Like just about every other artsy-fartsy, Millennial-generation dweeb in America, I’m currently participating in National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty simple: participants spend the month of November writing a 50,000-word novel (which averages out to about 1,667 words per day). The novel can be about whatever you want, in any genre, and in just about any style of writing, as long as it reaches (or surpasses) that 50K benchmark. There’s obviously an emphasis on quantity over quality, but there’s a reason for that; the goal of NaNoWriMo is primarily to motivate aspiring writers to sit down and write without feeling self-conscious about the rough first drafts they’re creating (the program’s tagline is “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon!”), and as anyone who has ever seriously attempted creative writing (or any kind of writing) can attest, feeling (and staying) motivated is often half the battle. It’s hard to write – or to achieve just about anything – when you’re constantly second-guessing the quality of your work and stopping to edit along the way.
For the most part, I think this is a worthy goal and that NaNoWriMo is a great project. Regardless of how good your writing is or how unique your ideas may be, your first draft will almost inevitably be pretty crappy, and it’s important to accept that fact before you sit down to write anything. The first objective should simply be to get your idea out of your head and onto paper (or a word processing file, more likely); then you can work on re-shaping it, sanding off the rough edges and making it into something truly impressive. NaNoWriMo is a great program for fostering that motivation, and the forums on its website are full of fellow Wrimos who are there to provide moral support to anyone who needs it. All of this is good.
But there can be too much of a good thing, and I can’t help wondering if some participants are completely missing the point of the project. This notion first crossed my mind when I was browsing NaNo’s web forums and came across a sub-forum called “Reaching 50,000!” Its obvious purpose is to provide advice and support for writers straining to reach that end-goal of 50,000 words, and much of the advice is pretty sound; there are a lot of pep talks, challenges, and of course, commiseration among writers who have fallen behind schedule (like me). But then there are threads devoted to things like “dirty tricks to reach 50,000.” These so-called dirty tricks include things like avoiding the use of contractions, using lots of adjectives and adverbs, and generally pumping your writing full of as much purple prose as possible. In other words, the goal of NaNoWriMo becomes less about writing a novel and more about pooping out 50,000 words that may or may not form something resembling a cohesive plot or story, which then begs the question of why someone would want to bother with the whole project to begin with.
I don’t really understand the point of “cheating” at NaNoWriMo. There’s no prize given for winning; if you do manage to write that 50,000-word novel by the end of November, your reward is merely the satisfaction of knowing what you’ve achieved – and, of course, the birth of that rough draft that you can hopefully sculpt into a fully-formed story complete with a structured plot and character development (both things that tend to come out more clearly in the revision process). But even if the objective is only to produce a shitty first draft, that shitty first draft needs to have at least some potential; maybe it doesn’t have to be great – or even good – but if you come out the other end of the month with 50,000 words of meandering tripe that says nothing and goes nowhere, you’re going to either have a hell of a time revising it, or you’re just going to end up with a great big pile of bullshit that no one – not even you – will want to look at.
I won NaNo in 2010; the draft I wrote is currently sitting on various flash drives on my desk, next to the desktop PC that I hardly ever use anymore. I haven’t gotten around to revising it mainly because it’s a huge mess of plot holes and sub-plots that drag the story down, and the task of editing it seems like it would be almost herculean in nature. You know that awful show Hoarders where clean-up crews go into filthy, rotting houses and try to restore them to something habitable? That’s kind of how I feel about editing that novel. But as big of a mess as it might be, at least there’s a story buried in it – a story that I actually worked very hard on without having to artificially inflate my word count – and I’m proud of that (I might even finish editing it and actually show it to people someday). I can only imagine how excruciating the revision process would be if I’d resorted to cheap tricks to pad out its length.
It’s important for any writer to be able to let go of his or her inhibitions and just write freely, knowing that it’s safe to make mistakes in that first draft. But just because you’re allowed to make mistakes doesn’t mean that you should abandon all pretense of effort. The point of the experience is to grow and hone your creative skills, and nothing is less creative than a book of cheap shortcuts. Besides, this is your novel we’re talking about – something you should want to write. Save the quick and dirty tricks for your term papers.