National Novel Writing Month 2014: What’s the Point?

I had a one page brain dump on file which was a summary of a story of family conflict, mistaken identities and lost relatives returning.  I was never going to write it.  So when I became aware of NaNoWriMo (possibly the worst contraction in the history of words) I decided to see if I could blat out 50k words in November.  There are good reasons not to do this and I agree with them; but I did it anyway.

Executive Summary:  NaNoWriMo focusses on one metric, number of words, and so does not confront the writer with the bigger problem, the real problem — writing a good book.  Anyone with enough time on their hands can knock out 50k words, but can they knock out 50k words that other people want to read?  Having said that, it is at least a kind of experience and could have some value for someone who tackles it with the right intent.

Detailed Discussion:

Why did I do it?

(1) I had the précis and I knew that it was not substantial enough to make it the subject of a major effort, but a one month ‘burst’ seemed reasonable.

(2) I have been working on a novel that I am sweating over, and I wanted to see how different the experience of focussing on word count and productivity over (perceived) quality was compared to the other way around.

(3) I have not written a lot of long pieces and I wanted to gain that bit of experience.  This was the main thing.  The question is, is the artificialness of writing under these conditions valid experience?

(4) I was not expecting to write a publishable novel, so I was not setting myself up for disappointment.

(5) I figured if I was going to criticise NaNo I ought to have a bash first.  This is not always a good idea — I will happily criticise anyone who wants to stick their finger in a funnelweb’s funnelweb, but I’m not trying that first.  But except for a little time used up it is essentially a harmless experiment.  Harmless only because I have managed my expectations…

I think the reasons are sound.

The story was originally called Beware of Simon Cullen before I realised that my subconscious had chosen the name of a well-respected ABC journalist.  I changed it to Simon Maxwell.

My certificate of grinding out words without any form of quality control.

My certificate for grinding out words without any form of quality control.

What I learned:

(1) I can quite easily knock out 50k words in a month.  It was harder to find the time than to find the words themselves.

(2) I pretty much wrote between 1000 and 2000 words a day, never getting more than a day ahead of or behind the linear function that would see me finish in the last day of the month, and I wrote between 50k and 51k words.  Conclusion: deadlines and schedules seem to work for me, even the highly artificial ones like this.  Having said that, for the other piece I am working on I have  been making solid, if slower, progress, because I want to.

(3) I need a new computer desk and chair.  My shoulders are tingling and my back aches.

(4) It is easy to write longer if you describe things amply, embed little essays on people’s lives and back story and such, into your narrative.  This is not necessarily a good thing.

(5) I did notice that I tend to write a lot of dialogue and action but not perhaps do enough to give a reader a sense of place and of the physicality of the people.  I end up with stories that are a little too schematic and hang in space without feeling substantial.  I had some scenes that actually benefited from being longer after I edited them, which is not what editing is supposed to do, because on first reading they were just conversations between disembodied voices.

(6) It is easier to write more if your standards are lower, and this is something to beware of; I could have done 50k words by typing a stream of consciousness about typing 50k words, and ended up with a poor man’s version of L’Innommable, or I could have had a character name all the books in his library then looked at my own shelves and started typing.  I have a lot of books.  But by using such tricks I would not have been genuinely wrestling with a narrative of some length and complexity, with characters and events and place and such.  As it is, I took it seriously enough that I have more understanding of issues like management of a long tale, pacing, climaxes and lulls, and to what extent a character can hijack the story you thought you were gong to tell, all useful things to have encountered. But I could not take the time to get some things right.  It does not give the experience of really writing well.  NaNo does not help you tell shit from clay, it just helps you produce more shit.

(7) I already knew this, but I noticed that quality is remarkably independent of how I feel about the task.  What made the most difference was clarity.  If I knew clearly what a scene was to achieve, it was easier to write it.  Duh.  But gaining this clarity is not easy when time is tight, so often I ended up writing a scene before its function within the story was properly clear to me.

(8) My organisation was a one page chart on which I divided each of the seven days of a week into morning, afternoon, evening and night, and then outlined a scene or more in each box.  This was good and bad.  It gave me a structure to work through, without which I would not have finished.  It also meant that some scenes are a little aimless as they essentially are there to fill a box on a diagram rather than the demands of the story.  This is another example of the structures of NaNo preventing me from properly grappling with the complexities of writing a good novel.  Again, making compromises that impact on the quality in order to meet the time limit.

(9) I doubt I’ll do it again; quite simply, there are better ways to write, and to write better.

(10) Would I recommend it to you?  Well, no.  Not if you think you’re going to publish the results.  Not if failing to write a novel in a month will convince you that you can’t do it at all.  (Deciding whether you can write a novel by seeing if you can do it in one month is kind of like saying you can’t run a mile unless you can do it in four minutes; nonsense.)  Not if you are just going to sit down and start typing and see where it takes you.  If you already have an ending, and a beginning, and they are far enough apart that the journey between will take 50k words, then you are probably ready to have a crack. But ask yourself why and what you expect to gain.

(11)  The story is at least as bad as I expected.

A final note:  About 15% of those who start will finish on time.  This means you are normal if you don’t complete your novel in a month.  I strongly suggest you read this post.  As I said, I agree with almost everything it says.  I just did otherwise, is all.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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