Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too
Edit: Instead of reading this old thing, why don't you read How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept NaNoWriMo?
So November is "National Novel Writing Month", where people are challenged to write a complete 50,000 word novel in one month. The concept owes it's origins to the 24-hour Comics Day, originally thought up by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame), though the stated purposes of these two challenges could not be more divergent. The 24-Hour comic was invented because Scott McCloud was dismayed at how slowly his friend Steve Bissette was working. "I'll bet he could do a full length comic in a day if he wanted to!" He thought. Doing a comic in a day was an exercise to stir up the creative juices in a comics creator, and the 24 hour comic website includes a "Random story seed" section to help you pick something for your exercise. "Is this really the best way to make a great comic?" asks the FAQ. "Probably not, ... but that's not the real goal. The goal is to have the experience of trying. It's a creative exercise that can teach you a lot about what you're capable of." This is noble and interesting.
Rather than being an exercise for creators, "National Novel Writing Month," instead posits itself as a challenge for non-writers. Quoth the website:
Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. ... In 2005, we had over 59,000 participants. Nearly 10,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.
I'm not sure why someone "scared away by the time and effort involved" in novel writing would instead want to put themselves through the wringer of doing a whole novel in a month, but the "finish line" metaphor is telling; to the NaNoWriMo people, writing a novel is like running a marathon, something difficult and strenuous that you do only so you can say you did it before you died. (Or rather, like running a marathon has become in the popular imagination; there are those who still lament the passing of the age when marathons were for serious runners only.) I shouldn't have to say that this attitude is repugnant, and pollutes the world with volumes upon volumes of one-off novels by people who don't really care about novel writing. I can't help but wonder out of all those 59,000 people, how many of them will ever write another word. And "NaNoWriMo" is nothing if not oblivious to the absurdity of its own project. Again, from the website:
Katrina, you have proven that no one is too young to write a novel by introducing NaNoWriMo to three- and four-year-olds this year. Could you tell me what it’s like guiding fresh, uninhibited minds through their first NaNoWriMo?
Three- and four-year olds? Are their minds "fresh" and "uninhibited" because they've never heard of a novel before? Next year will we have novel writing fetuses? How about novel writing pets? It'd be such a shame if Fluffy went her whole life without putting pen to paper.
The thing that made McCloud's challenge interesting is that it stemmed exactly from a deep and abiding love of the medium and a desire to see more work in it. As for National Novel Writing Month, they seem to care more about making you feel good than about anything having remotely to do with storytelling. And you'll excuse me if I find that just a little depressing.
UPDATE: For more on this see my post National Novel Writing Month Redux.