In Defense of the Amateur Writer and NaNoWriMo

An article has been flitting about on several of my friends lists and e-mailed to me by several associates, Laura Miller’s Better yet, DON’T write that novel, and, to be honest in my opinion and with no disrespect meant to Ms. Miller, she’s missing the point.

Ms. Miller’s article takes the tack that NaNoWriMo is, in many ways, bunk. The article starts out with a salutation if one has ignorance of the event and proceeds to be negative, dismissive, and, in some small ways, insulting towards those people who participate. The article moves from downplaying and dismissing the event towards a celebration of the reader, encouraging people to put down the pen and pick up the book instead.

Ms. Miller’s issue appears to be that so much of what is written for NaNoWriMo is of, shall we say, “unpublishable” quality and that she feels that other people believe they should be cheered on for writing substandard stuff. She points out that agents don’t want to see NaNo mentioned on query letters and that editors dread the mentioning of the event in regards to a book pitch, as if that is some kind of detractor on the event itself. Is that the fault of the event, which is quite honest with its participants for the fact that what they’re writing is pretty much going to be Vogon poetry, or is it the fault of the contestants who mistakenly believe that whatever they put down on paper is spun gold simply because they created it? I don’t believe that it is the fault of NaNo that some people have a problem with revision, as Ms. Miller has put it; I think the blame for that should be left squarely on the shoulders of the writers. Indeed, talk to any editor about some submissions they receive and I’m willing to bet that they will all have some kind of story about a horribly written, badly edited piece of drek they received that had nothing to do with NaNoWriMo.

Ms. Miller poo-poos the goal aspect of it, arguing that writers are “hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say” with or without other people’s support. If that’s true, what does it really matter that they do it during an event with other people versus doing it at any other time of the year?

The point of NaNoWriMo, I’d argue, isn’t to have a publishable novel people will read; as I said before, the organizers of NaNo point out you will probably write a lot of crap. The point of the exercise is to get people writing and to meet a goal that might be difficult for most people.

At one point in the article Ms. Miller notes that NaNoWriMo takes place during marathon season and I have to wonder if she feels the same way about marathons as she does about NaNoWriMo. Taken at its most basic end result, a marathon only leaves you exhausted, possibly injured or in worse health than when you began, sweaty, and in a slightly different location (relatively speaking) from where you started from with nothing else to show for it. Marathon runners, both the professionals who are in it for the actual competition of first place and those people who are more at the amateur level, put a lot of time and effort into training for the big event, hours spent in the gym lifting weights, running, doing exercise to build muscle endurance, even going through rigorous weight and diet modification to make themselves all the more efficient to handle running for prolonged periods over sometimes great distances. Considering the fact that there is only one first prize, I wonder if Ms. Miller would feel that all of that prep work the participants put in is “misplaced” when they fail to gain the medal for first, just like she feels the effort of spending November writing, just to put the manuscript in a drawer, is misplaced. And, if not, I’d be curious to find out why.

The thing she doesn’t get about writers, and possibly marathon runners, is that for some it is an honest competition; some participants of both are trying to “win”, marathon runners by getting a medal and NaNo writers by getting published. Very few ever make that goal. But for every person who is trying for that goal there are many, many more people who are in it for other reasons, reasons that are personal and valid and, I feel, dismissed by Ms. Miller’s very casual way of telling people to stop writing.

Many people run or write in marathons not to try and win but just to see if they can accomplish it. Whether it’s fifty kilometers or fifty thousand words in one month, it’s not an easy task for a non-professional writer or runner. Consider this: most people work a job of at least eight hours a day, that’s a third of your day spent not writing. Now let’s consider that you need at least five hours of sleep (maybe more); that’s half, or more, your day gone. Throw in running errands and other non-career related responsibilities, time spent with family, eating, and you end up having very little time in a day to write, maybe only a handful of hours.

Now, throw in the fact that non-professional writers also might be lacking the focus necessary to spend great lengths of time only writing and not playing Solitaire or checking Facebook or writing rebuttals to articles on Salon.com and you have even less time. For someone who doesn’t write regularly, trying to fit 1,667 (the minimum daily amount of writing to meet the goal of NaNoWriMo) into three hours can be a significant challenge, something that Ms. Miller seems to easily dismiss, which is understandable; she admittedly doesn’t write novels (though she appears to be a prolific blogger) and, I assume, has never tried to participate in NaNoWriMo and thus it is easy for her to do so

Ms. Miller says she doesn’t feel the need to cheer on the people who participate in NaNoWriMo, as she puts it to “squander [her] applause on writers”, due to the fact that she believes people will keep on writing regardless of whether or not she encourages them. That’s fine, no one is required to cheer anyone else on; I don’t spend my days celebrating when a friend of mine completes a race or someone finishes knitting their 100th sweater.

However, on the other hand, I’m also not telling those people who didn’t win the marathon, even those people who finish that long race hours after the winner has crossed the finished line, received their medal, and gone home to recuperate, to stop either because that’s not my place. I chose to not participate in a marathon, or knit sweaters, but I think it’s kind of a dick move to tell other people to stop, simply because they didn’t take first place in the race or what they initially produced isn’t “good” quality, because that ignores all the other possible reasons they may have to do what they do.

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