Make great strides

Rereading No Plot? No Problem!, the book that National Novel Writing Month founder Chris Baty wrote to help prepare unsuspecting readers for the seemingly impossible task of writing a 50,000 word novel in a month, has had its own unexpected effects on me.

With National Novel Writing Month less than a month away, I am just beginning to feel the crunch of not enough time to plan for my upcoming novel writing adventure. I’ve done this four times before, but as I learned last year when I blogged about the experience every day during November, it never really gets any easier, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something (or is delusional). Still, I really didn’t need to reread No Plot? No Problem! I already know what I’m doing; I already feel confident I can complete the fantasy novel I’m planning for this year, but reading Baty’s book is just too much fun not to do it again.

I first read the book two years ago, and I was impressed then at his writing style. Considering that this is a man who started a writing revolution in 1999 based on the idea that writing a book requires more passion and intention than actual talent or ability, he certain has an ability for crafting words. But then again, maybe there’s a reason for that. In his book, Baty effectively argues that writing a book is the best way to learn to write a book, and, since conceiving NaNoWriMo in 1999, Baty has written thirteen rough drafts.

Over the course of October, I’ll write more about NaNoWriMo, but today it’s all about Baty’s instruction book.

For those unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it’s  30 days of exuberant novel-writing every November. What makes it so unique is not the 50,000 words or the time frame really. It’s that there’s a real chance of failure.

In his book, Baty points out that as adults we become so fearful of failure that we tend not to try new things. It was while reading this the other day that I realized how that fear of failure has affected how I treat others in the writing field.

I blame the writing books and articles I’ve read, which all — ALL — stress how nearly impossible it is to get published and how totally, perfect your book needs to be to attract any attention at all. With a roadblock like that barring our way to published authorship, it’s no wonder anyone who never has written a novel is terrified even to try. It’s also no wonder that in recent years I drew the conclusion that anyone who IS published must therefore be perfection incarnate.

Thus began the downward spiral into cynicism, when I began to notice that not all published books are all that good and that worse, not all published authors are all that good either. I became bitter. Mind you, I’ve never actually tried to publish a book. Until this past spring when I submitted a short story to a literary journal — and was accepted — I never tried submitting anything anywhere. I guess I assumed I wasn’t good enough yet. That didn’t stop me from berating — to whomever would listen — any writer I read whose work I considered imperfect. These weren’t the writers that the authors of writing instruction books mention, yet they’re still out there breaking into the all-but-impossible world of published fiction. So what are they doing right?

Maybe nothing. Maybe they’re just persistent. Or lucky. Or maybe all they really did was try something that most others are too afraid to try, because Heaven forbid trying and failing at something.

Says Baty, “The quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horribly crappy. Like most things associated with writing a novel in a month, this may not make a lot of sense on the surface. But there’s proven psychology behind it. Namely, the older we get, the more scared we are to try new things. Especially things that might make us look stupid in public.”

He goes on to explain that admittedly in our work lives we require competence, but during our free time, you’d think we would be more accepting of failure. Not so. “…what do we do when we have free time? The tried-and-true activities we’ve already perfected. Like talking on the phone. Or walking up and down stairs. Or getting drunk. The times we do actually make a point of stepping out of our normal routine, we tend to get flustered when we don’t get the hang of it right away.”

So get out there and try something, and if you fail? Well, there’s a reason for the old adage “try, try again.” Of course you’re going to fail. You’ll fail several times … until that time when you don’t fail. Until that time when you succeed. And until then, let us try to be easier on the novelists who did succeed, even if they aren’t perfect. Perfect writing doesn’t tell a great story. A great story tells a great story.


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