Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Laura Miller is Wrong About NaNo

Alright! Finally getting to the blog post I alluded to two weeks ago. A nice article that is a great discussion piece, in my opinion.

Figures that the first time in weeks that I have a Wednesday off - and therefore can actually WRITE my blog in time for the noon update - is the same week that I already had one all set to post....

Anyway, as a reminder of how I found it, my high school friend Stargazer had posted this article up on the Struggling Writers Society facebook page. The long and short of it was to try to promote reading as much as writing. Ask any professional writer and they'll tell you that reading is crucial to the craft.

However, the way this woman went about promoting reading just irked me. So much so that a simple comment on the post turned in to a long-winded, ranty, 6page essay. With ChibiSunnie's suggestion, I went back, edited, toned the language down a bit, and then left it here for you fine folks.

First up though, the article itself:
Better yet, DON'T write that novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy by Laura Miller.

Forgive me, because I'm going to be attacking this more-or-less paragraph by paragraph.

Right off the bat, I couldn't stand that Miller more or less started off stating “I salute you” to people that don’t know what NaNoWriMo stands for. That’s just insulting anyone who DOES know what it means; even if they never participated. Should we really be awarding people who managed to stay in the dark about one of the most well-known writing activities for amateurs? Don't get me wrong, if you DIDN'T know what NaNo was before, there's nothing wrong with that. I didn't know about it until a few years ago myself. Still, to reward or berate people for knowing or not knowing something like this seems a bit over-the-top.

Excuse her language here, but Miller then continues with:
I am not the first person to point out that "writing a lot of crap" doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November.
Thing is, she’s completely missing the point. This program is for aspiring writers who are afraid to cross that threshold from “I have an idea” to “I’ll write it down”. So many are frozen because they’re afraid that what they’ll write is going to be horribly bad. NaNo - and it’s basic setup - is almost designed specifically for bad writing. People can fearlessly go ahead and write down that grand idea. If it comes out as the crap you feared it would, you at least have the justification of “I was writing quickly and didn’t have much time to think things through”. So, if your character is one-dimensional it’s because you couldn’t afford to take the time to really get to know them. Major plot holes? Not enough time to think the full story through before writing. Dialog flat? You were just rushing back into the action and needed to get the basic idea of dialog down.

In other words: all of the issues that come up in nearly every first draft ever written by any author. However, you have the luxury of “justifying” these issues by blaming NaNo’s quickened writing pace. It’s a way to ease newbie writers in to the craft. So they get over the fear of failure. They can look back and laugh “wow! Check out the junk I wrote last NaNo!” Sure, it’s a waste because you spent an entire month doing little more than writing, and the end result was teri-bad. However, is it really better for you to have taken 3months to write that bad first draft that would need revision regardless? Just, maybe not as much revision if you took the time instead of rushed through NaNo. Plus, at least the idea is now out of your head; good or bad, it's now on paper.

The key thing is to conquer that fear. Alright, you wrote a bad manuscript. Keep it hidden from everyone else until it's polished, for all I care; it's at least written. Better than what most accomplish. Plus, writing that horrendous manuscript wasn’t nearly as painful as you thought, was it? Now you can go back through, cringe at how bad it is - or laugh at it - and pick out the few gems you want to keep. Maybe one character - despite the rushed writing - came out awesome, or a fight scene was perfect, or you really liked the twist you threw in at the end. Maybe while you were writing you found out a dark secret in your character's past that you really like. This NaNo draft lets you really discover your story. Clears out the cobwebs of all the bad stuff you were thinking. It’s panning for gold, and more often than not, you WILL find gold if you look.

Now you are ready to REALLY write, and you may actually be excited to do so as well. You’ve conquered NaNo; you can do anything now in regards to writing. You wrote a novel in a MONTH, clearly redoing it in 4months won’t be so hard.

Yes, perhaps writing daily as most do during NaNo isn’t everyone’s thing. It won’t work for everyone. It's not a catch-all that separates the "true authors" from the "wannabes". Some people will just get majorly stressed out if they attempt to write daily. It will become a chore to shove in to their already-full days, or they'll feel unproductive if they miss a day.

However, NaNo is great for that feeling, too. Having to write daily for just a month makes you work around your schedule. Maybe you wake up super early one week to get writing done. Maybe you stayed up late. Maybe you discover that lunch breaks or baby nap time is the best time of the day for you. Forcing you to change it up and write at a different time on different days helps you figure out your writing “sweet spot” - even if that “sweet spot” is simply working for 4hrs straight on Saturdays.

Plus, holing yourself up during that month really shows you who your writing support group is. Who is willing to give up socializing with you while you're on your "noble quest" to finally figure out a writing rhythm that works for you? Who is willing to help out with the kids or housework so you have your precious time to work on your novel? Who is there cheering you on and excitedly waiting for your next chapter - even if it is grade-level junk? In contrast, who is just putting you down the whole month for attempting to write? Who doesn't have faith in you or your goal to get that novel out of your head? NaNo is actually a great time to figure this out, and to soul-search to determine how to move forward in your dream to write. It's also a great time to determine if it really is something meant for you, or if it's best left as a hobby. Finally, it helps "train" your family to survive without you for an hour or two, so that if you do decide to keep this up as a professional goal they are more accustomed to the new daily - or weekly - schedule; allowing you to be more productive.

Speaking of productivity, NaNo also teaches how to catch up when it comes to your writing and writing schedule. It’s bound to happen that you’ll miss a day or two, and you’ll feel even more rushed to write more to make up for the slacking days. You find that groove and blow past the recommended 1667 words per day. Next thing you know you can either end NaNo early or skip a few days because you’ve written so much. Or you KNOW that you won’t be able to write tomorrow, so you purposely write more today.

Again, yes, writing daily isn’t a practice most people keep past NaNo, but in the process you find out what works for you and pick up on practices and skills - and people to surround yourself with - that WILL help you.

Miller doesn't seem to see this good, however. She seems determined to focus on the bad, even reaching out for people to give anecdotal evidence that NaNo is the bane of all writing existence; because we all know that anecdotal evidence and stereotyping is valid research...

Editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive. "Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?" tweeted one, "Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter … or make it clear that it was LAST year’s NaNo."
Now, she does provide a valid point: don't assume your novel is print-ready simply because you hit the NaNo 50,000 word goal! However, I feel like these people are more the exception than the rule. Out of 21,000+ “winners” of NaNo, I doubt more than a couple hundred actually flood these editors; if it's really that many editors that are hit with post-NaNo manuscripts. Does she do a formal survey to see the influx? How many editors are actually flooded by these poorly-written hopefuls? How much of an increase from the daily unsolicited submissions is there? Does the quality of submissions actually drop that drastically in December and January? Maybe there's actually editors out there excited by December's possibilities. Sure, it will take a lot of coffee and migraine meds, but maybe they're excited to find the diamond in the rough that was only put down to paper thanks to NaNo. Who knows?

Plus, if these NaNo-ers are going to send unrevised manuscripts to editors after November, they’ll do it any other time too. These authors either don’t understand the purpose of an editor - to polish revised manuscripts as opposed to hand holding the writer through revisions - or they believe everything they write is perfect the first go. They’re diluted or ill-informed. Either way, NaNo just helped push them forward, not create them.

So, while it is good advice to let that bad manuscript sit for a month or so, and then go back to it - something the people from the Office of Letters and Light routinely advise - shaming ALL of NaNo and its participants for the maybe 5% that submit unrevised manuscripts is a bit harsh.

About half-way through the article, Miller even admits that she doesn’t actually write novels; she reads them. No shame in that, but at the same time, don’t put down such a great program. You don’t understand. You don’t get the struggles of writers and how NaNo helps. You don’t know how this is the equivalent to a band camp for some. You may be the only nerd in your neighborhood who likes playing the tuba, and so you’re self-conscious about it and may not practice what you love. But at band camp you have a community. They all understand your love and how you may not be the best tuba player yet, but they still cheer you on while you figure out your talent; some even assist in making you better.

It is hard for someone in the stands watching the halftime show to understand what it’s like to be a tuba player.

Still, Miller protests; simply because she seemingly feels that anything that won't eventually produce a Best Seller is ultimately a waste of time.
Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it’s likely to produce more novels I’d want to read. (That said, it has generated one hit, and a big one: “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen, who apparently took the part about revision to heart.)
Yes, this - much like those people flooding the poor editors - is the exception instead of the rule. NaNo rarely produces anything that will result in an actual published work. That’s still not the point. If Miller's definition of wasted time is what it appears to be in this quote - if it won't produce a novel worth reading, it's not worth the attempt - then a lot of writers are up a creek without a paddle, because apparently lot of us are wasting our time even trying.

Miller clearly has no clue how many horrible - and probably incomplete - manuscripts hide in the desk drawers and forgotten computer files of her favorite authors. Maybe they participated in NaNo themselves just to try to get the juices flowing again. Maybe a best selling story started off as a pathetic NaNo attempt years ago, and the only thing that survived was the main character; therefore the author never mentions the character’s humble beginnings as a NaNo attempt.

Once again, let me state that NaNo is a way for people to conquer their fear and become motivated to do what they love: writing. Is an actual marathon just as much a waste of time and energy? Especially if the person never places? What if a person meant to get in to exercising, but the only way they could motivate themselves was to participate in something like a friendly community 5K; especially if they have friends who are participating and want them to as well? Sure, they may walk the whole time, come in last, or they may not even finish because they pulled something or got winded due to not being ready for a 5K. But is it still all for naught? Maybe it was just the push the person needed to keep going. Maybe after that one horribly failed 5K they are now determined to take better care of themselves so they do better next time. Maybe they spend the next year exercising and training so that they can conquer that 5K when it comes back around. Does that make that first, horribly failed marathon a waste? Even if it’s just a seasonal jumpstart - they slacked off the rest of the year, participated in the marathon, and are now back on the ball - is that a waste? Or in the other direction, maybe they dreamed of becoming a marathoner, only to discover they're just not cut out for it after a horrible showing at the 5K. Maybe they can now put that dream aside; check it off their bucket list, stop wondering "what if?" and move on with their life. It's a nice soul-searching moment. How's that a waste of time or energy?

Similarly, the fact that NaNo has spread so that places like bookstores - and in some places, libraries - have sectioned off places for participants is fantastic. It helps build a better community; helps people bond and feel connected. This is another great aspect of NaNo. Most may not “Win” NaNo, become professional writers, or even write outside of NaNo. Yet you can find great friends in the community. Friends that will stay and last. I met Chibi through NaNo’s sister program Script Frenzy, and we’ve been fast friends ever since. Hard to believe we were complete strangers just about three years ago.

You can also discover a fantastic stress reliever in writing. You can become slightly more cultured. Children can learn the joy of writing and creating; using their imaginations. There is so much potential there. So many gifts that writing can provide. Even if someone doesn't wish to become the next Great American Author, perhaps NaNo will help them discover their career path for writing the next big TV phenomenon, or Hollywood blockbuster, or the next Grammy-winner, or a Tony-winning play, or to become a courageous journalist.

I can’t say it enough: This woman just doesn’t seem to comprehend the point or importance of NaNo.

I want to give Miller credit for cringing at slogans like “Write Your Novel Here” because - while seemingly innocent and fun-provoking - they may in fact cheapen authors; making it sound like a novel is something simple that can be written in a few hours at a bookstore. The issue is that, sadly, this isn't Miller's point, or even why she felt such dismay. She just thought it was a pathetic attempt to jump on the "everyone wants to be a writer" bandwagon. Regardless of her feelings or how poorly worded the slogans are, having these spaces for people to write while surrounded by books and authors they love - great motivation to picture your book nestled next to theirs - is a fantastic way of expanding this “cultured community” Miller holds so dear.

Having these NaNo writing groups is not degrading “the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading” with “the narcissistic commerce of writing” like Miller claims. I mean, if she feels this way about NaNo-ers, how does she not feel the same about the authors giving her the gift to “selflessly read” in the first place? How is it that amateurs participating in NaNo are “narcissists” but published authors aren’t? That being said, how is reading “selfless”? You choose books that make you feel better, or help you improve.

A writer opens themselves up and pours their soul into a book; praying that someone like Ms. Miller will pick it up and enjoy it. It’s not about money for most of us; it’s about sharing a story that you want the world to know, or information you feel others will benefit from. Us writers are completely bare and at the mercy of these “selfless” readers. The slightest thing could push them away from reading our book, even something as stupid as not heeding the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

I honestly think Miller’s confused, and it’s the READERS who are a bit narcissistic; because the book they choose is all about them: if they need that advice from a self-help book, if they like to know more about that bit of trivia, or if they want to spend some time in that world. This “narcissistic reader” concept is even verified in Miller’s article itself when she commented about how people read more “how to” books than actual novels. Why? Because readers want to improve themselves, not spend time in someone else’s world. THAT is pretty selfish and narcissistic.

Perhaps her view of the "selfless reader" and "narcissistic writer" derives from the fact that she clearly just doesn't understand writers. Either that, or the only writers she's ever paid attention to are the ones who write equally-thought-out articles online. People who are just out to get millions of hits; followers; 15minutes of fame as they go viral.
So I’m not worried about all the books that won’t get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say.
I mean, seriously! I want to know what writers she’s talking to, because all of the ones I know are terrified of not having any ability or anything especially interesting to say. They are frozen because they fear public indifference. None of the elements Miller spoke of make my writing friends persistent. No ability? Public Indifference? Not having something interesting to say? These are true, paralyzing fears that are keeping great writers from sharing their talent. Fears that stop these people from doing what they love; the thing that helps de-stress them and make them feel whole.

This woman just irks me that she so firmly believes otherwise. The writers she’s talking about are the bad ones that really shouldn’t use NaNo as a motivation tool. These are the narcissistic writers. The ones that ARE out for money, and then are shocked when it doesn’t come. The ones that “are always moaning so loudly about how hard it is.”

I am sorry, but writing IS hard. Miller writes articles and doesn’t know this? She’s an author of what appears to be a pseudo-autobiography, and yet she feels this way about writers? Again, Ms. Miller appears to be fantastic at misconstruing generalities as facts.

She claims that the endangered species in this world is readers - that’s true; sadly - but that doesn’t mean readers are both “fragile” and the ones that should be tormented by their lot. She makes it seem like readers are much tougher than writers because while they are disappearing, readers aren’t little, whiny pushovers like writers seem to be, and so they won’t make a stink about their shrinking population.

Did I miss a memo somewhere? Because last I checked, what writer ISN’T lamenting the fact that their demographic is shrinking and yet the production is growing? Why else would we be terrified that we aren’t the best writer in the world? We know we’re competing against major players for such a small audience. We KNOW we either have to make it big or we won’t make it at all.

It’s overpopulation. This is why writers are so fragile compared to the few readers that are left. We are at their mercy. They have all the power over our fate. How does THAT make readers “like Tinkerbell or any other disbelieved-in fairy”?

Miller has such a great concluding concept: why not have something similar to NaNo, but for readers to get reading back to the forefront? National Novel READING Month. I’d be 100% behind that. I remember the reading marathons we had in elementary school, and I think the Offices of Letters and Light would do great if they came up with something similar. Maybe a companion to Camp NaNo could be some sort of reading program to help kids keep up with reading over the summer, and get adults back into the habit.

Now, if only Miller spent the whole article with what she finished with: there are plenty of novels out there waiting to be read, so let’s celebrate the READERS instead of aspiring writers. She could have even prefaced with “Yes, NaNo is great, but don’t forget to read as well as write this month. Otherwise, what is the point of participating if reading is a dead art?” THAT would have been a great article.

At the very least, though, she got me thinking. I've got quite a long reading list, and I think I need to find the time to attack some of it.

What about you guys? What are your feelings on the article? Do you agree with her? What about your own reading? Anything good you're planning on cracking open next month?

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