Thursday, November 4, 2010

By Beth (Jaden) Terrell

Last week, I said I was going to write about pen names today, but my attention has been commandeered by the usual assortment of "I Hate NaNoWriMo, and If You Don't, You're An Idiot" posts that sprout all over the internet at this time of year. Like this one, called "Better Yet, DON'T WRITE THAT NOVEL" by Laura Miller at Salon.com.

I'm not the first person this week to address Miller's bitter diatribe, and I considered not doing so at all, largely because of the sneaking suspicion that her primary motivation was a desire for a lot of clicks and comments on her blog. Then I thought, well, if these posts spring up every year, making the same wrong-headed assumptions, maybe more of us need to respond.

Also, I'm not averse to more clicks and comments on this blog. Please, come right in, click and comment to your heart's content.

Miller opens with a paragraph saying she greets the end of October with trepidation, because she knows NaNoWriMo is about to begin. Paragraph 2 begins: NaNoWriMo was started back in 1999 as a motivational stunt for a small group of writer friends.

Note the snark. Why a stunt? Is a group of friends getting together at the gym to help motivate each other a "stunt?" Why is a group of friends deciding to encourage each other to write a novel any different? In 1999, there were no media releases, no hoopla, no nothing, just some friends encouraging each other to do something they'd always wanted to do. In what way does this even vaguely resemble a "stunt?" But the tone is set.

It's since become a nonprofit organization with staff, sponsors, a fundraising gala and, last year, nearly 120,000 contestants.

It also champions literacy programs throughout the year and has stocked libraries in low-income areas. Bad NaNos.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo seems laudable enough. Above all, it fosters the habit of writing every single day, the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision... "Make no mistake," the organization's website counsels. "You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create."

All true. No arguments here.

I am not the first person to point out that "writing a lot of crap" doesn't sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November.

Why not? Is it less fruitful than watching reruns of Law and Order? Playing World of Warcraft? Making model train terrain or jewelry from polymer clay? All fine pursuits, but are they more fruitful than writing a novel? A number of published writers I know use NaNo to churn out messy first drafts, which they then revise and submit for publication. Others use NaNo to explore new genres, or just to rediscover the joy of writing.

And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it's clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they'll shortly receive.

True. But since these writers are going directly against the advice posted by NaNo founders and participants, this is hardly a reflection of the event itself. Does Miller know the percentage of WriMos who submit their first drafts? Judging from the forum posts and from the participants I know, these "premature submitters" are the exception rather than the rule. (I once read a very funny blog post by a writer who said he hoped every single NaNo participant would submit his or her first draft in December, because his carefully polished, professional manuscript would look doubly good by comparison.)

Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it?


Who is insisting that anybody read it? Are there hordes of enthusiastic WriMos forcing Miller's eyelids open with toothpicks and holding their unedited manuscript pages in front of her face?

Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it's likely to produce more novels I'd want to read. (That said, it has generated one hit, and a big one: "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen, who apparently took the part about revision to heart.)

As have many other WriMos, some of whom are published and some of whom never will be. But this comment is still missing the point. NaNo is not about creating publishable books that Laura Miller--or anyone else, for that matter--wants to read. It's about celebrating the written word, discovering that writing is fun, meeting a personal goal. For some, it's about writing a draft that may later, after much revision, be published. For some, it's about having fun with words. (Stuck? Throw in some flying monkeys! That's not how I write, but I'm not writing just for fun.) There are thousands of reasons for doing NaNo, and not all of them involve publication. [Insert personal reason here.]

The last thing the world needs is more bad books.

I think the last thing the world needs is more cancer, but hey, that's just me.

But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.
Here's why: NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it's largely unnecessary.


Are writer's conferences, books on writing, workshops and classes on the writing craft also unnessary? How about those beautiful leather journals? Okay, maybe so, but the world is full of unnessary things we love and enjoy. Stained glass, golf clubs, and salt-water aquariums, just to name a few. I would argue that footballs and hockey stadiums are also largely unnecessary, but a lot of people take pleasure from them.

When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. "Write Your Novel Here" was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event.

Why? Were they putting a moratorium on book sales and reading-related events for the month of November?

It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.

This is the part that completely baffled me. First, why would anybody assume that reading and writing were mutually exclusive? Or that "cultural spaces" devoted to one come at the expense of the other? Second, what makes reading "a selfless art" and writing "a narcissistic commerce?" You mean all those years I spend reading The Call of the Wild as a child were not pleasure but social service? Cool! But, wait. When I read A Christmas Carol, I'm not thinking, "Oh my gosh, that Dickens, what a narcissistic jerk!"

Of course, Miller admits that only a handful of novelists meet her elite standards, so maybe she does think that way, but as a reader (and yes, Virginia, writers do read), I'm grateful to every author who has written a book I've enjoyed. I'm especially grateful to those whose writing changed my life. It seemed an act of incredible generosity for J.R.R. Tolkien to share Middle Earth with me, or for Louisa May Alcott to share the lives of the March sisters.

I say "commerce" because far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them.

Um...I suspect James Patterson, Steven King, and Dan Brown bring in more money than all the "craft of writing" books put together.

And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter. "People would come up to me at parties," author Ann Bauer recently told me, "and say, 'I've been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this ...' And I'd (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read ... Now, the 'What do you read?' question is inevitably answered, 'Oh, I don't have time to read. I'm just concentrating on my writing.'"

I met one of those once. I suppose one is an astonishing number. I've also met hundreds of writers--even NaNoWriMo writers--who are avid readers. I would suggest that even author Ann Bauer knows more writers who read than who don't, and if she doesn't, she should probably find a new bunch of writers to hang out with.

Frankly, there are already more than enough novels out there -- more than those of us who still read novels could ever get around to poking our noses into, even when it's our job to do so.

Also enough paintings. Also enough papier mache dinosaurs. That doesn't mean people should stop making them. Just because there are already more novels than I can read in my lifetime doesn't mean the next one being written won't be worth reading.

This is not to say that I don't hope that more novels will be written, particularly by the two dozen-odd authors whose new books I invariably snatch up with a suppressed squeal of excitement. Furthermore, I know that there are still undiscovered or unpublished authors out there whose work I will love if I ever manage to find it.

Only two dozen novelists whose work Miller deems worthy of being written, let alone being read. That speaks for itself.

But I'm confident those novels would still get written even if NaNoWriMo should vanish from the earth.

Would Water for Elephants have been written without NaNoWriMo? Maybe so--or maybe not. But is that really the point? The world wouldn't end if NaNoWriMo vanished from the earth. It also wouldn't end if chocolate ice cream vanished from the earth, or if novels in general vanished from the earth. That doesn't mean any of the above would be a good thing.

Yet while there's no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books. Even authors who achieve what probably seems like Nirvana to the average NaNoWriMo participant -- publication by a major house -- will, for the most part, soon learn this dispiriting truth: Hardly anyone will read their books and next to no one will buy them.

That may be true. Even though some studies suggest that reading is on the increase, odds are, any one title will sell poorly. If there were no NaNoWriMo, would that magically change?

So I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done.
I see no reason to cheer them on.

Going out of one's way to make fun of them seems to demonstrate a serious lack of generosity, though.

Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say.

And why not? There are plenty of people who paint on the weekends and have no desire to make a living at it. Writing is more than a hobby to me, but that doesn't mean it can't be a hobby for others. Is this an appropriate place to point out that Miller herself makes her living writing, albeit criticism, not novels?

Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they're always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it's the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species.

I'm not sure I even understand what is meant by, "readers are fragile." I'm a reader. I read a lot and would read even more if I had time. Reading isn't hard. It's delightful and fun and informative and number of good things. I don't need to praised for it; it's its own reward.

They don't make a big stink about how underappreciated they are; like Tinkerbell or any other disbelieved-in fairy, they just fade away.

There are reasons upon reasons for why people don't read. Poor education, reading not supported or valued in the home, poverty, an increasing number of other, highly stimulating things to do, like video games, social networking, YouTube, and DVDs. Are there really readers "fading away" for lack of appreciation? I don't think so. As noted above, reading is its own reward.

Rather than squandering our applause on writers...why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers?

Must it be either/or?

Consider turning away from the self-aggrandizing frenzy of NaNoWriMo and embracing the quieter triumph of Kalen Landow and Melissa Klug's "10/10/10" challenge: These two women read 10 book in 10 categories between Jan. 1 and Oct. 10, focusing on genres outside their habitual favorites.

The 10/10/10 challenge sounds like great fun. Someone on another blog suggested a NaNoReaMo event, where the goal is to read a massive number of books in a month (not November, of course. Another month). Great ideas! Can I do NaNoWriMo and NaNoReaMo? Because, as most of us know, writers read.

I just came across another blog refuting the Miller post. Check here for Carolyn Kellogg's cogent, point-by-point argument to Miller's post.

My friend David Allison had a great heart and a great love for life. He was member of a "hashing" group whose tongue-in-cheek description of themselves is "a drinking group with a running problem." When the trail gets rough, they encourage themselves to continue by saying, "On, on!" As far as I know, it's the rallying cry for hashers everywhere.

I know he would approve if I shared it with you now: "On, On, WriMos! On, On!"

4 comments:

Helen Ginger said...

Wonderful post, Beth. You did a great job of refuting Miller's tirade. You almost feel sorry for her with her "I'm better than you" attitude. But I don't. She's a jerk.

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you, Ginger. I sort of do feel sorry for her because the responses to her post are bound to hurt her feelings, even though the post was mean-spirited. I think she wrote it expecting some angry, illiterate responses from people participating in NaNoWriMo and a lot of responses from the intelligentsia telling her how clever she is. If she's at all reasonable, she'll realize she was wrong and be sorry about it.

Or, she knew exactly what she was doing and is chuckling over the stupidity of those who disagree with her.

I really hope it's the former.

Marybeth said...

There are not nearly enough papier mache dinosaurs.

Jaden Terrell said...

Of course, you're right, Mary Beth. As always. :o) The world DOES need more papier mache dinosaurs. We should make some.