Half the fun of NaNoWriMo is the breaks you take to update your word count on social media. Last weekend, I happily tweeted out my latest stats, hashtagging them with #NaNoWriMo. Then, I clicked through to see what others had just tweeted about it.
Imagine my dismay when I saw that two friends of mine from graduate school were just at that very moment engaging in a Twitter conversation about NaNoWriMo—and not a friendly one. Literary writers both, they were mocking the idea of anyone being able to write a novel in a month. One friend went for a cheap laugh by calling it “National Delete a Novel Month.”
I do not usually take people to task over differences of opinion on social media. But this time I felt compelled to intervene.
“You shush!” I tweeted at them. “I’m doing it!”
Immediately, my two friends apologized for any offense, which made me laugh, and then forgive them. They are both kind, funny people—snarky, but in a charming way. Their NaNo–naysaying was harmless. But the exchange stuck with me. Why do some writers resist the idea of NaNoWriMo, not just for themselves, but as a cultural phenomenon? What is it about binge-writing that is so distasteful to the “serious writer”?
Me, I’ve always been a fan of binge-writing. I wrote my first book, Beautiful Americans, in a series of Saturday afternoon binges. I was 23 years old, just out of college, and new to New York City. My fiancé, who was then my boyfriend, got up at 5am every Saturday for his shift at Borders at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. So every Saturday I was left to my own devices, since I didn’t have many friends in the city yet. For the first few months, I’d spent those days reading, or looking at Myspace. I’d always said about myself: “I could write a book if I tried.” Since I had some time on my hands, I decided to try.
Early drafts of that book, Beautiful Americans, were really terrible. My favorite TV show at the time was Lost, and because of that I was enchanted with the idea of my characters flashing back to really involved, harrowing scenes from their lives before they’d all met. There were about twenty main characters, and none of them were very likeable—they stole, lied, and cheated, and always with a snotty attitude. Not only that, the characters were 17 but spoke like they were 23 and just out of college—like their author. Best of all, the novel took place in Paris, a city I was not at all knowledgeable about or even particularly admired. Every time a character encountered the city around them, they remarked how much it smelled of urine.
Luckily, I was young and not very self-aware, and thought that if I was having fun doing something, I must be good at it. For hours at a time, I typed away at this manuscript, completely living in its world for the whole day. I never attempted to make it a part of my everyday life, because binge-writing was so engrossing. When I finished a draft, I binge-revised it. It went on like this for months, binge-writing and binge-revising as it made its way from pipe dream to agent to published book.
There were so many drafts of Beautiful Americans. I cannot tell you how many, because I lost count after 20. I wrote, rewrote, and copyedited that thing until it was a very, very distant cousin of the original manuscript, a cousin so far removed that they weren’t of the same species.
I recently heard a famous, National Book Award-winning writer describe her early days in this way: “I wrote my way to a new life.” Beautiful Americans, and those long-ago Saturdays I spent just pouring out the words, not worrying if they were good or bad or even spell-checked, led me into a new life, too.
Even before I published the Beautiful Americans books, they gave me so much. Because of that first manuscript, I saved up for a research trip to Paris so that I could fact check the book before it was sent to publishers, and on that trip I started to finally see what was so enchanting about the City of Light, now one of my favorite places in the world. Writing that manuscript brought me into contact with a community of writers here in New York, which brought me friends in my city. Most of all, writing those drafts proved right something I’d always had a hunch about: I could write a book if I tried. Not everyone knows that about themselves. I do. It’s a great feeling.
I wouldn’t know what that felt like if I hadn’t started somewhere, and binge-writing on Saturdays, like Wrimos are doing all through the month of November, all over the world, is where I started.
Many “serious writers” are suspicious of NaNoWriMo because of how they painstakingly labor over every word of prose. Wrimos just let the words fly. How can something be good if so little thought is going into its construction?
Don’t be fooled by this. These are simply two ways of going about the same hard work, and arguments about which is the better way are silly.
What we do know is that one of these types of writers is spending November feeling like they are moving boulders uphill, and the other feels like they’re riding a bike downhill with no hands, whooping (or tweeting) are the whole way.
I’ll happily take the latter.
Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.