Yes, I know that’s not the proper abbreviation, but it’s what I’m more likely to do in November.

A few prosaic words about this mammoth fiction event

NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, has been around for a decade (that is, this will be the tenth event). The idea is to write “a novel”–50,000 words, which is longer than a novella–during the month of November. But, well, it’s not about turning out a readable novel. Quoting from the site:

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

Last year, 100,000 people signed up–and 15,000 “crossed the finish line,” turning out something constituting at least 50,000 countable words. According to the organization, that makes them novelists.

Avoiding the Boojum

It’s tempting to be snarky about this. Writing 50,000 words in one month no more makes you a novelist than buying chaps and the right hat makes you a cowboy. The site lists 27 published novels that began as NaNoWriMo projects. I’m prepared to call those 26 authors (one has done it twice) novelists, not the (presumably) 20,000+ who have “crossed the finish line” one year or another.

At the same time, I think the NaNoWriMo people are on to something–at least for some people. As the site also says, for most people “writing that book” is a “one day” thing–“One day, I’ll write…”

Maybe that’s just as well in most cases…but there are always exceptions, people who really do have a flair for fiction writing but have never managed to put seat in chair and hands on keyboard long enough to do anything about it. At least I think there are–although, I must admit, even as a boring old nonfiction writer I find the urge to say things more than overcomes the inertia of not writing, at least most of the time. Is that less true for fiction?

I’m not going to put down NaNoWriMo: It’s too easy for that snark to turn into a Boojum, and I’m not ready to disappear just yet. (Oh, go look it up.) My guess is that it does free some people enough to result in more creativity, resulting in some worthwhile creations that would otherwise never get written. So only perhaps one-tenth of one percent of “successful” NaNoWriMo manuscripts ever get published–for all I know, only one percent of them (or less) ever gets submitted. For most participants, the journey is the reward. (I’m guessing that most also don’t call themselves novelists or poke fun at novelists who require months or years to complete a book. There’s a little snark on the website also.) For some, the creative juices result in publishable short stories…or maybe just high-quality blog posts.

But not for me

As a teenager, I wrote two science fiction stories. I submitted one of them to Astounding (now called Analog). I got a nice note back from John W. Campbell, rejecting the story but encouraging me to try again. Like an idiot, I eventually lost the note, which would probably be worth, oh, $1 by now.

I also looked at the stories again…and never wrote any more. See, they just weren’t very good, particularly the characterization (or lack thereof).

In college, I tried writing one or two brief humor pieces and taking them to the California Pelican, UC Berkeley’s humor magazine. Jon Carroll–the superb San Francisco Chronicle columnist–was editor at the time. He took the time to explain to me that my writing was OK but, well, I just wasn’t funny, and maybe I shouldn’t try humor. It was excellent advice, and I have since thanked him for it (by email): It saved me wasting time at something I just wasn’t any good at.

I’ve had it pointed out to me why I’ll probably never write good fiction: I’m not observant enough. I don’t pick up enough about people to be able to write strong characters or dialogue–and without strong characters and dialogue, it’s hard to do even mediocre fiction.

So for me, spending 50 hours churning out crap next month would be a waste of 50 hours. (50 hours? I usually write about 1,000 words an hour when I’m in good form, including interlinear editing. Of course, the overall average is a lot less because so much of “writing” isn’t writing at all.) I could probably do it–hell, there’s no question I could produce 50,000 words in a month–but why?


So, for me, November will be NaNoNonMo–National November Nonfiction Month. A time when some of us who don’t do fiction will try to do good nonfiction.

I don’t plan to write 50,000 words next month. I’ve probably written roughly that much over the last 30 days, actually, between the most recent Cites & Insights (22,000 words after editing), a Crawford at Large column for Online (2,000 words), and most of the first half of the manuscript for The Liblog Landscape 2007-2008: A Lateral Look (67,000 words, and I’d guess 30,000 of those were done in the last 30 days).

For November, the goal will be another 25,000 words of new material (the December C&I and another Online column) and revisions and final editing for 67,000 words: I’d love to have the book at Lulu, with proof copy ordered, by the end of November.

National? Well, not really. I’m certainly not suggesting that everybody try to prepare a nonfiction book during November. How about a narrower goal, and only for those of you who already have blogs: Write 5,000 words of interesting prose during November, posting it as appropriate. 5,000 words is ten medium-length blog posts; this post is a little over 1,000 words.

Oh, and if you’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo? Enjoy. Maybe you’ll be the one in a thousand, or maybe you’ll find it energizing in other ways. Just because I’ll never be a good fiction writer doesn’t mean you might not be.

6 Responses to “NaNoNonMo”

  1. I was a NaNoWriMo winner in years three and five. That is, I was one of the people who set out to write a novel, told everyone I was planning to do it, and hit save on the last day of November with a brand new 50,000-word manuscript on my hard drive. November 30, 2001 and 2003 were two of the happiest days of my life, and unquestionably the happiest that was more about me than about my wife or family or close friends. I’ve wanted to write novels since I was six, but it took me until I had reached my thirties to actually write one. There’s no way I would have done it without NaNoWriMo’s ability to mix of encouragement with an all-pervasive self-deprecating attitude that makes the overwhelming seems possible.

    If anyone reading this is thinking about trying to write a novel, give NaNoWriMo a shot. It was even worth it the two years I tried to write a novel but didn’t get to 50,000 words. For one thing, it made me appreciate how hard I’d worked in the years I succeeded in reaching my goal. And it also helped me appreciate just how hard it is to take the next step of preparing a manuscript for an agent or publisher. I spent years trying to get my first NaNoWriMo novel to the point where I would want strangers to read it. It may yet get there, though I doubt it. Which, on one level, is disappointing, but on another level it really doesn’t matter. I know what it feels like to have written a novel. I know what it feels like to have my wife read it and tell me I should quit my day job to work on it. I know what it feels like to spend years editing it. For me, if I hadn’t had those experiences, if NaNoWriMo hadn’t lit a fire under me, I’d always have wondered “What if?” If you’re the same way, try NaNoWriMo. You have nothing to lose but your excuses.

  2. walt says:

    Great comment. It’s clear that NaNoWriMo is positive for a great many people. And it’s clear that some of us need some encouragement to get on our butts and start writing.

    In case my original comment could be misread: I have nothing against fiction. I love good fiction. Any time I’m traveling (or when I go out to lunch at home), you can usually tell by the science fiction magazine or novel (not necessarily SF) I’m reading… I’m just not likely to actually create fiction–a limitation on my part, similar to the unlikelihood that I’ll create great music or films (despite my love of both).

  3. “See, they just weren’t very good …”

    Most first stories aren’t. Also, publishable fiction isn’t necessarily “good” fiction. There’s plenty of genre short stories that have mediocre characterization.

  4. Mark says:

    I can’t even promise myself at this point, but thanks for the suggestion/challenge, Walt.

    I haven’t had much of any kind of output lately–for many reasons–but I think I need something to motivate me a bit and also to aspire to. 5000 words is nothing for me. Interesting? I’ll see what I can do ….

  5. As someone who has done NaNoWriMo and is doing it again this year, but doesn’t care about writing “publishable” fiction (and never really has) (unless you count self-publishing, in which case anything is “publishable”), I find this post to be extremely patronizing and insulting. Thanks for projecting your own writing anxieties & feelings on inadequacy on me and other NaNoWriMo participants.

  6. walt says:

    Extremely patronizing and insulting? Well, so much for charitable reading…

    I wasn’t projecting a thing, and I’m pretty confident of myself as a nonfiction writer. I was saying I’m not a fiction writer, and having a little fun with an idea that seems inclined to have fun with itself.

    Nice little dig about self-publishing, though. So much for Cites & Insights… I stand admonished. Fortunately, I somehow did manage to get a dozen books and a few hundred columns published through regular channels.