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Writing Bad: The NaNoWriMo Story

I’m a novelist. Not a great novelist—my works aren’t on any bestseller lists, they’ve never received any accolades or even a review, and you wouldn’t be able to find them at any bookstore or library. But that’s not what being a novelist means. A novelist is a person who’s written a novel—and thanks to National Novel Writing Month, that’s what I am.

nanowrimo_logo1National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo”, is an annual challenge that takes place in the month of November, during which hundreds of thousands of average-joe writers take up the challenge to pen a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. These writers can be anyone: “auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, middle school English teachers”—and for four straight years from 2007 to 2010, I was one of them.

Back then, a lot of people thought I was crazy for taking on such a massive undertaking—friends, family, even I questioned my own sanity for a while. But looking back, I realized I learned more about my craft and myself from NaNoWriMo than any writing course I’ve ever taken. Here’s why.

First things first, there’s the issue of time. It’s a common turn of phrase from would-be writers: “I’ll do it when I have time.” But as writing guru Julie Cameron says about the “time lie”, free time doesn’t just appear to you; you have to steal it. When I was doing NaNoWriMo, I was in high school: I was in class for seven hours a day, involved in extracurriculars, and I occasionally did my homework. In 2010, I tossed college applications into that mix. There’s also the added challenge that NaNoWriMo coincides with Thanksgiving, and if you let yourself fall victim to one too many tryptophan naps, it could be game over for your word count.

But among all of those commitments, I still found time to write, stealing it in bits and pieces throughout the day—at lunch, on the school bus home, during particularly boring lectures. (I’m not promoting inattentiveness, but nanowrimo-garphichey, you gotta do what you gotta do.) I didn’t have to set aside an extra six hours in my day to crank out the daily word quota; instead, I found that time in the moments I would have otherwise spent doing nothing. I stopped participating in NaNoWriMo after I got to college, mostly due to the “lack of free time”. But looking back on those past Novembers, I don’t remember much about them. I totally had time. I just didn’t look for it.

Another challenge, and one that I still struggle with, is what the NaNoWriMo people call “writing with literary abandon”. When your goal is 50,000 words regardless of quality or sense, it can be hard to fire your editor and just write. But if you fuss about perfection, you’ll never get a damn thing done. Write first, edit later. Go big first, then cut out the extraneous when you’re done. Take a risk, and you can take it back when you proofread if it’s too much. But chances are you’ll be glad you took the risk. Writing off-the-cuff is scary. What comes out is often sloppy and disjointed, but it’s also raw, real, honest, and with a little work, those words become something wonderful.

This isn’t just true for the craft of writing. The only way to get good at something is to practice, and to allow yourself to suck at first. You don’t sit down at your first piano lesson and expect to play a flawless sonata—you stumble over the scales first. You don’t run a marathon without training. And to produce a solid work of writing, first you have to write bad.

The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it’s not about the audience; it’s about the writer. No one has to see what you’ve written unless you want them to. I myself keep my NaNo novels in a hidden file on my hard drive, and in self-published paperback on my bookshelf at home. Once, a friend of mine discovered them while perusing my shelves (because apparently that’s what English majors do when they hang out in each other’s bedrooms). I slapped him away before he could even touch the binding.

Nanowrimo_participant_2007I didn’t write those works for others to read and tell me how good I was. I wrote to prove that I could do it: that I was a writer, a winner, a novelist. You’re a winner if you hit 50,000 words, no matter how awful you think they are. And I learned that was all the validation I needed.

Let’s talk about 50,000. As far as novels go, it’s short; The Great Gatsby, Fight Club, Slaughterhouse-Five all clock in at about 50,000 words each, and in my more literate, less-of-a-life days, I could finish those books in a day or two of involved reading. 50,000 in a month comes out to 1,667 a day. If I had a dollar for every word I wrote during my NaNoWriMo experiences, I could make monthly rent in my off-campus apartment before the day was half over. At the end of a month, I could cover a year of tuition at BC, with a little left over for books or a modest Flex Plan. I did NaNoWriMo four times. That’s 200,000. Twenty percent of a million.

But it’s not about money. It’s not even about creating something marketable. It’s about you, the writer. You, who can put together 50,000 words that make some kind of coherent sense in 30 days and come out a winner. A novelist.

So this is for you, whether you’re an aspiring writer or sports star or musician or whatever your dream is: keep at it. Find time. Let yourself be bad. And then become wonderful. Start today. And don’t stop.

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