To NaNo or Not to NaNo?

Now that the midterm elections are over, the burning question this November seems to be whether National Novel Writing Month is worth your time or not. Salon’s Laura Miller, in an article entitled Better yet, DON’T write that novel, has suggested there are enough novelists pounding away out there already, thanks, and people’s time might better be spent reading. That didn’t exactly prove to be a popular stance. The post collected a bunch of seriously vituperative comments (“Well aren’t you just the Queen of Everything”) and sparked a number of responses, including Carolyn Kellogg’s pissed-off point-by-point dismantling over at Jacket Copy.

While I get Miller’s point that there’s plenty of dreck out there clamoring for attention, I can’t see any reason to discourage people from taking on a project that excites them. Writers already have enough voices in their heads asking them why they bother. And it’s not like there are a finite number of words in the universe that could be overfished if we’re not careful. Creativity is a good buzz, and sometimes working under imposed constraints can spark some real inspiration. And sometimes not, but that’s no concern of anyone else’s.

For those who are taking the plunge—and for those who aren’t—GalleyCat has been posting NaNoWriMo tips. They range from desktop declutterers to cliche finders to name generators. What might be more helpful in terms of summoning the muse, though, is a series in progress at This Recording (parts one and two are up so far) featuring writers’ words on writing. This isn’t Elmore Leonard browbeating us about not using adverbs again, but rather a well-chosen collection of thoughts on craft by its practitioners. Many of them were new to me, and my favorites were inspiring for their sheer practicality. Henry Miller warns against idea intoxication; Toni Morrison talks of writing in her head on the subway; Margaret Atwood advises carrying two pencils at a time, in case one breaks. Kurt Vonnegut says:

When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

Joyce Carol Oates:

My method is one of continuous revision. While writing a long novel, every day I loop back to earlier sections to rewrite, in order to maintain a consistent, fluid voice. When I write the final two or three chapters of a novel, I write them simultaneously with the rewriting of the opening, so that, ideally at least, the novel is like a river uniformly flowing, each passage concurrent with all the others.

And Anton Chekhov:

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.

For further inspiration, and reassurance that everyone starts somewhere, I also recommend Fictionaut’s Line Breaks series, in which some excellent authors share and discuss some of their earliest published work. The most recent installment is Charles Baxter:

I wrote “Gershwin’s Second Prelude” in my mid-30s, at a time when I was contemplating the idea of quitting the writing life altogether. I had finished three novels that no one wanted to publish, and to say that I was down in the dumps would understate the matter. A friend had asked us to store his spinet piano in our house for a year (he was off in Europe), and so for weeks I tried to learn Gershwin’s second prelude. Couldn’t do that either: the opening chords were too wide for my left hand. I wrote the story to buck myself up: it’s about being brave in the face of multiple failures.

Even if you’re not writing a novel this month—even if you’re just sitting down at the computer this weekend to pound out a review or a draft for a short story or a thank-you note to your grandma—you would do well to advise your inner critic, and any number of outer ones, to just leave you alone for a little while. There’s always time to fix things if you make the time to do them in the first place.

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3 Comments to To NaNo or Not to NaNo?

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