Friday, October 27, 2006

What do you think about NANOWRIMO, and will you be particpating?

Who's asking: Chandra, from somewhere in Maine (but I don't know where -- are you still in the bus?)

Easy part of the question first: no, I won't be participating. I'm too busy cleaning up other people's novels, and November is going to be crazy for me (in a good way).

For the uninitiated, NANOWRIMO is National Novel Writing Month, a national program that encourages participants to produce a 175-page novel (50,000 words) between November 1 and November 30.

As the NANOWRIMO website says, "It's all about quantity, not quality," but the founders say that's a good thing: "By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes."

Can you tell I have mixed feelings about this? On the one hand, it's great to get people writing. I absolutely agree that the crucial part of writing anything is getting the crummy first draft out of the way, so you can start fixing it.

A best-selling novelist I admire tremendously said to me recently, "Writing books is the one thing everyone thinks they can do. I never meet anyone who wants to be an amateur computer technician, or an amateur brain surgeon. But everybody's a writer."

I sympathize with that point of view (boy, do I), but I think the more valid comparison is to cooking, or to music. People who are enthusiastic cooks would never dream of claiming to be chefs; they limit their enthusiasm to experimenting at home and cooking for friends, and only the most obnoxious expect every effort to be applauded.

In the same way, I say that if you like to write, write for yourself and your friends -- but don't force unsuspecting people to read it and don't expect to be taken seriously as a professional, unless you're willing to pay some dues and learn the craft. That means multiple drafts and serious, sustained effort, not a gimmicky sprint like NANOWRIMO.

If NANOWRIMO helps you kickstart a book that's been lingering too long in your imagination, terrific. But if you're participating in NANOWRIMO, please do not assume that what you have at the end of the month is publishable, or worth attention from anyone but your family and closest friends.

Oh, and one more word on amateurs vs. professionals. The gifted amateur quite often does better work than the professional; what distinguishes the professional is 1) sustained effort over time and 2) someone pays them. If you're considering publishing your own book, please keep this in mind.

What I Read This Week

Martin Edwards, The Arsenic Labyrinth. A classic British mystery about a long-missing woman whose body is found inside an old arsenic mine. DCI Hannah Scarlett, responsible for cold cases, hopes to resolve this one quickly -- but next to the woman's skeleton is an even older one, and a fresh corpse soon joins them. The book incorporates several intertwining narratives, with varying degrees of success; a profile of a con man is terrific, but the memoir of a long-past murderer is just confusing. This book will be out next January.

Stuart Woods, Short Straw. This sequel to Santa Fe Rules is considerably better than that book (which I consider Woods' weakest). Santa Fe lawyer Ed Eagle wakes up one morning to find his beautiful wife gone, with a few million dollars of his money. He tracks her down, but soon discovers that she's hired people to kill him. Nastily entertaining, unapologetically misogynistic, and sharply satirical about the idea of civilized divorce.

Bill Buford, Heat. This book is what made me think of the connection between writers and cooks. New Yorker editor Bill Buford fell in love with the idea of learning to cook professionally, and apprenticed himself in the kitchen of Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo. After a year, he needed more, and went to Tuscany to learn to be a butcher. I carried this book around with me for three days, reading it at stoplights, while waiting in lines, and during pauses in rehearsals. Must-reading for any serious student of food (and aren't we all?).

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