If you are a regular on social media, chances are, as November approaches, you would have come across NaNoWriMo, a short form for National Novel Writing Month. It is an annual, global and open for all creative writing platform that encourages the participants to start and complete a 50,000 words novel in the month of November.
Insinuated sometimes as “book writing on steroids” it is an intense and a hectic project was undertaken on one’s own volition. The focus is on quantity rather than quality. Its main purpose is to get the words on paper and defeat the greatest impediment faced by all writers – the writer’s block.
The month sees a large number of inspirational talks, NaNoWriMo coaches, sessions with other writers, peer support and writing buddies beside events, get-togethers and brainstorming sessions which are held all over the globe in major cities. Plus, the aspiring writers can join the conversation remotely. There are official forums for support, advice and criticism and most regions have one or more Municipal Liaisons for organising such events, overnight write-ins and meetups.
There are no restrictions on genre and form and while extensive pre-preparation is allowed the participants cannot start writing earlier than November. The word count at the end of the month is verified using software and anyone who reaches that limit is declared a winner!
NaNoWriMo began in July 1999 with 21 participants in San Francisco Bay area when freelance writer Chris Baty took the initiative. The event was later moved to November “to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.” The event really took off next year onwards witnessing exponential growth in participants and was given publicity by freelance bloggers and various national news organisations. Today around 4 lakh people from across the world participate, making this creative challenge one of a kind.
The idea of writing a novel in a month, with deadlines and peers is interesting in several ways. Firstly, it dismisses the idea that the novel has to evolve gradually and on its own time. Rather, by setting an end date and a word count, it kick-starts the process and treats it as any other project. In this was it is useful for first timers or busy writers who are unable to get the push to finish a novel. Secondly, it is a far cry from a very isolated and elitist idea of the writing process. By inviting all to write and on any genre, it caters to the idea that anyone can write a novel given some motivation. The focus is on discipline rather than on talent. Lastly, it is a break from the idea of the writer as an isolated figure with an ivory tower existence. With participation from across the globe, events and pep talks and even coaches for help, it makes writing a group activity. This may be helpful for writers who may need peer support and may not know who to ask!
However, the exercise should be approached with caution and without expectations in areas that it doesn’t purport to provide – the process can only help in getting the words on paper – whether these see the light of the day is a whole different ballgame. While NaNoWriMo has seen a lot of bestsellers like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Wool by Hugh Howey and The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill etc., the fact remains that these are exceptions rather than a rule. Most novels are never published. This may be due to lack of motivation on the part of writers after the month ends, poor quality of writing since the emphasis is on completion than quality, and mostly because publishing is a competitive industry with editors and agents getting tons of pitches daily and most of these ending in the slush pile.
This has led to some criticism of the exercise as well. One cannot deny that the exercise helps perpetuate the notion that all it takes to write a novel is dogged persistence. This exercise thus may ignore the fact that writing is a combination of talent, imagination, articulation and an understanding of plot, characters and dialogue. Some have pointed out that most writers never revisit the novel for editing and re writes – a vital process and spend less time reading that is crucial for becoming a better writer. Miller in her article, “Better yet, DON’T write that novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy’ declares that “The last thing the world needs is more bad books”. Sarath in her article, “NaNoWriMo – or, here we go again”, writes, “It reduces art form to gimmickry.”
However, taken with the right spirit and dollops of self-reflexive humility the exercise can be fun! Even if the writing is poor and the first draft is never published, still it is an achievement to have finished a massive project. Many may discover latent talents within them. Others may realise that writing is not really their thing and this process of elimination may help them get past the voice in their head telling them it has a story that needs to be told! Moreover, it can be seen as a first step towards learning a craft. With continuous practice, feedback and the tortuous process of editing writers can see real improvements. In any case, the writing space is getting democratised and what might work is anybody’s guess. Often the difference between bad and good writing is an elitist conceit and with fresh voices coming in, the readers are also becoming more experimental and open.
So if you think you can write a little more than 1000 words a day and last through the month to tell your tale, give it a try. In the worst-case scenario, you can cringe-laugh over your bad writing and in the best case, you may genuinely surprise yourself.
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