Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NaNoWriMo, or "In Which I Tell Salon To Go %^@& Itself"

It's all fun and games until you expect someone else to read it.

This post first "aired" on November 3, 2010.  Another National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow. And I could think of no better way to celebrate that fact than by re-posting my rant aimed at someone who Just Didn't Get It.  If you're thinking about joining NaNoWriMo, DO IT.  It's an amazing thing.  And I'll be with you all month if you do, I promise.  In the meantime, please enjoy my venting.  I've edited slightly for readability and to include some updates.

I am here today [11-3-10] because I have taken great umbrage at Laura Miller's recent Salon article, Better Yet, DON'T Write That Novel, in which she declares that NaNoWriMo is at best unnecessary, at worst a total waste of time and energy.

She's wrong.

Laura, you admit that the program is "an event geared entirely toward writers", and that you are "someone who doesn't write novels." So, with all due respect, you don't know what the hell you're talking about.

Laura recognizes that "[t]he purpose of NaNoWriMo seems laudable enough..."
Above all, it fosters the habit of writing every single day, the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision.
And yet, she feels the need to rain on the parade of everyone who is trying NaNoWriMo by saying that "Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it's likely to produce more novels I'd want to read." (Oh, except for New York Times bestseller Water for Elephants.)

She talks about "the selfless art of reading" as compared to "the narcissistic commerce of writing". She says that "I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on."

I do see a reason to cheer them on.

Look, lady, you said that even if a Wrimo -- as some of us call ourselves -- manages to get finish a book, no one will read what we've written. And that's mostly true. The reason you see people on Twitter complaining about bad and inexperienced writers prematurely submitting their novels for publication is that NO ONE WANTS TO REPRESENT OR PUBLISH THEM. If someone submits a GOOD novel that was written during NaNoWriMo (and, presumably, edited later), then the agents and editors don't complain.

[As proof, please take a look at the latest list of published Wrimos, and in particular look at the names of the attached publishers. Random House, Scholastic, S&S, DoubleDay, HarperCollins, the list goes on and on.  These professionals are not buying dreck, okay? They'd like to stay in business.]

You may bitch about commerce, but the reason capitalism is supposed to work is that little thing called supply and demand, and if no one wants to read these books (no demand), then they won't actually hit the stream of commerce because no one will buy them. The market is not about to be flooded with 100,000 shitty novels, and your precious reader's eyes will not be marred by having to read the contents therein.

Laura says that these writers need no encouragement because,
Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say. Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they're always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it's the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species.
Again, you're partly right, Laura. SUCCESSFUL writers are hellishly persistent. Plenty of other writers, however, fade away without you ever knowing about it. I don't think the world is harmed by 100,000 badly written first drafts, but I do think the world is a better place when people chase their dreams, if only for one month out of the year. I think 100,000 wanna-be writers who always said "some day" but never gave themselves the permission to try and to make mistakes would be a horrible shame, a waste of spirit that more than balances out the waste of paper you fear. (And by the way, there can be no "selfless" act of reading if we don't "selfishly" write the damn books for you.)

Anyone who actually reads the NaNoWriMo website will see that the people behind the program DO advocate revision: December is National Novel Finishing Month, and March is National Novel Editing Month. The people who write crap novels in November and try to submit them in December? They were going to do it anyway. In fact, if they didn't work up the energy to actually write a novel, they were going to be the ones sending letters to agents and publishers saying that they have an IDEA for a novel, and would the agent like to write it for them and split the profits?

In short, NaNoWriMo does not create stupid, sloppy writers desperate for attention. I doubt it even encourages the stupid, sloppy writers desperate for attention -- those writers were going to talk about their genius novel ideas whether they tried to execute them or not. Maybe trying to write 50,000 words actually humbles some of these would-be novelists, hmm?

Finally, Laura says that "I'm confident those novels [the ones worth reading] would still get written even if NaNoWriMo should vanish from the earth."

I'm not so sure of that.

In October 2005, I first heard about NaNoWriMo. And it woke something for me. I had always had a clear focus on writing in my life... until I graduated college. Somehow, without anyone telling me, I got the idea that writing ended when real life began; I didn't pursue my MFA, therefore I was not going to be a writer as a career, therefore I stopped writing, even though I loved it. NaNoWriMo reminded me that I could write anyway, even if I had another career entirely.

I wrote half a novel in November of that year, and took my sweet time finishing and revising it. I did my industry research. I wrote and revised my query letter. I have since gotten back into the writing classes that I loved as a college student, and I've had a number of short pieces published. I'm not in it for "the glory." (I mean, really, what glory? There's a starving artist stereotype for a reason.) I'm in it for the literature. I was always a reader. NaNoWriMo reminded me that I could also be a writer.

NaNoWriMo reminded me that there IS no perfect "some day," there's only today. It reminded me to write like little kids paint: with joy, and without self-consciousness. It reminded me that there's something I love to do that I should be practicing daily, that I should be learning to do better. It got my first novel written, and the dozen-plus agents who got my query letter and asked to see the full manuscript don't seem to think I wasted their time, even if they eventually said "no." And in August 2012, more than one agent said "yes."  I am delighted to now be represented by Jessica Faust of BookEnds.

So, when that novel finally gets bought by an editor and published, let's see if anyone reads it. Let's see if anyone likes it. Let's see if some "selfless" readers maybe pay $8-24 bucks for it and have a perfectly lovely time as a result... if they enjoy a book that would not exist if not for NaNoWriMo. Let's see if my NaNo efforts -- which may have actually helped me change careers -- were a waste of anyone's time, or if maybe they make me a better mom because I'm not moping around the house, creatively unfulfilled because I forgot how to dive into something with bad financial odds and high emotional reward, just because it makes me happy.

To sum up: NaNoWriMo saved my life. Y'all at Salon can go screw.