NaNoWriMo and the art to responding to a brief

Asked last week to write about NaNowriMo by The Conversation, I leapt at the chance to talk about this great worldwide (is it too emphatic a word?) phenomenon. Didn’t have long to do it, so it was a busy few days already scheduled to the rim. But, it’s a brief, I’ve been asked to write – what more could you want as a writer than to be asked to write. I’ve known about NaNo for years. Every November there’s a group of diehard students who reel into class pale with the effort of their nanowrimo nights, fall into a seat, then find one of their kind to talk with about word counts, plots twists, and characters hitting walls. They’re zinging, yawning, laughing, massaging their worn keyboard thumbs…

I’m a regular reader of The Conversation but of course to prepare myself, I went back to The C, read a few of the posts to refamiliarise myself with its style, read the editor’s brief again, then all The C’s notes to authors about what’s expected, spoke to a few wrimos, researched NaNo online, went through Google Scholar and my university library to see what research has been produced (not much), slept on it and woke with a first sentence.

From The Conversation

Let’s imagine I’m writing this article with my tomato-red Pomodoro timer gently ticking over in productive 25-minute intervals while taking a break from the novel I’m writing at a rate of 1,500 words a day during the month of November.

Why would I be doing this? Because it’s NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – of course.

NaNoWriMo is an annual and international program in which young and old dedicate themselves to writing 50,000 words of a novel during November. To get through this mammoth task, let’s imagine I’m also utilising one of the nifty writing software packages I’ve bought over the years: Scapple, Screenwriting Pro, StoryMill; though this month, it might be Scrivener I’m using, to help me “outline, edit, storyboard and write” my novel.

A path out of the bog of words

Truth be told, I don’t have a Pomodoro timer and I’m not a NaNoWriMo participant, though many of my writing students are – and this month, more than 300,000 writers signed up around the world to participate.

Why surround oneself with timers, software and the “NaNo” writing community?

Writing creatively is hugely challenging, and you’re often in free-fall: writing, yes, but for whom – and to what end? And what to do when stuck, when you’re lost in the bog of words, when your words are more snot than silk? This is where a writing community and productivity tools can help.

What happens when writers get stuck? Lost Albatross

NaNo’s motto? “The world needs your novel.”

It began in the San Francisco area in 1999 when a small community of writers – less than two dozen – gathered online to take up the challenge of writing 50,000 words over November.

Since then, this not-for-profit enterprise based in Berkeley, California has grown into a highly organised philanthropic organisation that supports its writers, contributes to literacy programs, hosts a Young Writers NaNo, and connects with libraries and schools.

Its most famous “Wrimo” is Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, a 2006 NaNo novel that was made into a film in 2011. Most, but not all, of its published authors self-publish.

Some scoff at the initiative. Critic Jennifer Schuessler made caustic comments about NaNo in the New York Times, writing that November is the “cruelest month” for literary agents. Like so many new players in the digital publishing environment, NaNo does not always conform to the rules that characterise established, professional literary, academic and publishing communities.

But as traditional publishers adapt to the digital era, they are now also turning to initiatives such as NaNo for models on how to interact with their readers, and to reach potential and existing authors.

50,000 words in 30 days

It’s a frantic 30 days. If one day the sentences don’t come, the next day your quota is just that much higher.

After signing up for free, writers can track their progress, blog with others, even physically meet other local writers via the NaNo community sites and forums. The digital environment means that no writer (or reader) need be alone – and why not?

After all, isn’t writing intended as a communicative act? If you want it to be, NaNo offers a supportive, interactive community. It’s also possible to write solo and just plug in your word-count each day, or every few days.

gimme a pabst

There are plenty of helpful tools to nudge writers along. Scrivener, the very popular software tool, has a template for NaNo writers and a NaNo blog during the critical month. Etsy, the online marketplace for artists and craftspeople, has also hosted NaNoWriMo teams.

Claire Catacouzinos, an emerging Young Adult writer, tells me she combines NaNo with her social media sites “to push [her] to the deadline”. Of course, many writers don’t reach the high target word count – it’s not meant to be within easy reach.

Participants use NaNo to demonstrate their commitment to writing.

If social media sites such as Facebook are a breeding ground for narcissism, creativity sites such as NaNo provide affirmation based on hard yakka. No-one’s going to praise your pout in your NaNo profile photo – but they will cheer the achievement of 10,000 words.

In this way, NaNo values production over consumption – and works as a complement to the reader’s sites such as GoodReads where readers discuss, review and rate books.

Using social media to structure a writing life

With its aim of creativity and community, NaNo resembles other workplace-based social media sites, such as Wiggio and Yabber, that enable participants to share work, exchange files, and set shared and individual goals.

It’s also similar to the creative writing workshops and classes that, along with varying degrees of structured learning, provide emerging writers with a community in which craft, technique and ideas can be shared and debated.

The deeper benefits of NaNo include learning about process: the program emphasises drafting and scheduling; it encourages practice, effort, diligence. It is strangely old-fashioned.

Writing, like other arts, can and must be practised. NaNo will be there again for participants next year, and the year after that. It will be – and perhaps it is already – the repository of the drafts and early efforts of yet-to-be canonised writers.

Jane Messer does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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