As I begin to write this article, I’m very conscious of the 2,000 words I have to write later today. And tomorrow. And every day after that for the entire month of November.
You see, this year I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo for short). Writer Chris Baty founded NaNoWriMo in 1999 to get his friends into writing. 21 people participated in the first event that July. Since then, the project has grown immensely. In the Five College area alone, 1,164 people have already written upwards of 1 million words for this event.
The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words of a novel in just the month of November. The rules are pretty simple: It has to be a new project; it can’t be co-authored; and you must submit it to the word count validator before 12:00 AM on December 1st to qualify as a winner. You don’t have to end the novel at 50,000 words and it can be written in any genre – the website’s FAQ says “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel, too.”
Technically, you can paste the sentence “Williams College is a horrible college” 8,500 times into the validator and win – it doesn’t check for an actual novel. There are some prizes – free eBooks about publishing, discounted subscriptions to writing programs like Scrivener, and a free hardcover copy of your novel – but NaNoWriMo isn’t about the prizes; it’s about beating the challenge.
Hell, it’s not even about writing a good novel. You can’t really write 50,000 words in a month and expect the result to be a cohesive story written as well as anything you’ve done before. The project exists to get people writing. At the end of this month, I won’t have a novel. I’ll have jumble of confused characters and plotlines halfway to their goal all written in a chocolate-induced high. But that’s infinitely more than I had at the start of the month.
I’m currently at 24,017 words. So I’m almost halfway. By the end of the weekend, I’ll have surpassed the 27,000 words I stopped at during my first NaNo last year.
If I finish this one (and I’m hopeful that I will), it will be the second novel I’ve actually completed. I wrote my first novel over two years during which it swelled from a short fantasy adventure to an overly ambitious 164,000-word nightmare of an epic. While I learned a lot from writing that story, about planning, writing, characters, plot, and just about everything else you can learn from a trainwreck, one thing still stands above all others. It sucks.
Yep, two years of my life spent writing the worst collection of words to have defiled this planet’s surface, with the name “novel” haphazardly nailed on in the same way that one puts a “BEWARE OF DOG” sign on their fence when their pet is in fact a mutant German shepherd/tiger/tyrannosaurus rex with two tails, seven eyes and a few tentacles thrown into the mix.
But I learned. And that’s really what it’s all about. Very few people write classics in their first go, or their second or their tenth. And I doubt that my current novel is going to go on to become a bestseller either. I’m not worried or saddened by that. I’m eager to finish it, to revel in the story and characters I’ve invented, and to see how I can improve for next time.
I take solace in author Neil Gaiman’s advice from his 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (if you’re a creative person and you haven’t seen this, you really should): “If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.”
And that’s really what NaNoWriMo’s all about. Getting out there and writing 50,000 words. It doesn’t matter if they’re the worst words ever written. So long as it’s not 8,500 copies of “Williams College is a horrible college,” you’re doing something. You’re making art.
So as soon as I hit the publish button on this article, I’m going to sit down and write 2,000 words. And they’ll probably be full of mistakes, but I can learn from those mistakes. And if you’re not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, I strongly recommend you do so next time around. Next November, I hope you’ll sit in a room with me, making 50,000 mistakes and eating entirely too much chocolate.