Monday, October 22, 2012

Hey, NaNoMo, Are You Sure You Know What You're Doing?

Please note: These are the grumpy words of a grumpy man.

(By 'grumpy' I mean 'operating a vocabulary while
suffering from a seasonal mood disorder.')

My ill-humor, pessimism, defensiveness, and elitist peevishness should not in any way reflect upon the good-will extended to National Novel Writing Month and its participants by the Flash Fiction Fest, its publisher, and the other contributors, who regard you all with great admiration and personal fondness which they would prefer you do not awkwardly mistake for sexual attraction.

National Novel Writing Month is part of a renaissance of folk art. I have to love that. Digital media has made traditionally expensive and arcane creative tasks accessible to anyone with a computer and some patience, and the internet has made it easy for people to share their efforts with one another.

Think of the world of culture as a pyramid. Right now, the base is getting broader. I think that's a good thing.

But my personal concern is with the top few feet of the pyramid. I'm not talking about fame, I'm talking about my kind of art. I'm talking about the use of extraordinary levels of craft to communicate a deeply felt and considered reaction to life in order to kindle strong and complex reactions in an audience.

That is my ambition.

If your ambition is to get a .doc file with fifty-thousand words in it by the end of November, you and I might not have a lot to talk about. And our interests are at odds.

Right now, there is an intentional corporate-driven agenda to devalue the written word. To turn the art of writing into a loss-leader used by businesses as a means of selling e-book readers. Prices for books are being set at bargain rates, and there is a class of reader being nurtured that buys for bulk rather than quality. And National Novel Writing Month...

"What are you reading?" I ask the missus.

She looks up from her iPad, and says, "This book, it's so stupid."

"How stupid is it?" I ask, and she reads me a hilariously sloppy casserole made out of half-baked cliches held together by cheese.

"Why are you reading that?" I ask.

"It only cost ninety-nine cents," she answers, and I hear the faint chime that accompanies the death of all I hold dear in culture.

These shitty novels were written during National Novel Writing Month. The base is getting broader.

And the peak is getting shorter. Literature is in decline. That's another mean-spirited essay, and I think I already wrote it.

Here's the thing. It is entirely possible to write a decent novel in a month.

But you have to know how to write in the first place. And writing a novel as though it were a marathon race is a terrible way to learn technical skills, and it will very likely cause you to develop bad, lazy habits out of desperate need.

If you want to have written a novel, don't let me get you down, go on and fart that son-of-a-bitch out and throw it up on Amazon for a buck along with all the other grunions. It's fun, you'll get something out of it, who's it going to hurt, never mind that you're breaking my fucking HEART with your COCKAMAMIE BULLSHIT. Anything you're going to do right, you're going to do right accidentally rather than developing any kind of solid skill-set --

Sorry, sorry. Give me a second here.

Anyway, if you just want to be able to say you did NaNoMo, go for it. But if you want to write well, sitting down and cranking out a mass of words with no prior planning is something you should do if you have trouble motivating yourself, or if you want to explore automatic writing. There can be a real magic that sets in after you've burned through all your cliches and assumptions and raw material starts pouring out.

Otherwise. If you want to learn to write well, with control, range, and power, start with short pieces.

The most difficult part of a novel is conceiving of it as a whole, and this is how most failed novels fail. But when you write in the short form, you can understand what you are doing as you work. The ability to master long form works is of necessity built up as any other strength.

Essays are the best starting point. The essence of clear writing is the ability to state your thoughts, and the first challenge a writer faces is that of understanding their own thoughts well enough to convey them. The essay is the essential form for this purpose, and is one of the most powerful mental exercises you can do. The ability to convey an opinion, describe a physical action, scientific principal, or state of mind is an ability that transfers directly to fiction.

Poetry and lyrics are both important for the development of style. Poetry requires a precise use of words beyond that demanded by prose. May I suggest that when one is capable of great feats, it is possible to perform lesser feats in a more impressive fashion than would otherwise be possible. (Humor is very closely related to poetry in its requirements for perfection in timing and word-choice, and both humorists and poets are subject to strange and unpleasant fixations on language. It's a professional hazard.)

Lyrics teach rhythm, allowing the writer to call on the power of everything from music to the beat of the heart. And unlike prose, lyrics and verse poetry are treated by the brain as music -- and if you write a line that sticks in people's heads, that they quote out loud days or even years after they've read it? You have written something the reader's brain instinctively regarded as music.

Short fiction is both easier and harder than the novel. For most writers, a period of apprenticeship in short fiction is necessary before enough skills have been gained to write a solid novel. There are exceptions, but until you've written a really successful piece of fiction -- by which I mean something that works, that lives on the page -- it strikes me as daffy to invest yourself in a novel. (Again, assuming that learning to write well is your central concern.)

You can hold a short story in your head. You can write flash fiction in hours, tweet fiction in minutes – and the sense of understanding the whole thing, of controlling your work, is something a novel will only give you after skull-bursting labor.

You can re-write a short story until it works without using up decades of your life, which is a real danger with an out-of-control novel. These days I can get a decent piece of fiction done on the first or second draft most of the time, but a lot of my early stories went through twelve or fifteen drafts. Aim for that kind of perfection with a novel, and watch the years roll by.

You have time to experiment. To try technical tricks that would be intolerable at length, to attempt to duplicate the effects of your favored writers without looking like a ripoff, to write a story that’s the exact opposite of what you usually write, to try your hand at erotica or mythopoics or action-adventure or avant-garde formalism – anything.

Short form writing is the gymnasium and laboratory of good writers. Hacking out a novel in a month is a vacation for hack wannabes -- or, rather, tourists in the land of art. Tourists who litter, and don't bother to learn anything about the locals.

You make up your own mind how you want to go.


EFKelley said...

I am so with you on this.

When I see folks pipe up about 'doing NaNo' with their smiling, joyous faces, I die a little bit.

For folks serious about writing, every month is a writing month and every day is a writing day. Shorts, novelettes, flash fiction, novels... whatever. We do it nearly every day.

And, I do understand what's behind NaNo. They're trying to turn daily writing into a habit. And yet, most people trying this aren't used to the pace. They finish the month exhausted, and think 'Now I can take a few weeks off'. Ugh. They just shot their own foot.

And none of that even touches on the quality issue. I'm not one of those who thinks a quickly written novel is invariably bad. But I do think haste can make waste, especially when you don't have a solid grounding to begin with. It's really easy to hammer out 1500 words that do absolutely nothing, and a lot of these folks do exactly that, day after day.

But, my grousing is irrelevant. Really the only people they're hurting are themselves. If they want smiles and encouragement, I'll do that. Because, ultimately, I am not their final judge. The public is. They can put it up for sale and eke along with a sale every two months, or they can try to shop it around, receiving rejection after rejection. It may take years, but maybe, just maybe, they'll start figuring out that a flash in the literary pan every November does not a writer make.

But I won't hold my breath.

Robyn said...

Hi Sean,

I've done nanowrimo twice, and I've already signed up for this year as well. I wouldn't say either novel I finished was brilliant -- the first one needed an additional 15,000 words (after the almost 62K I wrote in Nov 2009), and the second... well, I haven't read it yet. Maybe in December.

For me, Nanowrimo provides a starting point when I stop researching and planning, and a target to say "the end" and calm down and go back to my disciplined everyday habits. I could impose those start and end dates on myself, but honestly I wouldn't. That's where I'm lazy, with calling things done.

Nanowrimo provides me with something to edit 11 months a year, and really, that's the fun part for me. New words? Not so much.


Sean Craven said...

Sorry to have left this for so long...

I think NaNoMo is a swell thing. I also think it has a valid place in many people's creative lives.

Robyn, I honestly tried not to aim any acrimony at people who were trying to actually craft books and who used NaNoMo as fuel. More power to you.

But it's having a disproportionate effect on fiction in general, as I stated. A lot of readers and a lot of sellers want to deal in bargain words by the pound. Put that together with the general decline in language skills, and fiction -- or at least the kind of fiction I prefer -- seems to be fading, growing tattered, he said bleakly, and gazed into the drab mustard of the sunset.