nano11

Writing is Serious Business — NaNoWriNo

I’m not doing National Novel Writing Month this year.

I went back and forth over the pros and cons, and although I have participated in 4 years and won 3 years (non-sequentially), I came to the conclusion, oh, around October 30th that I would take the easy way out.

I could go into the reasons why, but they’re boring and would not hold weight with die-hard NaNo authors who would judge me for not adding a novel to my monthly responsibilities like they are, rolling their eyeballs so furiously at my “difficult” life, the resultant wind is nearly cooling off their tea.

Okay, here’s one reason: Last year I sent out my Christmas cards in February. You Time Lords might have deduced that that’s actually THIS year, and you’re right. I suck. But by the time I emerged from the Kingdom of No Sleep and mustered up the gumption to WRITE MORE, summarizing my year in a humorous and family-friendly manner, AND THEN hand-address all the envelopes like some sort of luddite, January had come and gone.

It only occurred to me recently that not everyone obsessively reads all the Writing Cheerleader blogs and “How To Write, by an Author You’ve Never Heard Of” self-help books that I do, and I take great interest in how many different opinions exist of seemingly straightforward writerly topics — even between writers themselves. So, I wanted to share with my readers (who I assume are not all writers) some things I’ve learned about writing in the past, oh, 5 years of maybe seriously considering myself to some day be a writer-of-words person. THEREBY EXPOSING THE SEEDY UNDERBELLY OF WRITING, WHICH IS SERIOUS BUSINESS.

What is a writer?
What the world thinks: For a long time, I believed the same thing I believed about stand-up comedy, which is: you can only actually call yourself a stand-up comedian once you have been paid for doing so. Until then, you’re an open miker. Maybe an amateur. I probably still believe this designation, because if you haven’t been paid, then you’re pretty much the dude who walks behind a Today Show taping and tells ladies at the bar for years to come that he’s “on TV.”

Anyone can be an open miker. You need 5 bucks and sometimes a friend and to get on stage at Open Mic Night. You literally don’t even need material, and surprisingly often, first timers don’t. Getting paid means SOMEONE thinks you’re funny. Or at least marketable.

A lot of the world thinks this about writers. If I am a writer, why do I work at a restaurant for 8 hours of the day? Where is my house in Maine next to Stephen King’s? If I am a writer, do I have a book at a Barnes and Noble? Not a terrible goal to set for yourself (which I have), but are you chopped liver until then?

What writers think: This is where it gets tricky and catty and jealous, and there’s writer-on-writer hate, and why can’t we all just get along? Don’t we hate OURSELVES enough?* (*Sentiment also applicable to comedians!)

Some people think simply writing anything (letters to the editor, mad libs, the word “the” 50,000 times) is being a writer. That’s so sweet, and that’s what’s making kids who win “Participation Trophies” grow up and get so shocked the first time they fail, their college professors die of laughter-induced heart attacks when a freshman tries to get out of a bad grade with a note from mom, and that’s just cruel. Won’t someone think of the professors?

Some people think writing novels is being a writer. Then all the technical writers, copywriters, and songwriters get furious, and nothing stings more than a being pelted with a half-full coffee mug or lit cigarette.

Some people think being published makes you a writer. And then the wave of the self-publishing army destroys everything in a tasmanian-devil whirlwind of RAGE.

Self-published authors may argue that unit sales numbers are the real factor, citing the various horrible books that have actually been published — and I’m not talking horrible books that actually happen to rake in billions of dollars in 50 shades of green. I’m talking “How the Little Giraffe Learned His Daddy Was In Jail” after the publisher lost a bet with his college roommate’s ex-wife and sells one copy (to her).

Then published authors shoot back that maybe self-published authors wouldn’t sell so many units if their books weren’t available on Amazon for 25 cents, of which they themselves see about 5 cents, and since there’s less professional editing, it’s lower quality, and you self-published authors are just sheep, baaaah, baaaah.

And the self-published authors say PUBLISHING IS IN THE PAST, MAN, YOU’RE JUST DRINKING THE CORPORATE KOOL-AID. I’LL BE OVER HERE ON MY GIANT MOUND OF NICKELS LIKE SCROOGE McDUCK, and I hate it when mommy and daddy fight!

What I think: I believe if you set out to write something, are presently working on written works, and have a goal that you want to meet that will make you proud, then you’re a writer.

As soon as I wrote that, though, a few of contradictions jumped to mind. Which sort of brings us around to NaNoWriMo.

When I write, most of the words are awful. The sentences are poorly structured. My story arc bends and doubles back on itself. The BEST part about NaNo is the Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror song “Just Don’t Look.” Editing is for December!

“God, that last paragraph hurt my soul. I should delete it from existence…but it’s 100 words…” YES, it is allowed in NaNo, and I assume healthy in “real” (non-one month) novel writing. So I happen to put it in italics, to tell myself later: look, I know this sucks, okay? You don’t have to tell me. But here is where I want you to fix it later, when we’ve got time.

I strongly believe that is the ONLY way many people can finish NaNo and be sane.

“What if I write my first chapter brilliantly, but the next five are horrible and in a total wrong direction?” Hey, go back to the first chapter and go from there. Or maybe go somewhere in the second or third chapter and try to save it from there. Or skip way to the middle and write the middle through the end! You get to keep ALL words you’ve written, so you just keep working toward the goal!

“Well, what if I do that and mess up a second and third and fourth time, and I actually just end up with 50,000 words that are just one chapter written over and over in different ways?” Um, maybe an outline should be in your future for next October, but it followed the rules, and you probably learned a little something about structure or inciting incidents, yes? All are valid NaNo options.

Last year, though, I went to my first “Group Writing Event,” and I was a little shocked. Every hour or so, someone in the group would yell out “Okay, everyone work a time-traveling car into your next chapter!” And then at the end of the hour, people would raise their hands and READ the parts about the time-traveling car!

All I could think was, “Surely not all of these people are writing contemporary/futuristic science-fiction stories, are they?” So I asked. Nope! They worked it in as a flashback. Or flash forward. Or evil twin brother who invented time travel while the other twin was just chilling in his medieval, historically accurate castle. I actually read a blog the other day that listed “Write a long dream sequence if you can’t think of anything.” Or “write stream of consciousness, because you’re at least getting words on the page.” I just couldn’t disagree with that more.

There is something to be said about getting things down on paper — “turning on the creative faucet” as it’s called in the brilliant “The Artist’s Way” — but who would really be proud of completing a novel that was purely stream-of-consciousness? I mean, don’t you have an actual goal in mind?

No, I learned from someone on twitter. Sometimes people just write to have done it, and they never want to be published.

Now, I know a lot of television writers. One is my dear friend Melissa. I watch them pour their life into creating a pilot with a backstory and enough “legs” to carry through six seasons. And it’s brilliant. And then they move on to the next thing. Sure, it’s part of a portfolio, but it’s just this stack of untapped brilliance, and they’re off outlining their next pilot and series, and I can’t pick my jaw up off the ground.

“Don’t you want to see that through?! IT IS LITERALLY BETTER THAN 3/4 OF THE SHOWS ON TELEVISION RIGHT NOW.” Melissa shrugs — and not in a defeatist way. As if to say that starting over and doing it all again is part of the discipline, part of the strengthening of your talents, part of the JOSH HUTCHERSON COULD PLAY THE ROMANTIC LEAD.

But, circling back, this is different in my mind from writing without the dream of ever doing anything else. NO, I’m not going to publish my novel in its form on November 30th. Maybe I won’t publish this novel in ANY form. But I am willing to accept that it may be the stepping stone to becoming adept enough to do this again and better. And some people just say, “Meh, it was cool to do it. I won.” They climbed it because it was there.

So, are they still writers? Yes, someone who cooks brilliant, mouthwatering recipes all alone and never shares with anyone is still considered a cook. But is someone who practices skiing for hours in front of a TV, with a gym trainer, on a simulator, exercising all the muscles necessary to be an Olympic level skier, while happily admitting they never care if they try skiing on snow, still considered a skier? IF A WRITER WRITES ALONE IN THE FOREST, DOES ANYONE CARE?

My “cook” analogy wasn’t perfect, either. I might equate that to Anne Frank or Emily Dickinson whose delicious meals are discovered posthumously and perhaps were never intended for consumption. The analogy to a writer who never even wants their work to be read or published or ANYTHING, to me, is more a chef who learns all the materials and skills and secrets and then DOESN’T attempt the meal.

But does that make them not a writer? Of course Anne Frank and Emily Dickinson are, but that wasn’t stream-of-consciousness blathering. Or if it was, it’s like calling Picasso’s pictures doodles. WHICH HE DID. My brain exploded. I give up.

I take it back. Everyone who writes is a writer. Trophies for all. But please, why not try to ski? Snow is nice. Delicious food is good. Might as well jump?