*Too Many Novels Exist Already
If you’ve ever written a novel, contemplated writing a novel, have a friend who has, or have looked at trending hashtags on Twitter recently, you are no doubt aware that November is National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo for short.
National Novel Writing Month is also a non-profit, with a mission to organize “events where children and adults find the inspiration, encouragement, and structure they need to achieve their creative potential. Our programs are web-enabled challenges with vibrant real-world components, designed to foster self-expression while building community on local and global levels.”
That’s a noble mission. I’m happy for the 310,095 people who participated in NaNoWriMo in 2013 and realized their dream of getting 50,000 words down on paper or in pixels in thirty days. But it makes me wonder: does the world need more novels? Who will read them? Where will they end up?
Does the world need more stories?
This may seem an odd question 1) for an author who is 2) at work on a new novel 3) about a future society 4) in which storytelling is nearly extinct and only its revival can save humanity. But the question is evidence of the gnawing anxiety that materialized shortly after I published Dance of Souls and which fellow novelist Carrie Rubin explored in a recent blog post. We writers need to make peace with the wild proliferation of our form. Still, my feeling that the world is being overrun by stories may explain why I have never participated in NaNoWriMo.
(By the way, if you need reasons not to write a novel, read Javier Marias’s wonderful accounting in the Threepenny Review. He lists seven.)
If you’re a writer, it doesn’t matter what the world needs
I completed my first novel using a Royal typewriter, before there was a www to offer web-enabled challenges and before many people dedicated themselves to “fostering self-expression while building community.” Writing the novel was a solitary pursuit, despite the fact that I typed at the kitchen table of the Brookline apartment I shared with four other young adventurous souls. I wrote because something inside told me I must. I didn’t know if anyone would ever read the completed work (very few people have). I didn’t share my word count. I merely faced the blank page whenever I could and tried to dive deep into the minds and motivations of the people I was conjuring on the page.
I’m not sure the too-many-novels problem fully explains why I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo. Nor is it that I’m against using technology to aid in writing, or that I can’t handle a deadline. I’ve written plenty of articles, blog posts, and even books to beat a date.
Here’s the truth about writers: Despite what we may say about wanting to find our audience, the hard core among us will keep writing whether or not we reach any readers. People who take up writing for the acclaim might want to do something easier, like walking on a tightrope between two buildings, blindfolded. And those who write a novel because it sounds like fun and everyone else is doing it this month—well, let me know how that goes, and, more tellingly, if you do it again next year.
I am not an extrinsically motivated writer. I write fiction at my own tempo. I write because I have no choice. I would write if I were the only writer in the world and, dare I say, if there were no readers in the world.
What is one thing you would do even if no one were paying attention?
After all of this, you may be surprised to hear that my writing partner and I have decided to participate in NaNoWriMo in 2015. Because the world really, really needs two more novels.
I write the stories I feel like I have to tell. I hope that one day they find readers who love them. But if they don’t, they exist. And they will still be around when I’m gone. And many times the satisfaction of a scene coming together makes me smile for days. 🙂
“…many times the satisfaction of a scene coming together makes me smile for days.” Hear ye, hear ye! That sums it up for me, too.
Not to mention that you manage to be plenty prolific without any external motivation 🙂
I started out a commitment to write a few years ago with a commitment to participate in NANO — and it took me 18 months to finish the book. And it was so bad, I can’t bear to look at it.
It’s pretty funny that the only requirement is words on a page — and that entries are jumbled up by the word counter so that it only counts words. Still writing is writing, and with a partner, I can see how participating would be fun and freeing.
It’s interesting how some of the best ideas can go astray sometimes. The NaNoWriMo ideas of creating a community, being accountable to others for getting your work done, and making a commitment are all laudable goals. When that gets translated into “bang out 50K words in a month and call it a book,” it’s less than useful.
My writing partner has really saved my writing commitment over the last year. I’ve often let other priorities take me away from my daily writing commitment, but when she sets up our once-weekly appointment, I know I have to go, and I’ll get at least two hours of writing in that week–pitiful, but better than nothing.
I pretty much agree with you on this. I’ve considered trying to do it to see if I could speed up my process, but I think there are better ways of doing that than imposing an arbitrary deadline. Like spending more time planning before I start writing. But then I’ve never subscribed to the “spew it all out and then clean it up” philosophy anyway.
Indeed! I spend enough time cleaning things up over which I don’t have control–no need to spew out a mess of my own making.
I’m participating for the first time this year, Audrey. Simply for the experience. I needed to whip out the first draft of a modern day novel that’s been rattling around in my head, and I didn’t want to pause over long in writing the historical I’m working on, so I told myself I’d take November and see what happens.
So far so good, but it’s really different from the way I usually write, so we’ll see!
I’m so glad you’re participating if it seems helpful to your process. And I imagine I may be singing a different tune next year if I undertake NaNoWriMo in 2015. As with so many things, it’s easy to find things to be critical about when you’re never done it :-).
Good luck with your remaining 21 days of writing (or perhaps you didn’t need a reminder of how many are left…)
Great post – you write so well.
My big problem with NaNoWriMo or whatever it’s called is that it encourages sloppy, half-written novels. As an Indie author I know many of my peers are churning out three or four novels a year, not work-shopping them, getting a budget copy-edit job, a nice cover, and then spending as much time – if not more – promoting them. More than a few treat their novels as moving targets, publishing them and rewriting after they’ve been uploaded, going through multiple iterations ‘real time’. Those are the kind of novels we probably don’t need more of.
Thanks for articulating this, Max. This is so important and a throw-it-out-there approach to novel writing definitely produces less-than-enjoyable output. I know you’ve written about what programming and novel writing have in common (http://maxtomlinson.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/the-literary-chain-letter-aka-my-writing-process/) but when you talk about iterating, you mean BEFORE publishing :-).
Perhaps eventually the indie writing world will become bifurcated. There will be producers of multiple books per year who appeal to the readers who want only–what? plot? the next explosion? And there will be those of us who take the time to think, write thoughtfully, solicit input, and go through multiple revisions for everybody else.
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Hi Audrey – yes, iterate (‘write a draft’ in layspeak) BEFORE publication. I think James M. Cain said if you’re not prepared to write 14 drafts, you have no business being an author.
I know we discussed that Faulkner wrote ‘As I Lay Dying’ in 6 weeks but a) he was Faulkner* and b) I suspect an editor got involved at some point after that.
*Fun Faulkner trivia: when his daughter Jill tried to get him to stop drinking, he reportedly told her ‘“No one remembers Shakespeare’s child.”
I don’t participate in NaNo for two reasons: 1) November is too busy of a month for me. It’s a time of conferences and Thanksgiving travel. And 2) like you, “I write fiction at my own tempo.” I’m disciplined enough to make it happen (as long as I shut off the social media). And though I, too, fret over the number of books out there (thank you for the mention!), I would feel too out of sorts if I didn’t keep working on my book. I spent three straight hours writing today, not even aware of the time, and it felt so good to move my story along. Even if the final project gets lost in a sea of books, I’ll remember the enjoyment its creation gave me (and purpose, and intellectual stimulation, and fulfillment, and…)
As always, wonderful post.
“the enjoyment its creation gave me (and purpose, and intellectual stimulation, and fulfillment, and…” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist lurking within telling us that the journey is as important as the destination.
That is a lesson it’s taken me a looooong time to learn. But I think I’m finally getting there. Phew.
What the heck. Let’s ALL write a novel in 2015 to see how Amazon manages all those best sellers. 😀 😀 😀
Oh yeah… that would be another whole problem :-).
Oh yeah. The competition would be B.r.u.t.a.l. 😦