National Novel Writing Month is for the Faint of Heart
“Remember above all things, Kid, that to write is not difficult, not painful, that it comes out of you with ease, that you can whip up a little tale in no time...”
November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it’s abbreviated. It’s a call to action for professional and amateur writers alike, to spend exactly 30 days drafting a story of fiction of at least 50,000 words. It’s a big task to take on, no doubt about it. But as someone who makes his living as a writer, someone who engages in perverted fantasies of selling a novel that reaches literary legend status, this is an idea and a challenge for the weak and fearful.
Jack Kerouac is lauded as one of America’s — if not one of the world’s — greatest writers. He helped define a movement and change the way we read, write, and perceive. If he had only published one book, On the Road, his effect would have remained the same. He wrote On the Road in just three weeks. In the copy of the book I own, his story spans three hundred seven pages. The average word count per page is two hundred fifty. That means that his masterpiece is more than double that of what NaNoWriMo is encouraging its writers to complete — minus seven days.
Kerouac was a maniac. Most of the greats are, but most of the greats didn’t write their defining work in less than a month. When he said that writing was easy, he wasn’t being completely honest. Writing is easy. Writing something good is hard. Writing something that sells is even harder than that. And selling it to an agent or an editor for old fashioned publication is the hardest part of it all. And then there’s the editing process. The never ending, existence-questioning, soul-crushing, pack-a-day-habit-forming editing required to make it ready for publication. Because once it’s out there, it’s out there. NaNoWriMo doesn’t account for that part of the psychotic journey.
The whole truth is that even when you’re thrumming along in the groove of your life and the words are flowing like an infant boy’s piss stream, hardship is skulking right around the corner. Maybe it’s under your mug of tea, the one with cutesy writing on it — you know, your writing mug. You’re going along and without any obvious provocation you stop. You don’t know what to say. The words escape you. But you continue on because you’re a writer and writers write, after all. And it feels like you’d have better luck getting published if you walked away from the keyboard and gargled nails instead.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We should try. We must try. But we must also remind ourselves that writing a novel is not a, um, novelty. It’s fucking war.
Six years ago in late October, I set out with one of my best pals and fellow writer, Jarret Keene, to a lakeside cabin in the woods of southwestern Michigan with the strict directive of writing 50,000 words in seven days. We were idiots for thinking we could do it. But it had to be done. We had stories to tell. Stories that have been banging against the inside of our heads for years. It was time for the stories to come out. And there was no way we were ever going to complete these novels by finding time in our regular lives to write them.
Because our regular lives are filled with commitments, monied projects, friends, wives, kids, girlfriends, parents, meals, and bathroom breaks. All these things simply get in the way of the writing mission and so, we turned off the internet, shut down our phones and set up a writer’s sweatshop in a gorgeous and quiet hideout far away from anyone and anything that would deter from the mission. No TV, no women, no booze.
Because the important thing is discipline. Those participating in National Novel Writing Month will need that above all else. And if these participants can do it, I applaud them. But not loudly. Because I can’t help but think National Novel Writing Month is just a big circle jerk of literary heroes and wannabes. Because here’s the thing; if you want to write a novel, you’ll write the damn novel. You shouldn’t need a special month set aside to do it. Because in addition to the stress and mental pains you’ll incur throughout these 30 days, you have that terrible deadline of November 30 staring you in the face. Deadlines are good. Most of us work better on them, I know most writers certainly do. But a hard stop for a novel with only 30 days to do it, is just absurd. You’ll be writing against time instead of writing to your story. That makes it dishonest. And no one likes a liar. Ask James Frey. (Unless of course you come right out and say it’s fiction, then everyone loves a liar and hopes you lie more.)
For seven days, Keene and I were liars. We wrote from mid-morning until early morning of the next day stopping only for egg and bologna sandwiches, to make another pot of coffee, and to walk around our camp, fearing if we didn’t move our bodies, embolisms would leave us dead in our chairs.
The first day there, I wrote approximately 5,000 words. The next day, I threw them all away and wrote another 5,000 words. The day after that, I panicked. I didn’t know how to tell the story, though I knew it well. I stood up from my chair across the long wooden table where Keene was steadily chopping away at his work and barked, “Christ! I can’t do this. I need to… go.” I grabbed a few books we’d brought with us and ran out of the house raving about my inadequacies. After several hours of reevaluating the story, the process, and everything I knew about myself, I had my story structure back in place. Keene came looking for me. By that time, I was wandering the grounds trying to understand the effect erosion has on property value. I couldn’t explain this concern to you today if I tried. It was pure mania.
We headed back to the sweatshop, he poured me a cup of coffee and I wrote out my plot and the characters on several pages of a legal pad. After four hours of scripting out my book, I started to type it. Six hours later, it was well into the next day and I had churned out over 6,000 words. And they weren’t all that bad.
When we were in it — our stories — punching away at the keys, man, I tell you we flew, we thrummed, we were machines, we were gods. It was when we stopped for the bit of sleep we did allow ourselves that things got bad. Keene howled at the walls as he lay in his bed. Moaning with pain, “Why? What am I doing?” I had dreams that I was still writing. When I woke 20 minutes later, I was heartbroken to realize that I hadn’t written what my subconscious had. We said to each other, “What are we doing here? Why are we doing this? What sort of monster writes a novel? This is hard.” We both understood why so many of our favorite writers ended up blowing their brains out — it’s far more satisfying than writing.
We didn’t reach 50,000 words in seven days. We knew we wouldn’t. But we had to chase that goal. What we did get was about 25,000 words each in those seven days. But they’re good words, slightly edited words. That’s half a novel. It’s a helluva start: half of two decent first drafts. We’ll finish them at a much slower pace with the howling and the sleepless psychosis in polite check. But we will finish them. And when we do, we’ll re-write them because the first draft is never on the bookshelf. Even Kerouac made edits to his On the Road manuscript.
Although founded in 1999, Keene and I hadn’t heard of National Novel Writing Month until after we returned home from our sweatshop in early November. We laughed at the idea because we felt superior to the NaNoWriMo participants. We may not have finished our novels in our week away, but all we needed was one more. If we could have kept up that maniac’s pace for another seven days, we’d have written the 50,000 words and been able to put a serious edit on the things. We were fully committed. Mind, body, spirit. It wasn’t easy or comfortable, and yet, it was the best we had ever felt. Completely savage and raw and when we were feeling our most savage and raw, that’s when the great stuff really came out.
I wonder if NaNoWriMo writers are going underground or just trying to squeeze this work in among their human daily activities. If so, I warn them against it. Their work may suffer. If they want to really bang something out, they need to disassociate themselves from their lives.
Because when you make the commitment to turning out a true piece of fiction, you end up taking yourself apart and seeing what you’re really made of and what’s really in there among the guts and bones and blood. And once you realize it’s all just junk and shit and bile, then you can find a quiet place to write your story and commit to making it good. And you won’t do it for some collective online glory with strangers, you’ll do it for yourself, then in hopes of someone somewhere one day reading what you wrote and think, “Damn. That was good. I feel something. I want more.”
But you won’t wait until November to do it. You’ll wait until you can’t wait any longer. You’ll wait until the story is bursting at the seams of your skull. You’ll wait until you’re alone — far away from those you care about so you can become the beast. Or you’ll wait until you can head off with another equally lonely psychopath ripping his (or her) insides up, too.