I’m fully prepared to acknowledge that I’m way, way late to this party, so a lot of this is basically closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out (and won the Kentucky Derby and had grandkids and settled down to a nice relaxing retirement on a farm somewhere. That’s about how late we’re talking.), but I just now–yes, for the first time–found out what the heck NaNoWriMo is, and it’s not a Pokemon character. (Which is unfortunate, as I would like to see Pikachu taken down, but I digress.) For those of you who still don’t know, NaNoWriMo is actually short for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, a bunch of over-caffeinated writers gather (virtually speaking) to write a novel. The “contest” is to write a novel of 50,000 words (which is really a novella, by the way, but I digress) starting on November 1st and ending on November 30th. 50,000 words in a month.


From the perspective of pure writing, 50K words in 30 days isn’t an impossibility. If you assume between 400-500 words a page, that works out to about four pages a day, which is certainly doable. (Hell, in college there were times when I churned out twenty pages in a night. Yes, this was a terrible idea, and no, I could no longer do that now; kids, don’t try this at home. Or in your dorm room.) Unless you’re doing everything in longhand, or you use the “hunt and pray” typing method, there’s no reason you can’t physically write four pages a day for thirty days. The problem comes, I think, when you start realizing that you actually have to write something other than the same word 50,000 times.

It actually has to, you know, make sense.

And that’s when the enormity of the exercise hits you a bit. I’m certainly not a speed demon (a day job and a family will do that to you 🙂 ), but I can turn out work reasonably quickly when necessary, and as I’ve moved on in my writing career I’ve gotten considerably more efficient. The Third Sign and Icarus each took about two years to write, but that was all while I was working on all of my academic stuff at the same time–including my academic book in between–to say nothing of blog entries, manuscript submission documents, and all that other pesky “life” stuff that kept getting in the way; meanwhile, my current project is already well under way, and I’m confident I’ll have it done well before the two year mark. So I figure I’m somewhere in the middle as far as literary productivity is concerned. But the thought of having to write something over half the size of Icarus in a month is frankly horrifying…because if I were to write 50,000 words in a month, well…

It would be horrendous.

No, seriously. Horrendous. Babies wailing in the streets, sackcloth and ashes, dogs and cats living together in harmony with the previously mentioned retired horse horrendous. It’s not even a matter of writing something which has gaping plot holes and thin characterizations but still somehow functions as a story…a 50,000 chunk of anything which I wrote in a month would be an utterly incoherent mess of bizarre linguistic combinations. I imagine I’d have some cool snippets here and there–flashes of gold in an otherwise irredeemably dark abyss of crap–but on the whole it just wouldn’t make any sense. I can’t write without having at least some vague concept of where I’m going, or without my characters at least having some vague concept of who and where they are, and there’s just no way my brain could function quickly enough to fashion such ideas over the course of a month.

Now in fairness, NaNoWriMo adherents claim that it’s not about quality, but quantity, and that the key thing is just to plow through and get something, anything, written. And they give you an incentive–if you register at the official site, you get this cool looking widget thing which counts the number of words you’ve produced over the course of the month, and if you finish by the deadline you get another cool looking widget thing proclaiming your “victory.” (I’m not sure what you’ve beaten, exactly, but if some demon out there was planning to attack Earth, and the only way to defeat it was by writing a 50K word novel in thirty days, well, that widget might make it think twice. This probably isn’t the standard demonic plan of attack, but I’m just saying.) It feels kind of like the marathon thing–99 percent of the people who run marathons have no chance of winning them, but many marathon runners have told me that just completing it is a victory for them, and I’m certainly not inclined to disagree! And from one point of view, it makes sense: how many people (perhaps even some of you fine folks reading this?) have claimed they always wanted to write a novel if they had the time? Or suggested, even casually, that they’ve got a great idea for a book, and they’ll be starting it any day now (where “now” is defined as “never”)? Lots of them; I was one of them myself some years ago. Give them an incentive and a deadline, and they’re much more likely to actually produce something.

But still, I don’t know. It seems to me that part of writing is that whole process of editing, outlining, rethinking, rewriting, surfing the Internet (sigh), and so on…it’s what slows down your work enough to allow you to produce something reasonably worthwhile. Now sure, you can (and should) always edit your work later…heaven knows I don’t produce anything approaching deathless prose on my first go-round. But when I’m not trying to break the words per minute speed record, I at least feel like I’ve got something to work with once I’ve got an end product. A lot of the NaNoWriMo people say that they just throw their work out when it’s done, that the point was just to have “fun” with it.

Fun–I do not think it means what you think it means.

But beyond that, I can’t imagine (or maybe I’m just too lazy) throwing out something I put that much work into in the first place. Writers write to communicate, and if I’m writing meaningless drivel, what’s the point? I want people to get something out of what I wrote, not just a sense of awe (or pity, perhaps) that I wrote something at all. And it seems to me that NaNoWriMo is much more likely, at least for me, to produce something in the meaningless category than the meaningful one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I guess I don’t get it. But obviously lots of people do, and have gotten value out of the NaNoWriMo experiment. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the process. And if you’ve got one of those cool-looking widget things to share, bring it on. In the meantime, I’m going to go look for that horse. I at least want my saddle back.