Every writer needs a reader. Hopefully more than one, even. There’s just one problem: Most people don’t want to read most books. Every year, many thousands of manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishing houses, and many of those published end up being commercial flops. Writers can now publish their books independently online, but while a small minority achieve huge success by going direct to the consumer, most languish.
Despite this, each November, aspiring novelists overtake Twitter with hashtags: #amwriting, they say. After all, it’s #NaNoWriMo.
If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, clearly you don’t frequent Books Twitter. In short, it’s an initiative called National Novel Writing Month, held in November since 1999, when it was founded on a whim by San Franciscan Chris Baty. NaNoWriMo registered as a nonprofit in 2005 and has rapidly expanded, with community liaisons all over the country organizing local chapters for meet-ups and writing events. The organization’s website, which features forums for laboring writers, inspirational blog posts and advice, and a shop with NaNoWriMo-branded USB bracelets and laptop bags, boldly promises at the top: “The World Needs Your Novel.”
Strictly speaking, the world doesn’t exactly need your novel. Starry-eyed DFW enthusiasts alone ensure an always-abundant supply of fresh manuscripts. As Laura Miller pointed out in 2010, “while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.”
Yet it’s writing that we encourage, even as reading books as a hobby dwindles in popularity in the U.S. and publishers struggle to make ends meet. "Everyone does have something to say," joked L., a writer who recently published her first book, "but perhaps it's not best said in the form of a novel, for everyone." (L., who met with me over coffee, preferred not to risk alienating fellow members of the writing community who might be participants.)
NaNoWriMo, which challenges participants to complete a novel draft in just 30 days, remains popular despite something of an industry backlash. “It used to be something people would say outright in their queries a lot more often,” literary agent Katie Grimm told me. “When it first started, it was definitely a badge of honor to have participated.” But a flood of unrevised, hastily composed manuscripts hitting gatekeepers in December and January didn’t exactly warm agents or editors to the project, and she suspects the organizers of NaNoWriMo now place stronger emphasis on the value of extensive revision after the official month has drawn to a close.
These days, agents and editors told me, they don’t notice a particularly onerous pile of submissions in December. Nor do they frequently see NaNoWriMo mentioned in queries, though the popularity of the event seems as strong as ever. The agents I spoke to told me they prefer to work with authors who have been honing their writing chops consistently for years -- not necessarily inconsistent with participating in the public novel-writing sprint, sure, but touting your NaNoWriMo completion badge can take the focus off your total body of experience.
“The organization’s website, which features forums for laboring writers, inspirational blog posts and advice, and a shop with NaNoWriMo-branded USB bracelets and laptop bags, boldly promises at the top: “The World Needs Your Novel.””
Besides, the whole set-up of the event seems primed to exacerbate the most irritating aspects of creative culture today. The worship of “makers” over “consumers,” even though the production of ever-growing piles of novels is meaningless without engaged, thoughtful readers; the special-snowflake-ism of “The world needs your novel,” when most of us can’t and won’t produce novels that will affect the world or even be read; the commodification of aspirational creativity, as with enormously expensive arts or creative writing degrees that offer no benefit to most graduates; the emphasis on stats over substance.
NaNoWriMo requires only one thing for a participant to “win”: They must submit their manuscript of over 50,000 words by the end of the month. What about novellas? Short stories? Poems? What about, as The Millions cheekily suggested, one really good paragraph? The obsession with length is democratizing in certain ways -- judgments as to quality always risk subjectivity and bias -- but it also puts the focus on the least important aspect of creative writing. The glamour of writing a novel surpasses that of writing a fantastic short story; it allows you to tell people that you wrote a novel and to check that adventure off your bucket list. Baty himself jokes about having started the project so he and his friends could tell romantic prospects they were "novelists."
This set of criteria can raise distorted ideas of what writing a book entails for the incautious participant. “I just think writers should be careful -- I don’t want them to believe that it’s ‘normal’ to write a book in a month,” Jenn Fisher, assistant editor at Berkley Group, told me. For aspiring first-time writers, she worries this expectation can encourage unrealistic writing habits. “It takes time to develop an idea, characters, plot, never mind actually writing the book and then refining it,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s a good thing for new writers to churn out a book in a month.”
L. had similar concerns, ultimately avoiding NaNoWriMo as she wrote her debut novel. "I didn't want to force myself to just put words on a page. I didn't think that it would be very high quality," she said. Though she supports revising, and reworked her own book through several drafts, she pointed out that the "mad flush" of setting down an entire draft at once, no matter how flawed, doesn't work for all writers. NaNoWriMo, among her writing friends, she admitted, doesn't have "a reputation of producing works of quality."
To be fair, there have been a couple highly touted successes: Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Sarah Gruen's Water for Elephants are the most commonly cited. Still, for an event that by now claims hundreds of thousands of participants each year, this isn't a notable success in terms of producing works of superb craftsmanship.
Still, for many writers, NaNoWriMo can offer a moment of communal solidarity in an artistic pursuit that’s notoriously lonely and often isolating. Plus, there’s the external motivation to keep putting words on paper. “It’s a craft,” Grimm told me, so she sees value in “anything that encourages people to practice.”
Fisher strongly agreed. “Writing is a solitary endeavor (most of the time) and to have a sense of community can be really helpful to writers, especially new writers who may need a bit of extra encouragement or motivation.”
This might be particularly valuable to writers from marginalized groups, who may find less encouragement to follow their authorial dreams elsewhere than the more privileged -- though it also targets those privileged with the time to dash off an entire novel in just four weeks. “If it’s the impetus that gets some people writing, and connects them to other people who love to write, that’s great,” said agent Jody Kahn.
“If you love books, please know you don’t have to write one to validate your passion.”
But while National Novel Writing Month can be a convenient motivational tool for aspiring writers, most of us don't really need to participate. There's something we should all be doing, if we care about literature: Read. A lot.
Miller writes that many new writers have told her they don’t have time to read because they’re working on their writing. Grimm pointed out how flawed this is for authors who want to actually produce good, publishable work: “It’s terrifying how many authors try to write in a particular genre and don’t seem to read it,” she observed. “If you don’t know what the tropes of the genre are, you can’t play with those ... or subvert it in a way that fans will delight in.”
Writing a novel as a hobby isn’t exactly wrong, but the world probably doesn’t need it. So let's just say this, once and for all: If you love books, please know you don’t have to write one to validate your passion. Reading is more than enough, and it adds more to the literary ecosystem to read avidly than it does to write a novel for kicks. “We’re encouraging tons of people to write,” pointed out Grimm, “but once you’ve actually published, all you’re really wanting is readers.”
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