(Or, ‘In Defense of NaNoWriMo’)
File under 'hard truths': the creative muse is a fiction. If you sit around waiting for the right moment to create, you will die waiting.
— Me, in a Scrivener user forum thread, some years ago. It's a long story.
Every so often (that we don't do it regularly is a great irony) my friends and I in comics figure out how much we've written in the past few months and tweet it.
No other medium is measured in pages output. A 300pp novel can easily become a 200pp novel by printing with smaller type; a 100pp screenplay can potentially become a film of between 60-140 minutes in length; a 200pp stage play could be performed in anything from 30 minutes to four hours. For all these media, the script length is agnostic to the final work.
But one comic page is one comic page, no more and no less. We actually write around the page as a unit, and a script for a 20pp comic will always produce a 20pp comic.
So that's one reason. But there is another:
Being prolific matters.
I sometimes see People On The Internet decrying work-in-progress tweets and posts as worthless. “Measuring output by quantity rather than quality is dangerous,” they say. “More work doesn't mean better work!”
These are often the same people who dismiss NaNoWriMo as an exercise in futility. “Yeah, so you've written 50,000 words, but that doesn't mean it's a good story. You're just hacking it out to meet a word count!”
Here's the thing: these people are not working writers. I can say that with confidence, for one simple reason — a reason that by definition only working writers truly understand:
Writing more makes you a better writer.
Whoa, there. Controversial, much?
No, not really.
Look: anyone can sit down and write two pages of a novel, then forget about it, and a week later write five pages of a screenplay, then forget about it, and a week later start another novel... etc, etc.
That shit is easy. Everyone (yes, including me and every other working writer I know) has a ton of projects they've started but never finished.
But writing a whole novel? Or a whole screenplay, or comic book, or stage play, or whatever? Actually seeing it through and finishing it?
Well, now. That shit is hard.
And you learn from it. You learn how to sit your ass down and write, even when you don't feel “inspired”. Even when you just want to play Peggle all day. Even when your dog is puking up because he ate something dodgy, and you've got a dentist's appointment this afternoon, and by the way have you noticed how this room could do with a really good dusting, and, and, and you write anyway.
This is how you improve. It's impossible not to, because when you have something finished, you can review and assess it a whole. And when you do, it inevitably comes up wanting. See, what you write is never as good as what you imagined when you started — never, ever, ever — and so you make a promise to yourself. A promise to do it better next time.
But you can't do that if you still haven't finished this time.
Finishing a story is the hardest part. You know it's not as good as you hoped. You know there are plot problems. You know that by finishing it, you're saying — even if only to yourself — “This is the best I can do.” And, because it’s not perfect, that’s a difficult thing to face.
But you do it anyway.
Will most people's NaNoWriMo novels be bad? Sure, maybe. Guess what? Most people's first novels are bad, period. Whether it takes four weeks or four years, it's probably going to stink.
But that's OK. Knowing it's bad is half the battle. If you complete a novel and think, “Wow, I did that... but I'll do it much better next time,” then you're already on a path to success.
Finish something. Figure out how it could be better. Now start something new.
That's all there is to it, over and over and over again. Of course, being simple doesn’t make it easy. But if you finish NaNoWriMo, and then dive right in to start — and finish! — another novel, congratulations; that’s how you become a working writer.
Don't sit around waiting for inspiration. Just write.
Originally published October 2013