I'm doing NaNo this year. Feel free to friend me over there -- theresastevens is my user name, and I'm having trouble finding people because of the tendency to use handles instead of names. Anyway, I saw a post on one of my NaNo group boards this morning that got me started thinking about why there's this mild industry bias against NaNo and why I chose to do it anyway.
In my opinion, the manuscripts that come out of NaNo are no better and no worse than manuscripts generated any other way. Some are publishable. The majority are not. So I truly think the anti-NaNo bias is more a symptom of slush pile frustration than a reflection of reality.
I've talked a lot about the fine art of slush diving on this little blog, and I've done it in the hope that I would be able to convey to all of you some measure of the tedium, annoyance, and surprise that is the typical submissions queue. But I think this isn't something you can understand in your bones until you've had to man the inbox for a while. At first it feels like a needle-in-the-haystack game, one which you know you might actually win. I mean, there are good manuscripts in the slush pile. Really, there are. I've found a few of them myself, and they've delighted readers as much as they've delighted me.
But after a while, you stop thinking about the needle and start thinking about the hay. There's a lot of hay. A lot. And it's not very nice. Some of it is downright delusional, but most of it is just half-thought-out, semi-competent collections of pages. It's not laughably bad. It's just not worth an attempt at repair, that "R&R" letter which takes so much editorial time and yields such unpredictable results.
You begin to wonder if the writers stepped back from the project long enough to evaluate it with anything like true objectivity. You begin to think they slapped it together and sent it off without thinking it through. Or even re-reading it first. And with that mindset, it's very tempting to make NaNo a scapegoat for everything that's wrong with the slush. "Just write it fast. Who cares if it's bad?" That might be a great idea for getting a fast first draft nailed to the page. But it's not going to get you published. The only thing that will get you published is a good, solid, polished manuscript, and it's a rare first draft that can be called that.
But the solution isn't to abandon NaNo. The solution is to do a better job training writers to generate better manuscripts. I'm not talking about spark-of-genius luminosity, which cannot be taught, but about writers mastering techniques for competent prose. A lot of this stuff can be learned. It's upon you to learn it and use it. (Check this blog's archives, for example. It's free, and it's been running almost three years now. Lots of good tips for revising and polishing your manuscripts in the archives.)
So that brings me to why I chose to do NaNo this year. It would be very easy to say, "It's so my authors and friends can laugh at me as I flounder through the month." Because turnabout's fair play, right, and I'm not too proud to recognize that there are plenty of reasons to laugh at the editor as she tries to write one. It is harder than it looks. I know that. And I have the pathetic word total to prove it.
But that's not why I'm doing it.
After years spent as an editor, agent, teacher, etc. -- all roles in which I generate little and evaluate much -- I found myself in a rather strange position earlier this year. Without going into detail, let me just say that I had to write a short novel very quickly. It was an assignment, not on spec, and it was published under a pen name which I won't disclose. I think I spent 9 days on the first draft and cleared over 8k words on the last day of drafting alone. (And yes, then I revised it. Because I practice what I preach, or at least, I try to.)
The fast draft process was very appealing. It had been so long since I'd written anything that I was truly worried about my ability to generate content. I was rusty. Bad rusty. But the tight timeline (and the fact that I was writing to order) left little room for self-doubt or worry about the process. Or the product. I just did what was required to the best of my ability, and then I walked away.
What a liberating way to work.
This got me started thinking about NaNo. NaNo frees up the process in a very similar way. My NaNo book is a spec manuscript, so I don't have to adhere to anyone else's book bible, but I chose an idea that's been floating around my head for a while. I've even written a few scenes on this idea, though most of that early exploratory work has been scrapped as the concept evolved. So I did some advance work, creating a sort of bible of my own with scene cards and character outlines and other similar prep.
I did this because I wanted to duplicate the environment that allowed me to draft an entire short novel in 9 days. And so far, it's working. My word count is off-pace because my parents came to town last week, and my mother's arrival is the sort of thing likely to strike terror into the heart of even the most particular housekeepers. I knew week one of NaNo would be spent with my hands full of cleaning products rather than typing, but we're past that point now and I'm looking to gain some traction.
Will my manuscript be any good? I don't know. I can't really worry about that right now. All I can do is generate the pages now and then later, after NaNo, I can apply the critical eye. But that's not really the point, is it? If the point of NaNo was to knock it out of the park on the first pitch, nobody would need to be reminded to silence the inner editor. The point is to write, to get the gears turning, and to surrender the worry about the outcome.
This seems like a worthy goal to me, and so here I am. Floundering, but determined. And that's good enough for now.