Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Short Haul: NaNoWriMo

Two weeks ago I posted about my problems tying up my manuscript in a timely fashion. While I’ve been pushing my poetry around with my fork, however, thousands upon thousands of people are participating in NaNoWriMo—or National Novel Writing Month—where participants have to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. I heard about NaNoWriMo too late to consider participating, and besides, as a grad student I am now lacking time to do basic things like laundry and sleeping, so cramming novel writing into my schedule is simply not possible. However, I did have time to pick up Chris Baty’s NaNoWriMo instructional book No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, and even read about half of it.

Though I haven’t written fiction since my first year of university, NaNoWriMo intrigues me. Focusing on poetry has paralyzed me when it comes to other genres—I assume I can’t write anything but poetry, and feel almost arrogant delving into fiction without making a serious effort to learn about writing techniques first. I’m also just afraid I can’t do it. I have a hard time dreaming up plots, and I can’t write dialogue to save my life. However, I have two ideas for short fiction projects that I would really like to work on that I have shamefully shelved in some back corner of my brain. Well, no more. In December, I am going to attempt this NaNoWriMo thing.

While I can imagine a number of literary objections to NaNoWriMo, there are a lot of things about the idea that I find exciting, if not genuinely helpful. No Plot emphasizes that the book you will write in a month will probably be doomed to mediocrity, but that it will provide you with a complete first draft you can work on afterwards. A fellow writer who has participated in speed novel writing contests suggested to me that this may be less straight forward than it seems, since once written, changing the direction of the book can prove difficult. Because my project idea is a series of interconnected short stories, however, I’m hoping that I may be able to avoid this pitfall and have an easier time making changes to sections without having to rip up the whole book. Even so, I have accepted that my book will not be great… but I do think working on it will make me a better writer.

Since I heard about the contest and resolved to attempt it, I’ve been excited to work on the stories, and have started to sketch out some details about characters and events I’d like to write about. I feel enthusiastic about the prospect of working on the book. As No Plot suggests, casting off expectations of competence and literary merit have allowed me to stop feeling afraid of fiction, and to approach actually writing it. Overcoming this inhibition is the first step for me to actually learning how to write fiction, and even though this first effort may not turn out well, at least I will have tried. Most importantly, however, I am convinced that writing 1,667 words a day every day in December will improve my writing skills. If practice makes perfect, then NaNoWriMo seems like a valid strategy for a beginning fiction writer.

Finally, No Plot emphasizes that NaNoWriMo will help you finish your book by sending legions of guilt monkeys to harass you should you falter or try to give up after committing to the plan. The book also encourages you to brag widely about your novel writing plans so that shame will force you to write, and that’s why I have written this post. Whether I will produce anything of merit is uncertain, but if nothing else, I hope to join the 30,000 people last year who succeeded in their NaNoWriMo efforts.

Helen Hajnoczky's first book, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is NOW AVAILABLE from Snare Books. It took more than a month to write.

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