Monday, November 10, 2008

NaNoWriMo, No-No

November is National Novel Writing Month, an annual event which encourages participants to write a 50,000 novel in just 30 days. I took part for the first time last year, and to my surprise actually reached the end with 50,000 words. I hesitate to call what I ended up with a novel though, or even a rough first draft. It was condemned by several fatal flaws.

First, I attempted to write a thriller by mistake. I didn't start out intending to, it just turned into one. It turns out that it's very hard to write a successful thriller by accident. Thrillers take careful planning. Mine was an unplanned disaster.

Second, my writing kept slipping into a smart-arsed style that relied on a lot of slightly painful jokes. This was one of things I had always feared would happen if I ever attempted to write a novel. It wasn't pretty, and was made doubly frustrating by the parts where this didn't happen. Why couldn't I write like that all the time?

And, third, I never actually finished the damn thing. Sure, I wrote 50,000 words, but I reached that total without even getting close to an ending. This was mostly because, by that point, the plot made absolutely no sense and had pretty much collapsed in on itself due to the unbearable weight of its own contradictions.

So what could I do with it? In the words of Zoot, "If I had a match, I could put it out of its misery."

So this November I signed up to do it all again, resolving to learn from my mistakes. But I quickly discovered that it's pretty much impossible to write at such a furious pace while also working for a living (this time last year I was still enjoying the last few weeks of my immigration-enforced unemployment). No, actually, I'll correct that. It's possible to write at that pace, the question is whether you can write anything worth reading. And I clearly can't.

Both NaNoWriMo and its founder Chris Baty's "how to write a book" book No Plot? No Problem! are excellent exercises in encouragement, especially in the way that both drive home the central point that first drafts aren't supposed to be the finished article: indeed, they're supposed to be rubbish. But what I've discovered is that there is rubbish, and there is irredeemable crap that no amount of turd-polishing will help become anything other than shinier shite.

Forcing yourself to write more than 1,500 words a day, every day, is a good way to produce a high word count, but that means writing when you aren't in the right mood, when you don't have fully formed ideas in your head, when you're tired, when you'd really rather be doing anything else. Sometimes the results will surprise you, but not often enough to make it worthwhile for me.

So I've abandoned my November novelling ambitions. Instead I'm planning to write at my own pace, rejecting Chris Baty's high-octane approach in favour of following my friend Alison's more elegant advice. "Writing a book is simple," she says. "You just start writing, keep writing, and don't stop until you finish."

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