Saturday, November 1, 2008

100% perspiration

National Novel Writing Month began at midnight. With the 50,000-word deadline just 30 days away, Michael Dwyer slips on his writing sneakers.

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
- W. Somerset Maugham

WRITERS LOVE RULES and mantras and motivational aphorisms. We're like athletes that way. "Write what you know" and "Show, don't tell" are standard nuggets of locker-room wisdom. "Just do it" is the best one of all. No, wait. That's a sports wear commercial.

There is a canny writer's equivalent, however, which is both litmus test and definition: "Writers write." This is the unspoken axiom of National Novel Writing Month, actually an international undertaking that celebrates its 10th year this month.

The premise is laughably simple. Everyone on the planet is invited to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. That's about 175 pages of double-spaced type, from scratch, between now and midnight on November 30.

Training and planning are encouraged, but bringing prewritten prose to the table is "punishable by death", cautions the blurb at "You'll care about the characters and story too much to write with the gleeful, anything-goes approach that makes NaNoWriMo such a creative rush.

"Make no mistake: you will be writing a lot of crap," it continues. "It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly."

There are no prizes at the finishing line, but last year there were 15,333 "winners" in a field of 101,510.

Were their manuscripts any good? Hell no. Even Ernest Hemingway maintained that "the first draft of anything is shit", and he was Ernest Hemingway. He was also talking about the standard kind of first draft that usually takes a year or three to whack into shape.

The speed freak's first draft is much more about psychological process than literary flair, according to NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty. The Californian author of No Plot? No Problem! believes that leaving your inner critic choking in your dust can open almost mystical vistas of creativity.

He cites his own "interesting and confusing rule: When you write for quantity rather than quality, you often end up getting both of them. By giving up the idea of making every sentence perfect you get a momentum that allows you to tackle the larger story arc and really lose yourself in a very productive way.

"Characters take on a life of their own and you become more of an observer than a creator," he says. "Your novel becomes something that is unfolding as it goes and I think that's one of the great joys of writing, this sense of being surprised by your own imagination."

Ironically, the idea of NaNoWriMo is likely to sound less absurd to successful writers than to dilettantes. To the ubiquitous party bore who merely talks about writing a novel, the romance of inspiration seems paramount. In real life, it's stamina that separates authors from talkers, a fact acknowledged by many of the published writers whose "pep talks" appear on the NaNoWriMo website.

This online base is a virtual gymnasium of motivational games, tips and resources, as well as a scoreboard for tallying individual and collective daily word counts. It's also the nerve centre of a vast global organism in the grip of an escalating fever. Baty expects 20,000 new novels to materialise this year, more through the brute force of chat-group peer pressure than any more mysterious process.

"By making novel writing a social activity you tap into a spirit of camaraderie, and you also have a sense of accountability which you don't have when you've gone off to a cave to toil alone for a couple of years," he says. "People are gonna ask how your novel is doing and that is invaluable in keeping you on track when the going gets tough."

Last Sunday, about 50 members of Melbourne's NaNoWriMo chapter threw a pre-season barbie in Middle Park. As is often the case in large groups of strangers in this town, the conversation was mostly related to scores and degrees of fitness.

There were howls of envy for Scarlett, who can write 50,000 words in a day and "regularly beats whole regions". There were oaths through gritted teeth to "crush" Sydney, Montana, Saskatchewan - and especially Edinburgh, UNESCO's first "City of Literature". Melbourne came second, in August. But not this month, if one circle of twentysomething geeks, gamers and goths can summon a combined word count to equal their enthusiasm.

"It's like playing tennis or any sort of sport," said Steph, who crossed the 50,000-word finishing line on her third attempt last year. "Just because you're not a world champion doesn't mean you can't have a go."

This was just a fraction of Melbourne's 850-strong NaNoWriMo community. The majority, perhaps less comfortable with the rough and tumble of chat-group face time, was no doubt home alone, brainstorming synopses and character bios in the solitary space that is every novelist's paradise and prison.

So far, more than 25 books begun during NaNoWriMo have ultimately found publishers. Canadian author Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants even topped the New York Times bestsellers list last year.

Admittedly, taken from a nine-year total of more than 50,000 completed manuscripts, this result vaguely recalls that uncomfortable aphorism about typing monkeys. In the plotless caffeine frenzy of week three, that kind of wisdom is likely to be the marathon writer's nemesis.

Don't think about Stanislaw J.Lec's cruel advice to fledgling writers: "Sometimes you just have to stop writing. Even before you begin." And it's definitely not worth dwelling on Truman Capote's withering riposte to Jack Kerouac: "That isn't writing, it's typing." Better to focus instead on more practical advice, such as Stephen King's adage that "any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word", and Kurt Vonnegut's first rule of creative writing: "Do not use semicolons ... all they do is show you've been to college."

CHRIS BATY HAS HEARD plenty of critics damning NaNoWriMo for "mocking the art form". He merely points out that novel writing has benefits to the individual imagination and sense of worth which have little to do with the publishing industry as we know it.

"For me, the success story is somebody who always loved books, who winds up finding something inside them that they didn't know was there. I get thousands of emails with that tale. People come away from this with this sense that, 'If I can write a book in a month, what else can I do?"'

Write another one, is the obvious answer. As the director and chief motivator of NaNoWriMo, Baty feels more pressure than most to knock off his 50,000 words every November. Of his nine completed manuscripts, four are "redeemable", he says. "That has been one of the surprising lessons for me, that you can write a reasonably unhorrible first draft in a month."

Stick that in your rulebook, budding novelists: "Forget masterpiece, aim for reasonably unhorrible." Then if you really want to bridge the gap, just add two words: second draft. That's what the other 11 months are for.

[The Age]

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