Friday, November 11, 2011

National Novel Writing Month

Have you been sharpening your pencils and limbering up your typing fingers, maybe doing a few keyboard calisthenics to avoid a nasty sprained phalange? November is National Novel Writing Month, a month supposedly dedicated to creating that novel you've always meant to write but have put off for whatever reason. You know how it is with excuses, it seems I remember a saying about excuses…but I digress.

I’m all for people finding their inner novelist and following their muse. There are no barbed wire fences, no passports, and no border guards along the borders of the Land of Creativity. You don’t need to be vetted or qualified to write. Just pick up preferred writing implement and begin. That’s it, just write.

There does seem to be a certain cultural thing about writing. If you’re a published author there’s an easy experiment you can perform to experience this phenomena first hand. Simply choose a group of individuals and casually mention you’re a novelist. There’ll be a few questions about the profession, maybe even some circumscribe words about buying your book, but eventually you will hear “I’ve thought about writing a book…” It seems to be a constant across the conversational landscape. Whether you’re in a restaurant, at a party, or any other get-together formal and informal, the scenario plays out in the same way. Nobody would respond to Bruce Jenner with a “I’ve always thought about winning a decathlon…” or tell a surgeon “Just last week I was saying how I’d like to do an appendectomy” but mention writing a novel and suddenly everyone’s Steinbeck.

Maybe the root lies in the part stories play in everyone’s life. We grow up with them, starting with story time in kindergarten and maturing into the various book circles and young reader contests that have become a part of the grade school landscape. Stories have a place at our hearths too. If you’re like me, you had uncles, aunts, grandparents, parents, and siblings who spun tales that knitted the family together and formed a shared history. I think it’s this second sort of story, the lived story, which convinces everyone they could be a novelist. I break the family-centric story into two classes: the Guess What Happened and the Family Legend.

The Guess What Happened story is, well, exactly what it sounds like. It’s a retelling of an event, usually focused on how dumb/irritating/difficult some person/task/place was and the way the teller brought it to a satisfactory or unsatisfactory conclusion. In my youth these everyday stories were as utilitarian as melmac, they conveyed emotion and explained day to day realities. They lived in our kitchen, around the dinner table, and in the family car, lifted into the back seat on the warm breeze that came in through the driver’s side wing-glass. Looking back I can’t recall any of them in detail, they came and went, beginning as thoughts and breath and then returning to nothingness.

Family Legends are a different class all together. A legend tells of an extraordinary event (at least within the bounds of family life). There are no legendary tales of the price of gas going up or how many people were at the bank. In my family, legends (at least the ones I remember) usually it had a humorous element. I recall stories of exploding rocks, gunpowder rockets, attic ghosts, mousetraps that caught humans, and a dozen others. These stories ritually appeared at the holidays, repeated by their traditional tellers as a way of reaffirming bonds and confirming rank within the pack. To this day I miss the tales of my grandfather and grandmother and a part of the holiday season for me is the anticipation of hearing my father’s tales of his youth. Whenever I hear one of the family legends it makes me feel settled feeling, at peace.

The point I’m trying to convey is that we all have these types of stories and though some of them can translate into key elements of a novel or a short story there is more to being a novelist than having a seed of an idea. Being a novelist is the hard (and often thankless) work of growing and pruning the seeds of ideas into a topiary that can be appreciated by many. The nuance that is easily understood within our families doesn’t always translate to a larger audience who are bereft of the experiences which are integral parts of who we are. Not everyone is a novelist and that’s okay. NaNoWriMo seems to imply all it takes to create a manuscript is time spent in front of a screen or page of paper, sweat long enough and a novel will pop out. There’s also the implication you should be able to complete your manuscript within a month. I suspect that the time limit turns as many (potentially good) writers away from the art as it inspires to “try harder and focus” but I think the concept needs a little analysis. For the purpose of this thought experiment, I’m assuming the author will be writing a pretty basic (possibly even short) science fiction novel of 100 thousand words.

November has 30 days, at least according to the childhood rhyme, and to accomplish our goal we will need to write approximately 3300 words/day in order to be successful. Thirty days comes to 720 hours, however not all of them are available. We’ll assume a healthy 8 hours of sleep a night, taking away 240 hours off the top and bringing the time left to us down to 480 hours. We also have to take out the 8 hours a day spent making money to pay the bills (since the vast majority of authors also hold down a job to support themselves), that removes another 176 hours bringing our available writing time down to 304 hours. Now, if we break down our 100 thousand words over 304 hours we get a rate of approximately 329 words per hour, not an unmanageable wpm even for a one-finger typist. However, you must also remember that you must keep this rate up for every waking hour of every day of every week in the month. I also didn’t take out meals, bathroom breaks, taking the kids to school, grocery shopping, taking a shower, or generally living a life. Oh yes, and let’s not forget Thanksgiving, that holiday where you’ll share the quality time with your family which inspires you with the materials you’ll use to fuel your writing sessions, that will take a day out of your writing schedule too! You probably have caught onto the fact I don’t think this is a reasonable goal. It’s simply my opinion, though.

Many people, authors among them, promote the idea that cramming through NaNoWriMo makes you a better writer. They’re entitled to their opinion; maybe it does help them. Personally I don’t believe cramming equates to an increase in quality. I doubt that there’s objective evidence or statistics showing people who participate in NaNoWriMo are published more often than those who don’t. To me, NaNoWriMo sounds like a gimmick.

You should write because you love it. That should be your only motivation. Sure, you’ll want to be paid but let me assure you there are far more authors out there who aren’t making a living off their work than are. You must love to write, that’s the primary driver. A writing career isn’t a contest and there’s nothing magic about having a taskmaster standing over you as you type. You must love to write because writing the words down is one tenth of getting a novel published.

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