Roughing It

"The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts." -- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

For many would-be literary types, writing a novel is a one-day endeavor, as in "One day, I'm going to write a novel." Most people never get around to it, or they become incredibly frustrated once they begin. "You feel like you need to live up to all your fiction-writing heroes. It never does, but the thing you read that so inspired you also sucked really badly when they first wrote it," says Chris Baty, the founder of an ingenious enterprise designed to help writers overcome the potentially crippling fear of a shitty first draft.

Four years ago, Baty founded National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a time for the budding novelist in all of us to spew forth pages upon pages of really sloppy prose. "It appeals to people who don't see themselves as writers, who are kind of a little intimidated by the idea of serious writing," he says.

Here's the deal: Participants must write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. That's 1,667 freakin' words a day. Word counts are determined by an online computer that couldn't care less how good, bad or ugly each work is. Quantity trumps quality in NaNoWriMo. It's the literary equivalent of mining with dynamite; these novelists blow up an entire mountain in search of a few nuggets of pure gold. And an adventure. "It's fun to pretend you're a novelist," says Baty. "It's like being a kid again, where you got to be the crazy BMX hero or the spaceship captain or whatever. As adults, we don't get to do that enough."

Thanks to online message boards, participants have the comfort of knowing they're not alone in their maniacal missions. The boards are a place where harried writers can find support, as well as inspiration, through friendly competition. "Every morning you're running through the list of people you know and trying to find out how far they got the night before," says Jennifer Bryant, the head of the Houston chapter of NaNoWriMo.

"If you're focusing so much on beating someone, you're not worrying about the fact that what you're writing is crap," adds Rebecca Elsenheimer, one of Bryant's amicable competitors.

The message boards are also full of novelists' wacky challenges to each other. "Last year, I had to insert a drunken grandma at Thanksgiving dinner singing 'Kum Ba Yuck' instead of 'Kum Ba Yah.' It worked out very nicely to the point that if I do try to get it published, I'm leaving it in," boasts Bryant.

So what kind of frantic novels are people churning out? "You've got everybody doing everything. The nice part about it is that there are no set rules about what you have to do," Bryant says.

Like many of the participants, Baty finds the desire to create a rough masterpiece much greater than the urge to polish it. "I find revising novels to be one of the hugest, most painful, hurts-your-brain-in-really-bad-ways processes," he says. "You've created this Byzantine world and suddenly you have to perform microsurgery on it. It's too bad, because all the novels that we've read that have just completely blown our minds have just been revised and revised."

No worries: There's always National Novel Editing Month in March.

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Keith Plocek
Contact: Keith Plocek