Can we stop democratizing writing now, please?

National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo (ugh), is coming up. I don’t like to dissuade people from anything designed to encourage the practice of writing. I must. Literally millions of manuscripts circulate in the hands of literary agents and publishers at any one time, far more than they have time to assess. Quantity is killing quality. The idea that hundreds of thousands of people should try to crank out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days is in no way going to teach aspiring writers to write fewer and much better books than the publishing industry now churns out or the unpublished manuscripts they choke on.

Think about how ridiculous it would seem to hold a contest to create fine art in 30 minutes—and not for amateurs and hobbyists, but as a proposed escalator to the profession. Think also about how the standards of any art form are lowered by making an assembly line of the process. I feel compelled to express negativity about NaNoWriMo precisely because I do love the art, the lofty goals and even the difficult craft of creative writing.

I’m one of those few who will probably write books whether or not we have any chance to obtain deserved recognition or financial success; I’ll just finish fewer and you may never see them. However, the sheer quantity of books of indifferent quality is making this an impossible business for most serious writers who deserve a career. They’ll simply stop. Whether they want to communicate world-changing new ideas, captivate you with a strange setting, or tell you a story you’ll never forget, most great writers today will be discouraged by the business and ultimately give up, and you the reader will be the poorer for it.

So think carefully about whether you want to be a writer, and why. What you should ask yourself isn’t “can I write some kind of novel in 30 days?” Instead, you might ask, “Can I work hard to write a novel as carefully as I can? Can I work as slowly as necessary to create an amazing book that no one else could write?” We have plenty of me-too books, and we don’t need any more. Write your only-this book, even if it demands years from you.


3 responses to “GlutNoMo

  1. I’ve never looked at it as “This is the book which shall be published.” I eventually finished one nano story, but it’s been two years since I finished and I’m still editing. The fast and furious process of getting it on paper was originally just to show I could write 50,000 words. It was supposed to end up in the trash bin. From what I can tell, most are just a temporary ego boost to show people can write and it’s fun, whether or not it’s professional. Used it in my English class a couple years ago, and many of the kids still write for fun. But yes, to look at this as the stepping stone to writing your first novel is silly.

  2. Yes, I thought it was just for fun when I first heard of it, and of course I thought no less of that than my late grandmother’s painting habit. Why not? It’s good to have a hobby. Unfortunately, I’ve since come to understand that as it has become more popular, it has also become a launch pad for “finally finishing that manuscript” or “writing that novel I’ve had in my head,” with the usual intentions. Of course it’s possible to take the proper time to correct speed writing afterward, but I would argue that it’s not the best process, i.e. the one most conducive to editing. Thorough, iterative editing can be so intensive, it’s best not to let it accumulate into one intimidating lump of self-criticism and eye-wearying proofreading, probably. Besides, I think it’s unlikely most people will take the proper time and attention for iterative writing-and-editing, once they have all those words down the quick way. Out of all of the people who try this, of course some people are realistic about their books, but some people are encouraged to submit or self-publish books that aren’t remotely ready. I saw that Lulu even has an ad campaign and special offer to appeal to NaNoWriMo authors. People want to be writers, not editors, and they’re glad to be fooled into thinking that “writing” has more of the fun part than the hard part.

    Overall, far too many people who can write a bit think they can really write and become authors. I don’t entirely blame them, because one thing after another encourages them, from the false romance of being a published author, to unrealistic ideas of profit or fame, to the low standards of pop fiction and scriptwriting.

  3. Oh, which is not to say that writing without thinking too much is a bad idea in my opinion. It’s a really good idea—for short bursts. You have to turn off that critical voice sometimes in order to freely associate and see what comes out, and all of that. Just not for 50,000 words or 30 days straight! An afternoon, a night, or at most a day or two is more like it, for my process at least. Then it’s time to consider where it’s going more carefully, give it some scrutiny and contribute some edits, before taking off again.

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