« It's like that essay where the girl railed about people using big words because "that's not class consciousness." | Main | A brief glimpse into the passionate life of your authors. »

Eric: What good is Nanowrimo?

I've had a couple of people ask me what good Nanowrimo does in the long run.

Not for me in particular, mind. Both of these correspondents are firmly convinced I'm more than capable of producing the wordcount and not sucking wind. And, so far things are going well. (For those of you who don't read my livejournal, where most of my personal nanoruminations are going, or the site where I'm posting the work in progress, I'm just shy of eighteen thousand words so far.)

But what these folks want to know is, what good does Nanowrimo in general do? To their way of thinking, participants are often (even generally) not that good. This is the rough equivalent of a dare. What, they ask me, is the point of an event that doesn't care about quality, only completion.

So. Rather than answer them individually, I thought I'd throw a few points out here and let people chew on them.

1. Nanowrimo encourages people to put up or shut up: I'm a writer. If you don't know that by now, how the Hell did you find the blog in the first place? But, regardless, I'm a writer. I self-identify as a writer. I think of myself, before systems administration, before education, before webcartooning or criticizing, as a writer. I tell people this.

And I always get the same block of responses when I tell people I'm a writer:

• Oh, really? What have you published?

• Oh, really? I prefer knitting/sewing/watching sports/some other reference to a hobby.

• Oh, really? Yeah, I always meant to write a book, but I never got around to it.

It's the last one of those that always gets to me. The implication is that it's not very hard. The same people who responded to every three page paper in high school with a combination of sheer, unmitigated dread and rage thinks that they could do what I practice every day of my life probably about as well as I can. After all, they actually speak English, and that's all that it takes, right? That and an industry in. I mean, they weren't born yesterday.

The stumbling block is always "I never got around to it," or "I never had the time." What they really mean is they've never had the excuse. Well, here it is, in all their glory. You think you can do this? Go for it. You have thirty days. Fifty thousand words. One month to do a two hundred page paper. Go for it.

Some of them succeed. And good for them. Some make a good effort, and good for them. Some crash and burn inside of a week, and good enough.

But every one of those people gets to the far end of Nanowrimo, and never casually mentions how they're going to write a book when they get around to it again.

That's worth its weight in gold, my friends.

2. Nanowrimo encourages people to try:On the other side of the equation, we have the folks who really would like to write something, but they're convinced they can't do it. Now, for all I've implied above about how ripped I get when someone implies that my craft is easy, the simple truth is my craft is accessible. Almost anyone who's willing to put in significant practice can write, with time. They won't all be Hemingway, but then he blew his own head off, so that's not a bad thing.

Writing well is another matter, of course. But for a lot of these folks, they never even start down the path, because they're so concerned that whatever they do will suck that they never even try.

And you know what? If you've never done concerted writing of this kind before? It is going to suck.

But who cares? Sucking for a while is the gateway to not sucking.

Nanowrimo, by putting its emphasis on fifty thousand come Hell, high water, or crap, takes the pressure off. "Go for it," they say. "Who cares if it's terrible -- just do it!" And so some of those folks who've always wanted to try do try. And some of them discover that they enjoyed it. And some will discover that the last five thousand words they wrote were a lot better than the first five thousand words they wrote, and decide to keep working on this. And some people will discover that writing actually is fun, and will keep it up.

And all of those are good things too.

3. Nanowrimo teaches the single most important aspect of writing: People sometimes ask me what is the best thing a writer can do. What improves them the most? What strengthens them? What puts them in a position to succeed. What gets projects finished.

The answer is as simple as it is daunting: you have to write.

Every day.

Every day.

A plurality of "how to write X" books, where X is a novel, or a romance novel, or science fiction, or fantasy, or nonfiction, or whatever recommends that the new writer write at least one page every day. That's just two hundred and fifty words. Two hundred and fifty words. You want to know how much two hundred and fifty words is? Take a look at point two, above. From the words "On the other side of the equation" down through to "keep it up?" That's two hundred and fifty one words. That's it.

But it seems impossible. It seems like a monumental act of discipline for folks.

Nanowrimo cuts through that. Your daily quota is seventeen hundred words, and at no point do they tell you you have to do it. They just say "hey, you need to hit fifty thousand by the end of November."

So, people give it a shot. And they track their wordcount. And shoot for seventeen hundred words a day. And they discover they can do that, so they shoot for two thousand a day instead, so they can take the weekend off. They give it a full on shot.

And in so doing, they learn the core discipline. They write every day. They learn they can write every day.

It's not that far a step to actually writing every day, after that.

4. There are worse reasons to form a community than creativity: Look, I make no bones about the fact that I'm a liberal. And like most liberals (and many conservatives, for that matter), I think the arts are important. I think there's something more to human beings than working, fucking, drinking beer and watching television. I think we have the capacity to create something meaningful out of ourselves, out of our lives, our of our dreams. We can make things that never existed before.

One of the saddest facts of American society is that artistic impulse just isn't encouraged. If it doesn't make you money, what good is it? It's a waste of time. As a result, the only people who try to be writers -- or painters, or artists of any stripe, really -- are those who are downright driven to do it. People like me. I couldn't not write. I'd go insane.

But this sheer, unadulterated creativity, done for its own sake and for the simple joy of it, is the birthright of every human being with a moderately functional brain. It doesn't matter if it's any good, so long as you enjoy yourself. You don't have to be driven to be an artiste to enjoy crayons or writing a story or essay or journal entry. It's right there.

It already belongs to you.

Nanowrimo provides a community of people without expectations beyond the attempt. They say "hey -- this is pretty damn cool. You should try it!"

I know some people resent Nanowrimo. They resent their livejournal friends lists becoming full of people posting regular word counts, getting all excited because they're taking a shot at writing a book which probably will suck in the first place. They hate it as much as they hate... well, Harry Potter, because of what that does to their Livejournals and online environments every couple of years.

But even though I don't personally read Harry Potter, I'm thrilled there's a book series out there that children and adults alike are desperate to read. That kind of excitement for a book gives me hope.

And I think any yearly event that gets so many people excited about writing is an unqualified win for Civilization.

I'll check back later. I've got two hundred and fifty words to write. Followed by fifteen hundred more. And then we'll see where we go from there.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at November 8, 2005 12:32 PM


Comment from: Kirath posted at November 8, 2005 2:02 PM

I am not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I fully intend to do so next year. Up until very recently, (Lierally two or three days ago) I was firmly in the camp of people who were convinced that I just COULDN'T pull off a novel no matter how much that's exactly what I want to do. I'm still just a wannabe writer, I am not yet to the point that I self-identify as one, just yet. But at least I'm a wannabe now instead of a I-never-will-be.

What happened a few days ago is this: a good friend of mine compiled a long series of roleplay between the two of us, that took place over the course of about a month, after we had burned out on Everquest and a couple of months or so before Star Wars: Galaxies was release and we started playing that. (That game had so much potential..~sigh~ but that's off-topic.) This roleplay was sort of the last hurrah for our EQ characters, and was a long series of message board posts, e-mails, and IM covnersations. I hadn't realized how much we had written, until I saw it all compiled into one Word document. Between the two of us, we generated a little over 42,000 words. By Eric's definition above, roughly 165 pages. (Word says the document is 85 pages long, but there's no real formatting involved, there.)

It's a storyline both moving and personal, as well as grand in scope. It's about a man and his lover, their children, natural and adopted, and their life. It's about that man and his brother, and their work, first as adventurers and then as administrators. It's about these men and their friends, and their faith, and their personal war against a city of evil.

And it doesn't even entirely suck. No-one was more surprised about that than me. I *enjoyed* reading it again. And I remembered how much I enjoyed writing it. I write, and roleplay, still, but have yet to do anything again on such a scale. So, next year, for me. And maybe Peolin Coldarrow, that old and beloved friend, will live a new life, one not tied to Everquest but rather a world of my own making. And maybe he'll even have a better name if he can bear to part with the one he's had for so long.

I do believe I have written my page for today. And now I must get back to work.

Comment from: Zaq posted at November 8, 2005 2:12 PM

One interesting thing about NaNoWriMo is its focusing effect. It's not enough to write; you have to write one thing for a month. I mean, sure, you can take it any direction you please, and many great novels certainly don't feel like it for a good half of the book (Catch-22 leaps to mind)... but really, it takes a hell of a writer (please note I didn't make the obvious pun, though I sorely wanted to) to pull of Catch-22, and really, this isn't NaShoStoColWriMo or whatever the abbreviation for National Short Story Collection Writing Month would be.

Like so many others, I have ADD. And there is treatment for ADD... which has basically made my life liveable (it's often said that the American medical system overdiagnoses and over-prescribes for ADD, but that doesn't mean treatments aren't genuinely helpful to those who need it. I'm sure I'm not the only one reading this who knows firsthand what I'm talking about.). But even with that kind of help, all through my school career I've hated long papers (short papers I like, becuase they can be fun if you know what you're talking about, so I;d like to think it's not an aversion to writing itself that causes this) because it's so hard, for me, to stay focused on that one topic for seven to ten pages or however much was required. For those of you fortunate enough to not suffer from ADD, let me tell you... the difference between proper medication and a lack thereof is the difference between being able to write a one-page paper easily and stumbling over every sentence because you forget what you were talking about halfway through, but there's still a bigger picture at work no matter what you take. It's hard to focus on one topic until you've gotten everything out of it that you can. There comes a point where your brain says "enough of this, I'm gonna go over here now. If you wanna keep staring at the keyboard, go ahead, but you're not getting any help from me." So focusing on one thing is really hard for more than a few pages at once (more than a few pages if I'm reading, but this isn't NaNoReaMo).

However, it can also be helpful at times to have a focus, any focus, when you need it. Those long papers which came so hard to me sometimes ended up being the work of which I was the most proud, because they provided the focus which was so hard. It's kind of paradoxical that way, but I'm not inventing anything here. Sometimes the only way you can stay SANE is if you force yourself to focus on one thing, in any form, for a while until you can figure out where you are. That, i think, is one reason I was so drawn to video games when I was a kid (and still am, of course, as I was instilled with a lifelong love of them)... it gave me something to focus on so my brain wouldn't have to whirl around like a tornado, in which trying to grab an idea is like trying to grab a single pebble being tossed to and fro. Even if it was mindless, repetitive nonsense (or beautiful repetetive nonsense... Tetris, for example), it was a direction. The best, though still poor, analogy I can think of is this. Picture a bumper car... though not one of those overcrowded places where you can't move an inch without hitting someone, just a solo bumper car driving around. If there are poles around the area, they'll get in the way and be a bother, but if you suddenly lost control of the car and it started going all over the place, you'd gladly latch onto those poles just so you don't go flying. Because you see, despite what movies and TV will tell you, ADD isn't the kid who plays with Nerf guns for thirty seconds then watches TV for thirty seconds then searches for food for thirty seconds then goes roller skating for thirty seconds etc. etc. etc. No, it's more like if there's a centerfuge in your head, and it's causing all of your thoughts (ALL of them) to whirl around so fast you can't tell what any of them are, and the centrifugal force keeps them up in your head (though still moving at top speed) and prevents them from getting down to your mouth, or your hands, or your muscles, or even the other parts of your brain that would let you identify a thought and think about it. ANY focus is welcome.

NaNoWriMo, I hypothesize, would provide a big-picture focus to point towards. Sometimes when you can't grasp any ideas it's better to grab larger concepts, and a novel is a wonderful huge concept there. I would imagine that it would have a similar effect for those not so affected, but I don't even pretend to speak for them. But I think the general principle holds sound: Having a big picture to work with makes things easier than just "I think I'll write something!". NaNoWriMo provides that.

I'd love to do naNoWriMo sometime... though as a student, that's the kind of time commitment I just don't have (my time for writing 1700 words a day is already committed to words that go to places other than a novel)... but it's the kind of thing that might be wonderful for a brain like mine.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 8, 2005 2:17 PM

Word's 'pages' are literally 'how many pages will this take when the document is printed out using your formatting choices and current font.'

The old standard "250 words for a page" assumed typewritten pages, double spaced, with inch margins. It's a rule of thumb, in other words.

(This is one reason why the standard manuscript format for most publishers remains 12 point courier, double spaced with inch margins, by the by. That approximates the old school, and they can guestimate how many pages/inches of magazine columns they'd need to publish you. Which is why it's a bad idea to go off that specification -- they don't want your story to look pretty to the eye. They want to know what space it will fit in.)

Comment from: lucastds posted at November 8, 2005 2:17 PM

The funny thing is, I'm a school teacher. And I guess, because everyone WENT TO SCHOOL at some point in their lives, they think it's the easiest job in the world. And that they too could do it, or something.

So I get what you mean about writing. It's one of those things that most everyone has done at least a bit of in their upbringing and figure "oh yeah, piece of cake." When really...? No. Writing takes time and dedication.

Comment from: William_G posted at November 8, 2005 2:18 PM

"I think there's something more to human beings than working, fucking, drinking beer and watching television."

I don't agree with this and I will fight to the death over it AND the remote control!

Comment from: Zutto posted at November 8, 2005 2:21 PM

I would join you in protest, but I'm hitting the pub after work today to watch the game.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at November 8, 2005 2:21 PM

I actually dropped NaNo because of other commitments. I love the idea. It's just that it occurs to me that I'm effectively holding down three jobs with a heaping helping of personal drama on the side. And given that we're hitting the holiday push for the video game industry, the reviewing is about to eat up my time.

However, because the idea is great, I'm going to take it up again. I'm thinking February might be a great time. I might not be able to do NaNoWriMo, but there's nothing to say I can't do a Personal Novel Writing Month.

Comment from: Kirath posted at November 8, 2005 2:26 PM

I'd figured it was something like that, really. Pages seems kind of arbitrary anyway. My 85 pages is a solid block of text except for paragraph breaks. For our purposes word count seems a better measure, and 42000 or so words feels like something to be proud of, even as part of a collaborative effort. It's a good start, anyway.

At the very least it's something I can point to and say 'Yeah! I wrote that! Me! Wow!'

I am so giving it a shot next year. It's too late in the month for me to pull it off this year, with the free time I have available.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at November 8, 2005 2:37 PM

I may link this essay in future when readers complain about the quality that comes out of the Daily Grind contest. As Remi Treuer put it, "It's not for the readers. It's for us."

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at November 8, 2005 2:42 PM

I've never participated in NaNoWriMo, mostly because I prefer the short episode serial format. And by the time it came along, I didn't need to prove to myself that I could write...I mean, it may be nothing compared to an actual pro, but I have among various webpages over a million words of prose fiction. And along the way, I've done enough high-density writing jags to know I CAN do it, and also that I'd rather not do it too often. :)

I can also drop my 350 page doctoral thesis on people if they get snippy.

Comment from: Ford Dent posted at November 8, 2005 2:43 PM

I tried NaNo for the first time last year. I've always been writing stories, and they usually aren't the greatest things ever, but even though I was aware that what I was trying to do was going to suck, I wrote it anyway.

I ended the month with only 20,000 words. I think it took me three weeks to even break 10,000. But I'm an English major dammit, and if I can't make money writing then I'll die a hobo, because writing is all I care about.

My effort last year was a piece of crap. But it got me to put effort into consciously deciding to write a long story, which I hadn't done in about three years.

It's taken me since last January, but I created a novel that's up to only 30,000 words but it's something I'm proud of. This year, the challenge was laying that project aside and starting in on something new.

Well, I'm up to... about 12,000 words, and it's only the beginning of week two. Even more surprisingly, I'm liking what I've got so far. So in effect I now have two projects to finish, but if I hadn't given it a whirl last year I wouldn't have shit. So yeah, NaNoWriMo is definately worth the time and effort and looking at your writing and trying not to delete the whole thing. It's worth it because you can watch yourself improve, and that's a feeling that makes me all warm and tingly inside.

Comment from: Arachnid posted at November 8, 2005 2:53 PM

I'm somewhat tempted to take NaNoWriMo and twist it slightly for my own purposes - make it NaNoCoMo, and set my goal at 50,000 'words' of code in a month. Coding is what _I_ do, and how I express my creativity. I do it every day, but most personal projects I work on don't make it to that kind of scale (at work, of course, I have no choice). Forcing myself to actually do a significant project beginning to end could be an interesting challenge.

Oh, and on the subject of English again: I went and bought a nice hardcover copy of Strunk & White the other day. To settle a dispute over English grammar ("Doctors Visits" or "Doctor's Visits" or "Doctors' Visits"? The draft adverts we had here had the former, and I needed to convince them they were wrong, wrong, wrong). Unfortunately, it didn't actually settle it (a web-page on the Genitive sense did), but now I've at least got a nice copy of Strunk & White. :)

Comment from: HydrogenGuy posted at November 8, 2005 2:57 PM

Eric, have you ever paused and counted up your total word count for the day? Nanowrimo, all the blogs, paid projects, work reports, everything? I bet it's a large number.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 8, 2005 3:04 PM

My personal record for one day's work was twenty two thousand words.

My arms, fingers, eyes and brain hurt for a week after.

Comment from: bartles69 posted at November 8, 2005 3:31 PM


Comment from: Haver posted at November 8, 2005 3:32 PM

I'd rather have one good sentence than a thousand mediocre ones.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at November 8, 2005 3:49 PM

I've wanted to be a novelist since I was 12 or 13, I think. We were driving to my grandparents house, and my mom let me play around with the word processor on an old Olivetti laptop she had (yes, I come from a family of geeks -- Mom used to program in Fortran and COBOL, Dad was a chemical engineer, we had computers like some families had TV's). And I just started writing on it, and it was brilliant. I wanted to tell stories, and I had a lot of ideas for them. Too many, probably, because it was hard to focus on only one...

And when I would get it in my head "I'm going to write a book about this story," and then I tried to sit down to do it... I would wind up writing for eight or nine hours straight -- I mean the day would completely pass me by and I wouldn't even notice -- and after all that I would look at what I'd done and realize, to my horror, that I hadn't finished writing the book.

And that's what killed it for me. I wanted it to be done then. I didn't have a properly developed appreciation for the time, dedication and patience required to actually finish something. I wanted to get to the end without having to suffer through the middle.

I kept trying to develop the discipline I needed to see it through, but I was never able to do it. I started to despair about ever being able to finish anything. I was afraid I simply couldn't see it through to the end. Recording music and web comics were easier because the projects were short, but novel writing seemed like an impossibility to me.

The thing that made NaNoWriMo worthwhile for me is that after the first year I came away with the knowledge that yes, I *could* finish something that I started. And I'm at a point where I've realized if I want that particular project to sellI need to fix a number of things -- this is two years later, mind you -- and it's not making me want to give up or walk away. It's just part of a process that I know I can do, because I've already done it.

That's sort of similiar to your item #3 but it's on a different level of the process, so I thought I'd mention it.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 8, 2005 4:02 PM


So would we all.

But if you need to write a thousand mediocre sentences before you can start producing good ones, then it's best to actually start writing them, isn't it?

Comment from: bartles69 posted at November 8, 2005 4:21 PM

But this sheer, unadulterated creativity, done for its own sake and for the simple joy of it, is the birthright of every human being with a moderately functional brain. It doesn't matter if it's any good, so long as you enjoy yourself.
Due to a combination of dyslexia and other LDs, I'm one of those who always struggled over three-page papers. I don't actually read aloud, but that is the speed at which I read. It doesn't seem to matter if the topic is "perl, quantum physics, eighteenth-century Liechtensteinian sestinas, [or] calculating the tip", that's the speed at which I read. (My wife reads about 120 pages per hour, writes almost as fast and occasionally reminds me that envy is an ugly, ugly emotion.)
So I write songs and short stories. I have enough trouble with them, that while I might fantasize about being a novelist (How much of a geek does that make me?), I am well aware of my limitations and comfortable enough with them to stick to what I can do.
But I write for myself. I compose. I draw. I paint. I take photographs. For myself. Because I need the creative outlet, even though it's written for the desk drawer and no-one else will see it because I'm not brave enough to share it with the world. (The only writing I've ever had publised was pulled from a blog that I was logged onto under a pseudonym.) It's why I appreciate the people like Eric and Wednesday, who write for themselves and show it fearlessly. It gives me hope that someday, maybe, I'll be able to show my work and not cringe. But until then, the desk drawer will keep its secrets.

Comment from: UrsulaV posted at November 8, 2005 4:25 PM

Some famous cartoonist--bugger if I can remember who now, of course--once said that everybody has ten thousand bad drawings in them, and the trick is to try to get them all out and over with so you can get to the good ones.

NaNoWriMo strikes me as the same way. Art, and writing, often seem to both attract people who get paralyzed by trying to come up with a single perfect work, as if it was the Holy Grail. The "one good sentence" as it were. The one good picture. There is a tendency to become contemptuous of the prolific. Something you turned out in an afternoon can't be nearly as good as something that took somebody a month. A novel you wrote in a month can't be nearly as good as the sentence it took somebody ten years to write.

I am probably lucky--my first serious attempts at art were with pottery, where you have no hope in hell of producing a single good perfect work to start, and if by some miracle you do, so what? Betcha can't do it again! It's a wonderful art form in that the longer you work on an individual piece, at least on the wheel, the worse that piece will come out. You have to learn to be rapid and prolific. If something fails, fixing it almost never works--you shrug and cut it off the wheel, and slap down more clay. You cannot obsess and belabor and tinker. If you fail, you do better NEXT time, because clay is only so forgiving, and once you've gotten it too wet and too stressed, it's basically just mud that's angry at you.

Mostly what I learned is that I'm not very good at pottery, but for two solid years in college I slaved at it, every semester, and the great thing I learned from it is that things are not precious merely because I created them. The last day of class, we would ritually smash half our stuff, anything we didn't like or which hadn't come out, and every time I move, I reappraise the work I've kept, and more of it gets smashed. And I think NaNoWriMo is good for this too--you hopefully get less convinced of the preciousness of your work, you become comfortable hammering things out, you learn that sometimes, you just have to do the next thing and the next thing and not sit and tear your hair out while the story dries on the wheel. And while there's a great deal more editing possible with text than with ceramics, you hopefully also learn that some things cannot and need not be salvaged, and that your words are not precious merely because you created them.

The other great thing I learned from clay is that people with bad backs shouldn't become full-time potters, when my back went out on me at 18 after a marathon wheel throwing session, and I experienced that astonishing helplessness which is nearly impossible to describe if you've never had your back go out. But I digress.

Comment from: Haver posted at November 8, 2005 4:58 PM

The glamorization of word-counts and output just doesn't appeal to me. It's never been a competition for me. I don't feel like I have anything to prove.

Comment from: Minivet posted at November 8, 2005 5:15 PM

Looking at this from a distance (I have a lot of obstacles to overcome before I can start thinking about NaNoWriMo), I find it interesting that among these communities, conception of the process of writing is turning around some.

According to the New Yorker (6/14/04), sometime in the late 19th century, on the model of English Romantics and others, we got a stronger sense of writing as something inspired, semi-mystically driven. So when Trollope recalled posthumously how his schedule for 35 years was to write from 5:30 to 8:30 every day, at 250 words every 15 minutes, his reputation plummeted. It was then that people started complaining about writer's block, and the popularity of psychoanalysis probably contributed to the image of writing as a neurotic, troubled endeavor.

This is not to belittle writer's block and inspiration in general. But there is a flip side that I feel NaNoWriMo is reasserting: that writing is also a concrete skill, and the more you do, the better you can get at it. Maybe the objects of NaNoWriMo works are not as highbrow in scope, but it stands for relegitimization of craftsmanship.

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at November 8, 2005 5:31 PM

The glamorization of word-counts and output just doesn't appeal to me. It's never been a competition for me. I don't feel like I have anything to prove.

No one's glamorizing output. Nanowrimo simply helps potential writers to drop the romanticized view of the process of creation in art/literature; that it's simply a good idea, inspiration, some clever phrases and plot twists and voila, novel! Like Eric said, practice and sustained output are extremely important, especially if you want to make a living with what you write.

Comment from: kirabug posted at November 8, 2005 5:48 PM

I think there's something more to human beings than working, fucking, drinking beer and watching television.

Yeah, for one thing, if we all did that there wouldn't be anything on television.

Seriously, though, I have to admit that I'm one of those people who normally writes only writes when feeling "inspired" (where "inspired" is a variable equal to "seriously stressed and looking for a creative outlet that does not in fact involve kicking the dog"). It wasn't always that way - in high school the literary magazine editors (of which I was one) met every day and every day we wrote - poetry, prose, threats, whatever. The sense of community and accomplishment was profound, and I've been looking for it ever since.

My blog is good. Six years of writing down what's going on in my life and what's interesting and "lookit the cute dog picture" have at least kept my fingers attached to the keyboard. But NaNoWriMo for me is about proving that the writer is still in there somewhere. She can still compete with the old crowd - one of which is getting his master's in creative writing, and one of which is a playwright in New York.

Comment from: quiller posted at November 8, 2005 6:10 PM

Hmm, if revising makes your poetry worse, then you are probably doing it wrong. Actually, that is not quite true, but poetry is like a puzzle, you often have to try a lot of bad routes and dead ends before you get to something good. You make every word count in poetry to an extent that you don't see in anything except maybe copywriting for advertising. When I look at Shakespeare's sonnets I don't see 20,000 sonnets that he abandoned and somehow these came out miraculously in their present form. I see time spent revising, moving stuff around, crossing certain words out, putting certain words in instead. Sometimes I write a poem to get certain things out of myself, but I don't consider it a real poem until I can look at it objectively later and revise.

There is a value to rawness, any improvisational form has something to it, but if a poem is all emotion and no craft, it is missing much of what is great about the form.

Comment from: kirabug posted at November 8, 2005 6:22 PM

Quiller, on the poetry I agree. You might enjoy the email list that I'm subscribed to - they send a poem every day or so along with all kinds of analysis and criticisim info. They're located at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/minstrels/ if you're interested.

(I love sharing poetry with people. :)

Comment from: Sandalphon posted at November 8, 2005 6:39 PM

Anyone know if there's a Nanowrimo-type challenge for plays or scripts?

Comment from: megs posted at November 8, 2005 7:29 PM

Quoth Eric: "Sucking for a while is the gateway to not sucking."

That's what I've been telling people about drawing webcomics for forever. NaNoWriMo is like a 24 hour hour comics day for writing. You're probably not going to come out with something great, but you'll learn something in doing it.

The one thing it's doing for me, since I finally gave in this year, is it's forcing me to write the "boring" parts instead of skipping around to the fun stuff and ultimately never finishing. It's like how drawing comics forces you to draw things in non pin-up and posed angles. It makes you get better.

Comment from: Tice with a J posted at November 8, 2005 7:30 PM

My response to other people being a writer ought to be: Oh, really? Yeah, I always meant to try out writing, but I was too lazy and lacking in self-discipline to ever give it any effort.

And I think that's true for a lot of people. It's much easier to fantasize about it, y'know.

By the way, Ursula V., I think the famous cartoonist you're thinking of is Chuck Jones.

Comment from: David Morgan-Mar posted at November 8, 2005 8:03 PM

Well said, Eric. I wish I had time to devote to NaNo, but I'm exhausted enough after all the other writing and creative stuff I do. The first time I heard of NaNo I was very sceptical and thought it was just a stupid idea. But it gets people writing and creating, and that's the important part.

Comment from: larksilver posted at November 8, 2005 9:19 PM

Two things:

1) My voice teacher always said "Birds fly. Singers sing." as if the two were simple facts of life, and singers could no more not sing than a bird could just, well, stop flying. One of my favorite things about this site is that its creators feel that their creative outlet of choice is as inevitable, and as necessary as breathing, as mine.

2) It is truly sad that most adults do not think their art form, whatever it may be, is valuable. I grieve when I watch children go through that stage where they decide that they "can't" sing. Or draw. Or whatever. To me, the loss of that lust for creativity is, at least in part, a damn good indicator for the depression and overall joylessness so many adults suffer throughout the world.

I have this kooky theory that so many of the creative types out there are borderline depressives, obese, or otherwise socially "other," not because it goes with the creativity inside us, but rather because we are out of step with those around us. We kept something within ourselves that most people killed off, or buried deep inside, and although that part brings us tremendous joy, it also marks us as "Not one of us" through some kind of shine in our pores.

Comment from: Thomas Blight posted at November 8, 2005 9:42 PM

Hmm. Now I'm thinking I should've participated in NaNoWriMo.

I have seven or eight projects on the go, all within their first few chapters. Why? Because I get bored of the story, or I write myself to a hard area, and then I think of something new to write.

In essence, NaNoWriMo is exactly what I need. I need to dare myself to write a single story for an entire month. I need to dare myself to finish what I start.

Next year, I'll be writing alongside all the others.

Comment from: AuricTech posted at November 8, 2005 9:51 PM

Besides all the good things already mentioned about NaNoWriMo, I'd like to list one more:

It inspired NaDruWriNi.

Comment from: Montykins posted at November 8, 2005 11:36 PM

I've never entirely bought the theory that writing badly is the path to writing well. It seems to me that if all you do is write a thousand bad sentences, you'll teach yourself to write bad sentences.

Practice only makes perfect if you take the time to study what you've done and figure out how to do it better.

Having said that, of course, constant writing *is* an element of getting better. But it can't be the only element.

Comment from: Sandalphon posted at November 8, 2005 11:52 PM

Practice only makes perfect if you take the time to study what you've done and figure out how to do it better.

Having said that, of course, constant writing *is* an element of getting better. But it can't be the only element.

Quite right. Also important, I've found, is getting feedback along the way from people whose judgement you respect.

Comment from: William_G posted at November 9, 2005 12:16 AM

That's fucking poetic, man!

Comment from: William_G posted at November 9, 2005 12:17 AM

Larksilver's post, that is.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at November 9, 2005 12:17 AM

larksilver, I've been meaning to ask your advice since about forever... how did you decide what part of your life singing would comprise? I identify fully with your singing is being idea, but I'm wildly uncertain whether I'm going to try and pay bills with it, just sing in the shower or something in between. I'm not a music major (I'm doubling in Japanese and Drama), but I've taken voice for the last few years at my college, and my voice teacher has urged me to apply to the Boston Conservatory for grad school in musical theater. She seems to think I can get in, but there's this part of my brain that wants to smack me in the head for even daring to think I could be so inexpressibly lucky as to sing for a living. I have talents in other areas, and there are choices I could make that aren't that, but I just remember reading once, in a very long biography of Eisenhower, that in addition to the other things he'd been doing with his life that filled the rest of the book, he secretly loved to escape to an attic and paint. When I read it, I was gripped with this fear that someday my life story would 500 pages of something else and one paragraph that says "Oh, and she loved to sing." I'm sorry if these questions are painful, but if singing isn't what you "do," how do you make your peace with that, with the fact that you aren't going to be as good at it as you could be if you could keep studying and performing?

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at November 9, 2005 2:03 AM

[....] but I just remember reading once, in a very long biography of Eisenhower, that in addition to the other things he'd been doing with his life that filled the rest of the book, he secretly loved to escape to an attic and paint. When I read it, I was gripped with this fear that someday my life story would 500 pages of something else and one paragraph that says "Oh, and she loved to sing." I'm sorry if these questions are painful, but if singing isn't what you "do," how do you make your peace with that, with the fact that you aren't going to be as good at it as you could be if you could keep studying and performing?

Obviously, larksilver will win World War II and spend eight years as President of the United States. That should do the trick.

Comment from: Connor Moran posted at November 9, 2005 4:02 AM

An alternate answer about the advantages of working fast to the "you have to write shitty to write good" formulation comes from one of my once and future writing professors. He is an accomplished poet, short story writer, and science fiction novelist. Also, his experience pretty much matches mine, so I like to repeat his advice. He argues that a certain percentage, say %25, of everything you write will be shit. With lots of experience you can learn to recognize it faster, but you can't ever stop it from happening. Another %25 is going to be top-notch, your best work. The remaining %50 is somewhere in the middle. These percentages (whatever they may be for you) don't change dramatically because you write faster or slower. So if you write 1000 words in a month, something like 250 will be good, 250 will be shit, and 500 will be servicable. If you write 50,000 words in a month, 12,500 of them will be good.

I'll take the 12,500 any day.

Comment from: PO8 posted at November 9, 2005 4:57 AM

Neal Stephenson gave a nice keynote at Usenix 2004 where he strongly disputed the concept of "generate-and-filter" writing. I thought he made a nice counter-argument. He told a wonderful story about how he produced his first novel, on spec, that I'm too lazy to reproduce here.

I want to write a novel, but I haven't found time to do it yet. So there, Eric. :-) But let me clarify. I am a professional writer, in a sense. I'm an academic computer scientist and educator. I write about 2500 words on an average day, many of them somewhat technical, in the form of little emails, lecture notes and slides, pages for academic papers, recommendation letters for students, etc.

It would be fun to do Nanowrimo, and I really thought hard about doing it this time around. But I just don't have enough left-over writing hours after the stuff I do for a living to produce 50K words in a month. I tried budgeting it, and it doesn't come out.

So yes, Eric, I think I could do what you do for a living, although I have made a choice to do something different right now. I strongly suspect you could do what I do for a living too, if you cared to. I don't see any need to resent this, one way or the other; I think it's kind of neat that many of us select more based on interests than abilities.

And yes, I resent Nanowrimo, because it presents the greener cross-fence grass to me. It suggests the road not taken led to Rome. It taunts me with visions of my mis-spent future.

Someday I will write a book. It will be a good book. People will like it. Maybe I'll start next Nanowrimo. Sadly, not this time.

Comment from: Sean Neakums posted at November 9, 2005 6:10 AM

"Writing is hard, but not writing is harder."

I made that up just now, not because it applies to be but because I thought it sounded cool. In order to make sure I hadn't suddenly become staggeringly original, I googled it and found an interesting article.

One of the things I did with my time away from you was to attend a writers conference in New York. There I met many, many writers aspiring to make writing the only work they need do.

What struck me as strange, though, was how many of them didnt have finished work to offer a publisher. There was much talk of no time to write, no inspiration to write, no initiative to write, no spirit to write.

When one person heard how much work I had completed, she asked in amazement, How do you do it?

Well its a matter of practicality, see, I answered. If I dont write, Ill die.

Comment from: larksilver posted at November 9, 2005 11:05 AM

siwangmu: Although I work as a secretary, and am currently not really performing anywhere, I still self-identify as a singer. Music is a necessary part of my existence; without it my soul withers inside. When I'm sad, I sing, and it consoles me. When I'm happy, I sing, and share my joy with others around me.

I didn't have the strength, vocally, to withstand the rigors of singing opera professionally. I was (and am) too short and too chunky for musicals... which left pop (blech) or something with more edge to it - which my voice is entirely too "sweet" for. The realization that the traditional professional outlets weren't viable for me was a tough one. When I first realized it, I couldn't sing without it ripping through me for months.... but then, I couldn't not sing either.

I do not regret the time I invested in my vocal training. I do regret that I didn't keep knocking on doors until I found one that was open to me, but only a little. My footnote in life will probably be, "oh, and also, she loved to sing," and I'm okay with that. You see, I discovered that a paycheck for singing wasn't what I wanted. I didn't want someone else telling me what to sing, and how, the rest of my life. I don't really want to be a professional singer. Being the Great Undiscovered Talent (my mom's words) is better for me, for it lets me enjoy my voice, and enjoy singing, in a way that I couldn't, if I was worried about all the time about auditions, etc.

For you, though? If you've the opportunity to go for it, do it! You will never know if the theatrical life is for you until you've stepped on stage. You'll never know if you're a good fit until you try. If it's not for you, oh well. You'll still come away with experiences you can never replicate any other way, and with friendships unlike any other.

Hmm.. now you've got me thinking. Maybe this year for Christmas I'll put together that CD for my mom and gran they've been wanting for years....

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at November 9, 2005 11:25 AM

larksilver, your description of the singing career not taken could be mine of the acting career not taken or the art career not taken.

When people ask what I do, I say, "I work in the office of the nursing school at the Jesuit university in town, and I draw a cartoon every day and put it on the internet." This often leads to my stock observation, "I don't make my living as a cartoonist - it's just what the label on my soul reads." All I ever really wanted since I was sixteen was to draw a cartoon every day and have people all over the world read them. For several years now I have all I ever really wanted. You know, it doesn't suck.

(However, last weekend I saw The Music Man at my high school and the weekend before I saw Hamlet at another college in town and, boy, I could stand to tread the boards again.)

Comment from: larksilver posted at November 9, 2005 11:51 AM

"it's just what the label on my soul reads"

Oh, man, I'm totally stealing this. Hope you don't mind.

It's funny.. this thread is the third thing in the past week that has brought the desire to perform to the front of my brain. I really do need to check out a community theater program. I doubt I'd have trouble getting in; everyone underestimates my short, dumpy self, until I sing.

But maybe not until spring. I'm going to be busy painting/sewing/baking gifts for the next month. And maybe even making CD's. eeep.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at November 9, 2005 12:05 PM

Oh, man, I'm totally stealing this. Hope you don't mind.

Go for it. I write to be read, or something.

Comment from: Connor Moran posted at November 9, 2005 1:57 PM


I love Neal Stephenson, but I wouldn't emulate his editing techniques. He may be able to get away with a pages-long explanation of a circular saw that is being used as a comparison to another device which is, in itself, not relevant to the plot, but I doubt that I would be able to do the same.

But there's as many writing techniques as there are writers, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Comment from: Wednesday White posted at November 9, 2005 2:49 PM

Went and hunted up a summary of the keynote. Agh. While I'm pretty much in line with Stephenson's assertion that you should get it right the first time, and that some people really never will be any good, and so on, I don't think there's enough negative reinforcement in his working model to get people to the point where they *are* generating worthwhile content. Distillation at least has the advantage, at the outset, that someone who's open to correction will figure out whether or not they're competent to pursue further attempts at the field, and do so before they find themselves going through the denial process coupled to publishers' rejection. (Yes, not everyone does this; yes, some rejection notices are valuable indicators of where an author might improve, or simply an observation of poor fit with the desired target. I know. I'm not fond of how easy it is to turn a rejection into evidence that one really is going to get better, though -- not all of them are meant to help. Anyhow.)

Worse: he advocates longhand as a deceleration/focus tool. Deceleration would be absolutely lethal for me. I have the incredible unstoppable spinning brain problem others have described (the line from my doctor is "they would have spotted ADHD in childhood," so even if that's what it is, there's nothing for it). If anything slows me down or trips me up, I'm toast for hours. Days, rarely. One of the reasons I converted to near-exclusive computer use under any circumstances where I could keep my family away from the data was that I couldn't get enough stuff onto the page, or do so fast enough to manage subsequent tasks.

Writing by hand doesn't accomodate the need to assure both focus and rapid, reliable, legible output. (The Big U, victim of the speed/constant motion combination, was entertaining, but I wouldn't want to use it as anything but an example of why an author should be allowed to put something they don't like in a box and deny it further publication.)

Then again, I admit that I'm spouting here. I can't write fiction, as we've established. I won't define myself according to my primal drives until I've generated something worthy of that definition and obtained the validation necessary to confirm that I've done that. So you might want to ask a writer.

Comment from: UrsulaV posted at November 10, 2005 12:02 AM

Actually, in Stephenson's case, he seems to be getting WORSE about some things. The writing's still brilliant, but he seems to have lost any ability to end a book at all. "Zodiac" had an ending, "Snow Crash" just kinda stopped, "Diamond Age" went somewhere and sort of wandered off, and as far as I can tell, "Cryptonomicon" was sent off a few chapters short of completion.

I love the guy's descriptions, I love his writing, he has great ideas, but the endings get less ended every time.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at November 10, 2005 2:20 PM

the line from my doctor is "they would have spotted ADHD in childhood," so even if that's what it is, there's nothing for it.

The vehemence of my disagreement cannot be overestimated. I was 19 when I was diagnosed as ADD (I don't really bother with trying to differentiate ADD and ADHD and combined-type because it's confusing and technical). Diagnosis requires that it have manifested by age 7 or something, yes, but many, many people (and as is probably clear, by "many" I mean "me, so probably also lots of others") didn't get spotted. ADD has a wide range of expression, from what little I know, and in my case many of my worst symptoms were counteracted by things like a mother dragging me out of bed every day as a child. Gah, I'm oversimplifying, but this is hard to put... I didn't get spotted until I seriously started failing at life, but it's clear in hindsight that the gradually worsening academic problems I had fit a very clear and distinct pattern that repeated with increasing severity as I grew up (and school got more complex). I didn't report any of the symptoms, because it's not as if I was ever going to *tell* someone that the reason my chemistry test was perfect for three quarters and blank for the rest was that I just forgot what I was doing for 20 minutes. Urgh, I'm trying to figure out how to be communicative without subjecting you all to a case history of my brain.

If you fit the definition now, and you did then, there are about a thousand reasons you could have been not "spotted." (I mean, for God's sake, the overwhelmingly most common response I got to initially telling people I had been diagnosed ADD was "What? But you're so smart!" Popular understanding of the disorder is a little fucked-up.) Ironically, in that respect I might've been better off if I hadn't always been so good at getting teachers to bend the rules and make exceptions for me--a lot of my A's were received despite strings of zeros, late papers, absences... I often wonder what would've happened if all of the teachers who I was a problem student/model student for had gathered in one room and realized I was more a consistent pattern than just a series of crises. To me, of course, it was all a series of crises.

Grr, this is not what I'm trying to say.
If you are ADD, medicine can be very, very helpful. I'll try not to go into my story with that here, it's a little different from the whirly-brain thing which I identify with but I think perceive differently and may not typify my experience as much but the point is I'm already going on long enough here.

I do not think that "it would have been spotted" is a logical argument or one that serves your needs. If you are ADD, I would say you need to know and you need to find out what you can do. At least, you deserve to.

(Also, if you think you might be ADD, you're at least ahead of me, as I and my family all thought it was utterly ridiculous that I could possibly have it, and having come to understand it and me better, none of us have any doubt any more.)

I will say that I may not know you well at all, but I do know you have... self-evaluation issues or some kind of complexity going on there. That is the one thing the diagnosis changed most about my life, it let me stop hating myself. As much, or as much of the time. I think you probably know how incredibly valuable a gift that is. But it's another reason you deserve to actually *know* this for sure.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at November 10, 2005 2:29 PM

OH MY GOD I AM SO FULL OF WORDS. I really am sorry, but I really, really couldn't not respond to Weds' thing. Also, re: longhand, I actually read that really messy handwriting is considered one indicator for ADD, because you're trying to put the words down at the speed of your thoughts.

Anyway, I had been meaning to come and write an answer to larksilver but I got side-tracked and suddenly I'm realizing the level of inherent ridiculousness in explaining that I got distracted into a long rant on... having ADD.

What am I saying?

Yes! larksilver. Thank you very, very much for your answer to my question which I knew would probably bring up painful subjects but really, thank you. I'm going to try and keep your post around somewhere permanent, because if the day comes where I'm in a place like that, I want to remember the way you put it, because it makes so much sense and although it'll be painful if I take a different path, I think having the perspective worked out for me in advance would be incredibly helpful. Also it will be something very, very useful to help me decide whether I really want the singers' life or whether I just want to sing, and it will remind me that that really is an option.

Also, just from "knowing" you in whatever cpacity these last months, it has always been clear how dearly music is bound to your soul... it will be much more than a paragraph in the life you eventually leave behind, I think.

And dammit, I had been hoping to respond briefly to larksilver's thing and then put out another sort of life-path question for the collected wisdom of... you people... but I think that would be definitely too much of me babbling, as if this isn't already.

Comment from: larksilver posted at November 10, 2005 3:01 PM

Siwangmu: A good test for whether or not you're born to sing, whether it's your passion, is where it lives on your list. With apologies to Ranier Rilke: You have to ask yourself, in the dark hour of the night, if you must perform. If you would die without the stage, then you must at any cost pursue it. If music is what you think of when you open your eyes in the morning, if it pervades your thoughts throughout the day and soothes you to sleep at night, then you already are a singer.

I discovered that I did not need to perform, but I must sing, and that was a powerful realization. The two compulsions are actually quite different. If no one but those who love me ever hear me, that's allright for me. It's not the adulation of the audience, but creating beauty that works for me. I do not love performing more than anything else, and thus could let it go. If you can't.. .don't!

It may take a direction you did not anticipate (note Ursula's tale of her discovery that pottery wasn't Her Thing), for life often does. Perhaps you will find that the spoken roles are more your strength, or that you prefer musicals to Shakespeare. Just, if it's the boards that thrill ya, don't let 'em go. annnnnd that's enough of Old Woman Larky for one day. Back to work for me!

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?