By AnnMarie Kolakowski
Every November thousands of authors, amateurs and wannabes gather together in spirit with a common goal: to produce a novel-length draft of fiction, 50,000 words, in thirty days. There aren’t many rules, but the main thing that governs them is stressed again and again: It’s quantity, not quality. You’re not supposed to edit. You’re just supposed to churn out your daily 1,667 words and never stop. Whether it’s “good” or not is none of your business.
I’ve heard about this program for years, and this year I decided to join. I entered a whole week late. And because I had some catching up to do, I decided to take matters in my own hands and break a few rules. I am here today to declare before all NaNoWriMo writers that I have received due punishment for my sins. I will not be entering the promised land with you. Cheaters never prosper.
First in the enumeration of my various transgressions: I did not start a new novel on my entry date of November 8th. I didn’t even start a new draft of a novel. I took an unfinished novel I had begun a year ago, and spent a week or so pulling parts that still worked and were usable, until I had a good 35 pages to work with. Twenty thousand words, free and clear. Surely I could hammer out another thirty before the month was over.
The first few thousand I wrote seemed a piece of cake, though they did go slowly. I didn’t have to develop new characters or worry too much about the plot. What I was more concerned with was the tone, the voice, and making things run smoothly. And, of course, the fact that I was shooting for something better than just a “rough” draft—I was going for gold, the brilliant and proud first novel I knew it was meant to be.
First I found I couldn’t sustain it. Every day when I sat down to write I’d strip half of what I’d written the day before and refashion it with something wittier or more dramatic. Eventually I got to where I had to read earlier sections over and over until finally sparking a little interest in where I was at that point of the story. Then of course there was the overwhelming desire to go through and hunt down every unglorious sentence, such as “He went into the kitchen” and “I turned around, and there she was.” A temptation I obeyed every time.
As Thanksgiving rolled around, other fears and issues began to surface. As I wasted time on the Internet, purporting to look for “inspiration” from other writers, I came across a lot of articles about the changing publishing scene and the growing distance between amateurs and “real” writers, those who write not only for fun but for pay. I started looking for freelance jobs—jobs I mostly couldn’t get. I pored over the careers of great novelists like Pynchon and Lermontov, who were already established geniuses by the time they were twenty-four…and my twenty-fifth birthday just around the corner… I began to examine my own brief career and play the mental recordings of all my friends and former teachers, who warned me that I was going nowhere.
I had a small nervous breakdown, and decided to take a few days’ rest to recover. A week later, I still had not cleared more than a thousand words of new ground. To those who reached the finish line, my congratulations to you. I truly do not know how you did it.
Perhaps you did it by following the rules, by not being snooty about how good or bad you were allowed to be. It seems that what’s really hardest about NaNoWriMo is the fact that we’re asked to break all the rules we’ve held all our lives regarding the process of creating literature. Instead of the usual exhortations to put out an artistic and valued product we can be proud of, we find ourselves urged by this program to rattle our keyboards and churn out page after page of prose that, well, can hardly be considered “good.” This is the problem. Sure, everybody would love to say on December 1st: “I now have a finished draft of a novel.” Of course nobody wants to say: “I now have a finished draft of a novel that isn’t really any good.”
And there it is: the part where I completely missed the point.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of in having generated a hundred pages of rough draft. How many people ever truly get that far?
I have learned my lesson, and when you have your celebrations, NaNoWriMos, I will not be joining except to raise my glass to all your hard work and to the hopes that it paid off in ways my miserly little soul was unable to imagine. Let my failure be a lesson to you humble, resilient writers: it is now December 5th, and I don’t have a finished draft of a novel at all.
But next year, I hope to join again and amass 50,000 words of unrefined, incoherent prose, stinking to high heaven in all its unadulterated glory.