National Novel Writing Month

by tigermanifesto

Yesterday was the beginning of National Novel Writing Month (you might know its little brother NaNoWriMo). This is an occasion of jubilation. I don’t celebrate holidays–the end of every hunt is an occasion for celebration, I suppose–but here is something to treasure. A month of hurried, broken creativity. Rushes of words often written without heed to censorship or the perverse logic of the nonfictional world! It makes this cat dizzy. Unfortunately, I do not have the seed of a novel in me. There is nothing I can do to make the words obey my will. Nor do I have the patience or willingness to open up to what they might be saying to me. That said, I do have some words of encouragement and warning for those who wish to participate:

1. Don’t have a blueprint or a plan (until you’ve written one complete draft)

Stories are always born in the moment. Even a rigorous and thoroughly-developed plan will have to be varied at some point. When words are streaming out of you, they come alive. Words are funny creatures. When I’ve planned (abortive) efforts at writing stories, when I took to the task of mapping out intricate diagrams and enumerating the various characters and plots and how they add up to this or that central theme, I found that actually writing the words down was drained of all spontaneity and passion.

Not only this, but the process of planning drained the enjoyment out of watching a story evolve and grow in front or my eyes. As an author, you are, in some sense, the God of your world, and the words are your creation. You create, like God did, out of chaos, taking the words and creating order and beauty. However, like in real life, you can put the words where you want but they are like magnets, projecting out fields of influence over all the words you so carefully arranged before them. Each word edifies every other one before it, relativizes their meaning. The only way to get a pure meaning is to leave the page blank, but I doubt the NaNo people will accept that as an entry.

Planning is what you do when you already have a book in place. To my mind, you cannot have a proper angle on what you have created until you have created it. After that, you can focus on imposing a broader vision, one that is earned through poring over a complete, if highly flawed, whole, rather than composed out of anemic ideas you haven’t even really thought of until you’ve given them bodies–that is, put it to words. Write with abandon and without judgment. You won’t know what to do with your words until they’re all there, and even then your knowledge is limited because…

2. Remember that your readers are co-creators

I do not advocate writing for a vague or generalized audience. Thinking of one specific person is a good way to focus and allows you to formulate your language in a specific and incisively relational rather than a shallow way. That said, there is no denying that, no matter how large or small the eventual audience for your work will be, your readers will be creating a significant part and in many cases the larger part of what your writing means. That’s obvious: literature wouldn’t be literature (And that is not a ponderous title in my view. Airline safety manuals as well as epic poems are literature.) without or the possibility, indeed the certainty, that its meaning can and will change with each successive reading. No one will envision quite the same characters that you intended. None of them will value the same things in your book for the same reasons that you do.

What should be the attitude writers take when considering this fact? Mostly that your job as a writer is not to have the final say, not to encase the characters or discussions in stone but to open up. Hold your conceptions of your work lightly. Truly valuable works of literature never call attention only to themselves but address some pressing question that many people have. I never open a book, especially not fiction, looking for a final answer to something (maybe except for a dictionary or encyclopedia, which tells you why people cannot read those for pleasure) but for a space with which to argue. Your job is to frame a common experience, not painstakingly render a complete picture. Every word opens up a hole, every hole you fill will tear open anew every time it is read. That’s the hope, in any case.

3. Obvious stuff

Have fun and don’t sweat it. Be humble when talking with readers and other writers, humble when talking to your characters, but confident in the moment. Never disclose too much or think out loud in front of other people–it might give you the wrong impression that you’re getting work done.

That is about all this humble tiger has to say. With that, let the writing commence!