Sunday, October 23, 2011

NaNoWriMo :: A waste of enthusiasm?

I am not a NaNoWriMo participant this year, but I've been there and thrown fifty thousand words at a wall to see what sticks.  So I'm re-posting this post from last year as a preemptive strike against the naysayers and the nattering nabobs of NaNo negativity. 

Every year, someone whines that the participants are somehow wasting their time.

I disagree...


I've been known to answer the "What do you do?" question with "I drink coffee and make stuff up".  My favorite response thus far was just the other day when a guy said "So you're in politics then?"

Enthusiasm can be created, it can be encouraged, it can be diminished, and it even can be destroyed. But it is rarely ever wasted.
Writing a novel is more than a profession.  I once said that a writer is "society's designated dreamer" and I stand by that.  (Try putting that on your tax return.)  At the risk of getting too airy-fairy on you, it's a mindset.  For my money, a writer is a conspirator in the great and secret game of words, broker in the exchange of ideas.  And as far as I'm concerned, everyone is welcome to roll up their sleeves and join us.
UPDATE! The Los Angeles Times book blog "Jacket Copy" has come out with a point-by-point refutation of Miller's piece in Salon. Worth the read.

For some reason I was thinking about this exchange when I read this Op/Ed published by that tells us that we should knock it off.  NaNoWriMo is apparently a colossal waste of time and enthusiasm.  Why?  Because by focusing on writing, we are apparently drawing too much attention away from reading and we're supposedly encouraging people to create stuff that won't be published.

It occurs to me to wonder what Laura Miller, the author of that piece would say if I asked her to define what makes a writer.  If I asked her who does have her permission to write a novel.

Based upon a few interactions with NaNoers, Miller draws some remarkably broad conclusions about who is participating and what effect it has upon their reading habits.  I would like to emphasize that at no point does she present any actual data to back up her thesis that when people are encouraged to write, they'll stop reading.

I read.  I write.  All the writers I know who write came to it because they like to read.  As I type this, I'm quite literally sitting in a personal home library packed with thousands of books.  The notion that encouraging writing will curtail reading is preposterous.

In fact, after spending decades writing, reading and running bookstores, I must say that I've never met anyone serious about writing who doesn't also read voraciously.  We do read a little less when we're writing, but as Lev Grossman recently discussed, writers are actually given to reading and re-reading not just what we write, but the things we enjoy and the authors we want to emulate.  Despite the anecdotes presented as evidence in the Salon piece, how many people have you really met that sit down to write a book but don't actually like reading them?


The piece includes the curious argument that encouraging amateur novelists hurts the sales of fiction because writing books sell well.  In the case of one literary magazine that she mentioned, they sell well enough that they pay for the publication of the literary magazine. I take it we're supposed to take that as a bad thing because we wouldn't want dangerous advice espoused in those writing books to get out into the world and encourage these dangerous fools...
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."  
-Stephen King On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft

And while I haven't read every writing book in existence, I used to sell them so I've read a lot of them and every one I have read includes this same exhortation to read widely.

That sort of madness must be stopped at all costs. 

The hard truth of the matter is that on one level, Miller is correct: the great bulk of what we create during NaNoWriMo is not publishable fiction by any means.  It is, at best, a first draft.  A first draft that must be subjected to repeated revisions and subsequent drafts in order to create something that's worth the time of a publisher or agent.  The organizers warn participants about this and every year, some of them ignore the advice.

Publishers and agents alike have repeatedly told me that NaNoWriMo causes their in-boxes to swell with things that they can't sell, aren't finished and aren't good.  (So do writing conferences, incidentally) Many of them spend the month of December digging their way out of the blizzard of hopeful 50,000 word mini-novels.  I'm sure that several great books get overlooked every year because they're lost in the storm.

That's really too bad, but frankly, that's the way it goes.

I feel a bit sorry for the people shifting that slush pile and wish them well, but agents knew that was part of the gig when they went out for the team.  I'm actually curious if the incidence of this is really that much greater among NaNoWriMo participants than the rest of the people who throw unpublishable pap over the transom or if it's just concentrated in a single month so it draws attention.

So, with not a mote more or less proof of my assertion than Miller, I tell you that the assertion that reading and writing are hindering one another is ludicrous in the extreme.  Her wish that we did more to encourage reading and discovering new authors is laudable.  Her reasoning that NaNoWriMo is hindering that effort is just silly.

So who is a real writer and who has Laura Miller's permission to write a book?  The people who don't give a damn what she thinks.  Frankly, if her snark is enough to get you to walk away from the keyboard, then good riddance to you because if you can't handle someone telling you that what you're doing is silly or pointless or crap then you're not ready to be a professional writer.
"It's impossible to discourage the real writers, they don't give a damn what you think, they're going to write."
- Sinclair Lewis 



  1. Brilliantly put, Scott. I'm sharing this.

  2. Some kids don't play well with others. Art no matter what branch you're talking about has its selfish elitists that want to hord all the good fortune the art world has to offer to themselves. Then there are those of us who love the art so much that we want to share it with everyone. We want to scream from the mountain tops how wonderful it is and having a hand in bringing someone else into the fold is a point of great pride. What the elitests fail to see is that you can't hord knowledge or desire. You may by up all the rare volumes paintings music albums you can get your hands on and lock them away some little safe somewhere, but one day you will die and they will be free again to inspire still more people. We dream of making our living on our art and work endlessly toward that goal, but in reality, if money weren't an issue, we would just as soon give it away for free so everyone could find joy, be inspired, and learn from what we have created.

  3. Just as good today as it was last year. Did you by any chance send this to Miller or Salon at the time?

  4. @Maggie, I think I posted a link in the comments beneath her post. I don't really remember. I was trying to reach out to NaNoWriMo writers who might be discouraged by her. To persuade them to keep going.

    I have no interest in arguing with someone who has made up his or her mind. (Don't tell anyone, I think I can get kicked off the internet for that.)

  5. I'm going to give it a go this year, just because it is a way of prioritizing writing time (ahead of grading, sewing, cleaning, facebooking, and all the other things that seem to clamor for my attention). My mother (a novelist) had a quieter life and was able to write for several hours every day before we came home from school. If I am going to have writing time, I must wrestle it to the ground, pound it into submission, and handcuff myself to it for at least a few hours a day.

  6. I feel like I should start a quotes page and near the top of it will go: "If I am going to have writing time, I must wrestle it to the ground, pound it into submission, and handcuff myself to it for at least a few hours a day."

    Nicely said, Rebecca!


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).