In Pursuit of Completion – Reflections on NaNoWriMo

Ernest Hemingway

You just  have to go on when it is worst and most helpless–there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight to the end of the damn thing.

–Ernest Hemingway

I was not going to write anything about NaNoWriMo this year. I told myself that a month ago, as the November 1st kickoff date for the event loomed. After all, the blogosphere is filled with commentary about NaNoWriMo, which for those of you who don’t know of it, is an acronym that refers (awkwardly) to National Novel Writing Month, and it takes place in November of each year – all 30 days of it. I was all set to move on to other topics, ignoring NaNoWriMo entirely, until I ran across the above quote from Hemingway. The quote is an excerpt from a letter that Old Hem wrote to Scott Fitzgerald back in 1929, presumably to prod his friend on to literary success (it obviously worked). And, since nothing inspires me to put fingers to keyboard more than a quote from Papa, and this one seems so perfectly tailored as an intro to a NaNoWriMo blog, here goes…

First off, NaNoWriMo is a challenge in which participants attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. To get some idea of the size of a 50,000 word novel, think The Great Gatsby at 47,180 words, or Slaughterhouse-Five which clocks in at some 49,459 words. In both cases, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut (respectively), would have needed to beef up a couple of chapters in order to complete NaNoWriMo successfully. Conversely, Faulkner would have handily picked up his NaNoWriMo award had he uploaded his 56,787 word manuscript, As I Lay Dying, to the NaNoWriMo server prior to the November 30th midnight deadline.

So, considering how large a 50,000 word manuscript really is, it is easy to see why completing such a large amount of work in such a short time period is a daunting task to say the least. It requires dedication, perseverance, and above all, hours of hard damned work. But the world has no shortage of aspiring writers. According to the NaNoWriMo website, the 2012 competition attracted 341,375 participants, and since its humble beginnings in 1999, 250 novels, birthed in NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published. I would venture to say that many, most, or all, of these novels would have found their way to publication without NaNoWriMo, but I can’t say for sure. Most were probably planned well before November, fleshed out during the competition, and then subjected to endless edits post-NaNoWriMo. But that’s just my feeling, so if you have taken a novel all the way to traditional publication and attribute your success entirely to NaNoWriMo (Jeez, one blogger is right, that acronym is damned annoying to type), then please feel free to comment here and flame the hell out of me.

There you have it. If you are ready to get your novel down on paper, or in the electronic can, head on over and sign up – just be aware that in order to complete NaNoWriMo, you’ll have to write a consistent minimum of 1667 words per day – 7 days per week, each day of the entire month. So what could possibly be controversial about a quarter million people or more, spending time writing novels? Seems like an innocent pursuit, right. Well, there are a good many people out there who do not share the love when it comes to NaNoWriMo.

Do a Google search for ‘nanowrimo sucks’, or ‘i hate nanowrimo’ and you will see what I mean. NaNoWriMo has haters. And many of them make very good points, one point being that the competition is totally about word count and finishing the work in the allotted 30 day period with total disregard to quality. Technically, Jack Torrence, Stephen King’s tortured writer in The Shining, could have submitted his ersatz manuscript wherein the words, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” are repeated endlessly, filling each page from margin to margin.  As long as Jack’s manuscript reaches the 50,000 work mark (and he has an electronic copy available for upload), he can walk away with a certificate of NaNoWriMo completion. This rankles some writers who believe that the world needs far fewer bad novels, and far more good novel readers  – a point that I feel has great merit, but not enough for me to come down hard on NaNoWriMo. I think that the advantages of competing in a challenge that encourages finishing a project to be admirable, and I have no unkind words for NaNoWriMo participants.

And will I be participating in this year’s competition?  No, I will not. This year I’ve other priorities. But I shall be thinking of you all as the clock approaches midnight on Thursday evening, and I shall see you in my minds eye with nervous fingers tapping the keyboard waiting for the race to begin…good luck to all.

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