NaNoWriMo: Pep Talk

I confess I am fanatical about National Novel Writing Month. The crazy idea thought up by Chris Baty way back in 1999 literally changed my life in 2006. The year before I had undergone a couple of life-altering events, so perhaps I was simply open to new experiences. I don’t know. Whatever psychological process was at play, I ended up catching the writing bug and have been an advocate for the November challenge ever since.

My friends are by now, after eight years, used to my prodding and encouraging them — my pep talks, as it were — to do NaNoWriMo, and I’ve been successful in getting several to attempt—and win!—the challenge. Everyone I’ve encouraged has been gracious or curious or thrilled.

Except one person.

A couple of years ago I sent an (probably overly) enthusiastic “join me!” message to a friend who had just landed a publishing contract. Her response, dripping with condescension, was quite off-putting. It went something like “you go do your little writing contest, I have real writing to do.” I skulked back to my October outline hurt and confused. Why would another writer, and a friend, say such a thing? (I think I wrote The Pleasure Device that year.)

So, I was ecstatic when I read NaNoWriMo 2013’s first “Pep Talk” from Rainbow Rowell. Rowell once had a similar opinion as my friend did about NaNoWriMo:

I was very skeptical about NaNoWriMo at first.

It seemed like something that amateur writers would do. Or young writers. People who needed to be tricked into finishing their books. I’d already written two books by October 2011, and sold them to publishers, and I couldn’t imagine writing either of them—or anything good—in a month.

That’s not writing, I thought, that’s just piling up words.

Yet, she quickly gets to the heart of the event:

But then I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a pile of 50,000 words…

Maybe some writers enjoy the first draft … I hate that part. All I can think about when I’m starting a book are all the words I haven’t written yet. …

I like having something to work with.

There is an aphorism for writers that gets repeated often and the basic gist is: you can’t edit words that haven’t been written. I think the source is Nora Roberts, but the below is from Jodi Picoult:

I may write garbage, but you can always edit garbage. You can’t edit a blank page.

Chuck Wendig has a similar maxim:

Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.

I’d like to throw in some added pep: You can’t publish if there are no words.

Like Rowell, I really like the idea of having 50,000 words at the end of November. NaNoWriMo isn’t a silly contest where you spew crap and nonsense, it’s a guided process where you spew crap and nonsense—kidding!—where you spew 50,000 not-quite-so-perfect words that will become more perfect when you enter the editing stage, and will probably grow to a novel-length 70,000 or 80,000 words.

I seem to recall that my friend announced an entire year later that she had written a “really rough draft that will probably mostly be chucked.” To be honest, I prefer to write that chuckable draft in 30 days of literary abandon.

One final bit of pep from Rowell, a thought that really rang true with me:

Here’s something that really shocked me during my revisions: I kept almost every word I wrote during NaNoWriMo.

That 50,000-word pile I made wasn’t a mess at all.

Once one knows how to write—how to plot, develop characters, maintain point of view, not use too many adverbs (scratch that: use as many adverbs as you want during November)—then the basic draft comes fairly easily. You learn how to write by writing. What better way to write than during a month-long, fun, seat-of-your-pants wild ride with over 300,000 other novelists worldwide?

And some of those novelists actually get published.

NaNoWriMo 2013, Day 2: 3595 words.