On November 1, 2013, I committed myself to what felt like the Herculean task of writing 50,000 words in one month. Thirty days later, at 9:30 PM, I penned the last of those while sitting in the backseat of our old Land Cruiser at a gas pump in Carrizozo, New Mexico. My husband lingered for an extra five minutes after filling the tank despite the three-hour drive ahead of us and children who were tired after a day of sliding down frozen dunes at White Sands National Monument.
He waited because I had to finish writing and then validate my word count on the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) website before midnight, and the Carrizozo gas station wifi was the last we’d find along the way.
“Winning” the 2013 NaNoWriMo was not cause for much fanfare (aside from a celebratory winner’s badge on my NaNo profile). Rather, it was the culmination of a personal journey—a goal I set in the hopes of unsticking myself from the all too familiar mire of wordlessness.
Did it work? Yes, for the most part. I busted past some obstacles and clarified a few aspects of the novel that I chose to work on (one I started writing far earlier than November 1).
Did I get a “novel” out of my efforts? No, I got a skeleton of a draft, some of which I’ve cut, pasted, and woven into other stories.
Every year starting in about November, an article (or several) pops up on the interwebs in response to NaNoWriMo, and the message usually goes something like this: Why on earth are you wasting your time writing a novel?
One such article, entitled “Better Yet, DON’T Write That Novel,” penned in 2010 by Salon editor Laura Miller, garnered new comments for nearly 5 years by writers who primarily took Miller to task for insinuating that NaNo should be a NoNo. “Well aren’t you just the Queen of Everything,” exhorts one of the initial commenters. “I think you need a humility check,” declares another. The final comment was posted in July of this year, and “WriMos” are undoubtedly relieved that this particular piece finally stopped its exasperating tour of the internet. “Seriously, quit posting this article. WE’RE ON NUMBER 11 FOR THIS YEAR,” one NaNoWriMo community member pleaded last November on the NaNo Facebook page.
The NaNo focus on quantity over quality appears to be the crux of Miller’s gripe. Referring to the official NaNoWriMo website and its consolation that you can “expect to be writing a lot of crap” during the month of November, Miller retorts: “[that] doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November.”
In so thinking, Miller appears to miss the point. Perhaps this misunderstanding stems from the moniker itself. National Novel Writing Month conjures up the impression, to the uninitiated, that one must indeed write not a draft, but an actual novel. And the truth, which most fiction writers already understand (and bemoan), is that novels continue to be remarkably difficult to write and write well.
Despite any concerted November efforts.
In missing the point, however, Miller does make one that is relevant. To paraphrase: Don’t try to market your NaNo novel in December. “Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it?” Miller complains. She cites “rumblings in the Twitterverse” as evidence that many WriMos turn right around when the clock strikes December and send their newborn novels red and screaming into the world. If this is indeed an epidemic spawned by NaNoWriMo, then allow me to agree with at least this part of Miller’s screed.
Now that it’s December 1st, it’s time to sit your butt back down and read that thing you just wrote. All 50,000 words of it, give or take. Read it, in fact, aloud to yourself so you catch the occasional sticky, convoluted sentence.
After you read it over, then start revising. Slash and burn. Catch the dead ends, the missing links, the moments that don’t follow from any other. Check plot points and character motivation. Balance exposition and scene. Find the narrative arc and the novel’s central question. Check the beginning, middle, and end. When you grow weary and can’t see the story for the words any longer, put it away for a while. Read a few books on craft. Return to your novel later with fresh eyes.
Simply put: Turn December into NaNoRevMo, and revise that novel you slapped together. Make it good before you trust it with veritable adulthood and send it out into the strange, merciless world.
This admonishment to revise doesn’t just apply to your November novel writing efforts either. We at Blue Mesa Review read many manuscripts every week that would benefit from even a few more moments of editorial scrutiny. The wisdom of revision applies even for those of you who write, and submit, in the short form: Slap those words on a page, sure—catch the flame before it burns out. But then go over everything carefully. Read your piece aloud to catch typos and smooth your sentences. Writing at a fast clip, a la NaNo, is a good strategy for production, but to think it will leave you with anything other than a knot that needs untangling is to misunderstand the point of writing.
Next year I might take another stab at NaNoWriMo, for it truly was a helpful process for me. But at the moment I’m still revising my story from 2013…. And that process is obviously more than a 30-day commitment.
Ana June is a second-year MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at UNM and Associate Editor for Blue Mesa Review.