I’ve heard of this for several years now and even had friends participate. It’s a real thing, with an organization and a website, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Supposedly, once you sign up and submit a profile, you can earn “badges” for various stages of accomplishment and then “win” by submitting the text of your novel of at least 50,000 words—which is more like a novella these days—and having it validated by the site. What is unclear to me—although I have not delved the entire site to read the fine print—is what you actually win, and then what happens to the text of your novel. Does NaNoWriMo get anything out of the process, other than the glow of helping inexperienced writers with encouragement, motivation, and a deadline? Does the organization, for example, obtain the rights to the submitted work? A professional writer would be concerned about such things.1
I have never participated in NaNoWriMo, because for me every month is novel writing month. At any time of the year, I am either drafting scenes and chapters on the current book; editing, coding, and laying out the book I’ve just completed; or plotting, outlining, and generally “noodling” the next book in my lineup. This little shop remains open seven days a week, and critical plot points and bits of dialogue may occur to me even on holidays and while traveling on vacation. Novel writing is a lifetime process.
Does writing novels pay well? Not really, if at all. Some people make it big in traditional publishing. And one hears of independents who are making the rent with their self-published books. But for me, with seventeen completed novels for sale and an eighteenth in production, the proceeds amount to coffee money each month, never more than a lunch out. To really establish yourself as a writer with a national reputation, you need to produce a novel that hits the bestseller lists, either at the New York Times or in some national sales forum. Bestsellers are not a thing you can plan, because luck is a major factor: creating just the right story to fit the national zeitgeist at just the right time.2
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a novel. Writing is a dip into the human creative process. If you have a talent for some art form, then that is the thing you must do. For me, it’s creating stories about people who never lived doing things that never happened. For others, it may be making music, putting paint on canvas, sculpting clay, or cooking gourmet meals. Not everyone—not even a fraction—among the people who love to cook gets to open a restaurant. Not everyone who paints or sculpts gets a gallery exhibition. Not every musician gets to join a band or play in an orchestra, and not every composer gets to hear her song or his symphony performed. But that does not mean you don’t try. And if your work does not make it to the public, that does not mean you don’t continue. Because the work itself is good for your soul. It’s what makes us human and different from the other animals and the robots.
Writing a novel will change you.
Unlike writing a piece of nonfiction, where the facts speak for themselves, or a short story, which you can complete in one white-hot burst in an afternoon, a novel takes gulps of time over many writing sessions. You must develop and maintain a voice that you can use, a character viewpoint—or more than one—that you can occupy, a feel for the time and place that you have created, and a mood that extends over many sessions, sometimes for months on end. I have likened the process to renting out half my brain to a troupe of traveling actors for a year at a time. They—or really, the whims and products of my subconscious3—will try out bits of dialogue or stage business in the middle of the night. They will suggest changes to the plot while I am thinking about something else entirely. And on occasion they will refuse my direction as I am trying to sit down at the keyboard and start a scene from the outline—but they just won’t let me. These actors and their internal director are a busy bunch, but they are also necessary to my writing process.
Until you have written a novel and submerged your active mind in the creation of another person in another world, you don’t know who you really are. You haven’t come face to face with the contents of your soul—which, for most of us, can stay safely buried in dreams that we forget, in daydreams we can ignore, and in random thoughts we can dismiss as bits of trivia or the whispers of the devil. A novelist has to wade into this mess and wring from the soul something that has real existence outside of his or her brain as words on paper. In the same way, a painter has to wring out a vision with a specific purpose and detail, a sculptor has to find a shape with meaning, and a composer has to find a melody with mood and coherence.
My own soul, I have found, is relatively stoic and restrained. My characters are not highly emotional people. Yes, they have their loves, ambitions, and desires, but those are usually deeply buried, giving direction to their lives but not to flights of words in their dialogue. They are too busy trying to figure out how the world around them works, and what they have to do to survive or thrive in the current situation; so they can’t spend time wishing and dreaming how the world might be different. They excel at mechanical contrivances and traps, and this reflects my own upbringing.4 Their reaction to adversity—and mine, too, on occasion—is one of amused cynicism, followed by a determination to work things out and not get crushed.5
If writing is your thing, then I would advise you to try writing a novel. It may not produce a bestseller, but that’s not the point. It will introduce you to yourself.
1. Oh, deeply concerned! Every writer who hopes to make it big—well, hoped, once upon a time—in publishing should be suspicious about the rights to the work. Once you sell or give them away, the text is no longer yours to use and publish, or even to have much say in how it will be used, altered, where and when published, and otherwise passed into slavery. If your novel is like your child—and the whole process for me takes about nine months—then you become protective of its dignity and its future.
2. And a bestseller is not a thing you can emulate or achieve by riding on another’s coattails. When I was cut loose from the traditional publishing world—and that’s a story for another time—and casting about for an agent, I heard many variations of “if you could only write a story about a boy wizard with glasses, I could really sell that.” This was a reference the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series. Later it would have been “a story about a shy girl who meets a sadistic billionaire,” or whatever is popular right now. The trouble with chasing someone else’s bestseller with your own book is timing. If that other book is booming right now enough for you to know it, you will still need some weeks—if you are very fast—or months to write your own copycat version, more months to parade it before a string of potential agents, more months after that for the agent who accepts you to secure a sale, and then about a year for the publisher to edit, typeset, print, and promote your book with the national bookstore buyers. And in that year-plus-plus, the traveling circus of reader interest will have moved along and something else will be popular. The brass ring is for that other novelist, not for you.
3. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.
4. See Son of a Mechanical Engineer from March 31, 2013.
5. In this way, my characters are a lot like those of traditional science fiction stories, as is my own reaction to things. Well … you are what you read.