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National Novel Writing Month Is Hooey

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I've been working on my second novel for almost a year now, and have two hundred pages to show for it. My first attempt took almost twice as long and didn't make it half this far.

Those two hundred pages are solid enough for an early draft, but by no means suitable for publication. The sentences need sharpening, the side characters deserve greater dimension, and some scenes should be tighter. I've miles to go before I feel it's done.

And yet as I write this, scribblers across the country are scrambling to push out novels before the clock strikes twelve on December 1st, racing to complete magnum opuses which they began just over a week ago.

These writers are taking part in National Novel Writing Month, which goes by the unattractive and far-more-difficult-to-type acronym NaNoWriMo. The official website says that participants ("Wrimos") shoot for "quantity, not quality," when they pledge to upload a novel of 50,000 or more words (175 pages and up) for authentication by a team of robotic word counters.

To what end? For a certificate of completion! And the satisfaction of having actually written a novel, no matter how stomach-turning its prose, conceits, and plot.

Don't think I'm being all snotty, but how could these Wrimo plebes, undecorated with MFAs, working under such extreme time restrictions, actually expect to produce works of literary art -- no, participants are told up front to expect that they'll be "writing a lot of crap." And this is where I get all riled up. NaNoWr -- forget it, National Novel Writing Month doesn't celebrate the practice of writing a novel so much as it takes a dump on it, encouraging writers to keep their standards low.

Ok, sure. Ostensibly the practice could inspire amateur writers to have a deeper respect for the effort required to write even the pulpiest, least refined literature, but who, with a bit of imagination, can't figure out that creating an engaging fictional world out of words takes some time? No, it strikes me as more akin to the museumgoer who, upon seeing a work of Abstract Expressionism, says "My kid could paint this," and then goes home to prove it.

The undertaking shows a lack of respect for the many types of effort involved to produce a novel worth reading -- the imagination, insight, finesse of language, knowledge of form, and vision an author needs to cultivate in him or herself. I've been at it for over three years and I'm still struggling to capture the lightning in a bottle that seems required for this alchemy to take place!

And I may well need work at it for years more. In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulates that mastery of any discipline takes about 10,000 hours worth of dedicated practice. Take heed Wrimos -- there are only 720 hours in the month of November.

Moreover, the quality of the hours themselves also matter. I can sit down and force myself to churn out pages of material each day, but to what end? V.S. Naipaul has said that the real work of the writer is done off the page, not simply in concocting a story, but in having something to say. The amount of words I put on the page is the most concrete but least important measure of my work. If the words aren't any good, then no one's going to want to read them, and isn't that the point of all writing (aside from diary keeping)?

Finally -- and I know this is going to sound old and curmudgeonly -- I don't see the value of doing anything badly. If you really want to write a novel, you should bite the bullet and put in the time and energy to write something that you're going to want to read and hope others will too.

There is effort in novel writing, no doubt, but grapple with it and discover the pleasure of finding that perfect turn of phrase, of seeing the pieces of a scene fall into place, of feeling characters take on weight and substance in your mind. These joys are magnified, deepened, by the frustrations, challenges, and the long, solitary hours of thinking and crafting involved.

Would-be novelist, expect more of yourself. Get it in for the long haul. Make every month the month you write your novel.