November 4, 2016; International Business Times
National Novel Writing Month, commonly known as NaNoWriMo, is back. The movement is a nonprofit initiative for beating writer’s block. This November, thousands of people will briefly change their identities and will themselves into becoming writers.
National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 with 21 participants, with a continuing goal of completing a novel of at least 50,000 words in one month. That first year, six people “won” by completing that goal.
The movement grew at an impressive pace. After three years, in 2001, there were 5,000 participants. In 2005, the year it officially became a nonprofit, there were 59,000. The most recent campaign in 2015 had 351,489 registered participants, 40,423 of whom reached the 50,000-word goal.
About 400 published novels have come out of NaNoWriMo, and a few have even had commercial success: Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus are both products of this marathon writing month.
However, the success of those novels should not be conflated with NaNoWriMo’s goal. Although the organization does recognize participants who get published (or publish themselves), publishing is not part of their organizational mission.
The simplicity of the movement is part of what makes it confusing. The rules do not stipulate any goal for the books beyond being written. Books don’t even have to have an ending, just 50,000 words. (Most novels average around 60,000-80,000 words.) The logical conclusion is to see this month as a start, a springboard, and expect writers to spend December, January, and any other necessary months wrapping up and revising their novels.
However, the site doesn’t offer any guidance for this, or any specific writing guidelines at all. In fact, it explicitly states that the first NaNoWriMo “had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front. Nor did it reflect any hopes we had about tapping more fully into our creative selves. No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twenty-somethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do.”
Dozens of sites, writers, and supporters have published tips for finishing a book, but very few have anything to do with plot structure, grammar, or style; a significant percentage of them boil down to, “Don’t overthink it, just sit down and write.”
NaNoWriMo’s mission statement reads: “National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”
This, undeniably, they do. The site lists 643 regional groups, each its own local chapter head; participants get encouragement via email, they support each other in online chat rooms, and they hold write-a-thons. There’s a whole section of the page devoted to pep talks. When the Young Writers Program began to grow, says founder Chris Baty, “We got ecstatic updates from instructors…with tales of win rates as high as 90 percent and students coming away from the experience absolutely on fire about books and writing.”
And they do motivate people to accomplish something. Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection I would never write a word.” NaNoWriMo gives potential future Atwoods the motivation to stop waiting and write those words.
The benefits of being on fire about books and writing are widely documented. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her now-famous TED talk, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” An organization that encourages people to celebrate their humanity by telling stories is helping people understand themselves—but is that what NaNoWriMo is doing?
The controversy around NaNoWriMo arises not from the way the organization is run, but from those who question the value of NaNoWriMo’s goals in context. The lack of guidelines or style rules, the focus on speed and quantity, and the lackadaisical attitude toward literary standards can be obstacles to quality writing. James Joyce was known to spend hours agonizing over a single word. Jeffrey Eugenides has taken about ten years to produce each of his novels. Virginia Woolf threw out seven drafts of her first book. Thoughtful writing requires, well, time to think. This isn’t to say that NaNoWriMo authors don’t produce good books, or that they don’t thoughtfully revise, but the organization that encourages them so fervently to write doesn’t even talk about quality, implying that it is more important to say something than to say it well.
On another note, Laura Miller at Salon lamented the complete absence of readers from NaNoWrimo’s mission, saying, “The cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing,” and pointing out that “while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.”
She’s not wrong; literacy is declining in the United States, even as the decreasing cost of publishing pushes more books onto the market. As photo selfies become increasingly ubiquitous on the Internet, memoirs take over more and more of our bookshelves. In this era of decreasing attention spans, shouldn’t book-focused groups encourage people to commit to reading novels first?
Hopefully, the increased focus on the writing of novels that NaNoWriMo brings about will spur an increased interest in novels in general. The effort of telling a story requires creativity and self-reflection, qualities that NaNoWriMo encourages in its participants. We’ll see what comes out at the end of this month!—Erin Rubin