I know I promised to divulge a secret for creating sympathetic characters—and I promise to get to it soon—but I couldn’t help commenting first on National Novel Writing Month. Through the month of November, writers and aspiring writers alike are encouraged to try producing a 50,000 word manuscript. Obviously, speed is the goal here, as well as ignoring your inner censor. It’s a chance for self-critical writers to let go and just produce instead of second-guessing every word. Admittedly, the quality of the work will suffer, but by the time the November 30th deadline rolls around, the hope is that the writer will have a first draft to work with.
As someone who has spent MANY hours fretting over word choice when I should have just kept plowing ahead, I fully understand the need for momentum. I also like the community and accountability aspect of such an exercise. If someone is too afraid to take the writing plunge, this project just might be motivation he needs.
And yet I really wonder if this exercise is really all that valuable. Except in those rare instances when a writer is overcome with frenzied inspiration (like my friend Pat, for example), it’s completely unrealistic to think a writer can force himself to write a novel in a month. At best, he will likely end up with a glorified outline—not a complete novel—which is definitely a fine starting place, but not an end unto itself. At worst, he will end up with a mess of false starts, wrong detours, and shallow thinking that will require much more work to untangle than he would have otherwise had to contend with had he taken a more deliberate approach.
What I suspect might actually happen for most writers who attempt the exercise is that at the end of the month they’ll fall short of the goal. Either they won’t make the word count, or the story will be unfinished, or maybe they will hate every word that they’ve written. What concerns me is that these writers will be too discouraged to work beyond the end of the month, and that they’ll blame themselves instead of seeing that their expectations were unrealistic to begin with.
I also question the wisdom of celebrating speed over quality. It’s easy to write the first thing that comes to our heads, but the real art comes from digging deeper, past even the second or third idea that comes to us. I would argue that a writer should take more pride in a single, well-crafted sentence than a month’s worth of thoughtless purging.
The concept of a month dedicated to writing a novel would serve writers better if the requirement was a daily time commitment and the goal was determined by each writer, individually. Many writers will find that they need a push to get started, but many more will need support in the middle of their novels, when the initial inspiration has worn off and the end is nowhere in sight. It is here—in this tenuous no man’s land—where most writers abandon their stories and where they need the most support. The solution is commitment, not speed.