Every November, scads of writers across the country (and probably parts of the world) set out to crank out close to 1,700 words a day, and have a full book to show for it by the time thirty days have gone by. This is National Novel writing month (or NaNoWriMo for those in the know), and although it’s a noble pursuit, I’d like to suggest a slight modification:
Instead of the breakneck pace of National Novel Writing Month, why not declare January 1st, April 1st, July 1st, and October 1st National Novel Writing Season?
As I start to move out of the bunker of obsessive journal writing and branch out to essays, I feel the first ticklings of fiction coming to me. This is great; I’m getting my ideas out there, and soon I shall send out my stories as well. I’m delighted that my writing is evolving.
At the same time, one of the things that, I find, always gets me into trouble is stress, specifically the stress that comes from the feeling of not having written anything. And for me, nothing can exacerbate that stress more than setting a writing goal for myself that I simply can’t meet.
It took thirty years of scribbling in journals to get to the point where I could crank out an essay a day, and even then, those essays are usually only about 500 words. In other to successfully produce a novel length piece of writing in a month, I need to write more than three times that amount.
Look, I get it: cranking out large numbers of words will make someone a better writer, no matter what those words are. As I said, I spent three decades doing little else but basically keeping diaries, and often, these diaries were not even chronicles of my days. Instead, they were feverish ruminations about one thing or another, which made for great thinking, but not so great reading.
And I still do this, and it often leads to essays and story ideas. At the same time, this “comfort food writing,” as I call it, becomes stressful when I say to myself “so what essay or story am I getting out of this?”
This is when I start getting blocked, and it’s a horrible feeling. As I said, it took a long time for these ruminations to start leading to stuff that seemed fit to share with the rest of the world. And as I also said, the stuff that comes relatively easy to me right now is the essay; fiction is still coming along.
And even then, what usually comes to me, after these sessions of exploring the inner workings of my mind, is about 500 words. I can’t imagine the pressure I’d feel if I were expected to write 1,667 of those words a day (which is, I believe the exact word count necessary to write a full novel in thirty days).
It’a worth remembering that writing 500 words a day still leads to a whole lot of total words. I’ve been writing an essay a day for just about four months, and it’s difficult for me to believe that this works out to 60,000 words. Yet it does, and that’s more than a novel’s novel’s worth of writing.
Again, it’a easy to believe that the key to writing is to crank out a huge number of words a day. After all, John Creasy, who published over 500 books, wrote about 3,000 words a day, and Georges Simenon, who supposedly once wrote a book in two days, may have cranked out even more.
Yet Civil War Historian Shelby Foote kept to 500 words a day, and this pace led to one of the most celebrated works about that conflict. And it’s massive…three huge volumes. It just took a little longer.
National Novel Writing Month is a great thing, but it leads to that “all or nothing” approach to writing, in which it’s a brutal sprint as opposed to an easy, relaxing run. I suppose I could do it, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d emerge from it so exhausted that I wouldn’t have the energy to write for the rest of the year.
Better to for me, instead, to write at this slow, steady pace, and accept that instead of writing a novel a month, I may write only four, or even as few as three or two, a year. I know that over the course of, say, ten years, I’ll only have somewhere between 20 to 40 novels to show for it. Still, however, this seems to be a respectable amount.
In fact, perhaps National Novel Writing Season shouldn’t even quite coincide with the natural seasons of the year. Perhaps, instead, it makes sense to set the quiet goal of 500 words a day on January 1st, May 1st, and September 1st, and settle for three 60,000 word novels a year. This still seems to be a reasonable goal, and it keeps the juices flowing for the rest of a person’s life.