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If writing was a sport, with a poem being a sprint and a blog article the 400 metres, then doing NaNoWriMo would be the equivalent of running the marathon flat-out from start to finish.
NaNoWriMo, for the uninitiated, is short for National Novel Writing Month, a programme (started in America, hence the ‘National’ part) that invites aspiring writers to sit down, stop whining and write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I took part last year, and I believe my words at the time were: “I promise you now that I am never doing this again.”
I’ve signed up again this year.
My boyfriend, when I told him this, got a hollow look in his eyes and said darkly that he remembered what happened last time. He is, of course, completely right. The ‘novel’ I wrote last November was dire. My plot made no sense, my weeks had ten days, my characters ate five lunches in a row and most of them were called ‘????’. I reached each day’s 1667 word total in part because I was interspersing actual lines of text with panicky sentences like ‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE!’ or ‘WHO IS THIS PERSON I CAN’T REMEMBER’. And yet, when I think back to last November I can’t actually recall how awful it felt. I hear this is why people have their second child.
But this time I’ve decided to go back in with my eyes open, fully prepared. What I learnt from last year is that, while there are some incredibly positive aspects to the project – the sense that you’re part of something big, for example, with a community of like-minded people all around you spurring you on, and also the handy word-count updater for a sense of instant gratification – there are things about it that are extremely problematic, and they all boil down to this: there’s a huge difference between writing 50,000 words and writing 50,000 words that don’t make you sick to look at them.
This important fact is never acknowledged by NaNoWriMo’s organisers. The relentlessly cheerful, prizes-for-all atmosphere that pervades the NaNo website sends the message that not only will you – yes, you –ACHIEVE, you will have FUN while you do it. No plot? No problem! The NaNo executive will tweet you helpful suggestions. Is nothing happening in your scene? How about inserting a cat on a skateboard! Or a bright green squid called Timothy! Or a sandwich made out of clowns! How about teleporting all your characters to the Yukon? ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET?
I think this may be the cynic in me, feeling suspicious of organised fun. It always seems as though it might be a trick. But all the same, I think that NaNoWriMo’s approach to writing isn’t particularly founded on reality. While I’m not going to get into the knotty issue of planning – each writer does it differently, and anything from a one-line statement of intent to a 30,000 word soap-opera style précis seems to work for someone – I do think that it’s impossible to get anywhere if you don’t know the world you’re writing in. No matter what your setting is, from Hounslow to the Invisible Planet Grargh, you always need to have some idea of its history and culture. What’s their word for a sandwich? What’s the latest fashion in hats? What time do they have dinner? It’s going to come up, and if you don’t know you’re going to have to spend a lot of time staring blankly at your computer screen until you work it out. That is time, with something like NaNo, that you can’t really afford to waste.
Similarly, if you don’t know anything about your characters you’re going to have to think it up on the fly, your blood pressure rising with each new detail. Inevitably you’re going to say on page 5 that Charles is a small fat boy with yellow glasses and on page 27 that he’s an athletic 17-year-old in a blue shirt, and then you’ll have to go back and change it and all the words you wrote will vanish and you’ll have wasted your morning and the dog will need a walk and your friend will call wanting to talk to you and you’ll remember that you haven’t been food shopping for ten days and then you’ll collapse onto the floor in a heap and cry.
And then, of course, you’ll be behind the deadline, and what you churn out to meet it will be bad. Yes, you’ll be hitting your word count, but you’d also hit it if you typed ‘Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!’ five thousand times in a row. And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with NaNo. As it says in its mission statement, anyone can write a novel, but it takes more than 30 days of hammering randomly at a keyboard to write a good one.
What NaNo can be used as – and what I think it should be used as – is a kick up the backside, a way to start (or restart) a project that’s been ignored for too long, and a stern reminder to lazy writers everywhere that it’s perfectly possible to write a lot of words each day if you just stop watching The Apprentice and sit down in front of your computer. But doing NaNoWriMo the way its organisers recommend is absolutely not for everyone. In fact, if you do it may send you completely insane. My experiences last year taught me the painful lesson that, to actually have fun, you need to go in prepared.
But what do I know? Maybe seat-of-your-pants writing works for you. Maybe I’m just really terrible at thinking on my feet. Maybe the world needs more stories filled with skateboarding cats and clown-sandwich-people who live in the Yukon. And whether that’s the case or not, NaNoWriMo is a celebration of writing, and anything that tells the world that writing is a good thing can’t go too far wrong. So, with that said, here I go again…