Around mid-October, I was writing a short story, but contemplating the possibility of a larger project. My primary medium has always been the novel—I love its history (its emergence from travel, journal, confessional, dialogue and epistolary writing) and versatility. Games, films, cartoons, songs, poems and comics have illustrious narrative traditions, but for me nothing compares to the novel’s capacity to blend internal and external worlds and evoke a sustained story in captivating depth. As an axiomatic faith, I maintain that the novel will defy the doom-prophets foretelling of its demise: from José Ortega y Gasset in his 1925 Decline of the Novel to Will Self’s more contemporary pontificating. During this time, I recalled hearing of the National Novel Writing Month and its communal goal of writing a fifty-thousand-word piece of new narrative fiction in November. NaNo is more than just that lofty target: it is an ethos and a method of novel writing too.
Both by reading Chris Baty’s writing guide No Plot? No Problem! (Baty helped found NaNo) and participating in the 2017 writing marathon, I not only managed to write a book with which I’m cautiously proud, but more interestingly I have had to reexamine writing as an activity. Alongside my Masters and P.h.D. research within creative writing, and as well as the singular Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing by Lance Olsen, nothing has so upset and advanced my thinking about writing. NaNo challenged old assumptions, developed nascent ideas and has given me entirely new considerations about writing in general and novel writing in particular. And more broadly, about how any creative process best operates. The best advice Baty gives is to write freely in the first draft, ‘at some point, your first sentence will be reshaped into a beautifully inviting calling card for your book. Happily, that time is still at least a month away. For now, you should go with whatever strikes your fancy.’ The killer in any attempt to write (and the real problem engendering so much Writer’s Block among struggling authors) is attempting to produce an impossible perfection all at once. All this achieves is to cripple the pace of writing and make procrastination a greater temptation from the unwarranted strain.
But freeing writers from their inner editor so as to allow them to produce a first draft is only one aspect of the endeavour. The ethos of NaNoWriMo is found not in the accompanying advice from Baty or the 50,000-word goal, but in its community; I have known writers, enjoyed the assistance of great tutors, but nothing is quite like the broad interconnectedness of NaNo. Online there were supportive groups and people on social media (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and NaNo’s own forums) while offline I met people at write-ins located in Prets and Café Neros with whom to join sprints (timed writing sessions). I made friendships with people at every stage of their writing, focussing on different genres (from romance and sci-fi to existential literary novels and experimental work) and ambitions (from those planning traditional, indie or self-published books as well as people writing primarily for themselves and their friends). What was shared was a passion for literature and skill. There was always a willingness to exchange ideas about how to overcome narrative problems (from deus ex machina to motivation), what processes work best and how different people overcome more unique challenges (fatigues, writing-life balances). This side of it is so invigorating, it inevitably leads to what Batty calls ‘post-NaNo Blues’ in the first week of December.
The style of NaNo is different to what is taught by most writing groups and courses, including university courses. Gone is the stress on plot formulas and, in its place, a line that favours parenthesising structure with an eye to first drafting, writing what you want to write and trusting the later editing process as something distinct from early writing; Batty sensibly recommends, ‘If you won’t enjoy reading it, you won’t enjoy writing it.’ This is not a deemphasis on skill, but a push in favour of craft that does away with romantic notions of inherent talent or authenticity and all of the poisonous associations; especially the aristocracy of celebrity writers produced by commercial and prize fiction that peddles the idea of unique, unreachable genius. In its place is an amateur revolution of authors that embrace niche, genre cross-fertilisation and freely exchanged assistance. It’s a style that underpins a community that naturally forms its own apprenticeship structures and guild-like sensibilities. The conversation between authors is given priority over the ascendancy of particular novelists and the result is something richer and more engaging than any by-committee literary sensation could manage.
NaNo embraces the idea that writing should be as democratised as reading has become, but that this does not mean diluting talent. Rather, what is encouraged and emerges is a culture of constantly developing, always improving storytellers. This is not just about forming better writers, but better readers—people who understand stories from a more involved perspective.
I recommend both Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! and NaNo to anybody, whether entirely new to writing or a seasoned, published novelist.