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NaNoWriMo: A Novelist Reacts

Just take away the sunlight and...yeah. Pretty much exactly.

Just take away the sunlight and…yeah. Pretty much exactly.

So it’s November now. Up here in Boston, it gets dark before 6pm. My day job (as a college English professor) is just about to shift into overdrive. Student papers stack up on my desk, eyeball high. I’m tired all the time; my brain is a dried out sponge of an organ, barely capable of sustaining gross motor control. Did I mention that I have trouble breathing, too? The leaves, as they fall, kick up some kind of mold or fungus or something – let’s just call it poison – that makes my lungs convulse. I hack like a consumptive; I inhale like an asthmatic.

Weak, depressed, exhausted, I crawl to the internet to see how things are going.

Turns out everybody’s writing a novel this month.


Look, I don’t have any real, actual problem with NaNoWriMo. I love writing novels – I recommend it highly to like minded people. If NaNoWriMo is the thing you need to get your ass in gear on that novel you’ve had kicking around, then godspeed, I say! Good for you! If you need some encouragement to write, then I think this little thing the world has going is just wonderful. Go for it! You got this!

NaNoWriMo has helped hundreds of authors feel more confident in themselves, more devoted to process, and has taught countless people about the dedication and work ethic needed to be a writer. I get that, and I support that.

But dammit, there are times this whole thing feels like torture to me.

I’m writing novels (or wishing I was) pretty much all the time. November, as it happens, is the month I am least able to do so. I’m here, in a little cage fashioned from student work and professional obligations and just plain old health, that sits just out of reach of my keyboard. I’m a professional novelist, and I can’t novel in November. In a word, I’m insane with jealousy.

I’m also worried and conflicted for all you NaNoWriMo folks. There’s that, too. For one thing, novels aren’t written in a month. Drafts are (or can be, if you write faster/shorter than I do), but drafts aren’t novels. Besides, 50,000 words is barely novel-length (well, depending on genre). So, even assuming you succeed in this endeavor, you need to know that you aren’t done. And that’s okay. You haven’t failed; writing is not a race. Keep going! Keep writing! Revise! Revise again! Submit!

But then there are those people out there who seem to do this on a lark. “Oh hey,” they say, with a shrug and a sip of their pumpkin-spice latte, “I figure I’ll give NaNoWriMo a shot. Why not?” As though writing a novel (an actual novel) is something you do easily, with limited thought or preparation, like growing a beard or deciding to wear scarves from now on or opting to talk like a pirate on Talk Like a Pirate Day. As though I, and all the other novelists I know (professional and otherwise, many of whom are themselves doing NaNoWriMo), who slave and obsess and weep over their manuscripts, are really just weirdoes doing nothing more impressive playing the kazoo in a marching band and, what the hell, you’ll do that too. It belies how hard this is.

It’s just a little bit insulting, you know, to have the things you work so hard on depicted as fun diversions people can successfully perform in one month. “Writing a novel? Anybody can do that!”

Novels are works of art. They are hard work. They deserve respect. And if you’re going to be a novelist, you need to do it more than one month out of the year. No, not everyone can do it. No, not everyone has a novel inside of them. The world doesn’t work that way. I, trapped in my rainy cage of fall misery, acutely pine for the freedom to write novels in November. If you are lucky enough to be able to do so, too, the least you can do is take it seriously.

I mean, sure, you can sit down and bang out 50K of whatever you please this month and then shuffle it away in a drawer somewhere. Why not? If it makes you feel good, if it gives you a sense of accomplishment, who am I to judge? Good for you. But you didn’t write a novel. You aren’t a novelist. Not yet, anyway. And that’s totally okay – you don’t have to be to make this month a worthwhile experience. Not all of us want or need the same things.

However, to those of you embarking upon NaNoWriMo this month who intend to write novels (or a novel) in earnest, let me say this: welcome to the fold. Keep writing. Your journey doesn’t end – shouldn’t end – on November 30th. There’s more to go after that – much more. Trust me: writing novels is not a lark or a fad. It’s a state of mind and a way of life.