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Is NaNo Really What Writers Need?

Photobucket [1]Therese here. Today’s guest is Catherine McKenzie [2], author of Spin, an acclaimed novel released in Canada, and Arranged, a novel that will be released in Canada in January. Catherine visited us recently to talk about her Facebook campaign for a fellow author (post here [3]), and is here today with a fresh perspective on NaNoWriMo. Whether you’ve NaNo’ed or not, whether you’ve enjoyed NaNo or not, I think you’ll agree Catherine makes some points worth discussing. Enjoy!

Is NaNo Really What Writers Need?

I have an admission to make: I have a love/hate relationship with National Novel Writing Month (#nanowrimo to all you tweeps in the know).

Some background. National Novel Writing Month was started in 1999. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November (you can learn more about it’s history on the site). If you achieve that goal (i.e. write 1,666.67 words a day every day for 30 days), you’re a “winner” and you get a fancy little crest to put on your website or blog or Girl Scout uniform. (Actually, I think you can put up the crest without being a winner, but I digress.)

A little admission. Last year, when I had my first novel coming out and I was new to the world of tweeting, I kind of participated in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t actually write a “new” 50,000 world novel, but the novel I was working on – still working on, actually – needed a whole lot of rewriting, and I needed some twitter followers, so I started using the nanowrimo hashtag, and set myself a goal of having a new draft of my novel by the end of the month. In the meantime, I posted about what I was up to just like the other participants. “Working on my #nanowrimo”, “1400 words today #nanowrimo”, etc. Of all the fascinating tweets, in all the world …

And herein grew my problem. As I was trying to craft and refine and better what I was writing, I was (virtually) surrounded by people who were merely … writing. Because the whole goal of NaNoWriMo is word count. Not quality. Not plot. Not realistic dialogue. Just … word count. And it’s not like NaNoWriMo is hiding it. Nope, it’s their mission statement:

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

“Lower expectations”? “The ONLY thing that matters is … output”? “Valuing … perseverance over painstaking craft”? I’m not saying I’m speaking for all writers out there but … huh?

Look, lots of writers have daily write goals. That’s how a bunch of people who work mostly alone and mostly in their pajamas impose discipline on themselves and manage their soap opera addictions. But what I think the whole NaNoWriMo phenomenon is missing is that a write goal is not just a word goal – it’s a quality goal too. I mean, when for instance, Stephen King sits down every day and writes his 1000 or 2000 words, he’s not just looking for a total. He’s looking to deliver what his fans have come to expect, right Stephen? Not that it’s impossible to write something of quality quickly (we all know about Jack Kerouac’s amphetamine fuelled On the Road), but it’s not, you know, that likely. And if it’s not even your goal, then what’s really the point?

The good people behind NaNoWriMo would answer me that part of their purpose is getting past the psychological barrier of putting words on the page (that’s what it says on its webpage, anyway). I understand that barrier; most writers do. The blank page, that fresh Word document with no words on it, can be terrifying. But I just don’t think these kinds of write goals are the solution.

Take Jonathan Franzen for an example. In all the hoopla surrounding the release of his latest novel, he said that he’d only spent a year writing Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections, which came out in 2001. Would NaNoWriMo help him be more prolific? Doubt it.

Now before you say it, I understand that there’s an energy that emerges from any collective movement – I even started one myself on Facebook to promote books I love (check out “I bet we can make these books bestsellers [4]” – current selections Jessica Z. and Two Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens [5]) – to help generate that energy. Participating in something, all doing something together; it’s the reason that social networking sites are so popular in the first place. And perhaps it’s just the skew in my twitter feed, but it seems like a lot of writers feed off that energy. So, that can’t be bad … but … what happens to all these NaNoWriMo novels? Are any of them any good? Do any of them actually get published?

Well, here’s what NaNoWriMo has to say about that very thing in their Frequently Asked Questions section:

Many, many winning novels have been written through NaNoWriMo. (…) A growing number of these novels have found publishers, including one New York Times #1 Bestseller (Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen).

What? Sara Gruen wrote Water for Elephants during NaNoWriMo? Oh, hell. I take it back people. Have at it. I’m going back to editing.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s mpclemens [6]

About Catherine McKenzie [7]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine is the author of 11 bestselling novels, including HIDDEN, THE GOOD LIAR, I’LL NEVER TELL and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Her most recent novel, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, releases in Canada April 20 and the US May 4, 2021.