I remember years ago there was a flyer that seemed to be stapled to every telephone pole. It read: Lose 30 Pounds in 30 Days, and there was a phone number to call for info. It always made me think two things:
- A chainsaw must be involved.
- But geez, what if it really does work?
Now, logically I knew that without a chainsaw, there was no way anyone could lose 30 pounds in 30 days. But my gut (which, let’s face it, could have shed a few of those 30 pounds) was intrigued. What if it really was that easy? It was a seductive thought, and if I hadn’t been too lazy, I would have called that number. You know, just to see.
Which brings us to NaNoWriMo, a.k.a. National Novel Writing Month, that month being November, which has 30 days. We all know the tagline: “Write a novel in a month.”
If you’ve looked at anything related to NaNoWriMo, you know that the whole enterprise is so cheerful, upbeat, and full of positive encouragement that it seems like only a fool would pass up the opportunity to be a part of it. Perhaps that’s why this year 200,000 people are expected to attempt NaNoWriMo – a record high. And who could blame them, given that much of the writing community is jumping on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon in support. GalleyCat, one of the biggest blogs in the business, will be tweeting a tip a day for the month of November. Smashwords, the popular e-book company, will be producing a catalog of self-published NaNoWriMo books. It’s heralded as a celebration of the creative spirit, a powerhouse community of writers coming together to do what they love, a global festival of the written word.
After all, who wouldn’t want to believe that all it takes is the gumption to sit down and write 1,667 words a day for a month, and Voila, you’re a novelist? And that all the stuff we’ve heard about how hard, time-consuming and painful it can be to write a novel turns out to be untrue. Sign me up.
Somewhere deep down inside, though, most of us know the score. I mean, if all we had to do was unleash all our pent-up creativity and write 50,000 words, wouldn’t we all be successful novelists by now? The trouble is that when a seduction is in full swing, that little warning voice in our head never carries much weight. And, if past blog posts around the web are any indication, we vilify anyone who says anything negative about NaNoWriMo. Which is why writing this post is very scary. But if you can’t point out where the pitfalls of NaNoWriMo might lie, how can you find a way around them? Here are the top three:
1. Be Aware of the Danger of Writing 50,000 Unplanned Words. Unless you have an uncanny sense of story to begin with, your novel won’t build, and will most likely be a collection of haphazard events that don’t add up to anything. Which means that when you begin revising, you’ll need to make sure something seminal happens on, say, page two. And once it does, all the words that follow become largely irrelevant — which basically translates to a page one rewrite. Think of it as pretty much starting from scratch, pre-NaNoWriMo, except this time you won’t have the cheerleaders.
The fact that all first drafts tend to suck is not a license for unbridled self-expression, or for winging it from word one because this draft doesn’t really “count.” It does count, big time. Because from here on out, it’s the raw material you’ll be working with, straying from, reshaping, paring, parsing, and then lovingly polishing.
What you can do about it now: Start thinking about your story immediately. Don’t go into the good fight unprepared. Take some time and figure out what your protagonist’s driving desire is. What’s holding her back? What will she have to learn in order to solve the single, overarching story question you’ll pose? Remember: one question, one quest. Another thing that will help tremendously is having a sense of what your story will be about on a thematic level. What are you trying to say about human nature? What do you want people to walk away thinking about? In other words: what point will your story make?
2. Don’t Let Yourself Fall in Love with Your Words. When you put your heart and soul into pounding out 50,000 words, they can easily become your darlings, and darlings are insanely hard to uproot, especially when you’re staring into a field of them. To make it even trickier, when rewriting, our unconscious allegiance tends to be to what we’ve already written, rather than to the story itself. Thus new material is crafted first and foremost with an eye toward how it will fit into what’s already there. This only prolongs the heartbreak, and soon that little voice you’ve been suppressing since November 1st turns up the volume and tells you that you have no talent, and you might as well give up writing altogether. But here’s the thing: that voice is most likely wrong. It’s just that you never gave yourself a real chance.
What you can do about it now: Vow to withhold your love. Crank out your 50,000 words, revel in the habit of writing every day, have fun with the NaNoWriMo community, but don’t hold on tight to your words. Be ready to be ruthless once it’s time to begin revising. Be prepared to jettison the words that don’t work – even if you only end up keeping a handful of them.
3. Notice the eerie lack of support for the hard work of rewriting. I spent over 45 minutes on the NaNoWriMo site hunting for any advice about revising, rewriting, or even what the next steps might be on December 1st, but I found none. Zip, zilch, nada. There are no T-shirts you can buy on the NaNoWriMo website to celebrate revisions, no bumper stickers or mugs for writing a second or third or twenty-first draft, yet revision is precisely where 50,000 words becomes a real story.
What you can do about it now: Know in advance that while getting to 50,000 makes you a winner in NaNoWriMo’s universe, it’s only the start of the journey. Come up with a plan for how to proceed once you’ve typed your 50,000th word — keep the momentum going, and don’t stop. The writers who make it are those who embrace the rewriting process with zeal, no matter how long it takes. If your goal isn’t just to write 50,000 words, but to be published – that’s how you win for real.
That’s the prize I’m rooting for you to take home. And if you feel that my caveats about NaNoWriMo are hundred percent wrong – no worries. You might be absolutely right. Heck, sometimes I wish I’d called that number tacked to the telephone pole. Maybe there really is a way to lose 30 pounds in 30 days. I’d love to be wrong about that one, too!