Now that we’ve established that you should ignore the NaNoWriMo naysayers, I’d like to share with you two complementary bits of advice I’ve found online and one book that I think get at the heart of the spirit of National Novel Writing Month, for those of you who have chosen to participate in it. A few months ago, John Scalzi wrote a short essay in which the takeaway line (at least for me) was, “Either you want to write or you don’t, and thinking that you want to write really doesn’t mean anything.”
“Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is ‘yes, but,’ then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say ‘no.’ And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what ‘yes, but’ means.
“If your answer is ‘yes,’ then the question is simply when and how you find the time to do it. If you spend your free time after work watching TV, turn off the TV and write. If you prefer to spend time with your family when you get home, write a bit after the kids are in bed and before you turn in yourself. If your work makes you too tired to think straight when you get home, wake up early and write a little in the morning before you head off. If you can’t do that (I’m not a morning person myself) then you have your weekend… And if you can’t manage that, then what you’re saying is that you were lying when you said your answer is ‘yes.’”
Last year, Merlin Mann offered very similar advice, elaborating on the importance of keeping up your momentum: Start writing, and keep writing! He also warned about paying too much attention to creative writing advice: “When I’m reading about writing, I’m not writing.”
That said, I do want to take a quick moment to plug one of my all-time favorite books about creativity and writing, Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake. Its core message is straightforward, best expressed by two of the four “noble truths” upon which Sher builds her advice. “Writers write,” she says. “If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write.” The rest of the book is about opening yourself up to the process of writing and teaching yourself to get out of your own way. The chapters are short, but each one is packed tightly; in a way, the book is more useful as a devotional-like object than as an argument to be read all the way through. Because, after all, you really should be writing.
“A poem is the invited guest of its reader. As readers we open the door of the book or magazine, look into the face of the poem, and decide whether or not to invite it into our lives. No poem has ever entered a reader’s life without an invitation; no poem has the power to force the door open. No one is going to read your poem just because it’s there.”
It may seem unusual to start a set of National Novel Writing Month reading recommendations with a book of “practical advice for beginning poets,” but Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual has a great deal of useful advice for fiction writers as well. I’m thinking chiefly of Kooser’s principle of poetry as communication, that “[its] purpose is to reach other people and touch their hearts.” For Kooser, that leads you to think of the chosen reader—the imaginary audience you believe will be most receptive to your poems. Who are those readers? What are they looking for? And how can you best deliver your message to them? That’s something that fiction writers would do well to consider as well… and that doesn’t mean, he emphasizes, that you need to pander or reduce your writing to the lowest common denominator. If your imagined reader isn’t afraid of a little difficulty, a little ambiguity, work with that!
(And, on a technical level, too, Kooser’s advice to throw out all the “spare parts” and focus on what matters, to discover inner feelings by writing about what’s observable, or to rein in the reader’s imagination with a well-chosen adjective are as applicable to prose as they are to verse.)
The quote I’ve chosen to share may seem a bit harsh, but it’s also something that’s very important for anybody who’s taking part in NaNoWriMo to remember. I’m not saying you can’t write just for yourself this month; in fact, one valuable function of NaNoWriMo may very well be the opportunity to prove to yourself that you can write a novel, even if that particular novel isn’t one that you’d ever publish. If you are hoping to share the results of the next thirty days (and, most likely, much subsequent revision) with other readers, though, keep in mind that the novel needs to make sense to someone else besides you. I’ve sometimes given the advice (hardly original to me) that you should imagine the type of fiction you’d most to read but aren’t finding from other authors, then write that. To that, with this in mind, I would add that such fiction shouldn’t be a private gift, for your eyes only. As Kooser observes, “The more narrowly you define the reader, the more difficult it will be to put your poem someplace where that reader might come upon it…. the more difficult it becomes for your poem to contact him or her.”