Five writes don’t make a wrong

nano_09_winner_100x100.pngWell. That’s over with then.

It’s December 2nd, and if you’ve ever met me, you know what that means: I’m in the throes of the post-National Novel Writing Month hangover, trying to find something to fill the now gaping void previously occupied by furiously concocting new ways to torture my characters.

In the preceding thirty days of November, I produced a 50,000 word piece of fiction which, I’m going to be honest, nobody will ever likely see. That’s by choice though; like a dented can of soup past its expiration date, I would not wish it on my next-to-worst enemy. Worst enemy? Totally.

I also think this will be my last year of NaNoWriMo.*

I started thinking about this blog post shortly before this year’s NaNoWriMo, when I found myself wondering why exactly I was planning on taking part again. I’d planned to finish last year’s project, which I dubbed Everything Is Fine Until It Isn’t, Part II: You’re A Good Man, Charlie Stokes, mainly because I wanted to prove that I could finish one of these stories. (Dirty secret: The last novel I actually finished was the one I started for NaNoWriMo in 2005.)

Let me be clear: I’m not giving up writing. If there’s been one good thing to happen to me since I first put fingers to keyboard back in 2005, it’s that writing has become part of my life, both professionally and personally. I relish those days when I can slip out to the café in the early morning hours of the weekend and spend a couple hours doing nothing but immersing myself in a cup of tea and another world.

That’s good. That’s what NaNoWriMo is supposed to do. But having reached that point, I feel a bit like I’ve outgrown the exercise. In March of this year, I started working on a new novel, tentatively titled Resurrection Men. The idea for this book has been uncoiling in my head for several years now—the characters first came to me in 2001, if you can believe that, at which point they stood around impatiently waiting for the right plot to arrive.

In the seven months leading up to November, I wrote just over 70,000 words in that story—it’s funny to think that I wrote more than two thirds that amount in the last month alone. But unlike the breakneck pace of NaNoWriMo, about 10,000 words a month seems pretty reasonable.

The problem with NaNoWriMo is that it isn’t sustainable. Most professional novel writers don’t work at those speeds (and it’s their job). As positive an exercise as I think NaNoWriMo is, there’s a priority of quantity over quality that I’ve moved past. I couldn’t have produced 50,000 words of Resurrection Men in a month and maintained the level of writing that was my aim, so I did the only other thing that seemed to make sense: I set it aside for the month.

That turned out to be an incredibly frustrating and, in retrospect, foolish idea. For most of November I was itching to work on Resurrection Men, but instead found myself having to pound out my daily quota for my NaNoWriMo project. That’s not to say I didn’t do some good work in Charlie Stokes; there were definitely scenes and lines of dialogue here and there that I was proud of.

But I ended up running headlong into the same problem as last year: when it came right down to it, what was the story actually about, other than being a sort of therapeutic quasi-autobiographical mishmash? And all the while, on my morning walk to work, my mind would spin with ideas for the story I did know.

Still, I felt dedicated to seeing NaNoWriMo through, even though the only person who probably would have faulted me for stopping was, well, me—just like you don’t want to throw in the towel on mile 16 of a marathon. I managed to sneak in one day’s work on Resurrection Men during the month, which was just enough to keep myself tuned in to that story. But every day I continued the slog on Charlie Stokes so that I could feel like I’d accomplished my goal (and, most importantly, get that little badge to stick at the top of this post).

But, unlike Marc Antony, I came here not to bury NaNoWriMo but to praise it. These past five years have had a huge impact on my life, and to anybody who has ever wondered if they have a novel in them, NaNoWriMo is the excuse you’ve been looking for to give it a shot. At its best, NaNoWriMo is about cutting out the bullshit and getting to the act of writing—as such, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Me, I’ve long held the belief that the curse of talent is the ability to recognize genius. I’m just smart enough to know that I’m not a writing prodigy whose first work is going to be tearfully lauded by reviewers, readers, and every single person who so much as glances at the cover, but I also know that I’m good enough to produce a solid piece of fiction—if I put in the time to work on it.

That’s what the past five years of NaNoWriMo have taught me.

Five years ago, I would have laughed long and hard at the idea that somebody might one day pay me to string words together—and I’m sure I did. Nevertheless, here I am. If nothing else, it makes the idea that I might someday get to tell stories for a living seem not so preposterous after all.


* I do reserve the right to change my mind about this at any point.↩

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Me, I’ve long held the belief that the curse of talent is the ability to recognize genius. I’m just smart enough to know that I’m not a writing prodigy whose first work is going to be tearfully lauded by reviewers, readers, and every single person who so much as glances at the cover, but I also know that I’m good enough to produce a solid piece of fiction—if I put in the time to work on it.

That’s what the past five years of NaNoWriMo have taught me.

Always a very valuable lesson to learn. Sounds like you’ve learned a lot from it and simply outgrown it.

Grats Dan!

Congrats! Hopefully the time away on a different project will ensure you don’t get burned out on your “real” novel too.

I only finished NaNoWriMo once, in 2005, and re-reading it this year I’m not sure I could do it again anytime soon. It takes a particularly quiet month. But I agree that it’s kind of like wanting to run a marathon at least once in your life, and then finding you also love to run every day: I’m sure a bunch of writers are better off for participating, whether they stick with the 50k in November tradition or not.

I’m just sad that I’m going to be forced to read the thing…such is the problem of being Dan’s worst enemy



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