Monday, November 3, 2014


AS I WRITE THIS, we are three days into the 2014 edition of NationalNovel Writing Month. The purpose of NaNoWriMo (as it is known) is to create a novel of at least 50,000 words in length, which means one has to average 1,667 words a day throughout the month of November.
   So how many words of fiction have I written in the last three days?
   And that doesn’t concern me in the least.
   You see, while I have occasionally signed up for NaNoWriMo in the past, mostly to offer encouragement to friends who were taking their first crack at book-length fiction, I don’t believe I ever did so with the intention of actually trying to churn out 2,000 words a day (which would have to be my goal, as I don’t write on Sundays). And this year, I have come to a conclusion that has been festering for a few years … namely that NaNoWriMo is basically a bad idea overall.
   I feel that way for three reasons.
   The first, and most obvious, is that a novel one writes in a month is almost certainly going to be the literary equivalent of a train wreck.
   Yes, I know … Hemingway wrote TheTorrents of Spring in just ten days. But it’s the literary equivalent of a train wreck as well, and it’s widely believed that it was deliberately created as such. When he submitted that manuscript to his then-publisher, Boni & Liveright, they rejected it, releasing Hemingway from his contract with them. Hemingway claimed that this was never his intention, but the fact remains that The Sun Also Rises, which would otherwise have belonged to Boni & Liveright, was sold instead to Scribner’s—a much more desirable publishing house.
   And yes, I know that there are a few hundred traditionally published novels claimed by their authors to have been written during NaNoWriMo. But of that number, I suspect some were merely begun during the November event, others simply worked on during that time … and it’s entirely possible that a few authors merely claimed participation to gain some word-of-mouth publicity.
   Even if all of those books were legitimately created during National Novel Writing Month, they amount, if my math is correct, to fewer than twelve hundredths of one percent of the manuscripts by participants since the event began in 1999. So at least 99.88 percent of what’s written during NaNoWriMo receives no reaction from legitimate publishers other than a gag reflex, and creating something like that hardly seems like a good use of time.
   The sad fact is that most of the novels written at any time of the year are, from a readability standpoint, rubbish … as are a significant fraction of the novels that are ultimately published. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but it hardly seems as if we need a special event to add to those statistics.
   The second reason I’m not keen on NaNoWriMo is that its primary purpose seems to be the creation of trophy novels: books written so one can cross “write a novel” off one’s bucket list.
   The issue I have with this—writing a novel in order to call oneself a novelist—is that it inverts the proper order of things. The real reason one should be writing a novel is to entertain and intrigue readers.
   Was this the reason I got into fiction? Of course not. I wanted the recognition as much as anyone else. But I quickly realized that one does not gain recognition merely by writing. One gains it by being read, and one does that by creating something that is eminently readable.
   The third reason I’m not fond of NaNoWriMo is actually my primary reason, and this is that the basic purpose of the event lies at odds with a fundamental characteristic common to every successful novelist I have known.
   I’m talking about grit.
   “Grit” is an old-fashion word that refers to a particular strength of character—the ability to devote oneself to a goal that cannot be reached quickly or without sacrifice. In terms of the novel, grit is the willingness to sit down at the keyboard every morning, even though you may have known how the story ends now for months, or even for years. It is the ability to write the book and make it moving and beautiful even though you may be sick of the story and wish it would simply go away.
   And 30 days is far too scant a time in which to determine if you have something like that.
   So if you’ve gotten into NaNoWriMo for the camaraderie, or the novelty, or simply because you don’t care to watch what’s being offered on TV this month, then more power to you.
   But if you truly want to be a novelist, you are better off purchasing a truly comfortable chair, and thinking of November as nothing more than the first month of the rest of your life.