Everyone should write a novel

Written on December 4, 2021

After I handed in the final copy of my senior thesis, an event that signified the intellectual summation of my four years of college, my advisor told me it would likely be the longest thing I’d ever write. Until last month, I would have taken his side of the bet; my recent scribbling had been restricted primarily to technical subjects along with some miscellaneous blog posts. I couldn’t imagine anything that would eclipse the 22,000-word mark I had previously set.

But life, as Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King’s Men, is “strange and changeful.” Sitting down to write a novel hadn’t crossed my mind at all as something I could actually do, until one day in late October I got a Slack message from my friend Vladimir Zelevinsky asking if I’d participate in NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month: an initiative to encourage as many people as possible to begin and complete 50,000 words of an original work during the month of November. Not exactly knowing what I’d signed myself up for, I said yes.

Now, smash cut to me, a bit over a month later, arms raised in triumph, having 52,000 words that constitute the first draft of a novel that I’ll work on getting over the finish line and editing into a more final form over the coming days and weeks. I look back on NaNoWriMo now like the conclusion of a long workout: some pleasure (watching the workings of the plot come together as if by magic), some pain (powering through the days when each successive word was its own battle), but with a tangible result that one can point to and a profound sense of accomplishment.

There are many arguments available on why one should participate in NaNoWriMo, but I want to add that it’s a “freeroll.” The term freeroll comes from the complimentary poker chips that are sometimes given out at casinos as promotions — if you bet them and lose, you actually lose nothing that came out of your pocket, but if you win, you get real chips back that are as good as cash. After completing a novel, the worst possible outcome is you spend your own money to get some copies printed of your bad book that no one reads, and you now have a conversation piece on your bookshelf you can point to as your own creative output. Great! Toward the other end of the spectrum, perhaps you found a new hobby or career that stays with you for life and continually enriches it. So we have no downside for theoretically unlimited upside: that is what I call a good bet.

Here are a few tips that worked for me (your mileage may vary) to get across the November finish line:

  • Damn the quality torpedoes, full speed ahead! The goal of NaNoWriMo is not to write a complete novel by the end of the month; the goal is to write 50,000 words of a bad first draft of a novel. I found the emphasis on quantity over quality liberating. The last time I had written any fiction was during my college years; at the time I was reading many of the authors I still admire most —DeLillo, Nabokov, Pynchon, Tolstoy. I’d write a short story and then compare my writing to theirs, and I found myself demoralized at how bad my prose was by comparison. More recently, I’d found myself reading some more genre fiction — the sci-fi of Isaac Asimov, for example — which has a simpler and more easily imitable prose style. That provided me with a good model on “workmanlike” writing which I could then later embellish. But overall I didn’t worry about the quality of my writing while writing. Only now, when I’m trying to chisel a “good” book out of the great, misshapen mass of clay that is my first draft, have quality considerations become primary.

  • Maintaining the daily pace: In order to hit the 50,000-word November goal for NaNoWriMo, one must write 1,667 words per day. I treated hitting that daily mark with discipline, as a job, as a necessity, not a choice. That was the only way I knew to consistently get the words out. I was of course working an unrelated full-time job simultaneously during my days and so I appropriately rationed out late-night hours where I knew I’d have uninterrupted time to work. The great Philip Roth, in an interview, said that “Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it.” I am not a professional writer and do not share Roth’s sentiment, but I tried to play a similar psychological trick on myself — that I had to write — to assure that I got the words out each night.

  • The social proof: The NaNoWriMo site gamifies the experience and has product features to add “friends,” update your daily word count, and see the latest word count of your friends. With my friend Vladimir participating, I felt both some sense of competition (I wanted to match or exceed his word count) and didn’t want to let him down by failing to meet my 50K over the month. If you can’t find a friend to participate, there are online communities aimed at matching writers and achieving the same effect.

All it took for me to get started was one message of invitation and encouragement, and I’m incredibly happy I’ve got the bulk of the first draft under my belt. Consider this post doing my part to spread the good word (the good 50,000 words?) of NaNoWriMo.