I have learned the existence of the National Novel Writing Month only recently. When I was a young man in my mid-twenties with aspirations of being a published novelist, an institution like NaNoWriMo was unthinkable. It is pretty much unthinkable today, even though it exists. Who would have imagined?
NaNoWriMo is a strange institution for many reasons. Firstly, the time frame is ridiculous. You are supposed to finish a 50,000 word draft in 30 days. It sounds like a national pie eating contest where contestants gather in Coney Island and eat grotesque amounts of cherry pie. Secondly, the membership is preposterous. There are 7577 members in Philadelphia alone. Not to mention 4904 members in Brisbane, 3774 members in Singapore and 16912 members in Egypt. I cannot find how many members there are in total, but they expected over 400,000 participants for 2014. I didn’t know the Ice Bucket Challenge had that many participants. You definitely cannot get that many people to play basketball at the same time. If that doesn’t sound totally weird to you, then you were not the lone kid in class who was writing stories while other kids played basketball. Thirdly, the success stories are phenomenal. Over 200 novels (I lost count near the end) have been traditionally published out of this enterprise mostly between 2010 and 2014, which rivals the output of a pretty decent publishing company. Yes, every aspiring writer grew up hearing stories of over-night bestsellers and mega-selling debut novels. But we knew that was mostly bullshit. We have all dreamed that we might be the next wunderkind. But deep in our hearts, we knew such occurrences were rare. In fact, we knew for certain that getting published at all was a very rare achievement. Anyone foolhardy enough to send a manuscript to a publisher should expect a mountain of rejection slips. Even Harry Potter was rejected by 12 consecutive publishers. Getting a novel traditionally published is a miracle. Except not for NaNoWriMo.
In short, NaNoWriMo defies everything we know about writing and publishing. By getting an unthinkable horde of aspiring writers to join a humongous pie eating contest in a virtual Coney Island and creating a massive slush-pile-generating-machine of ridiculous proportions, you end up with enough publishable material to sustain a medium sized publishing company. To put it mildly, that is not supposed to be possible. In fact, it is not believable. If you buy that, I can get you a great deal on the Eiffel Tower.
But somebody proposed this crazy idea to somebody and somebody evidently bought it. Remember all those excellent ideas you proposed to your boss that never got anywhere? By any standard NaNoWriMo shouldn’t exist. It is an evolutionary mistake. A literary platypus on the internet.
There are lots of pros and cons for participating in NaNoWriMo. Most of the cons focus on how much junk it creates. A few rightly point out that this is not the way books are supposed to be written. The pros usually focus on how spurring creativity (even just creativity for creativity’s sake) is good for humanity, how “daring to suck” encourages would-be writers to start writing and how the community of NaNoWriMo makes what is generally a solitary activity and turns it into a social activity.
I only learned about the very existence of NaNoWriMo, so obviously I have never participated. I don’t know about the camaraderie of the society. I have no idea what it feels like. I stand at the entrance curiously peering in like a child at the door of a haunted house attraction in an amusement park. I smell something fishy inside and I am not sure I like it.