NaNoWriMo has officially begun, and the air is thick with clouds of writer pheromones. I have dutifully entered words into my 30-day trial version of Scrivener, taking my first step toward the goal of entering more words.
So, some general observations about the whole thing.
First off I’ll say that the NaNo website is very good at selling you on the whole NaNoWriMo Experience. I’ve been getting E-mails regularly over the last two weeks getting me hyped up about how holy shit it’s almost November and ALL REAL LIFE WILL CEASE and THE LITERARY JOURNEY IS ABOUT TO BEGIN which strangely causes the same sort of anticipation that I feel before going on holiday somewhere. It really pushes the idea that you’re not just some random person signing up to a forum- you’re an Official NaNoWriMo Participant. No- an Official NaNoWriMo Author. Ah, there’s that hit of sweet, sweet validation.
Likewise, the forum really helps to mentally transition what is at its heart a very solitary and sometimes lonely hobby into a communal effort, which is nice. However, I can’t help but think that there are a few major flaws in all of this that may be doing more harm than good.
There’s a section on the site where you can enter the details of your budding noveule, which you are encouraged to do as part of the sign-up process, with title, genre, synopsis and excerpt- just like a real-person book! Look at it, sitting there on your virtual shelf! Shortly after entering the details for my upcoming masterpiece Bathysphere Arisen: A Steampunk Cthulhu Adventure* I realized that I had just created a digital footprint for something that I had not actually written a single word of. I kind of get the feeling that this is sending the wrong message upfront, that people are encouraged to think of their noveil as a real, concrete entity before they’ve even started working on it, which could breed a sense of complacency. If I was designing this thing I think I’d have the novel information locked until a participant has reached their word limit, saving it as a sort of reward for completing the word-count. You do the work, then you get to have your story sitting proudly on your little internet shelf. I really feel like that would be a pretty powerful motivator.
When it comes to the forums, I couldn’t help but notice that there are individual sections for stuff like plot, character, research, finding names for things and reaching 50,000K (about which more in a future post because I found a thread in there that blows my mind) but as far as I can tell there’s no sub-forum for prose or general writing quality, and indeed most of the discussion on the forums seems not to focus on this subject. There’s a “Writing 101” section but that seems to focus on either the basics of writing in English or fairly vague and esoteric topics like writing from a gender POV that isn’t your own, as opposed to something like “here’s how to make your prose not suck donkey balls”.
I get that this thing only lasts a months and that’s not really enough time to make any considerable improvements in writing quality, so in a sense there’s an assumption that people are going into this at whatever skill level they already have, but I feel like there are a lot of really basic mistakes you could steer people away from just by pointing them out- stuff like “don’t pair every line of dialogue with an action” or “you can just use “he said” or “she said” most of the time instead of coming up with variations” or “don’t use purple prose, keep it simple”.
Okay, enough complaining. I’ve received my first official real-author pep talk, although sadly it’s not our friend pat Rothfuss’ one. The pep talk is from Rainbow Rowell, who apparently got published with a NaNo project (although this wasn’t her debut) and she
Wait no, I found something else to complain about!
I can understand why the NaNo writers who have actually made it big are held up as an example, motivation and all that, but at the same time this feels disingenuous considering that a lot of the culture surrounding NaNoWriMo (and once again I’m aware I’m only talking about the official site here) seems to actively encourage participants to view the project as a lark that they shouldn’t take too seriously. I’ll be talking more about that later, but it’s this weird contradiction between “what you’re writing is really important and you could totally get published”- which is the subject of Rowell’s pep talk- and “this is solely for fun, just bang out whatever nonsense comes into your head if it inflates your word count” which seems to be the prevailing attitude among a lot of NaNoers.
The other issue with championing the published NaNo authors is that they’re a vanishingly small minority. 99.999% of the NaNo projects being worked on now that are intended to be published will never get anywhere close. 99.9% of the NaNo participants trying to get published will never get published.
I realize this sounds like I’m saying “you’ll never make it so don’t try”, but that’s really not my aim here. It just kind of breaks my heart when I see aspiring authors who aren’t aware of the realities of the industry they’re trying to break into and have a wildly optimistic expectation of how likely they are to succeed, because chances are they’re going to be disappointed. Waving the published NaNo authors around and saying “you can totally do it!” is feeding into this if there isn’t an equal emphasis on how difficult it is to actually get published and how hard you need to work to do it, especially when you’re all but encouraging bad writing habits at the same time.
But whatever, the participants seem to be just vibrating with excitement (I think I felt a few frissons myself) so I guess that’s the important thing.
*(just so we’re entirely clear, that was a joke)