With November approaching, this is the time of year I start to think about NaNoWriMo. Over the years I’ve had various family members and friends doing it, and some of them have told me I should too. However, I remain almost as hesitant this year as I have been in previous years.
So, what exactly is it?
If, like me five years ago, you’ve never heard of that interesting sounding name, it stands for the National Novel Writing Month. Participants are challenged to complete a novel of at least 50,000 words in the month of November (only 1,667 words a day).
This is largely intended as a writing exercise: There is certainly no requirement to publish the novel at the end of the month. As I understand it, many will shelve their budding novel never to be seen again, while others may edit it substantially in subsequent months. The important point is that the word count got met.
There can also be a significant community element, with various NaNoWriMo events around the world, including in my home town of Melbourne. I like community, at least in principle - so what holds me back?
Silencing that pesky inner critic
I think one of the goals of the program is to get participants actually writing, without worrying too much about making every word perfect. It’s possible that could be really helpful for me: I often write slowly because I’m constantly rewriting at exactly the same time as constantly trying to capture the perfect sentence first time.
However, I’m not confident that I can actually do that, since just about every time I’ve tried it I find myself back to pedantic, critical writer mode within the hour.
Finding an idea
When I was in school, writing stories felt like trying to wring blood out of a stone. I never had any idea of what to write about, and even what I did write was very strongly derivative of whatever I happened to be reading at the time.
For example, I have vivid memories of writing a story in primary school about Gerontius Took’s quest to a distant mountain to kill a dragon and seize a treasure. On that one, my parents made me add a footnote that it was strongly influenced by another book I’d recently discovered. No prizes for guessing which book.
Another I remember from secondary school owed its framing to Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner more than it did to my own imagination, and the story so framed was a chore with nothing interesting about it.
Nowadays, I don’t find writing quite so hard - I have all kinds of ideas for my blog, and the thoughts and opinions that actually make it on there are often in exhaustive (and possibly exhausting) detail. However, I haven’t really been able to transfer that to fiction, mostly because I lack the initial spark of a compelling idea.
Does the world really need more stories?
I have far more works of fiction on my “want to read” list than I’m likely to get to any time soon, and I have friends online and offline who would love to add to that list. There is so much great fiction around that part of me says “Why would anyone want to read my work?” I don’t see myself as the next great fiction writer (or the next great blogger, for that matter).
The official NaNoWriMo website says “Every story matters. Let’s start writing yours”, and talks about the “transformational power of creativity”. And I get it, at least to some extent. If I didn’t believe that my story matters, or if I believed it could be better told by someone else, I wouldn’t be blogging.
I know that part of the point is just that you learn by writing it out, whether or not anyone other than you actually reads it. But in my mind there’s still a big gap between a simple and hopefully factual blog post (even if it’s 5,000 words) and a 50,000 word novel. Perhaps I love fiction too much to tolerate my own efforts.
The lure of the great outdoors
I picture my Northern Hemisphere friends huddling round a fire, with winter fast approaching and snow at the door. What better way of passing the lengthening nights than writing furiously at a burning idea in quest of an arbitrary word limit?
Perhaps even for the Northern Hemisphere that picture fits January better than November. Here in Melbourne, though, the winter is past (though it doesn’t always feel like it). The days are getting longer, and the evenings warmer. I feel the urge to be out and about, not sitting at home writing.
Tonight I walked through the Dandenong Ranges near sunset, admiring the many tall mountain ashes and disturbing a wallaby in the process. Yes, some of the time I was pondering this blog post, but there’s a big difference between pondering it and actually writing real words on screen.
The same is true of the weekends: Yes, I don’t have to go to work, but the spring flowers are out in abundance, as are the birds enjoying them, and when they call me to join them they don’t call in vain. This weekend I was at a few of my favourite local gardens, which is actually where I first conceived this blog post and planned it out. And it is valuable time for thinking, though it can be a tad distracting admiring displays like this (claiming to be the largest Kurume Bowl in the Southern Hemisphere):
There’s also an increased likelihood of taking holidays in (hopefully) better weather. Last year I was away the last week of October and the first week of November, and thus unlikely either to plan a novel or start writing one. This year I could well be away at some point in November, though maybe not for as long.
To be fair, though, this isn’t just about lengthening days and better weather. I don’t think I’d have much more success with NaNoWriMo if I were doing it in May rather than November: yes, the days would be shorter and colder, with winter on the way, but I’d still probably be out there, chasing autumn leaves rather than spring flowers. Plus the longer nights mean extra opportunities for night hikes. Really, I try to stay busy year round, and so I’m not sure NaNoWriMo fits that schedule.
That one great fiction writing experience
I’ve said I have difficulty even thinking of ideas for fiction, let alone writing it. However, there was one brief exception earlier this year.
It was a weekend in March. I had toured Victoria’s mighty desalination plant Saturday morning, then took the chance to camp at Cape Paterson for the weekend. That evening, the cliffs and beaches were bathed in moonlight, and I walked till well after midnight admiring the curious combination of peace above and crashing waves below. Sunday morning I walked some more, and Sunday afternoon I swum in their rock pool for the first time since I was a teenager. Writing fiction was the furthest thing from my mind.
And yet, later that afternoon a friend innocently offered me a writing prompt. It lay dormant in my mind until I reached the nearby Dinosaur Cove, then a starting line popped into my head and I was suddenly obsessed with a burning idea. In the two hour drive home I did almost nothing but play around with different story options, at times laughing hysterically at where those ideas took me (while still, of course, keeping my eyes on the road). Once home I started writing it out, and kept going till the not-so-early hours of the morning before finally forcing myself into bed.
I was back in gainful employment the next day, and I imagine I did get some development work done, but it really felt like the growing story was filling every waking hour. The story changed and morphed as I wrote, until finally it became more of a protest against the obnoxious theory of Divine Command Theory than the simple story I imagined at Dinosaur Cove. Maybe 36 hours after the initial prompt and after another late night I had a first draft of nearly 6,000 words - even after regretfully cutting sections and ideas that I liked but didn’t fit the new concept.
Obviously at that rate I was way ahead of the NaNoWriMo word count. It was the first time I had ever thought “Maybe if I had the right idea I could do this NaNoWriMo thing”. And it was an intoxicating experience, but also somewhat frightening: Yes, sometimes my blog posts can consume me, but never quite to that extent.
That particular story draft has lots of room for improvement, but I do want to publish it on my blog one day. I tried to clean it up over a winter long weekend in June, but spent too long out walking and pondering options and didn’t get enough traction with the actual writing. I might try to get to that over November - it would at least be a more achievable goal than a 50,000 word novel about a yet-to-be-identified idea.
It’s a matter of priorities
The simple reality is that my writing is not my number one priority, no matter how much I want to do it. Yes, I can bump it to number one for a day or two if I’ve got a pressing deadline or a burning idea. But I can’t see myself doing that day after day for a month.
I still want to go to work, go hiking, take and share photos, keep up with the blogs I follow, and spend time with people I love. And I’m sure some people manage to do all these things and still complete NaNoWriMo, but knowing my writing habits as I do I can’t see myself as one of them. Maybe that would change if the right idea sneaked into my brain and took over, but that hasn’t happened yet, and I have no reason to expect it to happen this November.
NaNoWriMo for bloggers
Never fear, though! There’s a variant of NaNoWriMo specifically designed for bloggers. Join me tomorrow* (edit: here) as I explain my blogging philosophy, reveal some drafts that may never see the light of day, and quickly realise that this variant suits me even less than NaNoWriMo itself.
* This blog runs on one or two posts a month, and is not my top priority. There is absolutely no guarantee that the next post will be tomorrow, even though I know exactly what I want to say in it.