It’s Halloween, and tomorrow is a big day for many writers. Why? It’s the kickoff day for NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated. Throughout the month of November, participants take the challenge of writing 50,000 words (about 175 pages) in a novel by 11:59 on November 30.
That’s no mean feat.
According to the organizers (backed by UC Berkeley’s Office of Letters and Light), “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.”
And then, the disclaimer: You will be writing a lot of crap.
With such a strict deadline, you are forced to run headlong through your plot, through shaky characters and dialog, through self-questioning and edits that truly stymie you, and into something few writers I know actually accomplish—a finished work.
I compared the feeling of finishing my first, 82,000 word novel Won’t Last Long to a person’s first marathon. You might not finish fast, you might not finish well, but the point is, you’ve finished.
And how many people can say that?
In writing circles, it’s clichéd to say, “Oh, you’re writing a novel? I’m working on a book, too.” And then the question, “Have you finished?” is met with mumbling excuses as they explain why their manuscript has been stuffed in a drawer for years.
Runners, I’m sure, can relate. Marathon finishers probably hear from dozens of other runners who have “trained” for a marathon without actually completing one.
I want to shout from the rooftops, “People! Stop talking about it and just Get.It.Done!”
So, back to NaNoWriMo and writing crap.
You might think that it’s a good thing to write slow, write carefully, edit as you go. But my mom told me a story that changed my tune entirely.
As my mom earned a BFA, one of her ceramics instructors was teaching two of the same pottery classes concurrently. Same assignments, but he gave each group of students a different evaluation criteria.
He told one class: “I’m going to grade you based on the perfection of your work, the polish of each piece.” He told the other class: “I’m going to grade you based on the volume of your work, the sheer output of pieces you create.”
Then something strange happened.
The professor lined up both classes’ work and stood back for evaluation, not knowing which sculptures were submitted from the “most perfect” class and which were from the “most volume” class.
Guess what? As he graded the sculpture, the “most volume” class won—by a landslide.
There was something incredibly freeing for the student artists in the volume classes about just being asked to create, create, create—rather than to slow down and hone, edit, polish.
And so I imagine NaNo inspires writers in the same way. It works for me. Sometimes, as I write a novel, all I have to go on is the spiderweb sketch of the plot and a general sense of what I need to accomplish in the next chapter. I dive in and my characters surprise me. My subconscious connects the dots in unexpected ways.
For more on the idea of inspiration or muse, check out Julie Jordan’s blog post. I tweeted to her @Writers_Cafe that “the writing process itself inspires me.” Just getting in front of a blank page can be intimidating, sure, but with a timer to beat, who needs a muse? Just put words on the page and go.
So that’s it for me, my fifteen minutes are up. Whether your goal is to write or to run, what inspires you? Don’t make it hard, don’t count on a muse. Just lace up your shoes, fire up your laptop and GO.