November 1 marked the beginning of National Novel Writing Month 2009, an annual tradition that officially started ten years ago. For a whole month, participants deprive themselves of sleep, establish rigid and demanding word count goals, solicit peer pressure through social media. The idea is that, if you write a certain number of words a day—say, two thousand—you will have the 175-page draft of a novel ready by December 1. Then you can congratulate yourself on a difficult task accomplished or begin the slow work of revision. The NaNoWriMo website encourages you to “aim low” and just write the damn thing. Last year, of the more than 119,000 people who began the task, only 21,683 people completed their novels (defined by NaNoWriMo as “lengthy works of fiction”). It’s hard to write a novel, even a bad one.
Recently there was an article in the New York Times about the controversy surrounding marathons. Too many plodders, the hardcore runners complained: how can you call yourself a marathoner if you walked half the race? I’ve never tried to run a marathon, or even much more than a mile or two, but I can understand the positions taken by both the chubby plodders and the ropy-limbed sprinters. Serious marathoners train for months, much the way (most) serious novelists spend months or years planning, researching, and drafting. People who just want the T-shirt are out there putting one foot in front of the other, trying to finish before they open the roads to traffic. NaNoWriMo participants are to some extent like these plodders: they just want to finish, hoofing their 50,000 words across the finish line.
Though I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, I have written a novel and am trying to write a better one. I won’t be done in a month, and here’s why:
1. First of all, two thousand words is a lot to write in one day, especially if you’re doing this writing before or after a regular job. I don’t have one of these right now, but I think frequently about getting one, and even that takes up time. I usually write between 500 and 1,500 words a day, aiming for 1,000. I read an interview with Marilynne Robinson in which she said she didn’t believe in writing at all if she’s not inspired. Have you read the beginning of Housekeeping? That wasn’t written with “Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die” word counter on the screen.
2. Bad prose doesn’t inspire you to keep writing. My favorite part of the writing day is when I read what I wrote back to myself. This is no fun when the writing doesn’t sound nice.
3. It takes a lot of time to undo bad prose. Or ill-considered plot choices. When I think too hard about word count and page completion, I’m not at my best.
4. A lot of writing a novel is not “word-countable” anyway. It’s thinking about the characters when you wake up, while you’re at the post office, the DMV, the boring lecture, the art museum. It’s giving yourself the time to be influenced, to have your mind changed, to consider possibilities for character development, plot, language.
5. For the same reason I wouldn’t want to read a really great novel in a day, or an hour: I’d be sad when it was over too quickly. Writing a novel–beginning a novel–is a deeply enjoyable, frustrating, rewarding experience. It deserves more than 30 days.
Despite my reasons for avoiding NaNoWriMo, who know what makes something work for the individual? A family friend ran the New York City Marathon in the early 1980s. He didn’t train, smoked while he ran, and was a recovering heroin addict. The story goes that he finished in under four hours. He’s a marathoner if I’ve ever met one.