‘I have decided to take part in NaNoWriMo’, declared a young woman standing before me in a café queue to her friend a couple of days ago. She then proceeded to explain what the acronym mean (National Novel Writing Month) and what the concept is (an annual, Internet-based creative writing project that takes place during the month of November).
As we speak, there are thousands of people striving to produce 50,000 word-manuscripts by the end of this month. To that end, they have stopped interacting with the outside world, working, doing sport, watching television, reading books, and browsing the Internet. 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 particular online community might be fun, I cannot help feeling baffled. In fact, this writing project reminds me of a Guardian supplement I once found in a café (I do write from home too, in case you’re wondering) entitled ‘Write your novel in a month!’. Needless to say, the header made me laugh and my next reaction was to wonder why would anyone want to spend a month only writing a novel. Where is the fun in that?
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, i.e. time.
While an idea for a story can come to you in a flash, when buying your pint of milk at the corner shop, turning said idea into an actual story takes time, effort, and endurance. Writing offers an endless array of choices, which 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, 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 that 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.