Stumbling, Fumbling, and Rebelling: Why “Losing” NaNo Can Still Be a Creative Blessing

Not to be immodest, but I hold myself in relatively high regard as a writer. I’m not revolutionary, but I’m sincere; I’m not a master wordsmith, but I turn a good phrase. Overall, I may be well below brilliant, but I think I’m still several rungs above mediocre — solidly in the “good” range. But being a good writer doesn’t mean I do everything well.

As I said, I turn a good phrase. Stringing words together in aesthetically pleasing patterns has been one of my greatest pleasures since I was a child. I think that’s why I gravitate towards poetry so strongly; the crux of poetry is about language itself — its sounds, its rhythms, its flow. It’s allowed (and in some circles) expected to be non-linear and abstract, and does not, in any way, ever have to be narrative.

Novels, however — so I’m told — are “supposed” to have a plot.

Well, shit.

It’s not like a don’t read books — I do. Not as many as I’d like now that the baby is mobile, but hey, I was an English major. I’ve, you know. Read. But despite being a moderately active reader, I apparently have only the most rudimentary idea of how plot works.

Something happens. And then something else happens. And something else. And so on, and so on, yada yada yada.

Which, on the most basic level, is all that plot is — to paraphrase Lorrie Moore, it’s the What and the What and the What, separate from the How and Why.

But the How and Why — I can do that. I’m good at that, at conveying emotion, and motive, at description and exposition and explanation. My empathy and talent with words are my greatest strength. It’s the What and the What and the What that throws me off. My Whats can be better envisioned as a scatterplot more than a linear function, a smattering of disjointed occurrences without much holding them together. As someone who came from a background of writing micro/short lit fic and poetry, making the move to long form, where there were often multiple narrative threads to keep track of, was overwhelming.

For the first several years, this was, as you can imagine, incredibly discouraging to me. Not having a good grasp of plot meant I also had a poor sense of pacing — in other words, it wasn’t just the What-What-What that was tripping me up, it was the When-When-When. How long should I wait before I introduce my protagonist’s wife? This conversation has been dragging on for, like, three thousand words, maybe I should switch gears? I’ve got eighty-five hundred words of exposition setting up this scene, how do I move into the “action?” I have literally written fifty pages in which absolutely nothing happens. No, seriously — nothing. My character ordered a coffee. A coffee, people.

Eventually I had to ask myself, was this even something I wanted — to write a novel? I’d been having fun with shorter forms — it was motivation that was the problem. Did I really care if I had a single long-form work to my name? Was I that hung up on the medium?

Or did I just want the impetus to write?

If you want to write a novel, that’s wonderful, but after thirteen years of NaNoing, I realized that, honestly, I didn’t want to write a novel. I feel like we’re told that The Novel is the ultimate aspirational goal for writers, and so I sort of assumed that if I waned to write, that would be the natural culminating point for me, but that’s not true. I’m not saying don’t hone your craft; work as hard as you can to achieve the level of proficiency you’re aiming for. Workshop, edit revise. Go for the novel if that’s what you want. I’m just saying, it’s okay not to want that. It’s okay to use NaNo as a supportive community in which to produce words that you eventually craft into something other than a traditional novel.

The goal is fifty thousand words. That’s the challenge, that’s the through line, that’s the goal that keeps us together as a community.

But November ends, and December comes. And you can do whatever you want to do with what you wrote in November.

And if you want to refine and polish it into a fully-fledged novel, then fantastic — you do you. But after spending the previous month stumbling and fumbling over Whats and Whens — rambling for pages in some places, struggling to eek out one more transition sentence in others — I often find that what I have is a meandering, verbose trainwreck of a would-be novel.

But in the ruins of that trainwreck are scraps that would make really awesome short stories.

Or prose poems. Or literary vignettes.

Write fifty thousand words. Don’t worry how good they are. Don’t worry about your Whats and your Whens; things happen and happen and happen, until they don’t. Just go with it. Don’t worry if you’ve got ten pages of dialogue; you can cut it later, or pare it down, or turn it into an experimental vignette. Just keep writing. Don’t worry if it feels like halfway through, you’re suddenly telling a different story; maybe you are. Maybe this one is better.

It’s not to the letter of the law, I know, but it’s well within its spirit. I would never tell anyone not to go for the full-fledged novel, but I’d hate to think there’s anyone out there being denied a supportive writing community just because they aren’t interested in turning those fifty thousand words into a novel. Those words are as hard-earned as anybody else’s. They should count. Words should always count.

Go forth and write. That’s our goal this month.

What we do with those words in December and beyond is each of ours alone.