This post might well come across as grumpy. Partly, I’m blaming the weather—as I write, Tokyo is getting its first snowfall in November for 54 years, and it’s grim. Mainly, I’m blaming…well, you’ll see.
I’m talking National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, and the negativity it generates with some writers. For those who don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, it’s basically an initiative that gets people to try and write a 50,000-word novel within November. More here: http://nanowrimo.org. In places like Twitter, I’ve been seeing quite a few fellow writers and people involved in publishing (or claiming to be) moaning about NaNoWriMo, criticizing “amateurs” for wasting time on it, bemoaning the quality of NaNoWriMo work, and plenty more beside.
I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, but I can’t see why any writer (professional or not) would have an issue with people using it to help their writing. In fact, the negativity annoys me. So, in this post, I thought I’d reply to a few of the statements I’ve seen this past month. Here goes:
My slush pile is full of NaNoWriMo junk. First, experience tells me that most agents or publishers who tweet or post about the size of their slush pile (or any writer that brags online for that matter) are like blokes who brag about dick length. Take the socks out of the pants and there’s rarely much there to brag about. But, even if people are submitting hundreds of unedited NaNoWriMo manuscripts to you, how about writing a post that would give advice to people on how best to approach an agent? What about a constructive post about what to do once you’ve finished your draft? Encourage people to edit their own work, not toss it away.
Spending a month writing a novel doesn’t make you a writer. True, but you don’t get to publish a book without writing one in the first place. You have to start with something. You don’t break into whichever field of writing you are into without practicing. And, if you make a living as a writer, why on earth would care if someone who has just finished NaNoWriMo calls themselves a writer, whether they are published or not? It doesn’t affect you or your career. Is it insecurity? Elitism? Just a good opportunity to remind people that you a “real writer”? Or to pretend you are more successful than you really are? Get over it.
In fact, this is what annoys me the most. Many years ago, when I started to tell people I wanted to be a writer, those close to me were supportive. Some people I worked with (as a teacher in Japan back then) weren’t. For the more haggard among them it was a good thing to ridicule me over. “You’ll never make it. Nobody does.” Well, I did. Many others do, too, and it takes a lot of hard work and determination. In my opinion, anyone who puts the effort in and gives it a shot deserves encouragement.
They need it. After more than a decade making a living (solely) as a writer, I’m thick skinned, but I certainly wasn’t when I started. Support and encouragement made a huge difference for me, purely in terms of getting over disappointments and developing the courage to send off work and pitch ideas. Online forums where I could chat with other new writers helped, too (though they aren’t always the best places for accurate advice). I imagine many other professional writers have been through similar stages of development, so why would any of us then criticize others trying to do the same we once did? You don’t have to be a mentor, reply to emails from new writers seeking advice or visit schools to give free talks (though, if you can, please do), but you can resist the urge to shoot down other people’s dreams.
Writing for just one month a year is pointless. I get it. If you want to be a writer, you need to write regularly, but the assumption here is that people who do NaNoWriMo don’t write from December through October. Maybe some don’t, but I bet most do. For some, this is an opportunity to focus even harder; perhaps the one month a year when your spouse will make sacrifices to take on some of your responsibilities and give you and your writing extra support. Who knows? So, why judge? And to get one other thing clear—because some people take the argument to extremes—you don’t actually have to write every day to be or become a writer. I don’t. I’d be amazed if I ever clock more than 50 hours at work a week, admin time included (I average about 40).
If you really want to make it, you don’t need a gimmick like NaNoWriMo for motivation. When I started writing, I had a full-time job and was studying post-grad at nights. I was tired. As I was transitioning into full-time writing (initially by ditching my old day job for a part-time editing gig once my freelance writing work was good enough), fatherhood came along. Becoming a dad was the biggest motivator ever – I wanted to be able to tell my son he could be anything he wanted and back it up by doing so myself. Even with that, there were times I needed other things to push me on, and I got a lot of motivation from (for just one example) signing up to pitching challenges with other writers. If NaNoWriMo motivates you, go for it; it certainly doesn’t mean you don’t really care.