Why NaNoWriMo? Some Thoughts On Stories

I gave a presentation on NaNoWriMo at my library this past weekend and one of the questions I was asked by one of the attendees who hadn’t done NaNo before was why I thought it was worth doing. It’s a reasonable question, after all. Why undertake the mentally exhausting challenge of writing furiously for thirty days, especially when it’s very likely that much or perhaps even all of the words that you write will end up being complete junk?

There are a lot of possible answers I could have given; because it’s fun even though it’s hard. Because it’s the one time during the year that writing is a group activity and you can tell people about your novel without being the pretentious ‘oh-let-me-tell-you-about-my-novel guy.’ Because it’s good to allow yourself to be creative.

But here’s the answer I settled on and the one that I truly believe (although when I gave this answer during my presentation, I used considerably less profanity).

It’s a common saying within writing circles that everyone has at least one novel in them. Consequently, it’s popular to retort and say, no, everyone does not have a novel in them in a rather curmudgeonly, get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids sort of cane shaking. For the record, that post just happened to be the first one that I pulled up on Google; I don’t actually know if Tim Clare shakes a cane at kids on his lawn. I’m sure he’s actually a great guy and probably really nice.

Regardless, it’s trendy to be cynical and one of the best way to be cynical is to crush the idealism of others by telling them “no, the world doesn’t really need to hear your story. Your story probably sucks.” Even if Tim Clare isn’t saying that, many, many other people are. They want you to know that your story sucks. It’s bad and you should feel bad.

So here’s why I think NaNo is worth doing, no matter what you do with your story after it’s over.

NaNoWriMo is worth doing because it’s a month-long exercise in saying “fuck you” to the cynics.

A lot of people call it the “inner editor” or the “inner critic” or the “inner perfectionist.” You know what I’m talking about if you’re ever tried to create something, ever: it’s that little voice that tells you what you’re doing isn’t good enough or that you’re doing it wrong or that you really don’t have anything worth saying.”

I have a different name for that little guy. It’s my “dark voice.” It’s the voice that arrived in my brain sometime around middle school or early high school, right around the time that I left childhood behind and entered a world that was very eager to tell me how much I sucked, how much of a dork I was, how awkward I looked, and just how bad I was at life in general. The dark voice is always there and it’s always happy to remind me about all the things I fucking suck at in life. Writing. My job. Being a friend. Keeping my house clean. Doing yard work. Budgeting. Calling my parents. Exercising every day. Updating my blog. Blogging in general, actually.

Sometimes, people who sound a lot like my dark voice write posts about how there are too many novels in the world and really, your story sucks and you should just keep it to your own damn self.

Well, fuck those people. Fuck the dark voice.

Telling stories is what makes us human. Every single human who has ever lived or will ever live has at least one story to tell. It doesn’t matter if that story will ever be published. Being published is not the quality-meter that says “your story is worthwhile and has justified its existence.” Don’t get me wrong, being published is great, especially if you want to tell stories and get paid for it (which I really, really do).

But that has nothing to do with telling or creating stories. Creating stories is something we do and have always done as a species because it helps us figure things out. It helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. It helps us grow. Telling stories helps us be better humans.

So write your story. Write it because it’s helping you be a better you. And whether that story is 500 words long or 50,000 or 500,000, whether it takes you 30 days or 30 years, write it because every story has value. Every story deserves to exist.

Stories make us better. All stories do. The world needs more of them. The world needs every story it can possibly get.

And that includes yours. So go fucking write it.

What I’ve Been Doing

After faffing about since 2009, I finally knuckled down and took the final stop in the novel writing process.

I wrote a query letter. It was about 250 words and it took me the better part of an entire afternoon.

And then, despite the hammering of terror in my chest, I looked at the list of prospective literary agents I’d put together and actually sent the query letter and a sample chapter to one of them. I had to force myself to hit send, but that doesn’t matter! What does matter is this; I took the big flying leap of faith on the road to publishing my novel.

I’m 100% certain I will be rejected.

But that doesn’t matter, because I finally did it. I sent it out there. It’s out there in the universe now.

In time, I’ll either get a rejection response or I’ll get no response, and I’ll move on to another potential agent. And then another. Because that’s what you do. The process will repeat, on and on, until eventually I have a published work in my hands that I can point to, admire, and feel proud about.

And maybe someone will ask me to sign a copy and I’ll feel absolutely amazing, even if that’s the only copy that I ever sell. And even if nobody ever asks me to sign it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to convince my local public library to buy a few copies and then I can have the surreal experience of checking my own book out of the library. And won’t that be awesome?

Yes. It will be.

Should Rowling Stop Writing? Spoiler: NO

A writer named Lynn Sheperd has committed the cardinal sin of speaking out against one of the gods of writing: J. K. Rowling. Even more shocking, Shepherd did it in public, where other people could hear (or read) her!

Audible gasp!

The rules of talking about the gods of writing have always been thus; if you’re a writer, you CAN criticize the gods of writing, but only if you are also a god of writing. Thus, Stephen King can talk trash about Rowling (although he’s on the record as generally loving her). James Patterson can talk trash about Stephen King (although actually it’s the other way around).

Here’s Shepherd’s reasoning for why Rowling needs to stop after unleashing the Casual Vacancy and the Cuckoo’s Calling on the publishing world:

It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath.

I believe that I understand what Shepherd is talking about, if only because I remember the seething jealousy I used to feel when I was getting into writing myself.

It wasn’t just about comparing myself to every other person I met who told me “I’m a writer” or “I’m working on a novel” or whatever; comparison was part of it, the worry that their writing was better than mine. It was a competitive sort of hate, a feeling that every time one of my fellow neophytes managed to score a publishing deal, they weren’t just succeeding on their own merits. No, my seething jealousy was due to the fact that I believed they were sucking up publishing contracts that were rightfully mine.

Never mind the fact that I wasn’t submitting my work to the same market or the same agent or the same publisher. In my logic (and I use that word loosely), there were a finite number of book publishing deals in the world and every time someone else succeeded, it made my own chances go down. Even though it’s technically true that there are only a finite number of publishing deals in the world, my reasoning is still flawed and I was silly to have believed such a thing.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten over this particular mental peculiarity as I’ve gotten older.

Shepherd feels that writers like Rowling “suck the oxygen out of the room” via the sheer impact Rowling’s work makes when it arrives on the scene. Any other poor book that’s out there at the same time is capsized by the waves made as Rowling’s gorilla jumps into the pool. And maybe this is true for those books published right around any of the behemoths unleashed by the gods of writing.

On the other hand, do we want to see a publishing world without the gods of writing? Rowling might not be good for those first-time authors trying to get noticed, but she is DAMN good for the health of the publishing industry as a whole. Names that get people to remember why they like books and why they like to buy books are names that get people into the stores or onto Amazon or whatever. Simply put, without Rowling (and those like her), publishing as a whole suffers.

The general public has a notoriously fickle attention span and I don’t think a publishing world filled with nothing but scrappy up-and-comers is going to be enough to remind the consumer why he or she likes to buy books. The best case scenario is when the consumer heads to the bookstore (or the library!) for the new Rowling (or Patterson or King) and picks up the new title by their favorite and also decides, “hey, this other book looks interesting” and adds it to their stack.

I used to do this all the time as a kind when I’d roll into the bookstore with my $50 gift card.

I don’t actually agree with Shepherd that Rowling is bad for new writers. I happen to believe that evolutionary pressure applies to writers and their work, and if you’re writing into a market dominated by gods, that inspires you to dig deep and create the very best book you can manage. But even if Rowling is bad for first-time writers, she’s good for the health of publishing as a whole. I’ll happily deal with a turbulent month of sales (or even a torpedo in my own book deal, whenever that finally happens) if it means one of the gods is out there reminding people while it’s still cool to buy books.