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Disarming the NaNoWriMo trap

November is a’comin’ in, and that means a number of things. Temperatures in Melbourne suddenly skyrocket, blokes start growing fabulous moustachios in the name of men’s health, Christmas ads explode all over your favourite shows and my wedding looms large on the radar.

I start wearing shorts again. Which is pretty major.

And, of course, it’s the start of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, or NNWM if you prefer just writing in caps, or maybe INWM if you recognise that it’s international rather than national, or… look, you know what I’m talking about. That thing where people dedicate themselves to writing a 50 000 word novel from scratch over the course of the month, that’s taken off from a one-off activity among a small group to be bigger than pogs worldwide.

A couple of writers of my acquaintance have blogged about NNWM this last week. Alan Baxter is very critical of the whole thing and questions what participants are actually achieving, while Jay Kristoff focuses instead on how to get the most out of it if you decide to give it a shot. I’ve tended to lean more towards Alan’s take on things for the past few years, feeling that NNWM is mostly a waste of time and effort. I think that it puts too much emphasis on output and not enough on craft, so that people get into the mindset that quickly writing an unpolished novel is more valuable than spending time deliberately constructing a good novel. It’s all quantity rather than quality, and I think craft and quality are being neglected in the new wave of self-epublishing.

The actual Komissar of the Writing Police

If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to see something like (Inter)National Short-Story Writing Month, where participants write a single 2-3 thousand word story in the first week and then polish and rework the fuck out of it for the remaining time.

But as it happens, I’m not the Kommissar of the Writing Police, and it’s not up to me to tell folks that they’re Doing It Wrong. Unless, I dunno, they’re writing with their feet, or spending all their time writing Abbott/Rudd slashfic. (Because that is wrong. So very wrong.) If people are getting something out of NNWM – be it a finished book, writing practice or simply the feeling of accomplishing something – I’m not going to belittle that. (And, just to be clear, I don’t think Alan is either). And hell, I understand the value of a deadline.

So okay, let’s be upbeat about NNWM. People have fun with it, people find it rewarding; let’s embrace that. If you’re giving it a shot this year, I wish you well with it; I hope you get something out of it and I hope your manuscript is good, or pretty good, or at least that it doesn’t suck.

But don’t fall into the trap.

Publish and perish

The trap is thinking that NNWM is enough; that it’s the end of a process, rather than the beginning. That’s the spiked-pit-filled-with-piranha that leads people to spend the first of December slapping a crudely Photoshopped cover onto their just-finished manuscript, uploading the file to the Kindle Store and then wondering why no-one downloads it. And that’s going to happen a lot this year and going forward, as the process of self-publishing becomes ever easier and the bar for what can be considered publishable drops ever lower. Work that might have been permanently consigned to the bottom drawer/hard drive, or perhaps given much-needed reworking and development, is immediately pushed out into a virtual marketplace that promotes variety over quality, and where bad work threatens to crowd out good until it becomes invisible.

NNWM is going to create a lot of bad ebooks. It’s inevitable. But you don’t need to be part of that dull, turgid tide.

The key to escaping the trap is this – think of NNWM as a tool, not a goal. It’s a machine that refines your raw material – your ideas, your style, your passion – into a 50 000 word first-draft manuscript. That MS is a tool you can then put aside for a couple of weeks while you decompress, maybe do some Christmas shopping, and then use to make the second draft. You might rewrite it completely, you might only need judicious editing, you might burn it and get high on the fumes, but the important thing is that you feed the first draft into the hopper and push the assembly line along to the next stop. And the next. And the next.

Getting that first draft together is an achievement, and there is no tool more important in creating a strong book. So don’t waste it; don’t just dump it on the world’s doorstep and run. Use it, wield it, rev it up and pull it apart. Because NNWM should not be something you do; NNWM is something you use. It’s the trap and the escape hatch at the same time. Trip the lock, map the route, start climbing until you get to the top. And then keep going.

In closing, let’s reflect on the irony of this post, namely that anyone giving NNWM a halfway decent burl is doing more writing than I am at the moment, thanks to the terrible one-two punch of preparing for a wedding and just being lazy and a bit crap.

So I’m going to put some money where my mouth is and start work on a new novella this month, as a side-project and occasional respite from Arcadia, with an eye towards having a first draft finished around Christmas and the ebook available by January.

It’s called The Obituarist, and I’m going to talk about it some more next weekend. Tune in.

2 replies on “Disarming the NaNoWriMo trap”

Totally agree. I use NaNoWriMo as a great motivator to get out of a first draft or perhaps I’d call it a ‘test’ draft and see whether a story has legs for a more serious rewrite. I love using NaNo to find stories that might even exist 30k into a NaNo novel.

All very true. I did NaNoWriMo in 2003 (jebus, it really was that long ago?) and ended up with an 80,000 word fantasy assassination noir monstrosity. The thing is, there’s probably something resembling a good book hidden somewhere in it, but the thought of the rework necessary to dig it out was so daunting that I walked away from it wholesale. I got halfway through the process, but the NNWM method burned out any enthusiasm I had for completing the job. I was glad to have proved to myself that I could actually finish a draft, but as you say there’s a little more to it than that.

Now I’m working on building up my editing chops to the point where I can maybe revisit it sometime. Eventually. The chops need a fair bit of work first…

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