In Defense of #NaNoWriMo? Kind of?

We’re a bit more than a week from November 1, which probably means a lot of things — it was my grandfather’s birthday, for one; he passed away a couple years ago, but he’d have turned 98 — but around the internet (and almost-equally among the event’s devotees, its haters and many of the utterly ambivalent), one of the most noticeable things has become that it signals the start of National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. (I’m largely going to assume familiarity here; click over there to read up.)

As far as I can tell, Twitter and other social media was really first inundated with NaNoWriMo about four years ago — people enthusiastically updating everyone they knew on their word counts, plot structures, favorite lines, etc. Very quickly after that came the backlash — people who hated that other people were cluttering their feeds with this stuff (and understandably, I think), mocking it. Some of the backlash-type stuff is funny (see Fake NaNoWriMoTips), some is really not; much more isn’t meant to be, just (again, understandably) annoyed.

In my experience (and it’s a very limited, very skewed experience, probably not representative), the backlash very quickly quieted the…frontlash? We’ll go with frontlash. I’m sure there’s a lot of earnest NaNoWriMo tweeting still going ON out there, I just don’t see it in my own little corner of the internet, and haven’t for a couple years. People I know don’t really like feeling like they’re being mocked by people who for the other eleven months of the year are their friends.

I did NaNoWriMo three years ago. I didn’t publicize it, kept it fairly well hidden, actually — I just felt like doing it, and I did. What I got was 50,000 words (more like 55,000, I think) of…something. It wasn’t a novel, certainly (not that I was expecting it to be), just the very beginning of a story about something, with some good bits and some bad bits with a strong beginning and a super-weak ending and a whole lot of holes to be filled.

I was working 60-hour weeks, and had a spouse and a toddler; it probably took a year after that November 30 to get back to it at all, and when I did all I could make myself do was reread, clean up a bit around the edges (when what I needed was a bulldozer, and then twice as many words) and wonder where I’d intended to be going with some of it. My wife has read through most of it, and I sent a few pages of it to a friend for feedback who (as far as I can tell) never got around to it, and that’s it. Not that there mightn’t be some part of it that has some use to me, somehow, someday, but it’s pretty clearly not going to turn into the Great American Novel, or even a small-n novel. I “won,” per the rules of the site, but if the goal was to actually write a novel, there’s no avoiding the fact that I basically failed.

On the way, I confirmed a lot of things I thought or knew, a lot of them pretty valid criticisms of the whole NaNo idea. Whatever they may tell you, 50,000 words isn’t really a novel (unless you’re a genius like Jerzy Kosinski, and even then I assume you start by writing twice that many words and then cutting out the trash); you can’t write a novel in a month (unless you’re Stephen King, so no matter who you are you can’t write one I want to read); writing is incredibly hard, and not nearly everybody who thinks they can do it can do it. Most of the fiction written in November (and most months, but especially November), I’ve no doubt, is trash, valueless to anyone but the writer him- or herself.

So…I’m doing it again.

It’s weird. I know how much time it takes and how frustrating it can be and how much false advertising there is in it and how unlikely it is that anything of any measurable value will come out of my doing it. But I decided, a week or two ago, that I’m going to do it again. Because I have the beginnings of an idea that’s been nagging at me for months and I want to see if it’s anything. Because I love to write, and at least as much as that, as good and rewarding as my various excuses may be, I hate not writing, and yet I still seem to find time in my day for at least a few bad reasons not to do it. And sure, there’s no reason I couldn’t just kick my own ass and do the same sort of thing any old time of the year, but it’s almost November and it’s a good time for me, so why not do it when everyone else does? Why not show up some Sunday afternoon next month and spend a couple hours typing away with a bunch of other freaks? I can’t think of a reason.

So it occurred to me to rattle this out because the other night, a Facebook friend of mine — and a really smart, funny guy I respect a whole lot and with whom I seem to agree on almost everything else — put up a status complaining about NaNo. Not, as above, about the formerly-incessant public updates about it (though I suspect that’s at the root of it), but about the idea of doing it itself. And beyond my total inability to grasp why anyone would take issue with a little thing other people decide to do for themselves that couldn’t possibly affect him in any way, the “reasoning” for it just blew me away: in essence, if you were going to be a great writer, you’d be doing it already, and wouldn’t need that kind of jump-start, wouldn’t need a super-special month to focus on it.

And to me, that stance missed so many points at once, so completely, that it really cemented in my head why I wanted to do it. For just one thing, writing fiction isn’t like, say, athletics, where if you have the natural talent you go for it while you’re young, figuring that if it doesn’t work you’ve got the rest of your life to make something else of yourself, or just that (in a lot of cases, sadly) it’s all you’ve got. Writing pulls from other skills and experience, and those skills and that experience often add up to other careers with lower failure rates that demand a lot of your time. I’d love to win the lottery or for my schoolteacher wife to suddenly fall into a $500,000-a-year job, freeing me up to stay home and drop off and pick up the kids, and in between to write 5,000 words a day, every day, until I got good at it. I would. Turns out that’s not my life, though; turns out I’m a lawyer and a dad and that the rest of my life boils down to a couple exhausted hours at the end of the day, that I don’t love writing or feel a pull toward writing any less but that I love other things too, and they take turns bumping each other out of whatever scraps of those couple hours are reserved for leisurely things.

I’m probably not going to be a great novelist, and not even a novelist, and that’s so not the point; but hell, I wouldn’t be the first English major and full-time-working professional to publish his first novel in his mid-to-late thirties (or later), either. If it’s a thing I want to do with big chunks of my precious free time for a month — and right now, it really feels like it is — then why on earth not? Really, given all those time constraints, a thing like NaNo is perfect for me. Take all that energy that’s pulled in all those different directions and force myself to focus on this one thing for four weeks, or rather for those tiny little slivers of the day during those four weeks that belong more or less to me.

So, why not? I’m not a great fiction writer right now, and I don’t think I’ll suddenly become one next month, I think I probably won’t ever be one, and I know for sure that I won’t come out of November with anything like a novel that I started at the beginning of November, and that neither will anyone else. I am a good writer with a lot of thoughts, and with an urge just now to do something with that. So I’m going to sprint right into this, again, and hope that this time I come out of it still jogging.

And the great thing is — what happens if I don’t, if I fall flat on my face instead? My consolation prize is that I spent an hour or two each night for a while working out the creative parts of my brain, with nothing else to show for it. Oh no! Guess that’s just a risk I’ll have to take…

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children: Gender- and Genre-Bending

A couple weeks ago, I was in a Barnes & Noble — a physical bookstore! they still have those, sometimes, for now! — and I saw a book on the “local authors” table that seemed really interesting. It was set in a fictional town that was eerily similar to Mankato, Minnesota, which is where I was (and I happened to be starting a… potential novel set in a fictional town that’s eerily similar to a smaller town not very far from Mankato, Minnesota). The protagonist of this book I found was a young transsexual — a female becoming a guy — and a music geek who aspired to be a radio host. I hadn’t ever read, or didn’t think I had, a novel with a trans individual as a main character. It had a title that the relentlessly nerdy nonconformist kid still residing in me really liked: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.

I didn’t buy it at the bookstore, because really, there’s a reason brick-and-mortar bookstores are barely hanging on; but I did add it to my Goodreads “To Read” list right then and there, and last weekend, I saved a couple bucks by downloading it from the Kindle store. Started reading it on Friday, and finished on Monday. It was short and easy to read, but more importantly, it was a good story, and I just never really felt like putting it down for long.

In short: high school senior Gabe Williams has been called the wrong name — Liz, or Elizabeth — his whole life, has only recently revealed his true name and identity as a male to his family, to his best friend since kindergarten, Paige (with whom he’s also in love), and to his seventy-something neighbor and musical mentor, John. John has gotten him a radio show, where he gets to explore his new identity invisibly…only it turns out Gabe is really good at this, and starts to get a loyal following (the “Ugly Children Brigade”), including among people at his own high school, who also know “Liz.” Things get complicated; he experiences basically the full range of reactions as people start to figure out “who he is,” including instances of frank and immediate acceptance, the cold-shoulder and denial from his family, and some ugly and violent and scary ones too. It’s a really well-crafted, fast-moving story; Gabe’s character is beautifully deep and broad, a person you’d really like to know, and really, every character — save perhaps the two brainless thugs who just want the freak to go away and die, and their appearances are brief — has a good deal of depth. It pulls you into Gabe’s world, and into Gabe’s desperate need to get out of that same world.

There were little things that bothered me about it, though: some difficult concepts that were glossed over a little too quickly, some dialogue that seemed just a bit too simplistic and expositional, musical references that could be kind of all over the board and didn’t seem to serve a real central purpose, and a few things (like the endearingly confused and unsure-of-himself main character almost immediately and effortlessly having really realistic romantic chances with not one but two beautiful and brilliant young women who knew all about the Gabe/Liz thing) that came together just a bit too neatly.

It wasn’t until about halfway through, and then not until I read a bit more about the book on Goodreads and Amazon, that the truth hit me: I was reading a YA novel. Meant mostly (though certainly not exclusively) for high school students and written by a college professor, it even has a little student-geared primer on sexual identity issues (and one that I’d guess is very helpful for someone who’s just learning about these issues) tacked on as a kind of epilogue.

But the thing is: I’d never intentionally read YA.

That’s not quite true. I eventually started the Harry Potter series (which…may qualify) sometime in the summer of 2001, after three years of nonstop lectures from my fiancee-turned-wife about how much I was missing, and I was immediately hooked, reading all four books in under a week and each of the three that hadn’t been released yet as quickly as I could get my hands on them.

But that was it.

Until, that is, I was on a trip and desperate, and I’d heard so many good things from so many people about the Hunger Games series that I decided to give it a try. I flew through book one, loved book one; found book two slightly forced and a bit of a letdown after the first, but still engaging; hated the third so utterly, found it so hopelessly groundless and pointless, that it actually ruined the whole rest of the series (and, I suppose, the very idea of adults reading non-Rowling YA fiction) for me.

And that was it, ferreal. No teenaged vampires or any of that, ever, thanks. To be honest, with a handful of other exceptions (A Song of Ice and Fire is the only one that comes to mind), I avoided fiction that fit well into any genre; I stuck to classics, John Updike, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace. I’d had some bad experiences in the “mainstream” — Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, the wretched little bits I’ve seen on the internet of Twilight and Fifty Shades — and I’d decided that nothing that wasn’t likely to be taught in a literature class somewhere could teach me anything, none of it was worth my time at all. That’s changed a bit, recently — I’ve read some mysteries, some thrillers, and each of them (more or less) has had something in it somewhere that’s driven me batty, but I’ve enjoyed the hell out of quite a lot of them. I’ve found that while I love really, really good, inventive, one-of-a-kind writing, so-called “literary fiction” doesn’t have a monopoly on that, and that I also really love a really well-crafted story, even when it follows certain conventions and doesn’t necessarily break new ground or make you feel smarter just for reading and kind of getting it.

Still, though: no YA. Never YA. Twilight is YA. Nope.

Until this one, by accident, because I saw it on the “local authors” table and nothing about it immediately screamed YA (sure, it had a high-school protagonist, but Updike and DFW have both used youths as protagonists of very adult novels). And you know what? I loved it. In fact, once I’d uncovered its dirty little YA secret, I enjoyed the book a good deal more than I had been, because those little things that were bothering me no longer bothered me. They were just a part of this genre I’d had almost no experience with. I learned to take those things for what they were, get into the rhythm of the story for what it was, and appreciate what was a really beautiful, important sort of message and story in the context in which it was meant to be appreciated.

You should probably check out Beautiful Music, especially if you’re looking for a character you can really pull for with a perspective you probably haven’t seen a ton of before. And me…well, what’s occurred to me is that there are a lot of great stories out there, and they don’t always all take the form of 600-page masterworks that make your head hurt. I’m going to stop reading books that make me feel smart and start looking for stories that make me feel good, for one reason or another. Which, for me, still generally means crisp, witty, lasting writing and vibrant imagery — I’m probably going right back to marching laboriously through Moby-Dick now, in fact. But because I want to, not because it feels like a thing I should be doing. Reading should be fun, and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (while it has its dark and difficult moments) is a whole lot of that.