When I started National Novel Writing Month this year, I wasn’t sure if I could make it. When I wrote my first novel several years ago as part of NaNoWriMo, my work schedule was much different, much more flexible, much less demanding. Sure, there are people who can write five thousand words everyday for a month straight and easily hit one hundred and fifty thousand words. There are others that can hit fifty thousand words in the first day or first weekend of November, but for many of us, it is a struggle.
One idea I had thought of doing this year was going meta. On top of writing the first draft of my second novel, or perhaps as part of it, I would tell my own story of what it is like to do NaNoWriMo; the struggle to come up with the right balance of planning and writing by the seat of your pants, the struggles to come up with good character names and place names, the struggle to have a compelling story, the struggle to have realistic characters the change throughout the story, the struggle to keep going through the boring sections, knowing they are necessary to link parts of the story together, but fearing that if, I, the writer is bored, how much more bored the reader will be.
On Saturday the 30th, I hit my 50,000 words. I tied the pieces together fairly quickly and abruptly and then validated my word count. 51,531. I had done it. I had won. I felt joy and elation. I experienced fatigue and a sadness at the end of this part of a great adventure. I joined online discussions celebrating the victory of other writers.
There is something very powerful about this. Writing the first draft of a novel in thirty days is a major accomplishment. It builds self confidence. Some of my fellow NaNoWriMo writers plan to publish their novels. Other’s may put their novels on the shelf, waiting for a novel in some other year to try and publish. My first novel, after a rough first edit is sitting on a hard drive somewhere. It’s not great and if I become a more accomplished writer, maybe it can be published posthumously. I’m taking a little time away from my second novel before I start editing and deciding what the fate of it will be. I believe it is much better than my first, and I’m looking for readers to share initial reactions and if I do press on with a significant edit, I’ll be doing a bit of research in various areas I sort of glossed over in the first pass.
Yes, writing fifty thousand words in a month is very empowering., but there is something more. One writer posted on Facebook that she had only completed thirty seven thousand words, but that she had two thirds of the way through a story that needed to be told. It raises an important issue, why are we writing what we are writing? For some, it may be the challenge. For some, it may be the fun. Yes, I find writing a story more fun that reading someone else’s story. It may be that it is something we just have to do, it is core to our being. All of this is part of the reason I write, but as my craft improves, I’m finding that I’m also telling stories that I think are important to be heard, not necessarily the story itself, but the subtext. Stories can change lives. I can think of various stories like that for me, and I hope, someday, I might be able to write stories that will change other people’s lives.
So, National Novel Writing Month, 2013 is over. The friends I wrote with this year have their stories. Some have completed first drafts. Others are still writing. Some will edit, others will set their most recent stories aside. Some stories may get published, they may even change the lives of people that read them.
No matter what the outcome, everyone who embarked on #NaNoWriMo this year was a winner in one way or another, and I am proud to stand with them.
From the NaNoWriMo group on Facebook, I found the following comment:
Here's an interesting steaming pile of anti-NaNoWriMo dreck from Salon.com.
Yes, like other's my attention gets drawn to train wrecks, accidents along side the highway and other disasters, so I slowed down and took a look. The author admits that she doesn't write novels, and goes on to say,
NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary. When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. “Write Your Novel Here” was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.
As I read this, I pondered, what would make a person write such a screed? Is it insecurity in her own writing? Is it some haughtiness about being a 'real' writer, instead of just some inspiring hack? Are they two sides of the same coin?
'The narcissistic commerce of writing…' She, as, I presume, a paid writer, seems to be in an odd position criticizing the commerce of writing. Perhaps the narcissism she is complaining about is her own. Perhaps she is concern that she will be eclipsed by some great writer that emerges out of NaNoWriMo, moves through writers conferences, and writes the next great American novel.
So who is Laura Miller? Her bio says
In 1995, Laura Miller helped to co-found Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the Last Word column for two years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the
Wall Street Journal and many other publications. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" (Little, Brown, 2008) and the editor of "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" (Penguin, 2000). She lives in New York.
Oh yes, there s that nasty little bit of the commerce of writing slipping in. Be sure to buy her books, not. Her articles are mostly reviews, which based on her screed against NaNoWriMo I didn't see any reason to read.
Her article has received many great comments. Perhaps the best starts off like this:
Well aren't you just the Queen of Everything
Good gods, Miller, what crawled up your ass and died? What do you care if people take a whack at writing a novel or not? Who are you to tell them what is and isn't a "waste of time"? It's their time and effort, and if they want to spend it trying to write, let them. How exactly is it hurting you?
While you're at it, why don't you write a column on what a huge waste of time it is to collect stamps? Or crochet doilies? Or bone up on football stats? How about making birdhouses; THERE'S a fucking waste of time for you. And let's not forget scrapbooking. Damn, think of the millions of man hours (or woman hours) wasted on pasting ribbons and gewgaws and pictures in cutesty books. It's disgusting!
If this were just another self-righteous narcissistic professional writer sneering at all the people who still write for the joy of it, I would be tempted to glance at it and move on. However, I believe this reflections a much bigger issue in the world of writing, the idea of authority.
It is a topic that has been explored at many great conferences on the future of media, so I'l just give a quick summary. Here in the twenty-first century, where anyone can write a blog, and now, for that matter, anyone can self-publish, how do we determine what is of value? How do we find the authors that write with true authority.
It used to be that the publishers and the book reviewers were the gatekeepers, the guardians of authority. Yet now social media and crowd sourcing take the change in authorship one step further. An author can write a great book, self-publish it, and get enough critical praise from the hoi polloi to make the book a commercial success. Wither authority?
Ms. Miller also wrote a couple articles recently about Goodreads changing their moderation policy. She talks in these articles about the role of bullies at Goodreads. As we think about the changing nature of authority in the internet age, I have to wonder how much the apparent rise in bullying is a result of people trying to find their way in this new media landscape and acting inappropriately out of fear of their own loss of status.
Perhaps this provides a better insight into why Ms. Miller has chosen to publish an inflammatory attack on a wonderful hobby of people seeking to improve their ability to communicate in the twenty-first century.
Can a writer effectively compose a first person narrative story but from voice of their opposite gender?
There are a lot of interesting questions people struggle with in the NaNoWriMo Facebook group, and this is just one of them. Most of the responses are fairly predictable. "Yes… I can…I'm told they're accurate, too, from my male readers….There is more difference within genders than between…."
The discussion drifts off to sexuality.
I added my two cents with
Wow! I came at this from a very different perspective than most of the other people on this thread. My first thought was, "It all depends on whether you are cis or trans".
This, of course, led me to thinking about gender being socially constructed. If we are creating new worlds, we can also create gender constructs as we please.
I wonder how many of the forum participants get the reference to "cis or trans" or "gender as a social construct".
On Wednesdays, I speak with my eldest daughter who is teaching in Japan these days. Recently, she went to a conference on gender equality there. During our discussion of her experiences, I mentioned an interview I had recently listened to where the speaker identified herself as being in a third gender. She was a western woman in a strongly patriarchal Muslim country. In the country, there were acceptable roles for men and for women. Yet, she, as a western woman, could participate in activities traditionally reserved for men as well as in activities traditionally reserved for women.
My daughters and I often speak about social constructionism and I've been planning to weave the idea into my novel for NaNoWriMo. As my mind wanders along this path, I bump into the Constructivism philosophy of education, and I start thinking about social constructivism. Writing a novel is a great opportunity to experiment with challenging social constructs. How do writers create or reinforce social constructs? What role does the fourth estate play in shaping the third gender?
I must admit I've always had problems getting past Orlando "slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters". Yet the idea of Virginia Woolf's Orlando has alway intrigued me. At this point, I don't expect to have an Orlando like character in my novel, but we shall see.
We are less than two weeks away from the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, #NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Just straight through writing. You can save the editing for later.
The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I wrote a mystery in Second Life, and made the goal of 50,000 words. Subsequent years, I've started off on story ideas that were not clearly thought out enough, were too close to home, or I just didn't have the time. I've tried various variations on NaNoWriMo and am preparing for this year's attempt.
I've been thinking of writing some sort of psychological political philosophical treatise pulling together thoughts on aesthetics, politics, the genome, the biome, great awakenings, transcendentalism, transhumanism, the apocalypse, the singularity, social constructs and social contracts, neural networks, group therapy, attachment therapy, filter bubbles and a bunch of other ideas.
The starting point I've settled on is a campaign for State Representative. I will draw from my experiences running for State Representative last year, as well as experiences with other political campaigns, but I need to remind everyone that what I'll be writing is fiction, trying to weave together a lot of different ideas. If you find that a character sounds a lot like you, attribute it to good writing and not being a commentary on you. If you have ideas you want to share, make them about ideas and not your thoughts about different people.
With that, here is the general idea: In a fictional district, based loosely on the area I am from, there is a long time incumbent State Rep. His twin brother is a mayor in one of the towns in the district. His father was a Congressman. No one wants to run against the incumbent, so a political philosopher decides to run, but a completely different kind of campaign. No lawn signs, door knocking, palm cards,, advertisements, or any of that sort of stuff. Just discussions. Discussions about anything and everything. Discussions aimed at bring people with different viewpoints together, modeled on Chicago dinners, and aimed at breaking filter bubbles.
One of the towns in the district is a suburb where many college professors live, so there are lots of chances to talk about the genome, the biome, social contracts and social constructs.
I have a lot more ideas built into this, but I'll save some of them for November. Now, here's my ask: what sort of things would you like to talk about at a filter breaking dinner discussion organized by a long shot candidate for state representative? What points would you like to see gotten across? What conflicts would you expect?
As you can see by my comments about transhumanism, singularity, and the apocalypse, this is wide open. Let me know your thoughts!
(While National Novel Writing Month has passed, I've written the following in the style I was exploring during the month. While it is based on my general recollections of junior high school, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the memories.)
It was about forty years ago that I went to my first junior high school dance. It was around the time that my parents were breaking up and my mother drove me in old green Chevy pick up truck to the regional high school. With anticipation and apprehension, I dressed up in some nice school clothes. I didn’t have any fancy clothes to speak of, it wasn’t a fancy sort of dance, and I probably would have felt even more awkward if I had to where something nice. My older brothers, already in high school, and having been to various school dances made snide comments, and my younger sister, still in elementary school and a Partridge Family fan wanted to find some way that she could go on such a grand adventure. My mother sensed my uneasiness at the event, and told her to stay home as she drove me to the dance.
Back then, I was a nerd, before it was cool to be a nerd. I enjoyed talking about academic subjects, especially math. I had gone from playing clarinet in the school band to alto clarinet, on a journey that would lead me to saxophone, bagpipes, and any other instrument I could get my hands on. Yet actually performing, or for that matter, sufficiently practicing the clarinet, was something that terrified me, almost as much as talking to a girl, or letter her know that I liked her.
The drive to the school was a little over seven miles. It was fifteen minutes of just me and my mother. She tried to get me to talk about who would be there. I mentioned some of the boys that I thought would probably be there, but didn’t mention any of the girls, especially not mentioning the girls I thought were cute or hoped to dance with.
Like so many school dances, this one took place in the gymnasium. The room wax dark and decorated with crepe paper. Up near the front of the gym, the band was set up at the east end. I walked around a little the large room for a little bit to try and find my friends. Like all the boys, they were on the north side of the gym. We stood around and looked timidly across the floor to the south side where the girls were gathered in similar clusters. Some of the more popular and self possessed kids took to the dance floor. They seemed to be having a good time, and I longed to join.
We did not listen to much music at our house. There was an old radio in the corner of the kitchen that we would listen to on snowy mornings to hear if there was a school cancellation. We eventually got a small record player and we listened to records we checked out of the town library. My sister purchased a single or two, and it seemed like there would be weeks on end that I heard “If you’re going to San Francisco…” playing over and over on the record player.
I remember listening to the Beatles when we checked out one of there albums and I would mangle Hey Jude, horribly. Some of my neighbors, older boys that were closer friends with my brothers and played in one of the many typical high school bands, would endlessly try to get me to sing Hey Jude a little better, but I just couldn’t tell what I was doing wrong. I also listened to a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. “I am a rock” seemed to capture my social abilities of the time.
At the dance, there would be various songs that the band would play that would encourage me to ask a girl to dance. When “She was just seventeen” came on, my heart would go boom as I crossed the room to ask one of the girls to dance. I would be terrified that they would say no, and perhaps even more terrified that they would say yes. Yet instead of dancing through the night, we would dance one dance, and then awkwardly exchange niceties before retreating back to our respective sides of the gym.
Another song that I really liked to dance at in those says was “Smoke on the Water”. I didn’t know what the words were. I just recognized the four measure riff and anticipated singing along to the chorus, “Smoke on the water, fire in the sky”. When the familiar opening chords were played, I would walk across the floor and try to get someone to dance with me. I was more comfortable with this song. I could simply enjoy dancing to it, without worrying about everyone looking at me or what my partner might be thinking.
When the dance was over, my mother would pick me up in the green pickup truck for the long fifteen minute drive home. She would ask if I had fun and whom I danced with. I would mumble about having had a good time and maybe name a girl or two that I danced with.
The days have passed and my two eldest daughters have been through their school dances. Perhaps I was projecting, but it seemed like Mairead’s experiences at school dances mirrored my own. Miranda seemed to have a much better time at the dances and would be much more talkative afterwards.
All of these memories come to mind, as I visited a blog I enjoy today. The Modern Historian has blog posts about things that have happened this day in history. Today is the fortieth anniversary of the Montreux Casino fire in 1971 that smoke on the water is all about.
Instead of looking for the old grey portable record player we had as a kid, I typed “Smoke on the Water” into Spotify and listened to the original, as well as a bunch of interesting covers of it, from a workout video to a bagpipe cover.