First: full disclosure—I've never NaNo'ed. I'm a slo-o-o-w writer. My editor despairs. I've got a new Camilla Randall mystery due in November (No Place Like Home) which I've been working on for a year and haven't finished yet. (Yes, I've been writing, editing and launching six other books and two anthologies during the same year, but it's still not a great record. I write slow. I also read slow and blog slow. I even live in a place called SLO-town. )
But the world rewards fast writers. Look at Nora Roberts and James Patterson, who seem to turn out books at the rate Mrs. Smith produces pies.
Plus, even if you're fundamentally a slowpoke like me, NaNo is a great way to push through your blocks and self-doubt and get that novel out of your head and onto the page.
For the uninitiated: NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month project. Started in 1999 by a young San Franciscan named Chris Baty—and 21 of his verbally ambitious friends—it challenges you to write a complete novel in a month. That month is November. Last year over 250,000 writers—called “WriMos”—joined in the merriment.
Entering the contest—now run by Mr. Baty’s non-profit outfit, the Office of Letters and Light—is free. Anybody who finishes 50,000 words by midnight November 30th is a winner. No prize but a badge for your blog--and I think there are Tee-shirts you can buy this year--but completion of your novel is its own reward.
To enter, you register at NaNoWriMo's site so you can have your word count verified at the end of the month, and on November 1, start writing. It doesn't cost a thing.
But…don’t they write a lot of crapola?
Yup. And that’s the point.
It’s all about creating that awful first draft.
As Anne LaMotte wrote in her classic book for writers, Bird by Bird, “the only way [most writers] can get anything done at all is to write really, really, really shitty first drafts.”
NaNoWriMo forces you to get that dung onto the page.
Here are some benefits.
1) No time to agonize over your first chapter. You’ve read endless carping on blogs like this one about how the first chapter has to hook the reader, introduce all the major themes and plot elements, begin with the world’s most exciting sentence, etc. But when you’re writing your first draft, none of that matters. You’re introducing yourself to your characters and their world. You can worry about your reader when you start editing next January.
2) No frittering away time on research. If you’re one of those writers who has procrastinated for years, piling up reams of historical and biographical detail, this is your chance to actually write the *&%! book.
The truth is most of those details would bore the reader silly if you actually put them in your novel, anyway. You’re better off writing the book first and figuring out later whether your reader needs to know what they used for toilet paper in 13th century Scotland or what kind of underpants to put on Genghis Khan.
3) No time to censor yourself. You can’t afford to agonize over whether your brother–in-law/former teacher/ex-girlfriend will recognize him/herself. Or if your mom will find out you weren’t really at band camp that summer when you and your buddies took the road trip to Cabo. Besides you’ll be amazed how characters/situations inspired by real life take off on their own and create an alternate reality. And excuse me, when did your brother-in-law ever read a book anyway?
4) You won’t be tempted to save your best ideas for later. New writers are often terrified they’ll run out of ideas. But it’s amazing how many more will show up once you’re in the zone.
I recently read some great advice for writers in an article in Glimmer Train from author Josh Swiller: "Kitchen sink that first draft. Throw every damn thing in there. If you aren't sure something belongs, if you aren't even remotely clear what the point of a certain tangent is—in it goes. It can help to do this draft with pen and paper, in poor handwriting, so you can't be eying and judging what you've put down as you go along."
5) You’ll give up trying to control the process. If the story goes somewhere you didn’t expect it to go, or you can’t stick to your outline, you’ll have to run with it. When your muse is talking, you can’t take the chance of pissing her off for even a couple of days.
6) You’ll have a great excuse for skipping the family Thanksgiving with all those relatives whose politics make you despair for the future of the human race.
7) It’s fun—and a great way to meet other writers all over the world. Look in the NaNo website forums for online and in-person discussions and groups. More than 650 regional volunteers in more than 60 countries will hold write-ins, hosting writers in coffee shops,bookstores, and libraries. Write-ins offer a supportive environment, turning the usually solitary act of writing into a community experience.
8) Lots of very good writers do it. This week GalleyCat reported that 90+Books began as NaNoWriMo projects including Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Cinder by Marissa Meyer: all #1 NYT Best Sellers.
9) You'll get pep talks from famous writers Not only will successful WriMos like Marissa Meyer be standing by to cheer you on, but this year they've enlisted the likes of Nick Hornby and Lemony Snicket to give you helpful tips to keep you on track and pounding out those words.
If you decide to jump into the craziness, here are the NaNoWriMo rules:
Register at NaNoWriMo.Org before November 1
- Write a novel (in any language) 50,000+ words long between November 1 and November 30. “Novel” is loosely defined. They say “If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!”
- Start from scratch. Previously written outlines & character sketches are OK—and highly recommended—but this can’t be a work already in progress to be an official NaNo novel
- Be the sole author. Although you can use the occasional quotation, you can't use other people's words, even if they're out of copyright. No collaborations allowed.
- Write more than one word. No repeating the same one 50,000 times.
- Upload your novel for word-count validation to the site between November 25 and November 30.
Chances are pretty good you aren’t going to write a polished, publishable novel in four weeks (although Charles Dickens is said to have written A Christmas Carol in six, four of which were in November, so there’s some precedent.)
But PLEASE don’t start querying agents or throw that puppy up on Amazon or Smashwords until you do a serious, in-depth revision. You’ll just add to the "tsunami of crap" self-pub-haters rant about, and/or you'll make agents and editors and their overburdened interns extremely cranky.
Oh, and if you are going the traditional publishing route, it’s not wise to reveal that the book began at NaNo—at least not in your initial query. Unfortunately, a lot of participants send off the unedited crapola.
Also, most publishers won’t look at a novel of less than 70,000 words, so even the Chuck Dickenses among you will have further work to do.
NaNoWriMo is now entering its 14th year and has become a respected institution in the writing community. GalleyCat is promoting it with a fun pre-NaNoWriMo contest.
There's also now a NaNo for kids and a Camp NaNoWriMo for people who have more writing time in the summer, and a super-posh one-nightwriting-marathon party in San Francisco and all manner of tee shirts, mugs, and other fun NaNo paraphernalia.
Last year 36,843 writers crossed the 50K finish line by midnight on November 30th, thus "entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever."
So if you have a book in your head, some spare time (and a very understanding family) you just might become one of those superstars this year!
For some tips on overcoming your blocks and getting that book out no matter what, you might want read this helpful and funny post by Delilah S. Dawson on how to barf a book.
So how about you, scriveners? Are you NaNo-ing this year? How much prep will you do? Have you ever "won" at NaNo? Have you tried and failed miserably, as I'd be sure to do? Did you fail miserably but still manage to get some good writing out of it? Do you think the whole thing is a bunch of batty San Francisco nonsense? (Sorry. I had to do the Baty/Batty thing somewhere. Old puns never die.)
Next week we're going to have a great post by Lila Moore from the watchdog site PopularSoda.com. She's going to tell us about "Seven Deadly Scams" being perpetrated on writers in this new publishing era. She's written about writing scams on Duolit and the Passive Voice, and provides warnings that all writers need to read.
Labels: Chris Baty, Delilah S. Dawson, GalleyCat, Glimmer Train, How to barf a book, Josh Swiller, Marissa Meyer, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, Nick Hornby, Office of Letters and Light