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Friday, October 12, 2012

Mailbox- The NaNoWriMo h8r!


Both of today's letters are in response to my article: NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Really, Really Ugly.

Anonymous Writes:

If people stop writing after NaNoWriMo, they weren't really writers to begin with.

This article makes me happy because I know that people like you will never truly understand or enjoy NaNo, and that leaves more room for the people who can truly appreciate the challenge. 



My Reply:

Hey, I'm totally happy to be disagreed with, especially by someone brave enough to drop an anonymous comment.   Differences of opinion are one of the most interesting parts of life, and it's almost fun to do it over something that isn't politics for a change. You're also in good company.  That article has generated more negative feedback than everything I've written in the last nine months combined.  It has also generated the most positive feedback including several published writers I know telling me that I did a good job articulating why they want to love Nano, but it makes them squeamish.

But this comment makes me wonder if you read the article or just gave it a look, maybe glanced at the pictures and played the youtube videos, saw that it wasn't singing the praises of Nano from the mountaintops, and left a a comment intended to insinuate that I can't appreciate a challenge. Which is fine if that's what you want to assume, but I was quite serious when I said that in a fully-understood mosaic of the writing process that NaNo could be a good thing.  I'm not just trying to say that in a snarktacular, "Reading comprehension--check into it" kind of way.  Rather, I literally wonder if you actually made it the whole way through the article or if you just dropped a comment when you decided it didn't give proper fellatio the almighty NaNo peen.

In fact I've done Nano. Twice. So I think I can "truly understand" and "truly appreciate" it. Truly.

But I've also been writing every day for almost thirty years, so for me, NaNo isn't much more than picking up the pace for a few days.

If you had read the whole article, you would know that most of my overblown opinion was directed at NEW writers. YOUNG writers. Writers who just want to do NaNo on a lark or have a story in their head that they would love to publish, which I compared to people with no physical fitness jumping off their couch to run a marathon--a very apt analogy, I find, since I've spent some time researching marathon running. It's not that people can't do it or shouldn't feel pride if they do.  (Just like marathons.)  It's just there's a lot that can go wrong and it's unfair not to warn people about the bad parts.  It's like telling people that joining the military is a great way to get into shape while making money and leaving out the bit about, drill sergents, going to deserts on the other side of Earth and shooting people.  Experienced writers, who decide to do Nano, know what they're getting into and can handle it (which is a point I make very early on).  I have several friends who think I'm completely full of shit, do Nano every year, and they almost always finish.  But, like I tell them, they've also been writing for decades.

"People like me," as you so revealingly put it, just don't want to see writers get hurt or burn out and hate themselves for not having "what it takes" or think that they're done on Dec 1st or submit their really rough draft to Random House, or be taken advantage of by snake oil salesmen. If my warnings about the downsides of NaNo offend the delicate sensibilities of people who don't want to see NaNo's flaws, then I guess I'm just a titanic fucking asshole. Like I said, if cautions against that sort of thing were more prominent in the culture of Nano, I would have less of an issue with it. Unfortunately the structure and emphasis (and fans who don't like to be reminded of the downsides) drive a lot of seasoned writers away from the event, and the result is there is a lot of enthusiasm and very little temperance in that community.  Mores the pity.

It sounds like, at the very least, you have a good sense that being a writer means that your work is not done on Nov 30th, and so I wish you the very best of luck and hope you finish!  And while I don't quite understand how my being there would crowd up NaNo since it isn't a physical event, or how my absence would leave you "more room," I hope you have a good time--in that sweaty, power chords, montage-of-writing-like-a-demon kind of way.

I totally agree with your first paragraph though. I wish I could say that was an unusual occurrence.  It's not.  But I do agree!  :-)


Cynthia writes:

I was really looking forward to doing NaNoWriMo, but after your article (and a lot of others like it online) I'm not sure.  I've got all these ideas in my head and feelings in my heart and I thought NaNo was going to be a time to turn them into a book.   Now I'm not so sure.  I want to be a writer more than anything.  Do you have any advice?

My Reply:

Hi Cynthia.  First of all, this is a really sincere and genuine question, so I think it deserves a sincere and genuine answer.  So I'm going to put away my Chris Brecheen persona in order to tackle this one.  For this answer, I'm not going to be the snarky guy who runs around Writing About Writing fighting ninjas and cephalopods and who just got cloned by the "guest blogger" he's going on a date with tonight.   That guy is based on me, but he's not me.  I'm the guy who sits at a table in Oakland and writes that guy.

I really empathize with this feeling.  There are still days when I feel like I am boiling over with ideas that I just can't get out, and even when I'm writing and it's deeply cathartic, sometimes I feel like I can't get them out fast enough.  My fingers can't possibly catch up to everything in my heart.  It is why I write.  And if your ideas and feelings are driving you to the page to write, I think that's wonderful, and I hope writing gives you a way to deal with those feelings the way that it did me.  And if it's not writing, I hope it's something else.

Just being a writer can be a challenge enough.  There's no need to add a sense of failure if you don't achieve some REALLY ambitious goals--certainly not so early in your writing life.  Anyone who has ever tried to eat only a thousand calories a day or exercise for three hours daily knows what it is to set goals that are nearly impossible to maintain.  Sure you can do it the first day.  RAWR!  Maybe even for three or four days.  But a week?  Two weeks?  The whole month?  It's the same reason that 5 unit summer school classes (crammed into a 6 week session) usually have a 75% drop out rate.

The people who set unrealistic goals know that crushing sense of defeat and failure that comes with the first cookie you can't resist or workout you skip in favor of sitting on the couch.  They know that it can lead to a shame spiral and that it is likely going to affect the way they look at diet or exercise in the future.  I would never want people who are excited about writing to look at it that way because they overdid it.  And any goal that over 80% of participants fail at is probably a little too hard--unless you're trying to create a hazing process.  If you've ever gone to the gym during the SECOND week of January, you know how difficult it can be for people to keep up with unrealistic goals.  Fall in love with writing first.  Then worry about pushing yourself like a Rocky montage.

If you really want to get into the habit of writing, I can't recommend strongly enough Dorothea Brande's book: Becoming a Writer.  It is a really good book about cultivating the discipline to sit and write without things like professors telling you to or NaNoWriMo spurring you forth.  Most of the things that make Nano a good exercise are addressed in this book, and most writers who find that the blank page and applying butt to chair is ten times more difficult for them than any elements of craft would do well to apply the lessons of this book.  There is nothing in Becoming a Writer about how to actually write.  No craft.  No grammar.  Nothing.  It's all about how to tap into one's artistic process.  Many of the difficulties with writing that NaNo fans cite as reasons they really love to do NaNo are mentioned by Brande specifically--some eighty years before the first NaNoWriMo event.  And Brande's techniques are lauded by far far FAR FAR more published authors and experienced writers than Nano.

There's a lot more to writing a publishable novel than the first draft, but if you just want to get these ideas on paper, I suggest setting a much smaller word count goal and doing it every day.  I usually don't use word count or page goals for my own writing.  I use time goals.  I sit and write for 5 hours, for example, and treat it like a job.  This is because revision or research or some other important part of the process that can't be measured with word counts might be going on. I only start paying attention to my word count or output if I realize I'm spending a lot of time on Facebook or reading Cracked articles.  Once I'm back to working, I go back to time goals.  Also, you may find that your idea is only 30,000 words or is more like 100,000, so sometimes giving word count all the power can create clunky writing.  So maybe it might even be more reasonable to give yourself an hour or two EVERY DAY for writing.  Don't let anything keep you from doing your writing at this time short of dire emergencies.

If you're simply married to the idea of Nano, I would recommend doing a "parallel" event with smaller word counts.  Try to reach 21,000 words in the month.  (700 words a day is about a page and a half of single spaced type.)  That may even be harder than you expect after the first few days, and doing it for a month is something to be proud of.  Call it "NaNo light."  Have fun reading the motivational materials, but just know that you will "win" even if you achieve a much more modest goal.

And then...on December 1st...don't stop.

And if you really want to do Nano in the way that Nano is set up I will give you the same advice I would if someone out of shape wanted to run a marathon that started in three weeks.  It would probably be wiser to let it go this year.  Spend this next year training; do it next year.   It's not that you wouldn't succeed or have no chance.  It's just that statistics suggest you won't, and you're likely to get hurt.  (Now marathon hurt and Nano hurt are a little different, but like I said in the article, I know people who basically gave up on writing because of Nano, and it would break my heart for that to happen to more people.)  Probably every one of those 160,000 people who never finish Nano thought they would be the exception but it really is much much harder than people think.

But you can train for it just like you could a marathon.  Spend a year writing every day.  Get the feel for what that is like.  Gradually increase how much you write.  Get a real sense for what kind of commitment you would be doing to write 1667 words a day for 30 days.  (It's probably around 3-4 hours a day.  90-120 hours by the month's end.  That's a LOT of time out of your schedule--especially in a month like November.)   Know what you're getting into.  Realize that you don't NEED Nano and that you can keep writing with or without it.  Then you will be in a great position to give it a shot.

And if you do do it next year, Cynthia, or even if you ignore my advice and do it this year--and also to anyone else giving it a try--good luck.  I wish you the best and I hope you finish.  Don't give up on writing if you don't make it!  It just means you bit off a little more than you can chew.  It does NOT mean you're not a writer.

And if you do finish just don't call yourself a "novelist" okay?

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