with harried literary agents and editors, and read a book instead.
Thanks for weighing in, obo. Yes, we must revise, we must edit. As an editor, I understand this more than most. But I know it’s critical if a writer even wants a shot at getting published. It’s a tough business. Only the persistent survive.
I’m wondering how this Miller person came to be so clairvoyant that she’d know the participants are writing “a lot of crap.” Does she read the entries, or does she just assume that it must be crap because it comes out in volumes?
I’d have to assume that a fair number of participants are writing crap, which is no different than elsewhere (including the NYT bestseller list, unfortunately), but I wouldn’t be so arrogant to slam the entire enterprise because of it. Congratulations, Cheri!
Yes, we writers do write crap. A lot of it. All the time. That’s how we learn our craft. It’s how any creative learns their craft–by making mistakes. Zeroing in negatively on one group of a diverse, worldwide community seems naive at best.
I’m a professional writer and have had many short stories published. My fans have been begging me for a novel for a long time, and I have tons of novels in my head and have been trying to get them out for a couple decades, but never managed it. Now I have! Thanks to my first try of NaNoWriMo, I was actually able to stick with one story for long enough to get a whole rough draft out. NaNo definitely has been beneficial for me.
Thrilled that NaNo worked for you too, Amy. Thank you for sharing. Brava on finishing your rough draft! =)