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NaNoWriMo: Should you love it or hate it?

A NaNoWriMo critic kicked up some dust this year, suggesting that all those striving authors might be better off keeping their books to themselves.

By Rebekah Denn / November 29, 2010

Sara Gruen became NaNoWriMo's biggest success story with the publication of her novel "Water for Elephants."

Terence W. Bailey

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Plenty of people think they’ve got a book inside them. Is that where most of them should stay?

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That’s the debate that broke out during this year’s National Novel Writing Month, a 12-year-old project that encourages participants to set aside November 1-30 to write a 50,000-word novel. “NaNoWriMo,” as it’s semi-pronounceably called, started with 21 friends in 1999. Last year, it attracted more than 165,000 would-be novelists, with more than 30,000 completing the goal, organizers said.

Updates for 2010 are bursting out on Twitter even as I type and as participants find themselves approaching (or failing to approach) the finish line.

The whole thing looks fun and inspiring to me. My own deadline-driven soul thrives on due dates; I don’t know that I’d ever complete a project as large as a novel without one. But to Salon co-founder Laura Miller, the whole NaNoWriMo exercise seems a waste of time.

Writing earlier this month, Miller pointed out that – despite the fact that the contest can claim a major commercial success in Sara Gruen’s “Water For Elephants” – even its official guidelines acknowledge that much of the writing NaNoWriMo produces will be wretched. Many participants apparently ignore the official advice to revise, Miller wrote, with editors and agents “already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they'll shortly receive.”

But her main point is that it’s readers who need nurturing and development, not aspiring writers.

“I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done," Miller wrote. "I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say."

Close to 300 people responded, both pro and con. (“How about we stop writing and give you permission to be the only writer in the world. That's what this is all about isn't it?” suggested one of the cons.)

The “Jacket Copy” blog at the L.A. Times slapped back with “12 Reasons to Ignore the Naysayers”, cheering NaNoWriMo participants on with an exhortation to “Write write write!” More than 170 people commented on that piece.

The storm was wild enough for Miller to further explain her meaning. You know it’s bad when writers feel compelled to offer specifics like this: “My point is not that NaNoWriMo contestants are bad people who do bad things and should be condemned. I don't think that, and never wrote that.”

Most of those plugging away at NaNoWriMo may be too busy finishing up to weigh in. Just remaining in the game, as the month approaches its end, is something of an answer in itself. Here’s a quote attributed to Philip Pullman from one of this year’s participants who has already reached the 50,000 word goal: “The most useful quality you can have as a writer (given a basic amount of talent) is stubbornness, pig-headedness, call it what you will – the insistence against all the evidence that you will produce something worth reading."

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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