The Empty Chair: A Eulogy for Leonard Nimoy and Spock
March 5, 2015
How NaNo Worked for Me: Part Two
I had a positive experience with NaNoWrimo, but I believe that is because I went into the experience having been a writer (and a published writer) for most of my life. I've been immersed in the NaNo experience for two years now, and I've had a chance to look at it with an objective eye.
I have grave misgivings about the concept, its practise, and its business model.
The concept is quite simple. At 12:01 in whatever time zone you are located, you begin writing a "novel." The goal is to reach 50,000 words of said novel, at which time you have been deemed a "winner" and told that you have written a "novel." Congratulations. You are now a "real" writer.
The practise is to hook as many people as possible, including very young teens, and throw this brass ring at them. It doesn’t matter, the site says, if what you write is “crap.” (This is the exact word that is used.) “All” first drafts are crap. The point is you have written a novel, and you are now a writer. You qualify for all kinds of writing platforms, and software, and tee shirts, and coffee mugs, and a banner you can put on your Facebook page. Currently my Facebook page says “Camp NaNoWrimo 2014 Winner,” because I did not “win” the 2014 NaNoWrimo.
The business model is part advertisement, part nagging for donations. It has gone from a very small, little-known affair, to a giant monstrosity which supports all sorts of programs and forums for “writers.” Part of the business model is to seek out published writers and have them do “pep talks” about how to write, or how they write, or why the whole world should write. Some of these writers are actually good writers, and, once in a while, one of them has something interesting and useful to say. Lev Grossman comes to mind. Most of the time they are YA authors because apparently people like Veronica Roth are the new Herman Melville.
As you can tell from the tone of this blog, I have a number of objections to the concept, the practise, and the business model. Let’s take a look at each one.
The concept: if you write 50,000 words on one project, you will indeed be a writer and you will indeed have written a novel. This is untrue on so many levels it is difficult to peel them apart. What goes into a novel? The people who are joining NaNo, some of them having written a “NaNo” novel for years and years in a row, all begin their planning of said novel in October, although some of them begin talking about planning it in August and September, after the July camp. Does it take one month to plan a novel? In a word, no. My first novel was in development, unbeknownst to me, for about twenty years. When I began to write it, the characters fell out, and as I was writing, they continued to grow and the plot began to unfold. Did I plan this novel? What does that mean? Did I write a story arc, did I set up scenes, did I write an outline? No. I did two years of research. I did deep background on the characters. I created genealogies and timelines. But I let the novel develop. I didn’t force it. It was only at the end of the novel, when I was pulling all the threads together, that I actually created a detailed timeline so that I knew where every major character was and at what time, and what each one of them was doing.
The issue is two-fold. I don’t necessarily believe that it’s important to plan out every detail of the novel you are just beginning. Yes, you should know your character. As intimately as you can, when you begin, understanding that your character will change and develop over time in mysterious ways that you don’t realise are happening or have happened until you return to the manuscript to edit and revise. And you should know what your character needs, and have an understanding of how to achieve that need, and you should have a general idea of where you’re going to end up. I say “general idea” because endings can and do change, just as your characters do. I had two possible endings for my novel, as I closed in and pulled all those threads together. In one, my protagonist could no longer live with his pain and his damage and he allows himself to die. In the other, my protagonist realises that there is the possibility of hope, in that he might be able to live again. In both scenarios, the antagonist – his father – would die. I did not actually know which ending would occur until I wrote it.
That is a first draft. It takes you in unexpected places. In order for this to work, it cannot be “crap.”
And so we move on to the practise. The practice is teaching people two things: anyone can be a writer, and any novel can come out of a crappy first draft.
No, no, no, no. I have been in publishing since 1981. I have a degree in Creative Writing from a reputable school. I have been published since I was sixteen. This is not true. Why do people assume that it is? Can everyone be an opera singer? No. Can everyone be a sculptor? No. Would anyone even promote those concepts? Of course not. So why is writing suddenly so unimportant, so lesser an art, that anyone can do it? If that were true, just how many Shakespeares would we have? Isn’t that why we only have one? One Shakespeare, one Donne, one Mann, one Lessing, one Woolf? One Joyce? One Stephen King, for pity’s sake. It takes a combination of many, many things to make a writer, a good writer. You have to have an eye, for people, for situations, for nuance, for emotion. You have to know how to observe people, or nature, or animals, or whatever it is you are writing about. I’m assuming we’re talking about fiction, so let’s stick, for the sake of argument, with people. You have to have an ear, for dialogue, for speech patterns, for what isn’t said as much as what is. You have to be able to smell tension, conflict, desire, and need.
But that’s not enough. You also have to be conversant enough in your own language to be able to translate those observations onto a piece of paper. You have to have the skill to write not a basic sentence, but a sentence that informs, that wends its way through your reader’s consciousness, that sings. You have to know your craft. Your characters must be as real to you as they are to your reader, or they are real to no one. And that’s what can’t be taught. I’ve taught writing since 1987. You can create all the characters you want, know everything (you think) about them, but there’s some essence of magic that goes from the brain to the hand to the fingers which creates a character readers care about, and not everyone can do it.
A writer can do it. But not everyone is a writer. Not everyone has a story to tell. And even if you have a story to tell, not everyone has the skill and the talent to tell it.
I’m going to end this here, because you’re probably angry with me right now. I’m an elitist. How dare I?
Read what I’ve said again. And think about it. I have more to say, but we’ll take it one step at a time.