This ungainly --- well, it’s not really an acronym, but I guess the word will do --- this ungainly acronym, for the benefit of those who don’t spend their leisure time scanning writers’ websites and Twitter accounts (I was going to say trolling, but that word has a different meaning today than back in the Dark Ages, when I --- and many others --- knew it as simply something one did when fishing, casting one’s line into the water and seeing what one could catch), stands for National Novel Writing Month. And each year, kind of like the flu, it pops up around November. (Which I suppose is a bit of a cheap shot, isn’t it? But I’m not a huge fan of either one, so we’ll let it stand.)
NaNoWriMo has been with us since 1999, apparently, and you can either do it officially, signing up at the website --- yes, Virginia, there is a NaNoWriMo website --- or unofficially, simply by deciding you’re up for the challenge: writing a 50,000 word novel in one month. One 30 day month, which means 1666.6 words a day that one is supposed to churn out every single blessed day of November (a rather unfortunate number for those of us spiritually inclined, but I’ll resist the temptation to make a religious analogy here).
Now, look, I want to be very clear about several things at this point: first of all, yes, anything that gets people writing is, by and large, a good thing. It’s right along the lines of the C.S. Lewis quote (one of several, actually) gracing what I call The Official Philosophy Wall in my classroom: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” (And every educator solemnly nodded and replied, “Amen, Jack.”)
Second, it’s always laudable to set goals... even goals that might seem a tad ambitious. And that’s right along the lines of another Philosophy Wall quote by Robert Browning: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” (That one always causes most of my scholars to wrinkle their noses in puzzled incomprehension, bless their heathenly materialistic little hearts --- but that usually leads to what educators call a Teachable Moment, so it’s okay.)
Third, I don’t think it’s anyone’s expectation we’re going to get many literary masterpieces produced during that month. Nope. Not works of enduring/eternal merit... Austens or Tolstoys or Carrolls or Hemingways. Tolkien would likely have looked disdainful if you’d suggested he try it. Even Jack Lewis, that paragon of Christian philosophy, would probably raise his eyebrows. About the only author I can think of who might regard this as a Good Idea would be the late Isaac Asimov, the classic science fiction author who did tend to churn out new works at almost that rate, to the envy/annoyance/despair of his colleagues.
And perhaps most importantly, if NaNoWriMo works for you... great. Knock yourself out, or as writer David Bly once put it, “pound those keys, maestro; sling those similes; massage those metaphors.” Do it to your heart’s content. Have fun storming the castle! said Miracle Max.
I just think... well... the entire concept tends to reinforce our society’s unhealthy obsessions with speed and quantity over deliberate thoughtfulness and quality. There. I said it. (Yes, I know, pulp writers used to do that all the time. And a great deal of pulp fiction was impossibly bad.)
I think the best I’ve ever been able to manage was about ten or twelve thousand words in a single month. And that’s when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune haven’t been knocking on my door, just the daily demands of the working/family stiff. And the Muse... well, she can be a really fickle mistress, you know. Some evenings she shows up with a slew of terrific ideas, each just tripping over the rest to be used. Other times, she says, “Not tonight, darling, I’ve got a headache,” and you have a writing dry spell that can stretch into a very long drought.
Ah ha! you crow triumphantly. So that’s it! You’re just jealous because you couldn’t do it! Well, no and yes. No, I’m not jealous of anyone who can knock off a 50,000 word novel in one month. I probably could write 1700 words a day for a month --- if I put the rest of my life completely on hold, which is not a particularly realistic proposition. But yes, I don’t think I could compose a 50,000 word novel I was proud of in one month. Case in point: my first novel, Gryphon’s Heir, which on its fifth and final draft clocked in at somewhere around 186,000 words, took about nine years from start to publication --- and those nine years included having a marriage, co-raising four kids, working at a teaching career, the death of a parent, and various other little things, some good and some bad. My second novel, Gryphon’s Awakening, the sequel to Gryphon’s Heir, is currently around 95,000 words and has only been on the go for about four years, so it’s moving along pretty well, I think.
Am I just another NaNoWriMo hater? Not really. Just practicing my Eeyore imitation? Possibly. But at least I don’t subscribe to what he said about writing: “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”
So what are you waiting for? Go and write. Just do it with passion.