This November, three of my bravest (read: most insane) students are participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While some of you may make fun of NaNoWriMo enthusiasts, I hold my tongue, for writing 50,000 words (no matter how poorly chosen) in only 30 days is impressive. Besides, another student of mine, Kelly Wiles, participated two years ago, and after over a year of diligently revising her manuscript, she has a clever and very readable novel, ready to send out to agents. So there.
Kelly participated in NaNoWriMo because her friend bribed her with a week’s worth of free coffee, and because she’d been lately caught in a web of procrastination, unable to finish anything she eventually started. Is this why my other students are currently undergoing such creative lunacy?
Paria Kooklan, who’s writing a children’s fantasy novel that includes ghosts, time travel and a Scottish castle, actually had three chapters of the book before she began. She’s been trying to write this novel since graduating from law school two years ago; after months of being in outline purgatory, she then wrote and rewrote the beginning. She hopes NaNoWriMo, in forcing her to move forward and not edit, will help her overcome writer’s block. This extreme process, she says, may be her only hope.
Caroline Donahue “desperately clawed” her way through last year’s NaNoWriMo without any prior preparation and loved it, even though she hasn’t worked on the manuscript since. The process was liberating, she said: she could indeed write enough words to fill a book! This year Caroline has prepared in advance, picking a story that will hold her interest once the month is over – in this case, historical fiction about art forgery and theft in Paris during the German occupation. Although Caroline has a blog and contributes to another, and has been writing short stories for my classes, she says she doesn’t write nearly as much as she’d like. She hopes the momentum of NaNoWriMo will help her keep up a regular writing practice in the future.
Manny Chavarria is writing a mystery/horror/love story involving a fictionalized version of himself hiring a private detective to find a girl he’s lost – but he assures me it’s much more grotesque than that. Like Caroline and Paria, before this month, Manny wasn’t writing as much as he’d like. Without structure, he was slacking off, and real life was intruding.
Aside from Joyce Carol Oates, I doubt anyone is writing as much as they’d like to. When things aren’t going well with my work, I often question my writing process: maybe, I reason, I should stop reading each paragraph out loud, or maybe I should write by hand, or maybe I should write in the evening instead of the morning… I could go on forever like this. The funny thing is, I’ve never been able to change my creative routine. I’m pretty certain that if I did participate in NaNoWriMo, once December rolled around, I’d be back to my daily tortoise-pace, editing as I wrote, planning ahead, and so on.
But Kelly tells me that NaNoWriMo did change her writing process for the better. She says a month of maniac output taught her how to deal with writer’s block; now she doesn’t worry if her prose isn’t perfect, she simply keeps writing because she knows inspiration will return, and because revision will always rescue a bad sentence.
These are terrific lessons, but as Paria says, “Not everyone needs to take such extreme measures. If you already have a writing practice you’re comfortable with, you don’t necessarily need to do it.” Thank you, Paria.
Part of me thinks writing a novel in 30 days would take some joy out of the process. A novel is much larger in scope than a short story, and the complexity of that world demands time to explore it. I don’t want to rush through the first draft of my book because I’m enjoying the process of investigation and experimentation. Writing a novel, for me, is more than putting one word in front of the other.
Still, I must admit, I’m a little envious of my students: the way the nearly impossible word count sends their characters in surprising directions; the community of writers the project provides, and the good old fashioned competition among friends who are also participating; the feeling of success with each daily goal reached, the column of pages rising and rising and rising.
All of my students say NaNoWriMo isn’t as hard as they thought it would be, and that the amount of work they’ve already accomplished is invigorating. I applaud them, and I look forward to reading their new books!