November is sneaking up again and with it my usual yearly urge to throw my free time away and take a trip on the good ship NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo to its friends – takes place every November and has a simple approach to getting your much-procrastinated novel actually written. For the month of November participants abandon overtime, the internet, their hobbies, their social life and occasionally their families with the aim of writing a 50,000 words by the time the clock hits 23:59.59 on November 30th. It doesn’t have to be great, it doesn’t have to meticulously researched or grammatically perfect. It just has to be 50,000 words.
The first NaNoWriMo took place in 1999 in the San Francisco when 21 friends decided to challenge each other to write a novel in a month and in 2000 they had 140 participants. The idea took off, perhaps a little too fast for the organisers. In 2001 they anticipated 150 participants to visit their rough and ready website and email group. Five thousand showed up. They realised that, to quote my favourite bit of Jaws, they were going to need a bigger boat.
Once they got the infrastructure sorted the idea just kept getting bigger. In 2010, they had over 200,000 participants, with 30,000 of them crossing the 50K finish line by the deadline. That’s a lot of aspiring novelists and a lot of hastily-written words. With NaNo, the only thing that matters in your output and by the organisers’ own admission, you’ll probably end up sacrificing form to do so.
“Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”
I’ve tried Nanowrimo a few times and haven’t yet made it over the finish line. I’ve ended up with 20,000 words of swear-laden chicklit and 15,000 of what may be the worst vampire comedy novella of all time (I realise that’s a small field, but it really is a very bad book). I had considered it to be about as gung-ho as you could get as an (unpaid) writer, but then I found an article over on WetAsphalt that makes a book in a month look positively sleepy.
For those of you for whom NaNoWriMo isn’t hardcore enough, you can make like Michael Moorcock and write a book in three days. Moorcock started out writing badly-paid sword-and-sorcery action-adventure and, faced with the necessity of fast writing as he was living on piece-work pay-cheques, he came up with a writing method that allowed him to pump out a book every three to ten days or so including tips on plot devices, and characterization. My favourite tip is on designing a pulp hero that keeps the plot moving briskly:
“The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.”
There’s enough information in the article to get you up to speed (bad pun, I know) on Moorcock’s method and it is a fascinating – if utterly terrifying – look at what it takes to be truly prolific.
Moorcock isn’t the only writer out there who makes NaNo’s goals look a little soft. Stephen King, for example, was forced to invent his pseudonym Richard Bachman to satisfy his urge to release more novels after his publishing company urged him to calm down his schedule (he likened it to a wife who didn’t want to put out sending her husband to a prostitute to satisfy his urges). He was so gripped by the urge to write he even managed to make the experience of writing under a pen name into another book – The Dark Half.
And it’s not just horror and fantasy – Barbara Cartland wrote a mind-boggling 723 romance novels. In 1983 she wrote 23 novels, and holds the Guiness World Record for the most novels written in a single year.
South African writer Mary Faulkner wrote 904 books under six separate pen names and holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of history’s most prolific novelist. Enid Blyton churned out over 600 books – with lashings and lashings of ginger beer no doubt. Alexandre Dumas, the French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote 277.
It’s almost enough to make you think that 50,000 words in a month is a bit of a holiday. Ask me how I feel again in mid-November. Anyone up for joining me on the NaNoWriMo boat?