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12 reasons to ignore the naysayers: Do NaNoWriMo

November 3, 2010 | 12:12 pm

  Writersblock_drewcoffman

If you want to write a novel in 30 days, don't let anyone stop you. Not even Salon's Laura Miller.

Miller, who I usually find thoughtful and sweet, has written an anti-NaNoWriMo column -- "Better yet, DON'T write that novel" -- that is at best wrongheaded, and at worst, smallhearted. Miller would lay the blame for too many writers -- and not enough readers -- at the foot of NaNoWriMo, the project that challenges would-be authors to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

The too-many-writers trope is echoed by people who publish literary journals, who see more submissions than subscriptions, and those in the publishing industry who'd simply like to sell more books. Even if it is true -- which I'm not convinced it is -- there are certainly other factors, including the hundreds of MFA programs in creative writing, that swell the ranks of hopeful writers.

And is a large pool of hopeful writers really a terrible thing? Are there not thousands more marathon runners than medalists, more home chefs than pros who might ever run a restaurant kitchen? What's wrong with an enthusiastic amateur class of writers? Who says they're not readers, anyway? I've yet to see anything more substantial than a dinner party anecdote.

Here's a quick rundown of Miller's argument, and where it goes wrong.

1. Miller writes: " 'Make no mistake,' the organization's website counsels. 'You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.' I am not the first person to point out that 'writing a lot of crap' doesn't sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November."

In fact, spending a month "writing a lot of crap" is more fruitful than many things, including much of the fun, casual cultural consumption we regularly engage in. It's more fruitful than watching TV, playing video games, spending hours on Facebook or Twitter. It might not be more fruitful than innoculating children in an underdeveloped village, but we're not talking about people quitting the Peace Corps in order to do NaNoWriMo. The only thing "writing a lot of crap" can genuinely be said to be less fruitful than is writing well. 

Miller quotes it, but misses the essential point: for a hopeful writer to "just create." It's the act of doing that's important. Knitters don't knit because their friends need more hats. But so far, there hasn't been a "Better yet, DON'T knit that scarf" manifesto.

2. Miller writes: "And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it's clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they'll shortly receive."

Clearly, NaNoWritMo encourages revision; why blame them for those that don't do it? Also, the publishing business has a way of dealing with unwanted manuscripts: It's called the slush pile. There's nothing easier than rejecting a clearly bad book.

Also: Can I take this moment to protest the use of "rumblings in the Twitterverse" as a news source? Not that I'm immune. But.

3. Miller writes: "Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it?"

Goodness! Who is insisting? I get dozens of e-mails every day from publicists for books I'll never have a chance to glance at, let alone crack open or read. While I find the barrage annoying, I certainly don't think anyone is insisting I read anything. They're asking. And quite often their pleas go unheard.

4. Miller writes: "The last thing the world needs is more bad books."

The last thing the world needs? We have war and disease and greed and hunger. Books, even bad books, are hardly our biggest problem.

5. Miller writes: "NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it's largely unnecessary."

If it's unnecessary, NaNoWriMo would not have grown from 21 participants in 1999 to 167,150 last year. It's necessary for them. And of those who tried last year, 130,000 didn't finish -- there is clearly a gap between the hopeful and successful NaNoWriMo writer. In other words, a need.

If all those 167,150 people who participated in NaNoWriMo in 2009 were professional writers -- which seems unlikely -- and they used the month to jump-start or buckle down, so what? Writers use all kinds of tools and tricks to write. Would Miller force writers not to upgrade to Scrivener 2.0, or get Jonathan Franzen's Internet-less computer re-connected? Those things also are unnecessary -- but writers benefited from them.

6. Miller writes, "I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. 'Write Your Novel Here' was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing."

This is the most saddening part of the piece. I can think of nothing more miserable than seeing the words "the narcississtic commerce of writing" stuck together as if they make sense. If writing is narcississtic, I for one am glad that Thomas Pynchon and Charles Dickens and Joan Didion can be called narcissists. But if writing is a commerce, tell that to Edgar Allan Poe, who died poor and sick at age 40, and the thousands of others who write without adequate compensation.

7. Miller writes: "I say 'commerce' because far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them."

True. It's called an MFA in creative writing. I'll be paying off my loans for a long time.

Oh wait, she means NaNoWriMo (which is free) and less formal offerings for hopeful writers, like self-help books. Fact is, there are self-help books about everything, from pregnancy guides to finding God. If people want to pay for books to help them be better writers as they pay for books to help them be better parents and cooks and human beings, well heck, those are books, aren't they? Isn't this good for publishing as a whole?

8. Miller writes: "There are already more than enough novels out there -- more than those of us who still read novels could ever get around to poking our noses into, even when it's our job to do so."

Well let's just call it quits on culture then, if there's enough. Also, people. There are more than enough people on the planet. Everyone, please stop making them.

9. Miller writes: "I know that there are still undiscovered or unpublished authors out there whose work I will love if I ever manage to find it. But I'm confident those novels would still get written even if NaNoWriMo should vanish from the earth."

Maybe. But also, maybe not. There's nothing to say that Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants," probably the best book to come from NaNoWriMo, will be the only one of merit. Not to mention that the book's success has been good for publisher Algonquin; NaNoWriMo may feed the literary ecosystem in unexpected ways.

10. Miller writes: "I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on."

Well, all right then, but there's no need to kick them in the teeth.

And I will cheer them on: NaNoWriMo is hard, but you can do it. Keep writing. Don't look back. You can edit later. Write write write!

11. Miller writes: "Rather than squandering our applause on writers -- who, let's face, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not -- why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers?"

Where on earth does Miller get the idea that the writers participating in NaNoWriMo don't read books? She cites one dinner party anecdote, one Atlantic article referencing an unnamed independent publisher.

At NaNoWriMo, I checked out the Fictional Character Crushes II forum. Among those setting the writers' hearts a-beating: Sherlock Holmes, both Jay Gatsby and Nick from "The Great Gatsby," Mr. Darcy, Aragorn from "Lord of the Rings," Anne from "Anne of Green Gables," the Cat from the Neil Gaiman short story "The Price," Algernon Moncrieff from Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," Alcide from the Southern Vampire Mysteries, Edmond Dantès from "The Count of Monte Cristo" and Archie Goodwin from the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. There are also plenty of crushes on TV and film and anime characters, which just goes to show that these hopeful writers are readers as well as watchers. They are contemporary cultural consumers, and in NaNoWriMo, they're trying to create something. 

There is no logical basis to portraying the NaNoWriMo hopefuls as nonreaders. None at all.

12. Miller writes: "Why not celebrate them [readers] more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built."

Literary culture isn't a temple, it's an ecosystem. Writers can be readers, readers can be critics, critics can be writers, audiences can have a voice.

Later this month, the National Book Awards will be celebrating accomplished writers and the books they published through traditional mainstream publishers. Does anyone assume the National Book Award finalists aren't reading other books? Of course not.

Why not celebrate those jumping in to NaNoWriMo for their efforts? They're teenagers getting more deeply invested in literature and retirees with time on their hands. They're husbands and wives shirking duties at home, parents getting out of carpool dutues, fortysomethings finally making the time. They're all trying to create something with words. They are, quite simply, people who like books enough to try to write one.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Writer's Block I. Credit: Drew Coffman via Flickr.

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