With National Novel Writing Month fast approaching, I thought I would offer an author’s perspective on the ‘novel in a month’ craze. So, this is Catherynne M. Valente on Jeff Vandermeer‘s blog from way back in 2008.
Jeff did a piece called How to Write a Novel in Two Months a little while back, and when I read it, I smiled, because I’ve run that race, too. I wanted to post my thoughts on speed-writing, as I have many—and now, through the power of bloggery, I can put my essay right next to his! It’s like some kind of crazy magic. And because Jeff nailed a lot of the nitty-gritty, things, I can just blather. Best of both worlds!
So here’s the thing–I am a fast writer. I think this is a skill I developed in college, a combination of stress and a vital part of my personality: I am incredibly lazy.
Because I am incredibly lazy, it is very easy to convince me not to work, since I don’t want to work anyway. Which led to an abnormal number of papers completed the night before they were due…and then the early morning hours before they were due, then the not so early morning hours*…And if even once I had failed to turn in a paper, failed to churn out twenty pages on gender anxiety in Gawain and the Green Knight, if I had even once failed to get an A, I think I would have rethought my methods and come to some sort of conclusion about work ethics.
So what my brain learned was not what it should have learned, namely that this sort of thing is about as risky and dumb as huffing whipped cream canisters. My brain learned that there was no deadline it couldn’t meet.
This is a dangerous thing for a brain to know, and I recommend failure to meet deadlines to everyone. Human behavior means doing something until it doesn’t work. This sort of thing still works for me. I do not expect it to work forever, and frankly, it giveth and it taketh. You get the work done fast, but your body is shredded and you end up with the interpersonal grace of Gollum on a meth binge.
But you’re not going to listen to these warnings.
The 30 days is an arbitrary number–it is kind of an absolute minimum for me**. I haven’t pushed myself to see just how fast I can turn out a novel, but I don’t trust myself with less than 30 days. I’m not crazy. Obviously, Nanowrimo influences that number (50k in a month, at something like 1400 words a day, is not actually very hard if you’re a fast hand at the keyboard and don’t have a day job) and now it can be told that I did Nanowrimo in 2002…sort of. See, those were heady days. I was 23. I was all balls-out and brazen and come-here-world-I’m-gonna-take-a-bite-out-of-you.
You know, totally different than now.
So I just did it on my own in early October (at the same Rhode Island Starbucks where Tobias Buckell started his first novel, as we discovered this summer) and I clocked in at a lot less than 30 days. The result? The beginning of my career, and how I met Jeff.
The key, really, is to never learn you can fail.
I really enjoy timed writing–with deadline from without (editor) or within (online project, personal goal, etc). I think it’s because I enjoy obstructions. Things created within boundaries, where the boundaries become part of the object, creativity fueled by restriction. It lights me up inside–your mileage may, of course, vary. This is not how I write every novel–it took me six years to write The Orphan’s Tales. As I said, I don’t recommend this: first of all, no one will think you can have possibly produced anything good in that time, because time spent = quality, obviously, and no other factors come into play. Second of all, you absolutely have to play by this first rule. No exceptions, no hall passes.
Rule #1: Be a Genius
Guys, I cannot stress this enough. See Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Writing. Rule #29? You Are a Genius All the Time. (Yes, I have that list nailed above my desk.)
I don’t care what kind of writer you are. I don’t care how many rejections you’ve had, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this. For 30 days, you are a genius. Everything that flows from your fingers is pure light. You do not have the luxury of not being a genius–not being a genius is laziness and sloth and you just can’t tolerate that shit right now.
Writing this fast is an act of unadulterated, stupid, blind faith. Faith in yourself, in your voice, in your story, in your sheer ability. If your faith falters, you lose time. In my experience, if you’re working on a 30 day cycle, you can afford to lose maybe three days (non-consecutive, if you lose three straight days you’ll never recover) to self-doubt, internal criticism, and not being a genius. More than that and you’re running up against words-per-minute, and when you get down to it, typing speed is actually a big factor. Us Millenials who grew up in chat rooms have generally fabulous-fleet skillz, but seriously, this is no time for long-hand.
2. Tell Everyone
Make sure everyone knows what you’re doing. This will provide the heady ingredient of shame to the proceedings, and I find that shame is an enormous motivator. If you fail alone, in private, no one will ever know, and you can claim that writing a novel in 30 days is impossible, for hacks, etc, with impunity. If you post to your blog and tell all your friends, you have to admit to it if you fail. This is assuming you are not subject to the major reason for speed-writing: you have a deadline and you watched Alias reruns instead of working until the last possible second.
It’s also important that your partner and social group knows not to expect you to be anything like human for the next month. Fortunately, you’re a genius, and geniuses are never expected to conform to primate behavior standards***. Just, you know, apologize later. If you are very lucky, you might have a partner or friend who is willing to provide any combination of the following salves for your chafed genius muscles: food, quiet space/leaving you the hell alone, a clean house, inspirational backrubs, crazy-ass genius sex.
But probably not.
3. Be Crazy
Jeff said that one ought not to try for much more than a transparent style when writing at breakneck speed. I, rather predictably, disagree. If anything, I’d suspect this doesn’t work so well for complex plot than complex language, but that’s likely because I find language easier than plot. Pick what you’re best at, and make that the focus of this marathon. I rather think that no technique is better suited to beatnik-pomo-style crazy writing than this–let go of your internal editor, of the ways writing is “supposed” to be (hint: it’s not supposed to be done in 30 days), any ideas your English professors might have given you about literature, and just open your brain onto the computer. Direct flesh-to-motherboard communication. Remember, this is blind faith we’re talking about. You are St. Teresa, and you are here to be transfigured. This is radical, revolutionary trust that what you are creating is worth the world.
You may not actually end up with a novel at the end of the month. But you’ll have something. Kerouac said not to be afraid to be a crazy dumbsaint of the mind. Quite so.
4. Sacrifice Your Body
Come on, you weren’t using it anyway.
The fact is, this sort of thing is a horrific strain on your human suit. You stay up late, you eat whatever is easy, you have to ice down your wrists at the end of the day. You burn your brain out, no joke. Make time for recovery afterward. Get out of the house occasionally, to Toby and my Starbucks, or the front lawn, or a laundromat. Look up at the sky. Accept the fact that you will fall down on your household chores–which is why this sort of thing is usually a childless writer’s gig–and that several times, you will literally want to die rather than write another word. Keep going. Talk to marathon runners. Rejoice, and conquer. Die, if you have to. Then get up and get back to work.
5. Don’t Fail
You don’t have time to fail. You don’t have time for writer’s block. You don’t have time to wibble.
And if you don’t fail this time, you’ll never learn that you can fail, and every time you don’t fail, your faith in your ability to not fail will grow until one day you’ll wake up and you won’t be a failure at all. It’s kind of awesome, if you can manage it. But the key is not failing, and the key to not failing is stupid dumbfuck faith that you won’t fail. Life is circular like that.
The reason I don’t credit Nanowrimo is not because I don’t think quality can be produced in 30 days. That would be a silly opinion, considering. It’s because they don’t think quality can be produced in 30 days. Their whole site is about producing crap and having it be okay to produce crap. It is okay. But I don’t have time to produce crap. Life is too short to produce crap. And the only way I know how to do this is to be absolutely convinced that what I’m writing is gobstoppingly amazing.
And I can only maintain that sort of conviction for short bursts. Say, 30 days.
*This is where being a classicist REALLY pays off. Ain’t no English class (see what I did thar?) can lick you–you know most of it before you set foot in the room, and your base of knowledge is broad enough that you can sound damn smart in a number of varied fields. I in no way mean to imply that in graduate school I did the research and the composition the day the paper was due. That would be crazy.
**I’ve done the 3 Day Novel competition–they expect you to produce something like 30k words, and that’s a novella at best.
***DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL. You are not that kind of genius.