National Novel Writing Month

November is approaching, and with it the annual exercise in torture writing called the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. This is when otherwise relatively normal people worldwide (in spite of the catchy name, it’s very much an international affair) plunge themselves into the Herculean—some would say absurd—task of writing a novel in a month.

Not a long novel, mind. 50,000 words are all that’s required. Which means that you’re theoretically writing around two thousand words every day—not always easy, but well within the bounds of reason.

If indeed the entire enterprise can be said to be within the bounds of reason. Think about it for a moment. You’re in competition with writers of all levels of aptitude, some of whom don’t actually have a day job like you do. You’re constantly under scrutiny. The website verifies how many words you write every day, and a graph reminds you what you’re doing and what you have yet to achieve. Random people claim you as a writing “buddy,” and “personal achievement badges” mark whether you’re being a good community member.

And it’s not like you can just start cold on the first of November, either. To register, you need a working title and a synopsis (granted, both can change, but making even that level of commitment before I start writing anything makes my teeth hurt). Presumably you need to have a sense of what you’re going to write. You’ll want to check out local meetings of other novel-writing participants (so that you can all sit in a room together and write, my idea of one of Dante’s circles of hell, but your mileage may vary). And, naturally, they’d love for you to donate to the cause or buy some NaNoWriMo swag. (Full disclosure: I did it. I have a NaNoWriMo travel mug, though I never remember to travel with it.)

On the other hand…

I remember talking to someone once on a long-ago flight, the first and last time I ever answered the question, “and what do you do?” with the word, “novelist.” I remember the slow nod, and the inevitable response, “I’d write a novel, too, if I only had the time.” As though all it takes, really, is that extra few hours a day for anyone to be a Stephen King or a Flannery O’Connor or a Rudyard Kipling. But for all the times that you’ve heard that response, or even given it, this is the perfect opportunity to put your money where your mouth it.

Because NaNoWriMo doesn’t just help you find time to write. It seizes time by the throat and chokes the hours out of it.

Imagine that daily report, watching your graph curve seductively up into the literary stratosphere, posting your progress on Facebook, going to bed with the next day’s scene already forming in your mind. Recently I wrote about my stay in a dune shack and how writing with a typewriter made progress more obvious as the physical pages of work accumulated; this is the digital equivalent, counting words instead of pages, and watching them build. There’s something very gratifying about that.

Do you end up with a complete polished novel ready to be sent along to your agent or publisher? Of course not. But you do have a serious partial first draft, ready for December and January and beyond, when you’ll hammer at it to make it into the novel that you just imagined back in October. That first draft can be painful, and NaNoWriMo forces you to do what most writers find to be the hardest task of all, keep the seat of your pants in the seat of your chair and just write.

Your end product may not get published. One of my NaNoWriMo books isn’t; it still needs work, still needs polishing; but that’s okay. Nothing you write is ever wasted, and even if at the end of the day this is just an exercise… well, it’s damned good one.

So… yeah, I’m doing it again this year. Want to join me? Feel free to use the comments field below to say whether you’re thinking of doing NaNoWriMo, and what your project is about!