Landfills of Words

NaNoWriMo is working it’s way back around to us, and as October tips over the hill, thousands aspiring novelists begin to steel themselves for a month of sustained masochism.

The prize? The title of NaNoWriMo champion and a your very own novel. Supposedly.

What you really get is a primordial mass, fifty thousands words heavy and the result of (probably) less than a hundred hours of work. Let me tell you something: This is NOT a novel.

Of course, you already know this, and I’m sure most NaNo’s plan to edit and revise their novel until it can be shelved between Jane Austen and The Count of Monte Cristo. The problem is, you’ve essentially created a messy mass of words that is not even remotely ready for publication. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even read it aloud to your cat. If you think of your novel as a sculpture, you essentially get a lump of clay when NaNo is over. The only goal is getting to that 50k word mark. No one even cares if you stamped ‘The End’ on it.

There were over four hundred thousand official winners for the 2012 NaNoWriMo, which means more than twenty billion words were generated by the winners circle alone.

20 Billion. As you let that sink in, think about the fact that there were countless other novelists who didn’t quite make the cut, but still contributed their tens of thousands to the heap.

Now, I love NaNoWriMo. If you don’t believe me, here’s my novel’s page on the NaNo Website:

But, that doesn’t change the fact that I think there is something very wrong with it. Or, rather, that it is the sign of something being very, very wrong.

The fact that this program could encourage four-hundred thousand (mostly) young people to write an entire novel for themselves is wonderful, a cause for celebration, even. But, the problem is this: Literature is transforming.

Content volume is king, in the modern world of literature. Well, actually content might be second to speed, as glorified by sites like twitter where we are a fed a constant stream of new content, delivered at a lightning fast pace.

What ever happened to the quest for perfection and art? What I find most sad is that the overwhelming majority of these novels never ever see the light of day. Too many people write their 50k, are satisfied and move on. Maybe that’s all well and good for you, but not for me. I want to make something of those words. And if you ever want to be a novelist you should too. It doesn’t end in December. That’s when it’s only just begun.

You owe it to yourself and your novel to take it beyond November and turn it into something truly worthwhile.

We don’t describe things anymore.

‘Words cannot describe…’

I know you’ve heard this phrase before. Hell, you’ve probably used it a few times. I know I have.

I hate this phrase because it’s a blatant lie. Words are powerful and descriptive beyond what we’ve even accomplished with them so far. It’s one thing to use this in everyday speech, but to used this phrase in any piece of creative literature is a serious crime. We are writers. Our job is to describe things. We need to reach into the mortar between the bricks and show our readers the texture, we need to illustrate the way each cherry blossom falls to the ground, we need to take them to Venice and let them smell it for themselves.

In fact, I rarely see that in writing these days, either published or personal. For the most part, artists seem to describe things in vague, simple ways. Words like ‘amazingly, extremely, incredibly, unbelievably, fantastic, unimaginable (unimaginable? Really?)’

The list goes on and on, and sometimes they get a little more creative and use words like ‘breathtaking’ and ‘riveting’. These words are the constant victims of hyperbole, and are used far too often to excuse the writer from actually describing something. Most of the time, when I read something more ‘modern’ I am left with a very vague idea of what the artist was trying to say, with some generic images floating in my head as my brain struggles to understand what exactly was so ‘amazing’ about the scene sprawled out before the main character.

If Dante had really wanted to, he could have summed up Hell in one word. ‘Horrifying’. And that would actually be a pretty accurate summation of the place he created. But Dante decided instead to take us, circle by circle, torture my torture, down to the very bottom of hell.  Try to paint the Aurora Borealis, try to make the reader truly understand the awe they might feel if they actually saw a fleet of airships flying over the city.

Using the phrase ‘words cannot describe’ is an excuse for hyperbole. With enough time, with enough words and with enough imagination, you can describe anything.

Next time you write something, think of your reader as being blind, because they truly cannot see the world you’ve created in your head. If you want them to think it’s simply ‘incredible’ than tell them that, but the chances are much greater that you want them to understand why it’s incredible, and therefore you must describe to them, piece by piece, what your world looks like and how it works.

Your own worst critic.

Of all the experiences I had and things I learned during last year’s NaNoWriMo, one thing stood out to me the most. As I was plucking away at my very first novel, determined to become what I would consider a ‘real writer’ (my definition would change later) one of the NaNo’s in my region caught my attention.

Being naturally competitive, I was watching the word counts of everyone around me, trying to see how I sized up. I almost croaked when I came across a woman clocking over five thousand words a day.

Granted, you can write five thousand words in a single day. I’ve done ten thousand. But she was doing it consistently. Every single day. Before we even reached the halfway point her novel was complete.

But that wasn’t what struck me, because at the time I was a little disgusted that someone would churn out a novel in ten days. What struck me was the fact that as soon as December hit, literally the first of December, she had released aforementioned novel for sale on Amazon.

I sampled the novel for myself, out of sheer morbid curiosity, and was not surprised to find that it was exactly what you would expect from a book written in under a month. It wasn’t a long shot to say that she was absolutely deluding herself. There was no way more than a handful of people would ever be interested in reading what she had created.

So often, I hear writers or artists of other strains comfort themselves or their peers with the phrase ‘You’re your own worst critic.’

Well, I absolutely agree. I agree to the extent that you’re the worst critic you could possibly have. Not because you’re too hard on yourself, but because you make a terrible critic.

It isn’t much better to hate your work than to blindly create something and confidently release it without a second thought to quality. It’s the difference between the girl who spends three hours in the bathroom and still isn’t satisfied with herself and the guy in sweatpants who hasn’t showered in three days and is flirting with every girl he sees in the mall.

So when you create something, whether it be a novel, a song, or even a simple drawing, don’t go to one of the two extremes of either flaunting it to the world or hiding it in the darkest corners of your musty room. Look for people to criticize it. Look for people to truly tell you what is good and what is bad.

Because, shoving it into the world and hiding it away are both actions done out of fear. Fear of hearing what anyone has to say about it. Next time you create something, remember this: It isn’t very good, but it isn’t too bad, either. And then, use others to help you polish the good and toss out the bad.