Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo - Pros and Cons

I finished my fifth NaNo (short for "National Novel Writing Month," where people from all over the world sign up to accept the challenge to write fifty thousand words on a novel during the month of November). Out of the five years I've done this, this is the first time that I've barely stretched across the finish line on the last day, crossing the 50K mark around 9:30 pm yesterday. I ended up with 51,553 words by midnight and the marathon ended. Every previous year, I hit that before or around Thanksgiving.

So after five years of doing this, what do I see as the pros and cons to it? The day after is a good time to reflect on this.

First, let me dispel what some claim are cons, but are not. So we can get those out of the way.

Fake Con 1: All these people writing crap will flood the market with it, thinking it is some kind of masterpiece.

Some will put them out on the market, when they are not ready. And it can add to the noise of publishing. But when you factor in how much noise is already out there, percentage wise it will not add significantly to it. And the fact is, cream will rise to the top. Even if everyone who participated in NaNo self-published their work, it wouldn't prevent readers from finding what they like. There is a natural weeding out process that takes place through reviews and such. It has always been hard to get noticed as a new writer. This will not make it much harder, if any.

Keep in mind that the biggest majority of NaNo participants will simply file away their manuscript, and it will never see the light of day again. Their goal wasn't to publish a novel, but to either prove to themselves that they could write a novel in one month, or they are simply working on their craft. They know they are not good enough yet but this is concentrated practice time. Only a small percentage of NaNoers will ever send that to an editor/agent, or throw it on the market via self-publishing. And an even smaller percentage of those will actually be something that readers want to read, and will start buying.

Fake Con 2: Anything written in one month has to be crap. It takes months, if not years, to write a truly great novel.

Experience says the opposite. While you will find some literary masterpieces that took years to write, like the "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy, there are others that were written in weeks, and became best sellers and/or classics. Dean Wesley Smith speaks to this much better than I could on his blog post titled "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Speed." The fact is many classics and best sellers have been written within a month or less.

I've seen those two thrown out as to why NaNo is bad, but they are baseless. Myths that some writers believe, but Myths all the same. But onto the pros and cons. First we'll attack the cons.

Con 1: Not getting to the 50K goal can make one feel like a failure as a writer.

This happens when a writer or a region totally misses the point of NaNo. They see the 50K as the line that says, "I'm a good writer," so if you don't make it, you think, "I'm a horrible writer." No, the 50K goal is simply a challenge, a motivation to do one thing: stop worrying about editing and write, freeing the creative mind. Having that goal, that deadline, allows one to push themselves and see what they can do. And many are often surprised.

But there is nothing magical about being able to write 50K words in one month that makes one a good or bad writer. The majority of people who crossed the 50K line last month won't publish what they have, because it is crap. And they know it. Those who don't know it will find out soon enough, probably the hard way. But there is a lot of crap people have spent years pouring over as well.

The problem results when in the heat of the month, the regional leadership, or the writer, sees that 50K mark as a validation of their writing skills and ability. Let me say this: speed has nothing to do with the quality of your work, whether it took two weeks to write it, or ten years. So anyone going into it with this mentality will set yourself up for failure, because you had that nagging feeling in the back of your head that says you're not a good writer, and this proves it. Hogwash.

It proves one of several potential things. You're method and style of writing isn't fit for working in a month time frame. You tried it, didn't work, move on. Or too many real life events kept you away from the computer. Some unavoidable, some not, but stuff happens. Bottom line, you didn't have the approximately two to three hours a day (depending on typing/writing speed) to invest in getting to the mark. Or you ate too much on Thanksgiving, sending you into a state of shock, which you just pulled out of on November 30th.

Con 2: Seeing the 50K as THE goal, and nothing else matters.

The message at times can seem to be just that. Getting to 50K is the end all and be all of what NaNo is about. Do it anyway you can. Some may even "cheat" by copy/pasting, or just typing eileis.  s eiels is els e seis se eis as fast as they can. If you "cheat," you're only harming yourself. It means you've gained nothing from the month long effort, for which the 50K goal is designed to spur the writer to achieve. NaNo would be a total waste of your time.

What that also means is if you don't make it to 50K, say you reached 30K, though you didn't reach the group goal, you still have 30K of a novel written! You still enjoyed the benefit of pushing yourself, despite time limitations. You still got in at a minimum 30K more words of practice, if nothing else. Your time wasn't wasted because you didn't reach the 50K. Yes, you're name won't be on the list. You won't have the "winner" plastered on your progress bar. But you know what? All of that is designed to get you to do one thing: write. You did write, and so you have won where it really counts. The point isn't to reach 50K, that is a goal to spur you to write. If you didn't write something, then you're a loser no matter what the progress bar says, and if you did, you're a winner.

Those are the main two valid cons, and why people might decide NaNo is not worth it for them. The really big logical fallacy happens when that person, taking their limited experience, decides that NaNo must be bad for everyone else too.  Let's say this person is simply not a "fast" writer, in that they have trouble spending more than an hour a day on their work, and stare at the screen the majority of the time. So they think everyone else who writes must write the same way, if they produce decent work. This is because they've bought into the "fast equals low quality" myth.

But every writer is different. Every writer will approach writing in different ways. So it is impossible for one writer to say that they way they write, the speed they write at, and claim it is the only or even best way for all other writers, or even a majority of writers, to follow if they want to produce "quality" stories.

So, what are the pros I've experienced or seen?

Pro 1: It encourages you to write.

When approached in the correct way, the main thing NaNo does is help people who might be future writers, to actually sit down and write something. The first novel I wrote, I did in a month without ever knowing anything about NaNo. It just happened. I'd never done anything like that before in my life, back in October of 2005, but when I finished that rough draft, I knew then that this is what I wanted to do. And I've been working on it ever since.

With motivation to reach a goal and the support of other writers, people will be stretched to do more than they ever have before, and potentially discover that this is what they want to do. Even if they don't make it to 50K, they may have never written anything as big as 20K previously, and find they love it.

Pro 2: It gives a writer motivation to practice their art.

And the one true fact that applies to all but some prodigy kids, is writers have to do one thing if they are to be writers: write. And write a lot. The general figure is that most authors won't reach professional levels of writing until they've written one million words. Because that's how much practice it tends to take for most people. Some may take fewer words or some may take more. But the more you practice, the better you get if you are seeking to learn from your mistakes and take guidance. And that is true even if you're a professional writer with three million words under your belt.

Pro 3: Many discover their creative side is able to produce some really good stuff.

While all writers are different in how they approach things, there is one area that is limited to our physiology. We have a creative and critical side of our brain. And the fact is, for a majority of writers, the critical side will get in the way of the creative side.

There are writers who work best editing as they go. Through whatever training, life experiences, or just the way they are put together, they can switch to the critical thinking mode without disrupting the creative mode's flow and rhythm. But based on what I've read, these folk are not the majority. From several different authors and how they worked, from several editing books I've read, they are practically in 100% agreement that these two modes should be separated if we want to free the creative mind to do its best work.

Problem is, either because it seems right, or because they've been told it is "the right way," many people assume that they should write a scene, then go back and edit it, rewrite it, polish it, before moving onto the next. But not realizing this, they stay stuck in that process, taking years to write it, and maybe even give up on it and toss it in the drawer, never to be pulled out again other than to show relatives what you did.

NaNo can help those folks discover whether they really are edit as you go types, and have not bought into it without critical thinking. For what you'll discover is that when the goal is to attempt to write 50K in a month, and you've never written that much in a year, is that you can't afford the time to let the editor in the door to review what you've written. You're onto the next scene, the next chapter. Then you get to the end of it and look back and say, "Wow, that's actually pretty good. A bit rough, needs some editing, but the plot is so much better than anything I've written to date."

Someone in that state finds out that their better mode of writing is to let the creative side of the brain free reign for a month, free of the editor sticking his nose into everything, with the promise the editor can dig into it uninterrupted by the creative side later on. Or it may be total frustration, and the writer is feeling horrible because they are leaving crap back on page 21 and it is bugging them to no end, that they can't write page 25. Then those people discover either they are locked into a belief system that says it has to be done that way, or have done it that way for so long they find it hard to change, and/or the way they write best is through edit as you go, and this NaNo proves that for them.

In either case, NaNo can be a big help in either showing a writer that they can be much more productive and write better stuff by leaving the editor out of it while writing the first draft, or that they need that editor and can't do without him/her.

Those are my main pros, cons, and even the fake cons thrown in for good measure. I probably haven't covered them all, these are the main ones I see. What are pros and cons you've seen or experienced?

No comments:

Post a Comment