novel writing

So, it’s almost November, and I’m already starting to see blog posts, tweets and emails about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). If you are even tangentially connected to the writing community you’ve no doubt seen them too. This is a self-regulated contest where you, an aspiring writer, set out to write and complete an entire novel in one month. To employ all the clichés, one would expect a lot of writers out there are sending the kids off to Grandma’s, brewing a lot of coffee, sharpening pencils and updating their word processing programs in anticipation of what has in recent years become almost a quasi-religious holiday festival among writers and those who want to become writers. This year, though, I am not going to be one of them.

I see the value of NaNoWriMo as aimed at addressing one specific problem amongst those who want to write novels but previously have not: the motivation problem. Almost everybody knows someone, or more than one person, who says they want to write a book or have a great idea for one. How many of those people, though, actually take the time out of their busy lives–filled, as most of ours are, with work, spouses, kids, holidays, and the daily grind–to sit down and write that novel? One in a hundred? NaNoWriMo seeks to address this problem. “Hey, stop talking about writing that book. Sit down and do it. Everyone else is doing it this month, so you should too.” That’s a good thing. Motivation is probably the #1 problem that prevents people from writing the books in their heads.

Where I think the complications begin, however, is what happens after you get past the motivation problem. Novels are difficult, complicated machines. A good one has thousands of moving parts that fit together just so. Novels have complex internal rhythms and dynamics which often (I would say almost always) surprise the author as they begin to appear. Can you really write a good book, controlling all these moving parts and respecting the internal dynamics in a holistic way, in a 30-day sprint? If you’re a very, very skilled writer, you probably can. It would certainly help if you’ve been planning out the novel, keeping notes, developing characters, practicing dialogue and doing research, for a year or so, and use the NaNoWriMo window to actually get it down on paper. But if you’re doing that, you’re not really “writing” a novel in a month; you’re writing it in a year and a month. And you probably don’t have that many motivation problems anyway. So do you need NaNoWriMo?


Leo Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace” in a single marathon session during the very first NaNoWriMo, in November 1868. (NOT!)

I know that many of the organizers and participants in NaNoWriMo deliberately counsel people not to worry about how “good” the novel is that you’re writing during November, that just getting it down on paper is the goal. Okay–but if you’re serious about the craft of writing and want to produce something you can be proud of, is this approach really going to help you in the long run? It might, if you assume that the process of re-writing and revising the novel you wrote in November is going to take significantly less motivation, and thus be more likely to break across the barrier of your work/spouse/kids/holidays/daily-grind existence to actually get done, than the process of writing it in the first place. In the real world, in my opinion, that assumption is a little naive. Rewriting and revising often takes more motivation, more time and effort and sweat, than the original writing did in the first place.

Thus, if you break your ass writing a schlocky novel in November, what happens on December 1? You’re wrung-out, exhausted, perhaps exhilarated and gratified–and I don’t denigrate the value of this feeling of gratification–but as a practical matter you’re still at the beginning of the process, not anywhere near the end, or even the beginning of the end. Maybe the grueling sprint through the writing process in November will propel you into a similar spell of motivation to rework, revise and fine-tune your work–or, more likely, write it all over again from scratch–in December. And January. And February. And March. Maybe. Or maybe that schlocky novel will get thrown in a drawer, and you’ll realize, “You know what? That sucked. Maybe I should try another idea.” If this happens to you, you’re not necessarily back at square one–the experience of having written your schlocky novel in November is by no means a waste–but again, you’re nowhere near the end of anything. You’re in for a marathon, not a sprint.

I once encountered a NaNoWriMo participant who had come up with a plot for her novel with a random word generator on a website. As foretold by the random generator, the plot had something to do with a man who has severe tax problems with the IRS who gets chased by evil circus clowns, or something. Okay. We’re all different. I don’t doubt there could be a compelling, exciting, funny and worthwhile story written by somebody, somewhere, with a plot like this. But the person who writes that story has got to be passionate about it, or it won’t work. How passionate can you get about a plot determined by a computer? If the passion you have is to get something–anything–on paper by November 30, I suppose it could be worth it, but I posit that if it is what you’re doing is something other than writing a novel. You’re getting your head in the space you need to be to write a novel, or conquering motivation problems, or proving to yourself you can do it. These can all be worthwhile, laudatory goals, and NaNoWriMo may be the way to achieve them. But you’re not really writing a novel.

ZombiesofByzantium sm

This was not written in a month.

I am now completing a horror novel, Doppelgänger, which I hope will be my third for Samhain Publishing. Although it took less time to write than other books I’ve written, I didn’t write it in a month. In fact, the idea that the novel is based on is one that I’ve had in my head since 1989, but I could never, until recently, figure out how to do it. So you could say that I’ve been working on it for 24 years. It took that long to really jell in my head. This is not a novel you write in a month. I have another book in the works, The Valley of Forever, which I began in 2009. I’m about to start the sixth draft. I estimate it might see publication by 2020. It might.

I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade here or smash their dreams. If you want to do NaNoWriMo, do it. Go forth and multiply. But be sure you understand why you’re doing it, what you hope to get out of it, and–most importantly–what the next step will be. If the novel inside you really wants to get out, make sure it’s born right, not necessarily fast. Motivation may not be your problem–or it may not be your most pressing problem.