The Dangers of NaNoWriMo

Oh, all right. I confess—I’ve completely abandoned all efforts at NaNoWriMo. Nothing has shut down my desire to write as thoroughly since the last time I had major surgery. For me, NaNoWriMo turned fiction writing, which should be about creativity and inspiration, into an exercise in brute-force statistical manipulation. I mean, I could easily make the word count simply by doing this:

But I don’t think any of us wants that, do we?

I know that NaNoWriMo has worked as a tool for many writers in producing their first drafts—Sara Gruen and Lani Diane Rich are notable successes stories. But the relentless rah-rah emails from NaNoWriMo, the requests  to accept various other writers as my “writing buddies,” the tweets from buddies crowing about word count—well, it’s just been making me cranky.

When I wrote for newspapers, word count was an important part of each assignment and I always hit my mark. So no, writing to a deadline and writing a specific number of words—those aren’t problems for me. But fiction for me is about imagination, creativity, inspiration, and escapism. Trying to hit a random numerical target with no particular topic assignment reminds me too much of those odious high school essays, the ones where the teacher got lazy and didn’t fill out her lesson plan and said, “Give me 2000 words on any topic you want.”

Aside from being annoyed by the arbitrary word count goal, there’s the fact that it just doesn’t work with my own writing process. The last thing I worry about in a first draft is word count. For me, the experience of NaNoWriMo has been one of putting the cart before the horse, or being Alice in the Looking Glass World. It’s back to front. If I want to be truly free in writing a rough draft, I can’t also be obsessing over whether I’m getting 1600 words per day. My first drafts are written longhand, on bits of scrap paper and index cards. Sometimes they’re just vague notes about a scene. Often there are big blank spaces with phrases like: [they go to the casino and encounter her former jewel thief partner there]. As a marker for later plot development, that works fine for me. But you can see how sucky it is if your goal is boosting your word count.

So I have thrown in the towel. I’d always meant to try NaNoWriMo. I didn’t think it would be particularly inspiring for me, but that’s okay. Sometimes you have to try different things to find a system that works for you in developing your story. To be honest, my process this week will involve watching the rest of the first season of Homeland and prepping for our family’s semi-traditional Thanksgiving brunch. (DO NOT post a single word about Season Two of Homeland here, or I will send someone to your house to do bad things to your NaNoWriMo manuscript. I was kind of afraid to even click on the Showtime link to add it to this blog.)

I’ll also be doing a bit more research for The Monaco Mission—currently I have a huge dilemma: should the story be set during the annual Monaco Yacht Show or during the Monaco Grand Prix. Yes, the life of a writer is a hard one. Lest you think I have it too easy, there are other challenges. For example, I might drink some cappuccino while I make notes. That’s pretty rough stuff there, you know. I could get a blister on my tongue if I don’t wait for the mug to cool properly.

So enjoy your NaNoWriMo, you hearty souls who are going to make it all the way to the finish line. I hope one of you is even now writing the next Water For Elephants. Because it sure won’t be me!


The Dangers of Bad Editing

While I make a lame and pathetic attempt to catch up on all the NaNoWriMo words I HAVEN’T written (see, I told you this would be like dieting—I’m just too contrary for my own good) — please enjoy this humorous depiction of the dangers of bad editing.




Write What You Don’t Know

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

That, in a nutshell, is my writing advice to you for the day. Or the week. In fact, it’s my writing advice for your whole life. Because if you already know all about something, you’ll get bored right quick. Or anyway, I get bored right quick, so I find writing what I don’t know works way better. When I wrote for newspapers, my favorite subjects were ones I knew nothing about. When I started writing fiction, I knew dead people and guns were going to keep cropping up in my stories, so I went out and took a course in handguns at the local firing range. Way more fun than the advice well-meaning friends kept giving me, which was to write an autobiographical work about the challenges of raising a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. Screw that! I’m living that! I read books to escape! Well, sometimes I read them to escape. I do read them for other reasons too. But I definitely write them to escape from real life.

Now, writing what you don’t know does NOT mean you only write empty-headed, shallow, escapist romance and detective fiction. Although I do. But that’s just me.

You can write what you don’t know and create something brilliant and lasting and amazing, such as Ian McEwan‘s incredibly vivid chapters about Dunkirk in his brilliant book, Atonement. I am still blown away by how amazing those chapters are. I don’t see how anyone could write scenes like that when he wasn’t there. But then, on a far more modest scale, people who’ve been to Capri are sure I’ve been there too when they read Love Capri Style. Nope. Just Google maps, YouTube videos, some travel brochures, and an earnest desire to escape from the bedside of my dying mother—that’s how I wrote about Capri.

I was thinking about the whole “Write what you don’t know” philosophy and then this week on The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor shared this little bit of trivia. I already knew it, but I had forgotten. Sometimes you need this reminder, though.

From The Writer’s Almanac of November 1st:

It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane, born in Newark, New Jersey (1871). As a young man, he considered becoming a professional baseball player. He played catcher on his prep school team. At the time, baseball catchers wore almost no protective gear, and the catcher’s mitt was basically a gardening glove with a little extra padding. Stephen Crane became famous within his prep school league for being able to catch anything, even barehanded. One of his teammates said, “He played baseball with fiendish glee.”

Crane had started cutting classes to spend all his time in New York City, and he was fascinated by what he found there. He began writing for New York City tabloids while he was still a teenager. His first novel was Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). Booksellers wouldn’t stock it, so he gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest. He said, “I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment.”


Then, after reading a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers, Crane decided to write a Civil War story himself. The result was his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the story of Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment, hoping to experience the glory of battle that he’s read about in school. The Red Badge of Courage made him famous. It was called the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a twenty-four year old who’d never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane; they’d fought beside him in various Civil War battles. When the writer Hamlin Garland asked him how he’d conveyed the battlefield scenes so vividly, Stephen Crane said he’d just drawn on his own experience as an athlete. . . .

Now, if Stephen Crane and Ian McEwan can write what they don’t know, so can you. Go ahead, give it a try. You know you want to.