By Steve Donoghue
With the sole exception of my role as manservant to my bossy little Miniature Schnauzer, my life is entirely about books. I read them, of course, a tidy little pile of them every week – both the many new and forthcoming titles I get from publishers and the unpredictable variety I find in charity shops and second-hand bookshops. These I read both in paper-and-ink format and also on my e-reader, thumbing along in futuristic bliss.
In addition to reading books, I extensively annotate them. The standout phrases, the gorgeous descriptions, anything that distinguishes itself from the normal run of droning prose that fills more books (fiction and nonfiction) than I like to recall. Annotations like these are absolutely necessary in my profession as a book critic, naturally. But for me they’ve also become second nature, review or no review; all of my reading is very much hands-on.
And as mentioned, I also review books. And when you’ve done as much of that as I have, the reflex to do it becomes more or less automatic: every new book that crosses your desk becomes a potential review, subject to critical appraisal. Will a book annoy me right away, forcing me to claw my way through the rest of it, looking for some glimmer of worth? Will it perhaps overjoy me – either right out of the gate or somewhere along the way – to point where I not only want to praise it in print but also to press it on random strangers, urging them to read it? All those elements are in active play every time I consider a book for review.
But there’s one further element of involvement with books, although it’s one that too few readers ever consider. In addition to reading books, annotating books, and reviewing books, there’s also writing books.
Too often the act of writing a book is just reflexively separated not only from all those other aspects of dealing with books but also from almost every other aspect of human enterprise. Writers often disparage this aura of mystique that surrounds their profession, but they love it too – how could they not? You can hardly pick up a newly-published book without opening the Author’s Note and reading about how the thing took ten years to finish and made them bleed out their ears at family picnics, etc.
It can make writing a novel seem like something just a bit less difficult than free-climbing El Capitan, but there’s an outfit designed to counter that mystique: National Novel Writing Month, popularly known as NaNoWriMo. The project started in 1999, and its goal is gloriously insane: in the month of November, you write the first draft of a novel at a minimum of 50,000 words. That translates to 1667 words every day for the whole of one of the busiest months on the calendar for businesses, families, and students.
And yet, despite the patent insanity of the endeavor, hundreds of thousands of people commit to NaNoWriMo every year. They can draft and outline all they like in the months leading up to the event, but they can’t write a single word until the stroke of midnight on the first of November. And since speed is obviously crucial, the key to “winning” (the event’s semi-ironic term for reaching 50,000 words) NaNoWriMo is to write in a headlong rush, without pausing every two minutes to edit and finesse. Anybody who’s ever tried it will know that this is harder than it sounds.
But those thousands of people try it anyway, and some of the results of their NaNo work have brought them real-world success. Hundreds of novels that began as event projects, sweated out during hectic days under that impossible-seeming deadline, went on to get polished and published, books like “Anna and the French Kiss” or “Water for Elephants” or “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell. Maybe for a few participants every year, that dream of commercial success is the light that guides them, the hope that pulls them through the toughest days of grinding out those 1667 words every day.
But I doubt it. NaNoWriMo or no NaNoWriMo, everybody knows the mind-boggling odds against getting a lucrative book-deal. The point of the event isn’t beating those odds – it’s reminding everybody that the steep odds against getting a book-deal are a very different thing than the odds against actually writing a book. Actually writing a book is only a matter of typing words. And when you’ve typed those words – when you’ve plotted your draft and actually managed to write it at breakneck speed in the course of only one month – you feel a rush of exhilaration that has no equivalent anywhere else in life. That’s what brings people back year after year.
No matter which approach participants take, be it “plotting” (block everything out ahead of time, outline all your scenes, detail all your characters, that kind of thing) or “pantsing” (flying by the seat of your pants, not plotting a thing, just free-falling to the end of the month) or “plantsing,” the combination that I think most writers just instinctively use, going by some rough skeleton of a plot but leaving plenty of room for course-correction and the random visitation of the Muse – no matter which approach they take, the thrill of creation is the point of it all.
For the participants – and for you too! There’s still a bit of time to do some fast last-minute plotting and join the fun yourself!