NaNoWriMo Expanded

I talk more about beginning novelists.

The other day I wrote an opinion piece about NaNoWriMo ’05, which I turned into a podcast for Maria Speaks. Here are some related thoughts and experiences.

One of the things that has always bothered me was way organizations prey upon people who want to be writers — particularly novelists. They have writers’ workshops and writers’ magazines and and writers’ Web sites with forums and writers’ mail-away courses. They sell products to writers to motivate and inspire them and make them better writers. I’ve seen these products and although I admit to have bought my share of writing books, I’ve also seen enough to know that only a small percentage of what’s sold will really help a writer. And the thing that bothers me most is the fact that the vast majority of writing publications focus on topics of interest to beginning writers — people just starting out. I’m talking about people who haven’t had anything published yet. It’s as if they never expect their readers to get beyond that point.

The people they prey upon — the beginning writers — have a story (or or two or three or dozens) inside their hearts that they’re trying to get out. They’re convinced their work is better than bestselling author, fill-in-the-blank. They believe that the editors who have rejected their work are stupid, selfish, and evil. But rather than spend their time writing, getting those stories out and fine-tuning them for submission and possible publication, they waste a lot of time whining about editors and publishers and the industry in general in online writers’ forums. Or providing all-knowing (or sarcastic) answers to serious questions posted by other want-to-be novelists.

This is where something as silly as NaNoWriMo can help. If these people would stop wasting time and get down to it, they might actually get some work done. A novel in 30 days sounds impossible, but if they’ve been thinking about it as much as they’ve been wasting time in online forums, they should have all the hard part done: the planning, plotting, and character development. Getting the words down should be easy. Just stop procrastinating.

And if there’s one thing that’s always helped me produce, it’s deadlines. Ask Cliff, Nancy, and Megg, three of my editors. (More on that in another blog entry.)

Here’s a real life story about someone I knew years ago. There’s a slight chance she might read this and, if she does, I hope she’s not offended by me telling her story from my outsider’s point of view.

Mary (not her real name) always wanted to be a novelist. I think she was partial to fantasy and science fiction, but she may have had other things in mind. I don’t know because I only had an opportunity to read one thing she’d written. She spent most of her non-working hours online, frequenting bulletin board systems’ (BBSs’) message boards (precursors to the Internet’s forums). She had a BBS and so did I. In fact, that’s how we met.

Her BBS posts were consistently negative toward publishers and editors. She spent a lot of her writing time writing short stories and entering them into contests. She never won. (More about writing contests and other gimmicks in another entry.)

Sometime around then, she sent me one of her short stories to read. I don’t remember what it was about. I don’t recall it being bad, though. But it did have one big flaw. At the end of the story, which takes place in Washington, DC, the main character looks out the window and sees the Pentagon. It was an important part of the story’s irony — seeing that building. I remember that clearly. But it was also a serious flaw because the Pentagon is not in Washington, DC. It’s in Arlington, VA. And it simply cannot be seen from the location her character was standing. When I pointed this out to her, she got extremely offended, as if I’d gone out of my way to find something wrong to pick on her story. I hadn’t gone out of my way. The glaring error was there, right in my face. I would have done her a disservice if I hadn’t pointed it out.

Anyway, she didn’t send me any more stories.

Then one day she decided that the biggest thing holding her back from being a published author was her job. I’m talking about her “day job” — the one where she spent time to earn money to pay rent and buy food. That job. So she quit and retreated into her apartment to write her novel.

A year later, Mary was completely out of money and borrowing from family members to survive. She hadn’t finished her novel and she hadn’t had anything published. I think someone pulled the money plug and she was forced to go back to work.

That’s about the same time I left my day job and started teaching computers and writing how-to books. She claimed I “sold out.” I think she meant that I was writing non-fiction instead of fiction because I was in it for the money. Maybe I did, but my current lifestyle sure beats the 9 to 5, suit-wearing grind I’d be stuck in if I’d kept that corporate job. And who the hell wants to be a starving writer, anyway?

I moved to Arizona and we pretty much lost touch. I heard she had a short story published in a small literary magazine. She was paid in copies. (See my blog entry about Freebies.) But she had her first clip.

The point of this story: this is one person I know who falls into the same category as many of the beginning writers attracted to things like NaNoWriMo, writers’ magazines, and writers’ Web sites with their forums. I’ve just reported her progress in about five years of her life. Five years is a long time. Too long to waste if you’re serious about becoming a writer.

Every day you don’t write, though, is a day you waste if becoming a novelist is your goal. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that participating in those writers’ forums is good practice for writing your novel. I’ll agree that it’s good practice for typing your novel. But it isn’t going to get you any closer to finishing your work in progress.

So why are you reading this? Get back to work!

What do you think?