Are you listening?
Come on now, drop the knife...

Lonely, obsessive, and slightly nuts. And that's a bad thing?

Autumn does seem to have arrived, doesn't it? And it's not just the weather and the plum jam-and-crumpets; across the aspiring writer world, the first thing that's asked once the sand's been shaken out of the beach towels, and the piles of post and pizza menus combed for those dishearteningly fat SAEs, is, 'Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?

NaNoWriMo, for the unintiated, is National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that those who sign up spend November writing, furiously, towards the standard goal of a 50,000 word novel. The website makes no bones about the focus of the whole thing: "the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality." The website also has busy, supportive forums, places to track and/or post your wordcount, and post some or all of your novel. In NaNoWriMo's home, the US, there's even schools-based Young Writers programme. On November 3rd a great many aspiring writers decide it's not for them, but at midnight on November 30th, a great many other, baggy-eyed, hysterical, triumphant NaNo-ers bow their heads to the smoking keyboard, listen to the shrieks going up from the forums, and wait to receive a downloadable certificate of achievement. 

And, as Autumn follows Summer, if there's a slow news day on the literary pages, a journalist will ring up a big-name agent or publisher or author or six, and say, 'Can you write a good novel in a month?' and the agents or publishers will say, 'No.' And the writers will say, 'No. You can't write any novel in a month. Writing's all in the re-writing, the long hard slog, the professionalism and the craft. You don't understand; it's not just about doing a bit of sitting down and scribbling.' 

I think agents and publishers say that because they dread the slush that's going to pour through the door around 15th December (you need two weeks to sort out the stamps and covering letters), but I think it's also because many of them don't understand how the process of writing works. And the authors certainly say that because it's true, and because every single one of us is sick to death of people saying at parties that they've always wanted to write a novel, but just don't have the time to sit down. (It's right up there with, 'Hoping to be the next J K Rowling, eh?' for inducing homicidal thoughts. Pray it's a finger buffet, not something involving steak knives: though I'll give evidence in court in your defence if you need me to.)

So I ought to be agreeing with them, and I do, sort of. On the other hand, I know several writers whose published novels started life as a NaNo project. Which just goes to show that it depends what you mean by 'Write', 'Good,' 'Novel' and 'No.' True, 50,000 is too short for pretty much any adult novel to find a publisher these days [ETA: more on lengths of novels here]. But what do you mean by 'Write'? If we're talking publishable, then 'No' stands. But the key to it all is a bit further down in the NaNo FAQ's:

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.

In other words, thinking quantity, not quality, disarms your Inner Critic: who cares if it's not perfect? 'Write' in this sense just means Shitty First Draft, and if we're in that territory, then 'Good' is beside the point. Good comes later. For now, just keep going! Never mind if your friends are all down the pub, it's only a month, they'll know you love them again before Christmas. Forgotten a character's name/hair-colour/psychopathic tendencies? No time to look back, make a note, keep going. And then on November 30th you look up and find you have a story: it has characters who talk and walk. Sometimes they surprised you, but you didn't have time to argue, you just followed where they seemed to be going. It uses words you'd forgotten you knew, peculiar relatives you spend most of your life avoiding, a deeply frightening thing that happened when you were twelve, and you never told anyone. It has a shape, a beginning, a middle and -- well, you didn't quite make the end of the story but now you know how it needs to go, and there's the Christmas holidays to finish it. And if it's going to end like that, then that bit at the beginning will need a bit of a re-think, but that's okay. And the middle bit, when you'd really got into your stride, now that really is Good, even though you weren't trying to do good writing. Maybe because you weren't trying to do good writing...

No, the vast, vast, vast majority of what's written won't get anywhere near a publishing contract. I suspect NaNoWriMo shows a lot of people that the life of an aspiring writer (which is the necessary prelude to that contract) isn't for them, and in human terms that's as positive a result as being shown that it is. But either way, there's human value in knowing that all round the world, others are going through it too. Writers are by nature solitary: all too often they're also lonely, obsessive and slightly nuts. NaNoWriMo takes all those characteristics, and makes them make sense. If November wasn't the worst possible time to start my new novel - what with A Secret Alchemy being published on the 13th, and all - I'd be sorely tempted to join in.

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