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Culture Report: What San Diego Writers Really Think of NaNoWriMo

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National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, has taken the nation (and world) (and yes, San Diego) by storm, again. Every November, for two decades. But does it work?

Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo

This November, the project’s 20th anniversary, NaNoWriMo expects 400,000 individuals to attempt to write a novel in of 30 days. Participants sign up, for free, tally their word count each day, and declare themselves “winners” at the end of the month if they meet their goals.

A “novel” is defined by NaNoWriMo as 50,000 words, and when divided by 30 days, that is 1,667 words written per day.

“I’m already a high-strung, neurotic hot mess,” said San Diego author Jennifer Coburn [2]. “Imposing a one-month deadline on myself to write a book would only add to my anxiety.” Coburn is the author of eight books. “The fastest I’ve ever completed a draft was four months, and that was a miracle. Usually it takes me a year. And really, what’s the rush? Why one month? I feel like NaNoWriMo focuses on the wrong thing. Writing a book in a month is not the goal; producing a quality novel should be.”

Image courtesy of Jennifer Coburn

Anticipating a struggle, NaNoWriMo provides a built-in community: thousands of others attempting the same project share updates on message boards and Facebook groups, in “municipal” gatherings or at designated spaces in libraries and community centers.

But in 2017, of the 394,507 participants, just 58,000 met their goal [3]. That’s around 14 percent. Or, in more sobering terms, that’s 336,507 individuals across the globe who failed.

Tammy Greenwood [4], who’s published a dozen books including this year’s “Rust & Stardust [5],” still sees a silver lining: “It’s the equivalent of traveling to a new country to learn the language,” Greenwood says. “By diving into the book and staying there, you have no choice but to learn to navigate this fictional landscape quickly. Word count quotas are a writer’s best friend. They force productivity, leaving little room for the paralysis of self-doubt.”

Tammy Greenwood reads from “Rust & Stardust.” / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

The problem with that, argues Keith McCleary [6] — a lecturer of writing at UCSD and author of the new novel “Circus + The Skin [7]” — is that a first draft doesn’t feel like the lure of NaNoWriMo.

Image courtesy of Kraken Press

“I think the problem with NaNoWriMo is that it sort of feeds into instant gratification culture,” McCleary said. “It also feeds into, like, going on social media and posting how many words you did per day and making it into like a collective experience. I get that a lot of people get things out of this collective experience, but I personally — in the long run — don’t think it makes for a good writing practice. I think it sort of just makes for an unhealthily competitive writing practice.”

Memoirist and KPBS Fronteras Desk reporter Jean Guerrero [8] unflinchingly recommends NaNoWriMo to a beginning writer, but, she admits, the process of producing a book is the sum of its parts: inspiration and seeds, research, organization, drafting and — finally — copious editing.

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

The first seeds of Guerrero’s memoir, “Crux [9]” were planted nearly eight years prior. “It took several years of imagining ‘Crux’ before I started writing what it eventually became,” said Guerrero. “I think I first envisioned it as a work of journalism in the winter of 2010, and I started playing around with drafts around that time.”

Teaching writing, then, seems as insurmountable as finding individual writing practice.

“One of the main things about composition pedagogy,” said McCleary, “is that there has to be a revision. If you’re not teaching revision then you’re not teaching composition.”

Revision isn’t so much a next step as it is a crucial component of drafting, and NaNoWriMo, he argues, leaves floundering writers with little support for editing. “I think it sort of just erases the editing process,” McCleary said. “Because there’s no way to show your sweet gains on editing. There’s no way to go online and be like, ‘Man, killed that paragraph today! It’s super smooth now.’”

Similarly, Jennifer Derilo, a professor of creative writing at Mesa College [10], draws attention to the pre-writing phrase as an important tool of addressing learning differences amongst students. “In my classes, I try to create conditions for a writing process since most students are unsure of what that looks like,” Derilo said. She utilizes scaffolding in her classrooms, structuring larger projects atop smaller pieces.

“NaNoWriMo is really good for fanning that initial spark of an idea into a fire,” Greenwood said. “But the clean-up is where the real work is. Drafting is fun, even easy. Revising is hard.”

“What I tell writers,” said Coburn, “is that this is hard work that takes time, thought and resilience. You will be rejected by agents, then publishers, and if you are lucky enough to get published, Amazon reviewers.”

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