Wednesday, November 3, 2010


As many of you know, November is National Novel Writing Month, abbreviated NaNoWriMo. The idea originated in 1999, and it has surged into a flood of words. Last year over 120,000 people participated and over one-sixth of them actually completed the challenge" to write at least 50,000 words of a new novel in the course of the month. So far this year, 172,000 participants have written almost 200 million words.

I first heard of NaNoWriMo as I was writing Lost in Lexicon. Unfortunately, I began that book in mid-November, so there was really no chance of finishing in November. In fact, I was amazed that I finished the first draft by Christmas - six weeks of immersion and "flow." Then, of course, there were the many, many months of revision.

Maybe it was that first missed opportunity that still makes me regard NaNoWriMo with a jaundiced eye. The non-joiner in me cavils, "Why November? Why not at least choose a month with 31 days? And what about Thanksgiving?" Does one set aside the novel at, say, a mere 42,000 words to devote oneself to family celebration, or does the Muse require others to make the stuffing and cranberry sauce and talk to the relatives while the writer focuses on her rush to scribble that 1667 words per day?

Having a deadline and a goal for a certain number of words (Stephen King suggests a year-round 2000 words a day for serious writers, 1000 for beginners) is a great way to get past the internal editor that screeches, "No, no, no good; stop!" A number of my writer friends use the structure and camaraderie of the month to crank out part or most of a first draft. The month probably gives a lot of novices the courage to pour something substantial onto paper. But if for some reason you're feeling guilty about not writing your novel (and face it, you've already missed two days: how could you catch up on those extra 3333 words even if you started right now?), I recommend you read this article by Laura Miller in Salon.

Miller argues that 'tis far, far nobler to read ten good books than to write one bad one. There are already plenty of books, she says. What we lack are readers - intelligent, sympathetic, open-minded and adventurous readers. Having recently been on book tour, I have to agree. Wandering around a Barnes & Noble or Borders before setting up for a sparsely-attended author event, I can't blame the poor patrons for not coming. There are so many books! And so many of them (not mine, of course) are practically indistinguishable! It's overwhelming.

The sober truth is that the median number sold for any one of the gazillions of books published in the US every year is two hundred. I'll say that again: 200. Boy, do we need readers.

By all means, write that novel, because it's a heady feeling to write. Writing is a great way of finding out what you think about something. Then, if you want to continue, revise, because it's an even better feeling to write well.

But if you love books, love writing, love literature, remember, you're doing all of them a great service every time you read, or better yet buy and read a book.

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