Good Writers, Bad Books: A NaNoWriMo Debrief
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 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!