With November recently behind us, writers across America are slumped over their keyboards, having endured another NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in which the name of the game is cranking out as many pages of one’s novel as possible in thirty days. Years ago when I first heard about this month of extreme page production I thought it was a fine idea. Anything that urges writers to commit themselves to their novels is a good thing, right?
But year after year, NaNoWriMo has started to bug me. And for a long time I wasn’t able to articulate just why that was. I started to develop an attitude about the public displays of daily word- and page-counts that had begun to pepper my Facebook feed and at one point I made a snarky comment that every month is National Novel Writing Month.
I’ve been either writing a novel or attending graduate school nonstop since 1993, and often it’s news to my family that I’m writing a book. I’ve found that keeping my work in progress close to the vest works best for me. On the other hand, I came of age before the Twitter era, a distant epoch in which it was assumed that the best time to announce something in public was when something important happened, like the birth of a baby or the successful removal of a tumor.
I do recognize that if part of writing masterpieces now involves keeping the rest of the world apprised on every finished chapter, every thousandth word, then that’s just the way it is. The principle that ends justify the means works for me. But what I fear is lost in NaNoWriMo is the importance of silence in creating literature.
A lot of writing advice sounds to me like it was devised by some maniacal drill sergeant. Get yer butt in that chair and don’t you dare get up til you complete that story arc! Or, perhaps the worst advice of all, keep your pen moving even if you have nothing to say. I’m concerned that advice like this produces really excellent typists and not necessarily good writers.
It would be refreshing to see a writer advise that if you have nothing to write about, get up and pet the cat. Or vacuum the crumbs out of the back seat of your car. Or go hang out in a park. I suppose I’m the writer offering that advice.
What I want to say, what I am saying I guess, is don’t obsess about page count. Don’t worry about the number of words agents are looking for in a novel. Don’t freak out if you sit down and nothing happens right away.
And what if nothing happens right away? I’ve come to find that one of the most rewarding parts of writing is just sitting with my notebook in a chair and not doing anything for a good ten, fifteen minutes except thinking. Put your phone aside, close your browser, and just sit there with an uncapped pen, thinking about your characters.
Consider your characters like they are your friends; fondly. Feel their presence. Just be with the novel for awhile. And this next part is vitally important: don’t expect anything to happen. Get in the mindset that it’s entirely acceptable to just sit there without writing a single word. Spending time in the presence of your writing, regardless of whether you actually write, is time well spent.
But chances are, if you approach your writing like this, a sentence or two will appear. Jot them down and watch them lead to more sentences. Before you know it, you’ll have a few pages. If not, no big deal.
Notice that I’m referring to pens and notebooks, not laptops. I think this is important, too, to connect to a page made of paper with a pen filled with ink. And what works for me is spending the money on a really nice, leather-bound notebook like a folio-sized Moleskine. I once had a guy ask me if I thought such a notebook was too fancy, whether I’d ruin it. I told him that the only way I could ever ruin it was by leaving pages of it blank. Another advantage of using a hardbound notebook? There’s no way to connect to Facebook with it.
What are your favorite writing tools? How to you cultivate silence in your process?
by Ryan Boudinot