Every year, when October rolls around, I find myself talking about National Novel Writing Month (the cool kids call it NaNoWriMo, I guess). I talk about it with my friends who are writers, to see if they’re crazy enough to do it this year. I talk about it with my wife, to see if it would rock the boat too much for me to do it. And I talk about it to folks who have never heard of it before, which is a lot of fun. It’s a really neat exercise and I’ve found myself drawn into it a couple of times.
For those who don’t know, it’s just an annual, month-long event to encourage people to write. The one-size-fits-all goal is to hit (or surpass) 50,000 words in one, original, continuous story. There are thousands and thousands of participants, of all ages, from around the world. There are cool badges you can get, progress spreadsheets you can download and lots of active forums for people to support each other. All in all, it’s a fantastic idea, with lots of potential.
The reason it’s so much fun to talk to new people about it is the variety of reactions I get to see. Some are horrified by the idea of writing so much, so fast. A few seem genuinely hungry for the challenge. Most of them probably dismiss the whole idea as being too difficult. It’s hard to argue with that last point. Everyone has a job, or school, or yoga class, or a wedding… lots of ‘stuff’ to do. And there’s that Thanksgiving holiday at the end of the month. But my response is pretty blunt: That is bullshit. If you want to be a writer – an actual, professional writer – you will have to deal with this issue every month.
Now, I’m not going to advocate that everyone dump their responsibilities and do this wacky thing. I don’t even think NaNoWriMo is a good idea for everybody (more on that in a minute). But there is one, indisputably great thing about the event. It shuts up your internal editor. Everyone has one and some people let that nagging critic ruin most projects before they can get started. The best thing you can do for your ability to write is to silence that editor for a while. There will always be time to review and rewrite and reject your work later – but there has to be something there in order for that to happen. NaNoWriMo gets a muzzle on the editor and pushes down on the accelerator. That is a damn good thing.
The first time I did this, I was pretty nervous. I owned my own business and my family kept me busy on top of that. Nonetheless, I looked at it as a challenge I needed to face. Before that Autumn, the longest piece of work I’d ever done was about 30,000 words, over the course of a few months. In preparation for November, I plotted a long, winding story in my head. I peopled it with characters and nested the plots inside one another. There was a neat mechanism for switching between parallel stories whenever I wanted, if I got bogged down. Just after midnight on November 1st I started writing. I didn’t know how much or how fast I could write, but I aimed for that magical 1,500 words per day that would get me to the finish line. I hit the ground running and kept going at a frantic pace. After everyone had gone to bed, before work, or whenever I found a moment to steal, I was working. Halfway through the month, on the 15th I think, I hit the 50,000 word mark. It was an unbelievable thing, for me. Granted, the story was only ¾ of the way through. Also, the jumbled narrative and experiment with ‘nesting’ was a complete failure. But I had done it.
There is a sense of wonder and awe, the first time you hit that word count. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done it before or not, the relief is palpable. It truly opened my eyes as a writer, for what kind of effort was needed to do my job. I didn’t have to work that hard, every month, unless I wanted to. But at the same time, I knew that I could if I was under the gun. Up until that point, the idea of writing a novel-length piece of work seemed impossible; like a magical thing that other people could do. And for that I’ll always be grateful for NaNoWriMo.
The whole affair doesn’t get a full pass from me, though. For some writers, abandoning their inner critic for an entire month can be tragic. Don’t misunderstand, I think that everyone could benefit from this kind of work, under the right conditions. But a gimmick of a writing project is no substitute for actually sharpening one’s tools. Writing isn’t difficult, and that seems to be part of NaNoWriMo’s message. But good writing is sometimes very difficult and the only way to do good work is to go through the actual work. The value for the month of November is quantity over quality. Like I said, sometimes that is a very good thing – I certainly got a lot out of it – but please don’t ignore the other months. Remember, once National Novel Writing Month is behind us, take the gag off your internal editor. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll find that critic a bit more reasonable, after a month long vacation.
Whoever you are and whatever you do, keep writing. It’s the only you have to do, if you want to be a writer.
Patrick Jennings-Mapp is a co-founder of and an editor for Escape Collective Publishing. He likes to write surrealist/inspirational poetry in notebooks and leave it for strangers to find. Someday, he’ll include a character in a story that does the same – because it’s funny, that’s why.