Friday, June 21, 2019

On NaNoWriMo And Being A Real Writer

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about NaNoWriMo and how much I love it and how sometimes it can be a bad thing. There are several thoughts running concurrently in my head, so it’s hard to tell which one is the primary narrative—the more accurate version of the truth, if you will. That’s the thing about telling the truth. Two separate, conflicting accounts can tell the story from divergent angles without compromising accuracy. I remember reading about this teacher who held up a book for the class and asked them what color it was. On their side it was one color, on his side, another. That stuck with me.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how there are too many writers, too many people trying to get published. I could joke about how I feel personally affronted by this, but I do get discouraged when I consider the thousands of people I’m competing against for an agent’s attention. I used to think that because I understood grammar and punctuation, I would be an immediate shoe-in; I would float above the detritus, a diamond in the rough. My book would be snatched up; within months there would be promises of riches, the light of future book deals so bright the sun itself would look dim. [Insert more nauseating poetry here.] Realizing the path to publication was not that straightforward was no easy feat.

I didn’t just learn this in myself, in my failed attempts to get published, while people talked over me to my parents asking if I had a backup plan for when writing failed. I saw it in my friends, the ones whose novels I had critiqued and loved, who didn’t get picked up by agents for any number of reasons unknown to me. In the fray, it seems that horrible books get published while good ones languish; I try hard not to be pessimistic; I try hard not to begrudge anyone their joy.

I have read literary agents’ complaints in reference to NaNoWriMo. They are swamped, they say. When November ends, hundreds of writers query them with unedited manuscripts, a veritable deluge. I have been told, don’t query during December, you are more likely to be rejected. It is sad that there is a month devoted to ignorant hope.

One day, months ago, my sister and I were talking about how, when people produce an art form, the kind that is meant to be experienced by others, they can think that means they have the right to be published or signed to an album or displayed in a gallery. It’s difficult for writers to understand and accept the simple truth that just because you wrote a book, doesn’t mean you ought to be published. It’s hard to do that kind of work, with little-to-no promise of greater success, harder still to accept that completing the work doesn’t come with some greater, automatic and far-reaching reward.

I’ve seen the argument, particularly from literary agents, that NaNoWriMo is not some shining star. It encourages wannabe writers; it says, “You, too, can write a book. We’re all writers here.” The truth is that there is a difference between writing a book and writing a good book, and it’s often the case that those who have written bad books are also blind to this fact. NaNoWriMo gives free license to droves of writers who will never make it; who could not possibly all make it; there are too many, and not everyone has the natural talent, or the skill to learn—there is no use lying about it and saying it is otherwise. Maybe I am one of that number. Consider the times I have sung the praises of NaNoWriMo. Real writers should be able to write outside of November, I have heard.

For a long time I held it as a firm belief that NaNoWriMo is what jumpstarted and sustained my book-finishing abilities. I had never completed a full book before: that statement is true, depending on how you look at it. Before November 2013, my drafts were truncated and juvenile—one barely surpassed 40,000 words. They failed to finish a complete the thought. Both ended, not when I had reached any sort of natural conclusion, but simply when I had run out of words and didn’t know where else to go with the story. They lapsed into cliffhangers and were never polished to a high shine.

November 2013 was a reset button. It taught me a lesson I so desperately needed—you are not required to edit as you go along, and your draft can be as messy as you need. I learned about momentum, and how you can change the plot and the characters and the setting mid draft, if you so choose, because you are going to edit later anyway.

For the first time I managed to edit a manuscript and query agents. I got two requests for a full, one for a partial, none of which is saying a lot, and they all ended in rejection, but it was a taste of what could happen. I was only eighteen, and already I felt my face pointed in the right direction, NaNoWriMo at my side, a guiding hand on my shoulder.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling I had when I sat down to query, after years and years of wishing, how I sensed the enormity of my dreams. Before then, being published had been a nebulous concept with no real anchor to reality, something that I had hoped and prayed would eventually (somehow, who knows how) happen. The whole experience, start to finish, also switched my perspective from viewing publishing as something that would be handed to me to something that I would have to fight for, in the face of rejection, with no real promise of success.

When you consider the number of abortive drafts I have stashed away, it’s safe to say that for the longest time, I never got anywhere with my writing. I would start an idea and usually get a page or so in, sometimes closer to thirty, twice to eighty, all of this handwritten. For one story in particular, I stacked my blank notebooks, one hundred pages each, and dreamed of filling five. I had large handwriting.

I have a box in storage at my parents’ house, a relic of my pre-computer years, crammed with writing—loose paper, notebooks, folders, detritus from a mind I no longer recognize as having been mine. I remember so little of my writing in those days, so little of the act itself. The box was big enough to hold at least one of me, at my present size, so heavy I couldn’t lift it. Long before I moved out, it had begun to break under the weight of its contents. How that box even came into my possession is a question I can no longer answer; it was a fixed point in my childhood, a towering Ozymandius. Once I hid it in my closet.

November 2013, and the subsequent Novembers, were new awakenings, fixed points around which my life revolved. There is no way of knowing, but most times I suspect my writing would not be how it is today had it not thrived around that structure. I no longer need it as my own personal crutch; this month I finished a draft independent of November; I am free. But I am still caught in the question, that was the true question—NaNoWriMo the distraction, the red herring, the straw man. Good writers can thrive in November; they can thrive anywhere; they are dandelions growing upwards through concrete. But what of me?

Who is to say I am separate from the populace at large, the writers who will never make it, for lack of talent, or lack of research, or lack of luck? I have spent so long trying to learn humility as a writer; I get up and I fight pride and I go to bed. To be one of those people (poor her, she wanted it so bad, but she was never published—she was never good enough, who can bear to tell her?) is a rancid thought. I exist to write; I know that now. I will write whether I am printed or not.

What about me? I love NaNoWriMo; I expect I always will. My relationship with it has been a constantly shifting entity. First I learned confidence, then I pushed myself too hard and for the wrong reasons. And then last year, finally, I felt like I returned to the true meaning of Christmas NaNoWriMo. But always writing has been a form of self expression for me, a way to process and synthesize my experiences into something better. Without steady writing, in one form or another, there is a solid chance I would go insane. So far, NaNoWriMo has been my preferred tool for finishing drafts, the timeline and the sense of community vital to my experience.

If you’re only writing to make money, readers can tell—publishers can tell. You have to be comfortable with writing for yourself, first and foremost, and if you’re not there yet, that’s okay. Take your time. Write during NaNoWriMo, or write when it’s most comfortable for you. Publishing is not some great reward, the final stop at the end of a long and arduous journey. It is not even a measure of success or failure. It is a happy byproduct of writing. Even if your books never make it to shelves, you are a still a writer, and what you are doing is still valuable. In your rush to put words on paper, for your own sake, don’t forget that.


  1. This is a really great discussion. I think what most people who want to be published lack perseverance and patience. Publishing is a waiting game and it's a lot of getting knocked down and having to haul yourself back up again. Writing a complete draft is a huge accomplishment, but your mettle is tested when you have to revise it again and again and again and again and AGAIN until it's ready to be published. I revised Red Hood around eight times before my agent picked it up, some of the edits were small and others complete rewrites.

  2. Love this! Everyone who writes is a writer, but they aren't all authors. That sounds harsh, but it's true. I think a lot of people want to write a book. They think of it whimsically, like some accomplishment that doubles as some kind of credential or something you strike off a bucket list. They don't take books seriously (probably because they don't read much . . .). If they did, they'd realize that how much work books are, even after publishing. People call it the publishing world, but it's the publishing industry. It's a business. If someone want to publish, they have to make being a writer, less of a whim, and more of a business, because when a publishing house decides to publish their book, the publishers view it as a business decision. Their book is worth the company's financial risk. Those publishers believe it'll monetarily pay off for them and the author. And a lot of NaNoWriMo, whimsically minded writers don't realize that writing is a career. Yes, writing a book is something you can check off a bucket list, but publishing a book is not.

    I do agree that NaNoWriMo can have its benefits though! It can teach a lot of valuable lessons, and some writers do first drafts better when they blitz write it.