Saturday, November 10, 2007

NaNoWriMo and me!

J. M. F. Grant has something of a rant about NaNoWriMo. So I figured I'd weigh in about the phenom of National Novel Writing Month.

For those of you who don't know, and don't care to read their site, NaNoWriMo is a largely online event that gets people from all over the world, but mostly America, hehe, to spend a month writing a novel (for these purposes defined as any prose text 50,000 words or longer, which is more likely a novella than a novel, but, hey, what the hell, right?). What NaNoWriMo attempts to get people to do is write. I first read this in an essay by Ray Bradbury, and as I've gone on I've increasingly realized it's truth, that an author's greatest barrier is their critique - many people don't think they're good enough to write a novel, or publish one, or whatever, so they don't give it an attempt.

So, in that vein, I'm a fairly large supporter of the concept of NaNoWriMo. But, to be honest, when you read their statement of intent it's . . . pretty awful. They say stuff like, "Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft . . . It's all about quantity, not quality." Ouch. If that doesn't sound sufficiently like inveigling against "painstaking craft" here's another little bit, "To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work."

On, that's the context of Grant's rant. He has, apparently, published several books (he did not say if they were novels) and he seems offended that there's this program that gets people to do what they do at the expense of what he does - that planning and craft is somehow a . . . barrier to writing a novel, instead of a way to write a better novel. And I have some sympathy for this. I also fall fairly strongly into the pain-staking craft department. Both Condotierri and Simon Peter are about BIG, IMPORTANT things, and I want to say a variety of things and use the medium of a novel to do that. In some ways it's difficult to even say how long it took to write them, because they both arose from years of thought about social, technological and theological issues. In many ways, they are the culmination of everything I've learned since I was ten years old and wrote my first story, and I'm guessing my next novel will also be all that . . . with the greater knowledge and experience I've gained writing my first two novels.

One of the other things that NaNoWriMo says and this is . . . this is terrible, because it's very much a lie, is that writing the first draft is "the hard part". In some ways, for me at least, finishing Condotierri was the hardest thing I'd ever done. I was nearing the end and I realized that, right here, right now, I've got to make the previous 100,000 words make sense. All lose ends must be tied off, all conflicts resolved, it's got to end. In other ways, that was also immensely satisfying. As opposed to re-writing and editing? I'd rather end a novel every day of the week than edit, hehe. Editing isn't hard, mostly, but it is deeply dull. It's easy to keep energetic about the creativity of the first draft. But the second time through? Well, that's satisfying because you can do it and go, "Yeah, this came out pretty cool." The third time? It's just boring. The fifth time? You want to die.

But even that isn't the hardest thing. Because, after that, there's seeking publication. Which is where you beg people you don't know to deign to publish your book, using standards that are designed to weed out 999 in 1000 manuscripts. The odds are wicked stacked against you, you have no clear way of knowing what they're looking for any given day (or even if they're looking for anything at all), you have no way of knowing what magical combination of words will catch the eye of a publisher. (Indeed, the mood of the publisher, agent, editor, etc., is probably a bigger factor than anything you can write; whether they liked they lunch or not is probably a bigger factor than the objective quality of your work once it has reached the stage of being polished.) And then there's the deep and abiding pleasure of getting the FOAD letters, those politely, and distantly, worded rejections to your life's work.

Compared to all that? Writing the first draft is easy. And fun. It's all creative. After that? It becomes a slog through work you're already over-familiar with, and then the walk of shame that is getting published. The way that NaNoWriMo gets around this is by . . . don't mention doing that! Say that they're done writing the first draft, which is like saying that the food is read after the reaping is done. There's still a long way to go between "first draft" and "completed work".

So, while I understand why someone might be bothered by the cavalier attitude that NaNoWriMo evinces for the ideas of painstaking craft in writing, at the same time it's pretty clear their tongue is in their cheek in the first case, and in the second they're trying to get people to write. Where I have trouble with the project is that they encourage people to stop immediately after the first draft but nevertheless encourage people who are successful to call themselves novelists. Which is akin to running a mile and calling yourself a marathoner. A first draft is a necessary condition for being a novelist, but it is far from a sufficient condition. There's definitely more to it! And NaNoWriMo wholly ignores these other things, handwaving them away as merely devotion to craft and foolishness other writers do.

So, I guess I'm somewhat ambivalent about NaNoWriMo, hehe. But that's the extent of my thoughts on it.


Susan said...

Good points about NaNoWriMo, thanks for bringing up the mission statement! I must admit to a bit of eye-rolling through some of the things it says, but you're right: the bottom line of their purpose is getting people to write (if not elegantly, or even grammatically), and to have fun.

So, ok.

It doesn't bother me, because folks like us who were writing before NaNoWriMo arrived would be doing it anyway; there's no need to convince us, is there? And now we get to 'work' next to 100,000 ordinary-others and lunatics, many of them teenagers, quite a few semi-literate.


Best of luck with the blaspheming, writing, publishing etc.

Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, I'm all for people having fun and all writing! I know that a lot of there reason I'm all into that steady application of craft is because I want to do more than write, I want to be published!

I perhaps should have said, too, that the best thing that NaNoWriMo does is break the idea that writing is something done in social isolation. I believe that the industry takes advantage of writers, and I think this is made much easier by the fact that writers . . . don't know each other. That we do, largely, work in isolation. NaNoWriMo creates a *community* of writers who assist each other in a variety of ways. Which is *wonderful*, absolutely *wonderful*. Insofar as that goes, I'm sad it only goes on one month a year!

Susan said...

Well, your reply there held a smack-forehead moment for me: isolation is a big problem when it comes to critique, moral support, contracts, so many things; and here I am living a hundred miles from nowhere, so there isn't even a local writer's group for me to join. No wonder I love NNWM so much.

And I love the mad-dash writing that NaNoWriMo encourages, but must admit that this year AGAIN I've failed to block out the compulsion to go back and edit, polish, scrub and improve before finishing.

Oh well. The wordcount suffered...the novel-in-progress is much better for it.

I hope!

As for 'once a year'...[sigh] I'm one of those sad cases who uses the NaNoWriMo forums all year long. As you said, about community..


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I only read about this project for the first time today and you have interesting things to say about it. I agree that anything that encourages people to write is probably a good thing, but that the hard part must come after the first draft. I do admire you for persevering.

Stew said...

Just because I know that you have so much spare time on your hands, I hereby tag you with Crazy Eights

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Who'd want to read a month, purpose written novel?

Unpremeditated said...

NaNoWriMo does worry me. National Writing Month would be great - writing can bring great pleasure, but NaNoWriMo seems to be suggesting to people that they can churn out a few pages of stream-of-consciousness guff and then call it a novel. Blogging is (relatively) easy, novel writing, as you say, is tough and no-one should be trying to persuade people it isn't.

Susan said...

That might be the impression you'd get on hearing the website name, but fortunately the reality is different.

The goal isn't a finished, ready-for-publication novel in a month; the goal is 50,000 words. That's achievable: and when you've written nearly 200 pages of fiction in a month, the momentum of that can carry you onward to finishing the story, learning more about the publication process, editing, seeking critiques, polishing, and really finishing the thing.

As the NaNoWriMo staff point out on the website, a lot of people dream of writing a novel "someday" and just never get started: NaNoWriMo gets them started, and supports them after 30 November to help them finish.

It grows by leaps and bounds each year, so there's something in it.


Frankenstein was written as a time-limited challenge. Good luck to you in your attempts to break the block. I do think that the biggest barrier is oneself.

On a quite different front, please don't think that Intelligent Design invalidates the notion that there might be something apart from "the universe". ID may be miscast, misunderstood and misprepresented, but there are enduring mysteries:

1. Why is there something, rather than nothing? I know that some mathematicians/cosmologists postulate a possibly infinite number of meta-universes which collide and produce universes like ours, but (a) these meta-universes are, by definition, unobservable and (b) seem to me to offend against the principle of Occam's Razor.
2. Why do natural laws as understood so far by scientists, appear to hold unchanged throughout time and space?
3. If the universe was created ex nihilo (a position on which scientists and many religious believers agree) then why, in the last 15 billion years, hasn't there been another Big Bang? (hope you answer this before it comes.)

Chris Bradley said...


I get into this argument fairly frequently, and I've pretty much streamlined my arguments but am not usually willing to go too far into it. That your three points are what they are, however, says that you don't actually know much about physical cosmology and are arguing from at least a crypto-theological position and not really a rational one.

About your point 1, I concede there is uncertainty about the existence of creation. But to infer that there is a creator in the absence of actual evidence is simply irrational. What you do, instead, is what scientists generally do when confronted with something that is currently unknown. You admit that it's unknown and you look for a reason. Positing an "intelligence designer" ignores the fact that there is no evidence for it - we can't find the designer or, really, any proof of design. Lack of complete knowledge of the creation of the universe and its subsequent development is bad grounds for submitting that "someone" did it.

Also, of course, it also begs the question of where the designer came from. Did someone design the designer? If you are tempted to say that the designer is without beginning or end, please, don't bother. That's an untested, untestable hypothesis and clearly religious in nature. That's saying "I don't know what created the universe, but I'll invent this being that no one has seen, or touched, or apprehended in any material fashion and give it the attributes necessary to do what I want to be the case, but about which I have no proof."

2. Actually, no, the natural laws as understood by scientists do not seem to hold equally true. The most obvious place is, really, gravity. Quantum gravity behaves differently than relativistic gravity. That's just one example. Another is the formation of dark energy, or the behavior of black holes, etc., etc. There are actually lots of places where the "laws" change relative to where we're at.

However, in addition to being factually wrong it's also irrelevant. Again, just because we might not know absolutely why a given thing happens does not infer intelligence. At best, it's a good question. You do not provide an answer for it, however, when you say an intelligent designer did it. You posit a designer and they fit the facts to suit you.

3. Because they are rare, or there is some other mechanism at work. There might be other big bangs happening beyond the life cone of this universe, I should note. We just don't know that much about the big bang. Again, however, ignorance does not infer a designer. It merely means we don't know.

I should also note that quantum flux, which is the probable agent of the big bang, can be observed. It's actually pretty easy to find situations where something comes out of nothing. I, myself, believe that dark energy is precisely this, and if current hypotheses concerning dark energy are true (and they seem to be) it might provide the specific mechanism of the big bang - and would suggest that it is ongoing. But that is the hypothesis of an amateur, so it isn't likely to be true. HOWEVER, what is true is the creation of something from nothing. It happens pretty regularly.


I didn't posit a sort of human-type designer, I asked the question. You're too used to dealing with fundamentalists. But the question of order remains.

Also, please avoid the "crypto" stuff - I don't do ad hominem when asking philosophical questions.

And quantum gravity, black holes etc are part of the laws of the universe, just special cases. Under the same conditions, you'll get the same phenomena.

And I'm perfectly well aware that time is part of the description.

You may have rehearsed your arguments frequently, it'd be nice to develop them, otherwise you'll start to trot them out like a politician with his ready-made speeches.

Now can we have a proper discussion, not a magisterial telling-off?

Chris Bradley said...

I know you didn't posit a human-type designer. That's the problem. If you did propose a real designer, you could come forth with evidence that we could then discuss. Oh, I might disagree - I think most UFO conspiracies are at least as idiotic as I generally find religion - but at least you'd be fielding something akin to evidence.

After all, there are sciences that fairly routinely propose intelligent designers. Say, archaeologists. They are poking around and they see a bit of fired pottery and go, "Huh, I think some intelligence made this." Then they look around some more and they gather evidence. They find ancient kilns, other jars, signs of settlement capable of producing the artifacts they found, and proof of beings capable of having produced the artifact - bones, for instance. I mean, if people were serious about this whole designer business, they'd be lookin' for it. They aren't.

All those things you said infer the a designer, however, do not. Some of them are reasonably big question marks, but filling them in with imaginary beings about which you can't describe, measure or define is frankly irrational. You say there's a designer. I say, show me.

I mean, my previous post still stands. You addressed none of it, but I will repeat the thrust of it - ignorance is no reason to believe in a designer. There are things we do not know. True. But to get from there to saying there's a designer is specious.

Crypto is not ad hominem. It means "hidden". I used it because, quite often, I have people - like you - who propose this sort of nonsense but don't admit to your true motivations, which have to this date been attempting to justify some supernatural belief or creator. If you don't believe in a supernatural creator to the universe, and believe that the universe was created by materialist aliens of cosmic proportions, I mean, there's no evidence for that, either, and it would furthermore merely beg all the questions that got us here in the first place. If we were created by something else, what created that? So, given the way you addressed this, I think crypto-religious is probably spot on. You're coming here trying to sound like you're a reasonable person, but I'd bet money you're a supernaturalist in some form or another.


"Crypto is not ad hominem. It means "hidden". I used it because, quite often, I have people - like you - who propose this sort of nonsense but don't admit to your true motivations..."

Implying dishonesty is ad hominem. And I am also perfectly aware of the meaning and etymology of "crypto".

I wished to see whether your position is as intolerant and aggressively defensive as the other kind of fundamentalist, or whther you were willing to offer either (a) some explanation - however tentative and unprovable - of the origin of the cosmos, or (b) a hint of humility.

I'll settle for (a).

Chris Bradley said...


No, hidden means hidden, not implying dishonesty. You're protesting a little too much. Be honest. You are a supernaturalist, right? You believe that there is some supernatural origin for the universe?

And . . . ohmygod! There are a number of tentative hypotheses - and at least one pretty good one, which is called "the Big Bang". And the difference between the Big Bang and an "intelligent designer" is that there's lot of evidence, both observational and theoretical, that it actually happened.