The point of NaNoWriMo: an opinion

I was asked, “How would you address a middleschool creative writing class, on the eve of NaNoWriMo?

For those who have been living in an internet-free zone for the past six years, National Novel Writing Month is the yearly November festival of “Getteth Thine Butteth In Thine Chaireth, And Typeth.”

This is my response:

Everyone who is writing the books and stories you like to read, was once sitting where you are now. They had the notion of a spark of a gleam of a desire to write. They were reading their books and stories that they enjoyed, and wondering, “Could I do this too? Could I write something that captivates people, the way I am being captivated?”

Over the past few years you’ve heard about a thing called NaNoWriMo. The basic idea is to write a whole book in one month; or at least as much of a whole book as you can, in one month. I want to suggest to you the idea that NaNoWriMo is merely an exercise, to teach you what it’s like for professional writers who have to consistently write on a regular basis. Could be every day. Could be five days a week. Could be three times a week, for ten hours at a time. Whatever. The point is, writing doesn’t happen by itself. And good writing, the kind of storytelling that can capture somebody’s imagination the way your imaginations have been captured by your favorite authors, is typically the product of many years of practice.

Yes, there it is, the dreaded word: practice. You all hate practice. I know you do, because my daughter is your age and she hates practice. She’s had to practice on a music instrument since she was seven years old. And she hates it every time. Practice is boring. Practice feels like drudgery. Even if it’s a sport like basketball or softball, practice doesn’t have the same excitement as an actual game. But just like sports, you can’t play well at game-time unless you put in the hours to condition your body, your reflexes, and your mind to perform when the team needs you to perform.

And it’s precisely the same with writing. You will not sit down, and from a cold start, type out the entirety of a good novel. You will not sit down, and from a cold start, type out the entirety of even a bad novel. If you’re going to do NaNoWriMo, think of yourself engaging in a relay race. Your objective is not to run the entire distance in one instance. You take the baton, run a certain distance, then let go of the baton . . . and pick it up again the next day, or the day after next, and go another distance, then let the baton go . . . and pick it up again still further in the future, and so on, and so forth. And each time you go a distance, you are learning a little bit more about how to tell a story.

Because merely stringing sentences, or a sequence of fictional events, together into a chapter or a series of chapters, is not necessarily storytelling. Storytelling requires a reflexive ability to create in the reader’s mind an urgency, a desire, a need to keep going. To turn the page. To find out what happens next. Most writers, even the very talented ones, do not possess that reflexive ability when they start out. It doesn’t matter what age they are. That reflexive ability has almost always been honed, over hundreds of thousands or even millions of words of practice. (Yup, the dreaded word, again!)

Morever, practice doesn’t end, just because you’ve managed to publish. Especially in this day and age, when independent self-publishing is a viable reality. Each book, each story, you are practicing and (hopefully) refining your storytelling reflexes. So that your first published book and your tenth published book ought to (theoretically) reflect that improved prowess.

But the point here, now, is to simply begin at the beginning. Understand the work it takes. Yes, work. Up until now, your writing may have been a hobby, or something that seemed fun. But the truth is, every person writing the books you love and adore, has taught him or herself how to work. How to make deadlines. How to professionally create and keep a schedule. How to sit down at the computer (in the old days it was a typewriter!) and make yourself create, even when you don’t feel like it. Just like you practice basketball or softball when you don’t feel like it. Or you practice violin, oboe, clarinet, or guitar when you don’t feel like it. And in the case of professional authors, they don’t have their parents minding their business for them. A professional author is his or her own taskmaster. Can you imagine that? Getting up in the morning, wanting to do anything other than write, but you get your breakfast and you put on some quiet music, have a meal, prepare your mind, then go to your desk and sit down and make yourself type for one or two or five hours? And each hour is like pulling teeth?

That is what it means to be a professional, and that is part of what NaNoWriMo is meant to help you learn.

And if you discover, at the end of it, that there was simply no joy in the project — that you felt no satisfaction for your effort — perhaps writing stories is not for you. And that is just fine! You are young, and the world is wide, and there are a thousand and one things you could be doing. Not every person is meant to be an author, just as not every person is meant to be a professional baseball player, or a lawyer, or a construction engineer, or a housing contractor. The way you find out what might be your best-fitted occupation, is to try things out. NaNoWriMo is a great time to try this out: to try being a storyteller. And if the story you have at the end isn’t complete, or it seems like it’s stupid, or it doesn’t work, but you still had fun? Excellent. No problem. You might be on to something. Being a storyteller just might be for you. If you feel the joy of creation, regardless of how it turns out at the end of the month, and you want more . . . this might be your calling. Perhaps one of several different callings?

Being a renaissance soul is not a bad thing.

34 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: LIFE

34 responses to “The point of NaNoWriMo: an opinion

  1. Thank you. Time to ditch the unrealistic expectations and practice.
    (sigh)

    • Albert

      I’d recommend starting at a personal commitment to write at least a hundred words a day, every day, and more on days where you have free time. Don’t worry about NaNoWriMo this year, train up so you can do NaNoWriMo next year.

      We don’t feel it like we do when over-exercising, but I’m pretty sure a common cause of writer’s block is pushing creative ‘muscles’ too far, too fast. A hundred a day isn’t too stressful, and it means that little bit of progress every day, so that when you’re ready to write more, you aren’t stuck where you were days/weeks/months ago.

      • I’m just using NNWM for inspiration and education by reading around the blogs. I’m not planning to sign up. :o) Hopefully I can internalize it all and have a productive winter (once we’re huddled in the house).

        Still closing everything up outside and way behind, but soon, soon.

  2. More manageable for me back in the college days was to write a chapter a month, with a minimum page count requirement. Then I got stuck and that story’s languished since.

    Generally if I have paid work though, that will take precedence over writing/personal projects. But overall, I’ll try to work every day – whether it’s writing, or artwork.

  3. “Practice doesn’t make perfect. *Perfect* practice makes perfect.” — Charlie Lau

  4. Christopher M. Chupik

    I try to do something writing or writing-related every day. Even if it’s just editing or doing some research. As a result, my writing output has increased exponentially the last two years.

  5. amiegibbons15

    With the formatting and publishing stuff, my writing has taken a backseat. Working to get my butt back to work actually writing and editing every day. That’s one reason I love Nano so much. It gives you a kick in the pants. Yeah, you should be writing/editing every day, but sometimes you need help. Nano gives people the community and the goal to give that help.

  6. Albert

    If every month isn’t NaNoWriMo for me, I’m not taking writing seriously enough.

  7. Steve Schaper

    How the do I start?? Somehow I have the notion that stories have to arise from “the leaf-mould of my mind” like it did for Tolkien. In nature, in peace and quite, after a while, there are whisperings out of the corner of my eye, as it were, but, that’s not enough, obviously.

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  10. Jeff Duntemann

    November is the wrong month for it. Thanksgiving gets in the way, and for us often involves energetic travel of 1100 (soon to be 2000) miles to our family roots. As a replacement I nominate the most worthless month of the year, March, which has nothing going for it except for St. Patrick’s Day. March is a good month to stay inside, because it’s been lousy outside since November, and all that pretty snow is now gray-to-black with street grime, and for the most part melted and refrozen into a layer that you can’t bear to look at but must, lest you slip and fracture your whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

    If Nano were held in March, you could get away from that depressing seasonscape and immerse yourself in far better universes, with a marvelous halfway-there break on the 17th to drink and compare notes with other Nanoscribers before plunging back in for the home stretch. You’d also get a whole additional day to work.

    Move it to March and magically convert depression to expression. Move it to March and you’d have more than a tradition and something closer to a phenomenon. Move it to March and those of us who really, *really* hate March would have something to make it go by like lightning.

    Move it to March and I’d do it. Scary thought, but yeah, I’d do it.

    • Steve Schaper

      Hear, hear! January, February, March, any of those would be better, or possibly summer.

    • There is camp nano in April and July.

      The nano folk get alternate months suggested every year, and every single month that’s ever been suggested has had roughly the same number of people complaining it’s the worst month possible as the people complaining about November. There are about as many people who LOVE having it around thanksgiving because it gives them a long weekend to write as hate it because they have family commitments.

      The Nano folk have finally taken the ‘*shrug* there’s always going to be SOMETHING getting in the way, go forth, write! figure out how to work around it.’

    • Mary

      Some people LOVE the holiday because they can use the free time.

      But, of course, if you don’t sign up, you can do it any month.

  11. Does anyone use scrivener? Is it worth learning how to work it or just another way to waste time instead of writing.

    I do have trouble staying organized.

    • I use it. Though this will be my first year using it for my primary writing software. I usually use Liquid Story Binder, but it is old and no longer being developed, and has become glitchy. Scrivener excells at organization. There is a bit of a learning curve, but at its base level it is relatively straightforward and very useful to me. (Every one is different). They currently have a Nanowrimo trial that ends the 7th of December, after which you can use their 30 day trial… Two months should give you a good idea of whether or not it will work for you.