Good Writers, Bad Books: A NaNoWriMo Debrief

NaNoWriMo Bad Books Good Writers

NaNoWriMo is over! Whether you’re out celebrating your achievement, or still mulling over your newborn novel, we thought we’d share a personal, warm and fuzzy NaNo experience with you, straight from our editor Rebecca Heyman, who did herself complete NaNoWriMo a few years ago.

The first and only time I completed NaNoWriMo was back in 2004. I was a sophomore at NYU, and spent most of that November holed up in a coveted single dorm, smoking cigarettes out the room’s lone window overlooking Third Avenue. As I recall, the manuscript was built around motifs of twinning, incest, stalking, obsession and — every college English major’s favorite — death. We should all take a moment to give thanks to our respective gods that the entire thing was lost along with the hard drive on my first MacBook. It was the baddest of bad books, to put it very mildly.

While I’m not proud of the work I produced during that far-away autumn, completing NaNoWriMo was one of the most formative experiences in my literary life. I learned that part of becoming a good writer is writing a bad book, a process that yields writing wisdom authors can’t otherwise obtain. For all its theoretical trappings about method and craft, the process of writing is empirical — something we must experience to appreciate and understand fully. So this December, when the internet is teeming with advice about how to turn your NaNo manuscript into a bestseller, I want to suggest instead that you take time to celebrate your wonderfully bad book for the monstrosity it really is.

Bad books: the hard work of failure

Writing a bad novel is hard work. You sit down with all your noble intentions and your metaphors and your character arcs, and then you write something so god-awful you won’t even show it to your cat. But the notion that we can only hang our hats on the work we’re proud of is completely absurd, and dismisses the hard work of failure. Writing a bad novel can teach you loads about plotting, character development, and how much planning it really takes to get through the middle sections of a book without letting the whole thing fall apart. Controlled failure — that is, failure with few or no serious consequences — is part of learning how to take what you know in theory and put it into practice. Why do you think doctors have internships, residencies and fellowships before calling themselves physicians? It’s because they realize the transition from theory to practice is messy. Lucky for you, the stakes are considerably lower for authors, but the thinking is the same.

It’s worth noting that doctors in training do not make pets of their incision-practice cadavers. If your first novel is dead where it lays, don’t hesitate to use it as a training ground then walk away. A big mistake I see many authors make is hanging on to a first manuscript that doesn’t really merit revision. Find enough objectivity to lose the dead weight (pun very much intended).

Your book is bad, and you should feel bad. (Not)

Are you giving yourself a hard time about your terrible novel? Please stop. Even if what you wrote is an epic failure, you still made a commitment to writing 50,000 quasi-unified words over the course of thirty days, which is nothing to scoff at. You realized a dream that most people never dare attempt, and you have no reason to feel embarrassed.

I’ve read my fair share of bad books in my career, and I’ve never thought the author was a bad person because of it. Don’t tell yourself a story about who you are as a human being because your first crack at a novel wasn’t a home run. You are someone who is willing to learn new things, fail in unique and spectacular ways, and devote your time to understanding the inner workings of one of the greatest art forms in the history of our species. That’s nothing to feel bad about.

There’s an unhelpful, untrue stigma about writers, which is that they are all self-deprecating loners suffering for their art. But believe me when I say you can hate your art, and even suffer for it, and still love yourself.

The hardest NaNoWriMo lesson

Writing wisdom tells us that when we complete a manuscript draft, we should lock the thing away for a few weeks or months to get some perspective on our work, then drag it back into the light of day for revisions. You might be tempted to destroy your bad book in some kind of neo-pagan fire ritual, but there’s a lesson to be learned from those smug good-book authors. What would it mean to put your bad manuscript away for a time, then bring it back out not for revisions, but to dissect in painstaking detail the reasons why it’s terrible?

If it’s true that learning to write well is an empirical process, then revisiting your work is essential to understanding your experience. I don’t want you to set up a false expectation about reading your bad book after a couple weeks of distance to find it’s actually a good book, which you should revise incessantly until you find an agent; rather, I want you to return to this heap of bad metaphors and stilted dialogue when you can consider with some objectivity how this bad thing came to be.

Did your protagonist lack depth and dimension, making it difficult to develop internal conflict? Did your plot start with a bang but quickly fizzle, signaling you need to weave a more complex fabric of conflict, cause and effect? Does your writing sound and feel the way you want it to, or is it time to embark on a program of reading and writing designed to uncover your authentic voice and style? These questions require a certain amount of critical objectivity marked by the absence of emotional attachment. You owe it to yourself and your future writing endeavors to suck the marrow from the bones of your bad book. Feast on your failure! It’s the best way to bolster yourself for the ongoing journey of author life.

There’s a saccharine adage about not letting the fear of falling keep you from flying. As horrifyingly sentimental as that sounds, it’s not entirely untrue. Take risks in your writing, knowing that when your idea splatters on the floor, you’ll at least have found solid ground to stand on when you’re ready to try again.


Rebecca Heyman

Rebecca Heyman

Rebecca is the founder of The Work Conference, an inaugural boutique writers’ conference scheduled for March 2016 in NYC. Attendance is extremely limited, but un-agented authors of adult or YA fiction with a literary or upmarket feel in any genre are encouraged to apply by the 12/31/15 deadline. A discounted application for readers of this blog can be found by clicking here.

How did you feel about your first completed manuscript? Would you agree that writing is an empirical process? Leave us your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! And if you completed NaNoWriMo, check out our Reedsy Special Offer for Nano authors!

  • Katrien Blomme

    I am going to add to this from an editor’s point of view. I have recently proofread a book that was so badly written, I ended up re-writing every sentence (and only got paid for a simple proofread, but I can only blame myself for that). But no matter how much editing I did, the book was never going to be worth a read. I was in a difficult position because I am not a book reviewer – I am an editor. What I am trying to say is, some authors are not as critical of their own work as you, Rebecca. This particular author even asked me if I knew of a film director who could turn her book into a movie. In hindsight I should have turned down the job, but I had already committed myself, naively thinking it was going to be a walk in the park. Nowadays anybody can publish a book, and not everybody is in touch with reality. I would never discourage anybody from writing and publishing, but in my particular case, once I had completed my editing job, I returned my version with a polite email, advising the author to forward her book to a book reviewer before self-publishing it. She ignored my advice and went ahead. Not everybody learns from mistakes.

    • Rebecca Faith

      Hi, Katrien,

      To clarify, I am an editor, not an author.

      In my early years, I also found myself married to what was essentially a bad book, and you’re right — it’s our job as editors to decline work that doesn’t merit further revision. Hard to spot sometimes, to be sure, though I bet you’re on high alert for that type of thing now!

      R

      • Katrien Blomme

        My apologies Rebecca. The intro clearly says you are an editor … My mistake. Anyway, as an editor you will understand what I mean! Yes, in the early stages of my business I was too happy to get a new customer. But I have learned from my mistakes. However, I am still finding it difficult to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ without sounding arrogant when I judge it is not worth the effort.

        • Rebecca Faith

          I just wrote a long reply above before seeing this — oops! Still applies I suppose :0)

          Saying no is hard. One tried and true response is “My schedule is just completely booked for the next 3 months.” If they’re not on a timetable, try “I don’t think I’m the right person for this.” When in doubt, take our cues from hackneyed break-up lines??

  • fairbetty

    Love this. Thanks for sharing it. I do developmental work with new writers and not-so-new writers… and dissect and debrief a lot of “bad” work with the hope of strengthening my clients’ skills in the end. It’s important to remember that bad writing is necessary to get to good writing. A lot of people (myself included) are disappointed when their first attempt isn’t a masterpiece.

    • Katrien Blomme

      Fair enough. What I was trying to say is that some authors don’t accept that their first attempt was a shocker, so they don’t learn from their mistakes. At least, that’s the experience I had. How do you approach such an author?

      • fairbetty

        Well, I definitely agree that some authors don’t accept that their first work (or fiftieth work) is not publication-worthy. And you’re right, too, that in this day and age, anyone can publish anything regardless of the quality of their work. I just make sure to be as honest as possible with my feedback, because that’s what I get paid for. But what they do with my feedback is up to them. I feel like I repeat myself a lot, certainly, but I’m a cockeyed optimist and so I believe that at some point my words will get through to the people who need them.

      • Rebecca Faith

        I think the first and most important step as an editor is to protect yourself from projects like this by reading an excerpt from the manuscript before accepting it (I’m sure you do this now, but I’m mentioning it for the sake of any newer editors reading this thread). That doesn’t always safeguard you, and I’ve read my fair share of MSS that have fallen apart after page 10 or 50 or 100. But when I do catch a manuscript that’s clearly a mess, I say so. “I commend your effort, but this isn’t ready for editing. There are errors in fundamental execution and craft, and I think it’s time to seek out some good, free online resources to learn more about the actual process of writing…”

        I encourage people to take writing classes, join a critique group, join an online forum. At this stage in their writing, improvement is about exposure to good-quality writing, so I also provide a reading list. John Irving’s The World According to Garp is almost always on it, for its accessibility and finesse, and I tell people Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are total necessities.

        You still have options if you take on a project that heads south after the fact. First, you can have an honest conversation about it. “The sample pages I reviewed seem to have been edited much more heavily than the rest of the text…” You can either cancel the rest of the project, adjust the terms, or soldier on. If the author is in denial, you can always take the blame on yourself to end the relationship peaceably (“I’m sorry, I just don’t think I’m the right editor for you at this time.”).

        If you’re really in a pickle, email me! I’ll try to help however I can. Editors have to stick together :0)

        • fairbetty

          Totally agree with this policy and I practice it as well… I want people to feel like they get the most out of their editing experience, and if declining their project until it’s gone through further revision helps to that end, that’s what I do. Saves me time as well!

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