NaNo No More: Why I am not NaNoing this November (even if I AM writing a novel!)

Long-time Phoebe-readers might remember that I participated in–and won!–NaNoWriMo last November. Those who are generally familiar with me might know that I attempted it other years, too, in 2002, 2003, and 2006. With each passing year, the contest becomes more and more ubiquitous. It seems that now, in 2010, it’s pretty much requisite that any professional and blogging author must have a publicly-stated position on the whole thing. While I’m not quite a professional myself, I thought that I’d throw my two cents in.

Having won NaNoWriMo, I hope to never participate, ever again.

A brief history of my interaction with the program: I learned about it in 2002, from future-hubs Jordan. We were knee-deep in the process of falling in love, and he thought he might participate. I thought it sounded romantic and fun, and being a romantic and fun person, joined in. It went well–for about ten days, while the future-husband was sick. I worked dutifully on my story, semi-autobiographical fiction about teenage girls at summer camp. Then he got better and I got distracted by making out.

The next year, I was a college student, but decided to try again. Novel died on the first day.

In 2006, I was preparing to go to graduate school and starting to Take Myself Seriously as a Writer (note the capitals; they denote gravity). I tried again, using DarkRoom to pound out about 42,000 green-on-black words of almost completely autobiographical fiction. But the thing was, even though I read the NaNo message boards about increasing one’s word count, I had no idea how to write a novel. Mine was a mish mash of flashbacks and angst and it was really terrible. I had no idea where my story was going. About a week before November’s end, I realized how much I hated writing it. It was making me unhappy. This is what I wrote about the experience, on the day that I gave up:

According to the website there are already 2,400 winners of 2006’s National Novel Writing Month. I won’t be one of them.

It isn’t for lack of writing: in the sixteen work days I spent working on my novel, I produced 41,501 of the 50,000 words required to be consider a winner. I typed, handwrote, took notes, laboured, sweated, whined. I consider November to be a successfully productive month, even if I’m only four fifths of a winner.

(Generally, I have realized that part of my dissatisfaction of NaNoWriMo is that it’s a quantitative goal, rather than a qualitative one; on the forums of their website, participants harp about the rules–like when they call people who include sentences from their own previously-penned notes “cheaters”–and trade word-count inflating secrets like including the lyrics to songs and detailing every item in their characters’ grocery carts. The goal isn’t to produce a novel, and it’s definitely not to produce a good novel, but rather to produce a single cohesive work of no particular quality that’s at least 50,000 words long. I’m not entirely convinced that doing this, alone, is a really good use of time, just as I gave up on my systematic reading of the Modern Library’s One Hundred Greatest Novels of the Twentieth Century when I realized that I wasn’t enjoying a good chunk of the books I was reading. Although doing these things might seem impressive, in a sense, they’re not qualitative goals. They won’t make you more intelligent or happier, even if the numbers might look impressive.)

My novel’s not finished though; I haven’t even reached the climax. And the problem I increasingly saw as the month drew to a close was that there was no progress towards the summit of the story. In fact, there was hardly even an incline. The only action driving the story was the relationship between the Main Character and her Love Object, a repetitive, obsessive interaction with no real motivation other than sex and assumed cuteness. There’s no depth to the story, only teen angst. For me, as the writer, teen angst got old really fast. I can only imagine how it would feel to a reader.

All that was true, or seemed mostly true. But I’m a Capricorn, and a particularly stubborn Capricorn, at that. I. Hate. To. Fail. And so my near-win on NaNo kind of bothered me, deep down, even though I still wasn’t sure it was worth doing.

Anyway, I went to grad school, wrote poetry, read YA novels with amazing children’s lit professors, and somehow in there figured out how to write a book without writing one at all. I wrote my first in the summer and fall of 2008, my second in the spring of 2009. I edited neither, but I found that simple quantitative goals–usually between 500 and 1000 words a day, though sometimes more–actually worked for me. Of course, I also figured out other things about writing–that, to use NaNo terminology, I’m neither a plotter nor a pantser. I’d call myself a resolute day dreamer. My novel’s ending, basic plot, and key scenes are always all planned out in my head, and as I write, I figure out how these pieces fit together so that, by the time I’m about halfway in, I know how the entire book should go. I don’t write down any of this, but kind of shimmy the plot around one of those slider-puzzle things. I brainstorm on long walks or car rides or during conversations while writing, and while writing regularly and fairly steadily.

So. Last year. 2009. I figure, I already know how to write a novel. Why not NaNo?

You know the end of this story: I won last year. I ended up editing my novel and querying it, and while it didn’t sell, I learned a lot and liked it okay. However, you don’t know the middle of the story, which was sobbing to my husband–for no particular reason–about how stressed out and exhausted I was sometime around Thanksgiving. Writing The Stone Sorter was sort of a miserable experience for me.

Having written other books, before and since, I know that it’s sometimes annoying and sometimes drab and sometimes a pain. But it’s never otherwise been miserable.

Now, editing? That’s miserable. Inevitably, I reach a point in editing where a beta says something completely valid and I’m overwhelmed by my own feelings of inadequacy–mostly related to my ability to do the work necessary to implement changes I know are needed–and become Sobby Stupid Phoebe.

But writing? Writing’s supposed to be fun, mostly, and certainly not miserable! I’m supposed to be allowed to watch my characters live and breathe and, if necessary, take a break from the daily grind to figure out whatever is necessary to make that happen.

And there’s just not room for that in NaNoWriMo for me. It’s an unforgiving, unrelenting pace, and it’s not natural for me. That’s not to say that I’m a particularly slow writer. This past year alone, I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 130,000 words. I’ve discovered that I can finish a novel and get it edited in approximately four months, if I hurry. That’s incredibly fast! Faster, certainly, than what some publishing contracts dictate.

The other night, I asked some of my writer friends on twitter if they were NaNoing, and if not, why. A lot of them seemed sad not to participate–they noted that they had revisions to do, or were knee-deep in another project, or had too many family commitments in November, and then appended frowny faces to their tweets. I empathize. Not playing along does feel, in a way, like you’re being left out of this cool club of hypercreativity. All these people doing word wars and word races and talking about their plot points on facebook and elsewhere.

But I don’t really think we need to feel sad. Having won–and finally gotten the NaNo albatross of loser guilt off my back–I can’t help but think that writers should know, and honor, their own processes, and their commitments to their other books or to their real, non-writerly, lives. And so that’s why I’m not NaNoWriMoing this year–and why I probably won’t, ever again.

I still might use those of you that are as an excuse to word race, though. NaNo or no, I do have a book to write!