If you’re anything like me, you’ve recently found yourself with a truly incomprehensible amount of free time. After spending a couple weeks reading novel after novel on my “Books I Should Probably Get Around to Reading at Some Point” list and staring up at my ceiling light, I had an idea.
National Novel Writing Month (often shortened to NaNoWriMo), which currently takes place during November, is an event which challenges participants to write a 50,000 word (or longer) novel over the course of one month. To put that number into some kind of context, The Great Gatsby is 47,094 words, The Fault in Our Stars is 67,203 words, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is 106,821 words.
NaNoWriMo began in July of 1999 with a group of 21 people because, and I’m quoting from the website, “[they] didn’t have anything better to do” and, eventually, because “the writing process had been really, really fun.”
Since then it has expanded to 431,626 participants (as of 2015) and additional NaNoWriMo challenges currently take place April and July, called “Camp NaNoWriMo,” which I’ve decided to participate in.
Of course, as with anything that exists, NaNoWriMo has been criticized for producing more terrible manuscripts than publishers previously thought possible and for somehow being an insult to the creative process by trying to force it into some cramped, arbitrary amount of time.
Here’s what I have to say:
Writing a novel has always been one of those vague dreams I have that have an equal chance of happening and not happening. I could write a novel one day. I could also decide to quit my job and travel the world, or go skydiving, or suddenly realize that my life’s true ambition is to run away to the circus. Who knows? Life is strange. But unlike world traveling, skydiving, or circus performing, I already have everything I need to attempt to write a novel–something to write about and something to write with.
Of course, as anyone may tell you, that’s not everything you need. The critics of NaNoWriMo may say that the missing ingredient in my recipe for novel writing is “talent.” From what I, and others I know, have experienced, that missing ingredient is a little push.
Everyone’s a little bit of a perfectionist, but I’ve found that writers are perfectionists like this: you want every world to be gold. You want every word to be poetry. You want every word to be the right word and you want those words to be the kind of words that are tattooed on hipsters and misattributed to Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi.
Those are not the first words you are going to write. Realizing that fact is disheartening to say the least. To say the most, realizing that fact is like driving down a long road when a large, concrete wall falls out of the sky in front of you. Spray-painted on the surface of this wall are the words,”THIS IS A DUMB DREAM AND YOUR (sic) DUMB FOR HAVING IT.”
The drafting and revision process, however, is endlessly useful in getting closer to the golden words, but, of course, it is impossible to have a second, third, or fourteenth draft when the the first draft is stuck behind a concrete wall.
NaNoWriMo provides that push. It provides a tangible deadline and a tangible word-count goal in order to get people to write the novel that they have always been too afraid to write. You stop thinking about the golden words and start thinking about what you are trying to say. The golden words can come after you’ve written the pyrite words.
And of course, not everyone can write golden words. Not everyone is going to be Shakespeare or J.K. Rowling or whichever writer had taken hold of your heart and refused to let go.
But who knows? You may surprise yourself. A lot of great, published novels started out as NaNoWriMo novels and ended up becoming (after plenty of revision and multiple drafts, I’m sure) like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, or Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.
But you’ll never know unless you try, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying.
“Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.”–NaNoWriMo website