‘I have decided to take part in NaNoWriMo’, declared a young woman standing in front of me in a café queue to her friend a couple of days ago. She then proceeded to explain what the acronym meant (National Novel Writing Month) and what the concept was (an annual, Internet-based creative-writing project taking place during the month of November).
As we speak, there are thousands of people striving to produce 50,000-word stories by the end of the month. To that end, they have stopped interacting with the outside world, working, doing sport, watching television, reading books and using social media. Some may have even foregone basic hygiene, but let’s not dwell on this particular point…
While I understand the basic principle of having a deadline and sticking to it, come what may, and I fully see how being part of this online community might be both stimulating and encouraging, I cannot help but feel baffled. In fact, this writing project reminds me of a newspaper supplement I once read entitled ‘Write your novel in a month!’. Needless to say, the header made me laugh and wonder why anyone would want to spend a month only writing a novel. Where is the fun in that? What’s the point?
If you have an idea for a story and are able to allocate a substantial amount of your time to get it properly started, you are not only lucky, but wise. If you are aiming for a complete story with a logical arc, fully formed characters and a satisfying ending in one month, you are attempting to square a circle. And you are ignoring the core component of writing, which is time.
While an idea for a story may come to you in a flash when buying your pint of milk at the corner shop or when ironing your shirts, turning said idea into an actual story takes time, effort and stamina. Writing offers an endless array of choices, and needs to be streamlined in order to structure your story and give it the right direction. To achieve such an aim, you are constantly asking yourself three questions: why? how? and to what end?
This questioning process brings answers which help you structure your plot and shape your characters. Answers do not come to you on day 1 of your writing practice and they might not come by day 31 either. And, crucially, you are going to change your mind — about an idea, a character, a plot point, the wording of a passage, the ordering of your chapters etc. — more time than you thought was possible.
Ideas take time to develop and mature. Writing is an exploration, not a straight line which can be successfully followed in a month. If it were, I wouldn’t write, and I can safely say that most of my fellow writers wouldn’t either.