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Archive for November, 2010
I’m doing more output than usual on my blog today largely because I want to give a reaction to a piece in Salon.com by Lauren Miller. It’s the same sort of article that comes up at this time every year, saying that there are better things to do with ones time than writing 50,000 words during the month of November. Such as reading. Before I get off on where I don’t agree with Ms. Miller, I’m going to start with where I do agree. And where I agree most is one of her last arguments in the piece
Yet while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books. Even authors who achieve what probably seems like Nirvana to the average NaNoWriMo participant — publication by a major house — will, for the most part, soon learn this dispiriting truth: Hardly anyone will read their books and next to no one will buy them.
I don’t have the numbers for how much people read in modern society, but there is that strong feeling that the number has gone further and further down as there are more intrusions into time. There’s the Blackberry that makes sure we’re never not at work. There’s the internet, which is increasingly present in more and more of our lives. People do need to read more, and especially they need to read more if they are going to be novelists.
“People would come up to me at parties,” author Ann Bauer recently told me, “and say, ‘I’ve been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this …’ And I’d (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read … Now, the ‘What do you read?’ question is inevitably answered, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.'”
Wrong, wrong, wrong. You should never be so concentrated on your writing that you aren’t reading something. Even if it has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Right now I’m writing a piece of near-future horror science fiction. What am I reading? A history of the United States spanning the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812. What did I last read? Nicholas Clapp’s fantastic real-life archaeology adventures Road to Ubar and Sheba. What’s next? Mary Roach’s new book. The reason we keep reading is to keep learning, to keep an open mind, and even when you’re vastly outside your writing field, there’s still applications. Reading Road to Ubar has given me so many ideas on how to deepen the world that I’m creating for the ongoing series of projects lumped together as Arkham. Please please please never think that you’re too busy writing to read something.
Where I’ll also agree with Ms. Miller:
[F]rom rumblings in the Twitterverse, it’s clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive. “Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?” tweeted one, “Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter … or make it clear that it was LAST year’s NaNo.” Another wrote, “Worst queries I ever received as an agent always started with ‘I’ve just finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel and …'”
Writing a novel takes more than a month. A hell of a lot more than a month. Many novels take their authors years or even decades to perfect. Now, while the latter is likely a worst case, you are not going to pound out 50,000+ words in the month of November and be able to start sending query letters off on December 1. And if there are agents and editors that see a lot of “I just finished writing this for Nanowrimo…” I deeply sympathize for the time that they spend crumpling those letters up and disposing of the first three chapters of someone’s unedited stream of consciousness dreck. Yes, there are people in this world called “editors” but that doesn’t mean they’ll do all the editing for you starting at the rough draft and going forward. Editing is a detailed process that catches not just simple spelling mistakes but endemic problems in a novel, plot holes, lack of character motivation, lack of overarching themes and plot lines. This process is not meant to be skipped (or to take just one month, thank you very much Nanoedmo).
However, I don’t know how much of a problem this is, just how many tweet’s Ms. Miller is finding to create her “rumblings” or just how serious those people are.
I suspect that the people who feel that their untouched rough drafts are ready to go to an editor are a vast minority of the people who do Nanowrimo. I even suspect that the people who feel that they are writing a novel for more than their own sense of self satisfaction is a minority. And to that end I saw: what harm is done in the process? To Ms. Miller the harm seems to reside on rewarding the wrong sort of activity. She bemoans the idea of “squandering our applause on writers” and suggests “why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily?” That’s a fine notion, and one that I can absolutely get behind. But at the same time, I reject the false dichotomy that the choices are to either celebrate people for reading or celebrate people for writing.
Nanowrimo does a lot of good for a lot of people. I should know. I’m one of them. The hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer was completing my first novel. That’s not to say that everything has been easy since then, anyone that’s watched me working on Capsule for the past two years knows that it hasn’t been an easy process for me. But because I did Nanowrimo, because I wrote Rust, I was able to get over that hurdle. I’ve seen several other writers who are fantastically talented but who haven’t been able to cross that line. Nanowrimo, if nothing else, can get someone over that line and get that first complete novel under the belt. Will it be crap? Very likely. And Ms. Miller doesn’t necessarily think that writing crap is helpful: “I am not the first person to point out that ‘writing a lot of crap’ doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if itis November.”
But it is helpful, as long as you write crap the correct way. I’m not going to even for a moment pretend that everyone participating in Nanowrimo does. But there are constructive ways to write crap. If you’re writing crap with a plot that takes 50,000-80,000 words to resolve without being overly stretched or condensed, you’ve done yourself a positive. If you’re writing crap that forces you to do character studies and to create three-dimensional people to occupy your world, you’ve done yourself a positive. Now, if you’re writing crap where you string a bunch of plot dares together with a self-insertion character, that might just be crap, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve intentionally engaged in crap several times, especially when I undertook the challenge of writing a screenplay in a weekend. It wasn’t even Syfy quality, but much like the first time I won Nanowrimo, it showed me that if I buckled down I could get something complete. And the first step of editing and revision is to have something to edit and revise.
So if you’re doing Nanowrimo, keep on at it. Enjoy it. But pay attention to what you’re doing. And why you’re doing it. It can be a lot of fun, but it can also do a certain amount of good. Don’t listen when people tell you it’s a waste of time and energy because (1) it doesn’t have to be if you don’t want it to be and (2) even if you do want it to be…it’s your own time and energy, waste away!
Then? Go read a book. A real book. It’ll make both me and Laura Miller happy.
That means it’s time for some writerly words over on Unleaded. This week: how best to use Nanowrimo. (Hint: the answer is “however you want to”.)
While at Capclave I sat in on a presentation about time travel in which I learned about a paradox of time travel that I never thought of before. It came back to mind when I saw this video linked on Gizmodo:
The important part is right around the 3:20 mark in the video, but while they talk about the understandably disturbing element of having a white time traveler help invent one of the most important influences African-American culture had on American pop culture in the 1950s they overlook the slightly more disturbing paradox that the whole thing creates. It goes like this.
Marty McFly lives in the 1980s. He grew up watching performances of Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry and learns not only the song but the entire dance routine. Then, through a series of movie contrivances, he finds himself back in the 1950s and playing guitar with a jam band at a school dance. Wanting to play something hip, he plays Johnny B. Goode. Halfway through the song we get the classic “Chuck! It’s your cousin Marvin! Marvin Berry…” phone call, creating the implication that Chuck Berry learns the song Johnny B. Goode from listening to Marty McFly sing it at this sock hop. He records the song, it becomes a hit, and Marty McFly grows up hearing it and learns the song, starting the cycle all over again.
Except, and here’s the problem: who wrote the song? Marty learns it from Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry learns it from Marty. Somewhere in there the song wrote itself and insisted itself upon the world through this loop.
See? The 1950s were right. Rock and roll music is of the devil!