National Novel Writing Month is upon us again, and with more than 75,000 people around the world expected to take part in this 30-day, 50,000 word challenge, a lot of bad writing is about to surge forth into the world. Most of it will, mercifully, never be made public; only a small percentage of it will hit the minimum word limit, and for many of the participants the whole thing will be a painful – although not usually regrettable – experience. But, unlike the endless labour we associate with delivering our hefty ‘one true novel’, NaNoWriMo is a painful experience with a time limit.
I have written before about the art of fast making, and NaNoWriMo adheres to several of the key principles – if your goal is simply to finish something (anything) then you must not care too much about the quality of what you’re doing, you must place it in a different mental box to your romanticised dreams and ambitions, you must protect your motivation (as enthusiasm declines over time) and abandon all reasons or excuses. You’re writing your novel fast because you are, because NaNoWriMo says it’s OK, because 75,000 other people are doing it too.
Horror afficionado and journalist Sarah Dobbs has taken up the challenge twice, in 2006 and 2009. “Both times I finished early, around 20-23rd November. Because I am a swot,” she says. For Sarah, the word count wasn’t a problem. “To get 50,000 words written in 30 days you have to write an average of 1,667 words a day, which isn’t really that much. I gave myself a head start both times by writing 5,000 words on the first day, and I spent one ridiculous weekend in 2006 writing 20,000 words over the space of two days.” The nerdier-minded might have an advantage, here: “I find stats quite motivating, so the word count graph on the NaNoWriMo website was useful, because I liked seeing the graph shoot upwards.”
Sarah’s story testifies to the old “write what you know” adage. “My first novel (I keep wanting to use scare quotes because calling these things novels is a bit grand, really!) was about what happens to the inhabitants of the Big Brother house when there’s a zombie apocalypse. It’s such a great idea that Charlie Brooker apparently had it about the same time. My second one was about a girl struggling to get used to living in London and working in a job she hated while being haunted by a vengeful ghost that, for some reason, lurked in the women’s toilets of her new offices. So, yeah, they were both horror stories, because that’s the genre I know and love the most.”
Although Sarah describes the writing as “really, really fun,” and she “enjoyed just making stuff up without any pressure, without thinking about whether anyone else would ever read it,” she didn’t edit the work afterwards. “I think that’s always going to be an issue with something written that quickly, because you don’t really have time to stop and think about what you’re writing, you just keep going. I don’t have the discipline to work through the structural problems and plot holes and just plain terrible writing I’ve created.”
Would she do it again? “I don’t know if I would,” she says. “Because I think I know myself well enough now to realise that I’m not going to come out with anything worthwhile at the end of it. And I don’t really harbour any dreams of becoming a successful novellist anyway; I just don’t think that’s what I’m good at. But it is a really fun exercise in creativity, and I like the feeling of community you get with other people also struggling to write so much in such a short space of time.”
Programmer Murray Steele took part back in 2002, when the project was only in its third year and still relatively obscure. “I really enjoyed it,” he says. “At the time, I wrote a blog fairly regularly. It was mostly “what have I been up to” stuff, or “zomg, London is weird” experiences and relatively short. Occasionally though, I would write long-form slightly-fictionalised accounts of something I’d been up to. I really enjoyed writing those, and I’d written a few things like that in emails to friends at Uni. When I heard of NaNoWriMo I thought it sounded like it might give me a chance to take those further, so decided to sign up and give it a go.”
Murray enjoyed having this quirky talking point up his sleeve. “I won’t lie, it was fun telling people about it and saying “I’m writing a novel”. Before, during and after, it was a good pub anecdote, and really that’s as good a reason as any for trying something out.”
Several of the people I spoke to described their NaNoWriMo efforts as “pretentious”; it seems time constraints force us into well-worn tropes. “It ended up being about a guy who wanted to be a writer, but kept getting rejected,” says Murray. “In the end it turns out the book you are reading is the book he writes about everything. DO YOU SEE??! Ah HA! THE BOOK IS A MÖBIUS STRIP (my final pretentious flurry).”
Pretentious or not, a clever conceit allowed him to try out a number of different genres. “Because my protagonist is a writer who keeps getting rejected, I could just write “bad” sci-fi or detective fiction and fit it in as excerpts from the main character’s writing work. In truth it was because I didn’t really have a plan to begin with and was just stitching random things together, but I was pleased that I came up with a reason for it, tenuous as it was.”
As with Sarah, Murray found the schedule surprisingly easy to stick to. “Turns out it wasn’t too bad. I broke it down to 1,666 words per day as it was way less daunting than 50,000 in a month and that was probably the only reason I made it,” he says. “I don’t work particularly well when given free rein so the constraints which were easily achievable day-to-day really helped. If I’d left it as just 50,000 in a month I would have ignored it in the middle and then tried to race to the end and probably fail miserably.”
Both Murray and Sarah found it difficult not re-write their work. “Mostly that was because of wanting to stick to the schedule I’d set for myself,” Murray explains. “Rewriting 1000 words just meant I had to write nearly 3000 words the next day,” explains Murray. “I always saw the goal as getting to 50,000, not necessarily producing 50,000 good words.” And although he hasn’t returned to the project since, he recommends it to others: “I think that if writing isn’t something you do a lot of in your day-to-day life, but you would like to do more of, then entering NaNoWriMo (or similar) is quite rewarding.”
I asked my twitter followers how they felt about it, and the responses were revealing. NaNoWriMo is so demanding and so driven by quick, intuitive decisions that it seems to hold up a mirror to its participants, showing just how seriously we are capable of taking ourselves. We walk in with our eyes open, knowing very well that this won’t be our best work, but unable to extinguish the hope that we will surprise ourselves.
The word ‘failure’ comes up a lot. The project seems to attract – and dismay – a particularly driven personality type. Paradoxically, it may be exactly the casual, throwaway vibe that NaNoWriMo projects so well that proves irresistable to the self-pressured. We feel it doesn’t matter, so we have a go, but as soon as we embrace this liberating devil-may-care, no-one-need-read-it attitude we find we are in the game. When we’re not in competition with other writers, we are competition with ourselves, and released from external expectations, we find ourselves free – to make it matter an awful lot, in a deeply personal way. “I tried it two years ago, and it still summons an urge to cry while eating chocolate in the shower,” one former participant told me. “Found it an awful pressure. It doesn’t work for everyone. I found myself competing with my own demons I encounter with work, so it ceased being fun.”
“I have taken part and failed,” said another twitter friend. “I was going to do it this year but have taken on other projects instead. I like the premise, but I’m too concise.” As the years go by, NaNoWriMo snowballs more and more writers of every level of experience and from all around the world, but what they all have in common is their curiosity. What will it be like? What will they learn about writing, and about themselves? For many of the people I spoke to, a passable first would simply be a happy side-product of an interesting and unique experience.
It’s not just for first-timers, either. For professional writers there are creative challenges to be invented, even within the existing constraints. “One year I wrote a piece of flash fiction every day instead,” tweeted one. “Lower word count, but 30 stories is a challenge.” Their standards already established, some writers are put off by the seeming impossibility of creating anything of value, “I was going to do it, but am now thinking of changing my mind,” one told me. “Any ‘novel’ will be a stream-of-consciousness ‘experimental’ mess.”
But just because NaNoWriMo is an option for everyone, not everyone will find it possible. Asked why she wasn’t taking part, one working mum said, “Time, basically.” And there’s the crux of it. A month might not be a long time to write a novel, but for many of us, it’s a long time to think about nothing else.