Saturday, December 09, 2006

NaNoWriMo: Your word counts

When it comes to the business of living, some people naturally take charge and reach for the stars, while other people need a smite in the fundament just to get out of bed. It is much the same with deadlines. Some people handle them with ferocious efficiency, breaking tasks down into manageable, well-paced units, and other people spend all day taking personality tests on the internet and then fall into a foamy-mouthed panic at the eleventh hour. Both methods work. I wouldn’t want to judge anyone just because I’m 44 percent evil, 28 percent sociopathic and ‘somewhat likely’ to not have a soul.

On balance, though, compulsive procrastination makes a poor partner to ambition, certainly to writerly ambition. It is simply not physically possible to produce a novel at the last minute, even if you spend all your other time practicing very-fast typing. All writers will confirm this, as they bend over their lonely screens playing WEBoggle and composing smutty limericks. It is one of the great failures of evolution that those who most need to put in steady effort are often those least equipped to do so.

And that is why NaNoWriMo is so important. This hilly acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, an annual international event tailored for anyone, anywhere, who still believes in the inherent goodness of writing a book that will almost certainly sink without a trace.

The point is to aim to generate at least 50,000 words—the length of a short novel—within the thirty days of November. In the course of writing an average 1,667 words a day you will probably piss off your loved ones and get Repetitive Strain Injury, but on the bright side, your novel only has to begin, not necessarily be completed. Nor does it have to be a great novel. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be comprehensible. Nobody will actually read your opus unless you ask them to. At the end of the month you just submit your manuscript for an automated word count verification and if you’ve hit the magic threshold you receive a certificate of achievement that says something like, ‘Good Job!’.

To think this foolish is to miss the subtle genius of it all. There’s an excellent reason why NaNoWriMo has grown from 21 participants and six winners, eight years ago, to 79,813 participants and 12,948 winners this year, and that reason is: misery loves company.

Chris Baty, the host of the event, cannily identified the two greatest hurdles in the writing process—starting, and the obstructive tendency to edit oneself into paralysis. NaNoWriMo overcomes both issues by creating a community of fellow-sufferers which, to paraphrase the website, diminishes pain by distributing it; and by creating a reward system that values quantity over quality. The knowledge that thousands of like-minded souls are similarly pledged to thrash around in the cold wastes of self-motivation can spur the drooliest couch potato to action. And the absence of judgement is a great stripper of editorial inhibition.

Baty is the author of a book of tips and advice titled No Plot? No Problem!, the gist of which, as far as I can make out, is to press on, regardless. Do not let such nothings as plot, character, turn of phrase, plausibility, or even viability, distract you from the delightful creative rush that comes of worry-free writing.

This gentle way of tricking writers into actually writing instead of sitting around worrying about their WEBoggle scores blows a cheerful raspberry in the face of all conventional literary wisdom. This year the total word count generated by NaNoWriMo was just shy of one billion, most of which should probably remain safely buried far from human habitation. But frankly, that’s an enormous number of happy writers—and how rare is that?—at the traditional Thank God It’s Over party.

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