Some of you may have been fortunate enough to hear Art Smith discuss his most recent book, Uncommon Counsel, last week at Skylark’s inaugural Local Authors Night. We asked him to write a few words about National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November…
NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, is done for another year. It’s a glorious bout of insanity I share with 177 other Columbia folks, where we each try to write 50,000 words of new fiction in the month of November. All told we wrote over 4.3 million words this month. Worldwide, roughly 400,000 people participate, writing around 4 billion words. (Yes, better than one out of every thousand words written worldwide come from Columbia writers!) It’s a labor of love and focused creativity dedicated to the notion that everyone has a story to tell, and we just need a little encouragement to get it out.
In order to “win” (i.e., write 50,000 words in 30 days), you have to average over 1,600 words a day, every day. That’s about three full-size pages of text. Speed varies widely, but most of our writers that I’ve seen can produce 500-1,000 words an hour if things are flowing well. That’s sometimes a big if, but like most things, the more you practice, the easier it gets. In reality, life will get in the way and some days you’ll struggle to write anything, so you need to have a number days where you crank out 2,000 or more words to make up for those slow days.
Most of the writers toil away quietly on their own, but some of us enjoy the communal aspect of the month, getting together for “write-ins” in various friendly establishments like the Columbia Library, Coffee Zone, and, of course, Skylark Bookshop. I often get my highest word-counts at these events, because of the shared energy of multiple writers tapping away at their keyboards. I spent one fun and productive evening this month writing in the window at Skylark, and got over 4,000 words written during those four hours. I am profoundly grateful for all the establishments that host our writers, officially or otherwise.
It’s been said that to do anything well one needs to spend around 10,000 hours doing it. I don’t put a lot of stock in that magic number, but I think it’s broadly true for many things, including writing. The fifty to one hundred hours one spends in the actual writing during November isn’t going to get you there, but the reality is that planning beforehand and editing and revising afterward can add substantially to those numbers. Those activities are equally part of writing, even though it’s the productive frenzy of November that gets all the attention.
The obvious question raised by NaNoWriMo is “what happens to all those words?” In most cases, the answer is “little or nothing,” and that’s completely ok. For many writers, it’s the act of writing itself that matters. Letting the story out of our heads, giving it life on paper (or screen), wrestling with our demons, that is sufficient. Others treat NaNoWriMo as an exercise. The ridiculous goal of writing a novel in a month forces us to turn off our inner editor and just get the story out. For many of us, that’s the only path to completion. Too often “perfect is the enemy of good” and we get so bogged down in making every paragraph count that we never make it to The End. You can’t do that and hope to win at NaNoWriMo. Editing is for the other eleven months, in November we just write. And, once in a great while, lightning strikes and something beautiful is produced (albeit in a very rough form) during that exercise.
The most well-known example of a book (and later a movie) that got it’s start as a NaNoWriMo novel is the delightful Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. There are plenty of others. Each year a few dozen NaNoWriMo novels get picked up by traditional publishers, and a similar number are self-published. My own Uncommon Counsel was the one book out of eight years of NaNoWriMo participation that made the cut in my own mind (the jury is still out on this year’s attempt), and you can find it at Skylark Bookshop, along with many other wonderful books by local authors.
Columbia is truly blessed to have such a wealth of talent in so many artistic and creative fields. Whether your taste tends towards music, theater, film, visual arts, literary arts, or anything else, there is a vibrant community of creators and supporters to be found here. I truly believe that everyone has an artistic gift to share and am delighted to live in such a nurturing environment. So what’s your gift? Will we see you next November at one of our write-ins?