28 October 2015 - 5:28 pm

NaNoWriMo: Keep Coming Back

NaNoWriMo: yay or nay?

NaNoWriMo: yay or nay?

This year’s crazy novelling adventure is fast approaching, so attention is increasingly turning towards the challenge that I take part in every year. A little while ago, I came across an article about how writers shouldn’t bother with NaNoWriMo. It’s not a new article (it was written back in 2010), but given the points raised in it, I suspect that it’s not outdated for those who are inclined to agree. I feel the need to comment on it.

The article’s writer, Laura Miller, believes that NaNoWriMo is a waste of time and energy. I believe she is utterly wrong, but I’m not here to tear her or her piece down. It got me thinking, and when I get thinking, it often prompts me to write stuff down. So here I am, writing stuff down in response to her article.

One of the main points in Miller’s article revolves around the fact that writing crap is not only expected during NaNo, but encouraged. This leads to crappy first drafts being sent to publishers and agents, as if they are entitled to be published after making it through the NaNoWriMo crucible.

She’s not wrong about this, though it’s not a universal phenomenon (most writers know better!). Sadly, the ‘write a novel!’ message of NaNo can lead some participants to believe that that’s all there is to creating a book worth publishing. Advice for submitting novels is increasingly leaning towards not mentioning NaNo at all, because the amount of first-draft NaNo novels being submitted has given the annual challenge a bad stigma in publishing circles.

It has never been a good idea to submit your first draft anywhere. Anything less than a polished manuscript is wasting everyone’s time. This is not a new understanding and it is not likely to change.

However, it’s not like the influx of first drafts is a new phenomenon. There have always been people who think their first draft is gold. There have always been writers who think they don’t have to put in the work to polish a manuscript and who send it out regardless. NaNo might have increased the volume somewhat, but this is hardly a new problem for publishers and agents.

Also, this assumption isn’t one that NaNo promotes. The organisation goes to lengths to help writers understand what’s required to take their novel to the next stage, through its ‘What Next’ information and resources, emails it sends to participants, and so on. Admittedly, this aspect of NaNoWriMo has grown and improved over the last few years; was it present so strongly when the article was written? I have no idea. It may have actually come about in response to the stigma that NaNo novels have acquired in publishing circles.

What I find most interesting is that Miller isn’t writing this article as a writer, publisher, or agent: she’s a reader (and reviewer) of novels. So I’m a little bewildered about why she would be so negative about an issue that would never land in her lap; the terrible first drafts that are sent to bother professionals would only become her problem if someone decided to publish them. Her choice to make such an issue of it in an article is curious to me. (Which is not to say that people can’t comment on things that don’t impact them directly – of course they can – I just find her choice curious. Perhaps she’s complaining on behalf of publishers and agents?)

What I find more concerning is that she appears to resent NaNoWriMo because it’s all about the writers and not about readers, as if giving to one group detracts from the other:

“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.” (On bookstores advertising writing space for novelists during NaNo.)

This single sentence shows her bias with astonishing ease: readers are ‘selfless’ while writers are selfish and ‘commercial’. What this shows to me is that she doesn’t understand what type of writers NaNoWriMo is aimed at, or writers in general. Sure, some are hoping to be professional novelists, but the majority don’t care or can’t be bothered to even try to get published. (I say this from observing the NaNoWriMo community, particularly the local ones I have participated and led.) No-one does NaNo to be ‘commercial’.

Miller goes on to talk about how lucrative is it to sell books to writers about writing, but that’s just good business for the bookstores (and writers of said books). How is this a bad thing? Writers seeking to improve their craft to make better stories for the poor, mal-treated readers is a terrible thing to do? (Note: I’ve never heard of a writer using NaNo to write a non-fiction book about writing. It probably has happened somewhere; could that be where this came from?)

Also, an interesting viewpoint:

“NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary.”

Miller goes on to explain why it’s unnecessary and pointless to encourage and facilitate writing, how there are too many books in the world anyway (even by authors she likes), and writers will persist at (and complain about) their craft regardless. (I’m paraphrasing: see the article for her actual words.)

To me, Miller fundamentally misunderstands what it’s like to be a writer and the value that NaNo brings to writing. She’s not a writer and, from her comments, most likely hasn’t spent time in the NaNoWriMo community. She sees only the obvious stuff from the outside: a non-profit group enthusiastically encouraging writers to write, to take up space she sees as ‘hers’ (readers’), and to produce crap.

I have a different view. I have seen how NaNo opens doors for writers. I know what NaNo has done for my writing, and I have seen the community at work. These things are why I keep coming back to NaNoWriMo, and why I put so much time, energy, and heart into it.

NaNoWriMo grows every year. Last year, over 325,000 people took part! Here in my local region, we have over 5,000 people alone, gathered up over the years. Miller quoted one famous NaNo book that made it big (Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen), but there are now over 250 books on the list of NaNo novels that have been published.

So Miller’s claims that NaNo is unnecessary for writers falls flat; if it was so unnecessary, it wouldn’t have such a strong following, growing year on year. Clearly, it is aimed at people who want to do it, people for whom it is necessary because they are not the type of writer who will persist at it anyway.

As for the complaints that it detracts from support for readers, I’m going to call bullshit on that. Readers are not a dying breed: every year, more and more books are being bought and devoured. Traditionally or self-published, it doesn’t matter: the market ebbs and flows, but literacy (judged by the total amount of books being bought) is at an all-time high. We are devouring books at an astonishing rate.

Do readers have sufficient ‘space’ dedicated to them? I’ve never noticed a problem myself, but that’s not to say there isn’t one. However, if you think the lack of reader support and events is a problem, then the solution is pretty simple: create them. That’s why I created my Creative Writing Group: I didn’t see the sort of group that I wanted to be a part of, so I made one. It’s why I do NaNoWriMo and create the events that my people and me enjoy. We already have readers’ and writers’ festivals where we share space. Having reader-centric events is something that we can do! (And people do, by creating book clubs, for example.) A lot of writer-ish events cross over into reader territory or interest as well: readings, panels, talks. So more writing events can mean more events for readers, too.

I don’t see NaNo as excluding readers; it is including writers. It certainly isn’t run in opposition to or instead of a reading event. Why are these mutually exclusive? I would fully support more events that promote reading! (I’m a writer: of course I love readers. That’s who I write for! Also, I am one!) I struggle to see why Miller feels that, in order to get the support for readers that she desires, something (NaNoWriMo) would have to be taken away from writers.

All in all, Miller’s article is an interesting look into the mind of someone squinting at NaNoWriMo from the outside (and, apparently, some distance). I’m aware that we all look like crazy people when it’s happening (no-one denies this; it’s part of NaNo’s charm), but the level of entitled disapproval in her article is still astonishing to me.

I started to write up all the things that I think NaNo does for writers as a counterpoint to Miller’s article, but it grew so long that I’ve decided to break it up into pieces and post them separately. So watch this space! I’ll be talking more about why I do NaNoWriMo and why I love what it does for writers.

Because NaNoWriMo is:

Coming soon: all of the above.

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One comment

  1. Why NNWM: try something amazing : : Adventures in Text says:

    […] some, it is a case of making time. For others, it’s a matter of confidence. Because despite some opinions, not all writers have faith in what they’re doing. We’re a self-critical lot, seldom […]

    November 10th, 2015 at 6:34 pm