by Savannah J. Foley
This was the first year I seriously attempted (and won!) NaNoWriMo. I half-assed it last year, but didn’t really understand the commitment involved and had never had a daily word goal before, so the project fell by the wayside.
This year was different. I had a 50k deadline which lined up rather neatly with NaNo’s finishing requirements, and as I’d spent the last two weeks of October slacking off because confronting my rewrite was (dare I admit it,?) scary, I figured this was the perfect thing to kick me into gear and make me finish.
What was so appealing about NaNoWriMo? Was it the sense of community (if you look to your right you can see both my and our readers’ word count stats!)? The beautiful tracking charts (I love charts!)? The pep talks and stories of inspiration and success the website was kind enough to email to me about twice a week?
(Honestly what really made me commit and stay on top of it was a note sent to me via the NaNo website from a fan who told me that watching my word count climb would inspire her to stay on top of hers. Plus my name and word count were here on the LTWF website, posted for the world to see. How could I slack with that kind of pressure going on?!)
I’ll tell you what wasn’t so appealing: the criticism about NaNoWriMo from published authors and literary agents, despite NaNo receiving support from some other, rather notable authors. Sarah J. Maas did a great, inspiring article mid-way through the month encouraging those who might be disheartened by public criticism of their endeavors, and I guess what I’ve taken away most from this experience is how right she is. There is no reason to discourage people from writing, ever.
However, I did have a few interesting experiences with fellow NaNoWriMoers this month, so I thought I’d share my perspective on why NaNoWriMo received such vitriol from veteran writers, and what we can do about it:
I found meet ups to be very productive, and I went to as many as I could. We met at cafes, restaurants, and even pulled an all-nighter at IHOP (during which I added 13k to my ms!).Heck, I’m writing this article from a Denny’s as we speak. BUT, being at the meet ups showed me something about my fellow NaNoWriMoers that made me understand why some bloggers lashed out at them.
Every other NaNoWriMo writer in my area that I met was, to put it simply, a huge, flailing noob.
They had vague, unrealistic ideas about publication and the steps involved, wrote bland plotlines they thought were original, and in one notable case, wrote an entire 50k before the plot “even started.” Another writer had pounded out 150k (on three different abandoned novels) by the 15 day point. The worst part was that we supposedly met up to write, but people would talk for half an hour before getting started, or not get started at all (meanwhile, I was concentrating on getting in my word count because I had a deadline, damnit!) I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I didn’t talk about literary agents and publication steps unless specifically asked about my background, but it was hard not to offer advice and guidance.
In another case, about 10 of us met up at a Barnes & Noble, and a girl a table over asked us what we were all doing. Someone responded and told her we were part of National Novel Writing Month – we were all going to write novels in a month.
“Oh,” she said with a fair amount of snob, “I’ve already written a novel. I’m trying to get it published, but my parents are being lazy about it.”
Did I mention she looked about 18?
Horrified Curious, I asked her what she meant by that. She spouted off some vague paranoia about needing to mail her ms to herself before sending it to publishers so no one could steal her idea, and when I asked her if she was querying she said, “what’s that?”
This girl really made me understand why others might feel frustration towards NaNoWriMoers. Though she wasn’t participating in NaNoWriMo per se, I found her ignorant arrogance present in a lot of the other writers I spent time with.
I tried to figure out why this combination of arrogance/ignorance bothered me so. Why did it ignite a deep frustration within me, a desire to correct everyone around me and show them that this isn’t a piece of cake, that being a successful writer is a lifestyle, not a one-month commitment? It takes dedication and education and love. I enjoy it, but it’s damned hard sometimes.
And then I realized. That girl in Barnes and Noble, so convinced she was superior to the rest of us… was once me. I used to think I was the only teenage writer in the world. I used to tell anyone who would listen that I was writing a novel and I was going to try and get it published when I was done (having never heard of a literary agent or any of the steps involved to actually get published). I have been a huge, flailing, floundering noob, writing bad prose and thinking it was brilliant, convinced I was going to be a best-selling author, and generally probably annoying the crap out of anyone who had even the slightest more experience than me.
Seeing that girl made me remember that. She made me feel embarrassed for myself.
I read a quote once that has affected me ever since, and I think it applies in this situation: “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing,” or, as it has commonly become known, “A wise man knows that he knows nothing.”
What this means is that as your knowledge of a subject increases, you also become aware of how much you do not know. You acquire humility. I have certainly become far more humble since learning more about the industry. I began to develop an accurate sense of being able to measure myself against others, and found myself to be lacking. As I learned, I learned that I had a long way to go.
But those who have not learned do not have this humility. Therefore, sometimes we lash out at them, because we are actually lashing out at our former selves.
Having realized this truth, I was better able to tolerate my fellow NaNoWriMoers. I was able to realize that they’re not a threat to me; at the end of the month they will have 50k towards an unpublishable novel, and might not approach writing again for another year, while I will have my rewrite done and move towards editing in December, planning to go back out on submissions in January. Because I’m a writer for life, not for a month.
NaNoWriMo is not saturating the market with stuff that is in competition with me. All it’s doing is giving these people a dream, a recreational activity, a chance to meet up and eat and talk about geeky stuff and accomplish a daily goal. And honestly, what’s so wrong with that?
At the Barnes & Noble, I relayed the conversation I’d had with that misguided girl to Sarah, who asked me, “Well, did you help her?”
I hadn’t. I’d been too shocked, too disgusted with my former self. Besides, the conversation was over. It would be weird if I started it again, right?
“Maybe you were put next to her for a reason.”
Sarah’s words made me think. I knew she was right. So I did what the informed can only do when confronted with the uninformed. I gently gave her an opportunity to inform herself.
At the end of the meetup, I passed her a notecard with the website for agentquery (and LTWF of course!). I said, “If you want to get published, you’ll probably need a literary agent. This will get you started.”
Whether she looks it up and takes the steps to join the writing community is her choice, but at least I gave her an opportunity.
I finished my 50k on November 18th, and I seriously doubt I could have done it without NaNoWriMo’s help in making me realize my potential. I learned that I could commit to a word count goal of 2k a day. I learned that I actually enjoyed writing in restaurants and cafes (previously I thought I found the noise and conversation distracting, but it turns out I have the ability to tune all that out, who knew?!). Most of all, I re-affirmed something that I hold very dear to my heart: whenever we can, we must kindly and wisely show young writers that there is a whole world and community out there waiting for them. Waiting to teach them, inspire them, help them, and support them.
Because they don’t know. Honestly, they have no idea. So whenever you can, for the sake of the young writer that you once were, be a role model, a mentor, a guide. And that’s all I have to say about that 🙂
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.