Monkeys With Typewriters & Why I Hate NaNoWriMo

There are some people currently elbow deep in the afterbirth of NaNoWriMo. They’re struggling with both hands to pull that slippery, oddly-shaped idea they have out of the tight dark crevasse of their mind and bring it, stumbling and blinking, into the sunlight in time for December 1st, when at last – at last! – they can slap a ribbon on it and show the quivering mass of a month’s frantic creation off to their electronic friends.

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I am not one of those people. I don’t like NaNoWriMo. I don’t think it encourages the best practise of writing in many people. Not least because it gives thousands of people an excuse to write Avengers/Pokemon mash-up fan-fic… ‘Hhb’… … Sorry, I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Deadlines and Dirt

‘You don’t like NaNoWriMo!? But it gets people writing!’ you say.

Yes. It does. But not with the right mindset to be creative. It’s all about the one month deadline and it causes people to lose sight of the story because they’re too busy hitting the word total for the day. I don’t understand the need to treat NaNoWriMo stories as some sort of timed, hot-house obstacle course through your creative centres.

The joy of writing is not in deadlines and word counts, but in taking time to shape your work: to sit and let the ideas flow and then, when they ebb away, retreat from your keyboard until the next surge washes new fragments of story into your head. Pressure doesn’t always form diamonds. Sometime’s you’re just left with a hot pile of dirt.

You can argue that NaNoWriMo might just be a good way to get that much procrastinated novel off the ground; to start and try and get as much done and hope the momentum carries into December, but a lot of people don’t treat it like that. They treat it as a competition. I’m amazed at the number of people I see who brag about how many words they’ve done in a day but don’t brag about the actual words themselves. It’s all quantity not quality, when it should be the other way around.

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Sewing The Seeds Of Bad Habits

It’s in this hot-house environment, where word counts are boasted or commiserated, that bad writing habits form. Habits such as overusing adjectives (always a big risk when you’re trying to fatten up that word total) or having too much description. It takes 28 days to form a habit apparently, so you can comfortably fit that inside November and still have two days to try and think up synonyms for ‘lips’ or ‘forests’.

Or maybe you don’t want to bother thinking up synonyms for yourself. Or any part of your novel that seems too much like hard work. In recent years there’s been an alarming amount of ‘ideas crowd-sourcing’ done, enabled by Twitter and forums. I’ve seen it first hand and you will have too. People will ask things like:

“What would be a good name for my protagonist? He’s 24, short, blonde, and likes dragons…”

“Can anyone think of a way for these two characters to accidentally meet?”

Really, this is the type of thing that a writer should be able to do. You should be able to use your own imaginations, like a real storyteller does.

You might think this is part of the community spirit behind NaNoWriMo; that it’s an exchange ideas in a friendly (but secretly ruthless) online atmosphere. It’s not. It’s people who can’t come up with their own ideas because they’re either too lazy or don’t have the imaginative capacity trawling the collective imaginative brainscape of other writers like a renegade tuna fleet, hoping enough stuff gets caught in the nets to squash together and package into a 50,000 word story.

The Infinite Monkey Theorem

By December 1st it’s all over and what is the upshot?

Are people enthused by their experience? No, mostly they’re just brain-drained after a month of trying to be creative at a hundred miles an hour. For most the results will be personally fulfilling but otherwise worthless.

One or two novels written during November will be good, readable, maybe even publishable, but that’s only because this is a numbers game and a few good stories are the statistical result of so many words being flung at the wall by so many people. Out of the chaos cogency will occasionally form. NaNoWriMo has become a 30 day Monkeys with Typewriters experiment. A grand field test to see if there’s truth to the old adage about how a room full of monkeys typing for long enough will produce Shakespeare. Except here it’s a planet full of humans and they’re just trying to come up with the next Hunger Games. In a month.

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This is how I feel about NaNoWriMo, and I know it’s not a popular opinion. I think the idea of using a month to highlight the joy of writing and sharing stories is wonderful, but that’s not what NaNoWriMo is.

It’s an ego boost for those who can type fast and loose. It’s very name is a challenge, a ‘race you to the finish, last one there’s a loser!’ taunt to participants. That’s not the way to good writing. Good writing takes it’s time to form and evolve, and isn’t bound by a set word count.

Good writing deserves a space on the calendar to be celebrated, and to show writers that it’s not how much you do, but how good what you do is. So perhaps we need a National Good Writing Month – a NaGoWriMo – instead?

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Please do let us know your thoughts – agree or disagree! – in the comments below.

Images courtesy of Pete Mayhem, The Best Of NaNoWriMo Tumblr and ExtremeTech/The Simpsons.

Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.

 

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