Writing a world in just 30 days

Katerina Francisco

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"Just write, and let your writing do the arguing”--Palanca awardee Jose Dalisay Jr

MANILA, Philippines – The world may not be aware of it yet, but somewhere, when the first of December dawned, the Next Great Novel may have already been written.

As November drew to a close, thousands of would-be writers across the globe sat back and looked at their handiwork: a 50,000-word exercise in character creation and world building. For the participants of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), November was a time for increased coffee intake and the feverish race to finish a novel in 30 days.

If the premise sounds ridiculous, the reason behind it may seem even more so: you write a novel just because there’s a story waiting to be written. You imagine a new world into existence, just to create art for art’s sake. There are no prizes up for grabs, no promise of a publication deal, no guarantee of being the next J.K. Rowling. The novel isn’t even going to be read by professional editors. But what NaNoWriMo does provide is a medium for free-flowing creativity, a set goal to achieve (50,000 words) and a deadline to reach it (30 days). Its informal approach to novel writing strips NaNoWriMo of hard and fast rules. Write 50,000 words, and you’re already considered a winner.

NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty believes that this formula provides just the right kind of push to encourage hesitant writers to set their plots down on paper. Since the program’s conception in 1999, more than 200,000 participants worldwide have signed up for the noveling experience. But what started out as fun, friendly competition among writers has taken a turn for the serious: critics feared an onslaught of substandard novels in the market, the casual claiming of the title ‘novelist,’ and—the most serious charge against NaNo—the downplaying of an important stage of the writing process: the tedious, unglamorous work of revision.

Thirty days and 50,000 words later, NaNoWriMo 2012 has officially come to a close. What it hasn’t completely resolved, however, are interesting and important questions about what it means to write.


Creativity and discipline

For 25-year-old graphic designer Liv Sy, writing is part-self-expression, part-discipline, and part-passion. “Writing is a different outlet of creativity. There are things you can interpret in Photoshop and things you can interpret in words.”

Although NaNoWriMo promotes spontaneity and informality, the element of discipline is still underscored during the entire process. To reach the 50,000-world goal, one needs to write at least 1,667 words every day.

But it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Liv, a three-time NaNo winner, says the thrill of the challenge usually drives her to write entire chapters at a time. There’s a story waiting to be told, an imaginary race with other writers, and a feeling of solidarity in knowing that someone else out there is sneaking some writing time in between lunch and coffee breaks. By the end of November, she ended up with more than double the word count; by yearend, her novel clocked in at 120,000 words.

But Liv says NaNo isn’t just a matter of churning out 2,000 words day after day. A great deal of thought is invested in the writing as well, with some writers even creating character profiles and plot outlines to guide their task.

In Liv’s case, her stories—which are mostly in the sci-fi or fantasy genres—always needed solid research to keep up the suspension of disbelief. “It’s not a novel if it doesn’t make sense,” she says. “As I’m developing a character, I have to develop the world. There’s so much freedom as there are so many options.”

From me to the world

When November ended, winners congratulated each other, held “Thank God It’s Over” parties, and bid a “see you next year.” For some of them, they went on to the next stage: the promise of a possibility of eventual publication.

It’s already been done before: Dean Alfar’s Salamanca started off as a NaNo novel before getting published and winning the Grand Prize for Novel in the prestigious Palanca Awards. Following Alfar’s footsteps may be a long shot, but for catalog writer Mark Benjamin Marcos, it’s a risk he’s willing to take. “I wanted to prove something,” he says of his reason for trying out NaNo. “I want to be published so badly.”

Like Liv, Mark maintains a regular writing lifestyle, working on at least two scenes a day. He describes the world-building process as “playing God” and the writing experience a process of “discovery,” joining his characters as they journey through the Manila-like cities he’s imagined for his novel.

That journey for him culminates in a trip into other people’s houses. “I want to be published,” he says. “I want to be able to point at a house and say, ’sa bahay na ’yan, may libro ako d’yan.’ In a sense, you’ll be imparting yourself.”

But not everyone thinks that the NaNo novel’s ultimate stop is the bookstore shelf. “If I get published, well and good; if I don’t, it’s fine,” says Liv. “When I write, I tell a story. If I don’t write something, it haunts me. I don’t write to make money.”

To each his own (style)

For Palanca Hall of Fame awardee, novelist, and professor Jose Dalisay Jr., writing is both a simple and complicated matter. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula to writing or even a “right” reason for one to write, but it doesn’t mean that the process is easy—or meant for everyone.

“You have to have [talent] in you to begin with,” Dalisay says. “[Even if] it’s one month or ten years…it won’t matter. If you don’t have talent, then all the time in the world isn’t going to help you. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means that writing is not for you.”

For talented, aspiring writers, however, Dalisay thinks that NaNoWriMo does get people to actually get their plots down on paper.

“People really need to just sit down, do the job, and get it done,” Dalisay says. “Much of that material is already in their heads but they need a spur or an immediate reason to get it out. And so something like NaNoWriMo gives a reason, even if it’s an artificial one, to finish something quickly.”

But what sets a substandard NaNo novel from a publication-ready one is the amount of time and effort in the revision process. For NaNo critics, this step has often been ignored by “novelists” all too eager to get their work out into the market, thinking that their first drafts would readily translate into first-rate commercial successes.

Dalisay acknowledges that shoddy work will inevitably come out of NaNoWriMo, but adds that bad drafts are often inevitable in the first try. “I believe that there will be a small fraction of work of sufficiently high quality that can still be improved with further revision. And if it weren’t for NaNo, that would probably never have come out.”

While most writers end their noveling attempts with their first drafts, both Liv and Mark think that the editing stage is a necessary, outside-of-November component of the NaNoWriMo experience. “If you’re really passionate about the story, you’ll want it polished when you show it to other people,” Mark says. “Alagaan muna bago mo hayaang maglaro sa labas.” (Take care of it before letting it play outside.)

The measure of a novelist

But does writing and revising 50,000 words give anyone the license to call himself a “novelist?” For Dalisay, titles are arbitrary things. Anyone can claim anything, and “what you are isn’t necessarily what you say you are.”

“NaNoWriMo is an interesting exercise, but it’s not going to be the measure of whether people can be called novelists or not,” he says. “It doesn’t have that great of an impact yet on literature as a whole, so I don’t think people should worry too much about what comes out of it.”

Not even the fear of an upsurge of substandard novels is a real threat. While critics think that the validation that comes from being a “novelist” by the end of November will translate to substandard books being pushed out into a not-too-discerning market, Dalisay is not worried about setting standards.

“As far as I’m concerned, the more you get people to read, that’s generally good,” he says. “Taste can always develop. It’s creating an audience itself that’s important.”

This is perhaps why NaNoWriMo participants are generally unperturbed by the criticisms hurled against it. The difficult thing about holding NaNoWriMo to task is its ready acceptance and acknowledgment of its flaws and limitations—and it even revels in them. Its 50,000-words- in-30-days formula may not work for everyone and it may not even contribute to the world library of literary greats, but for its participants, what matters is that something is being created out of it.

November was the month for fantastical plots, new worlds, and—as Chris Baty puts it—a chance for writers to “run whooping across the valleys of [their] imagination.” December and the months that follow are reserved for the polishing of a rough draft into a potential literary winner.

For Dalisay, arguments about what should or should not be considered “serious” writing are futile.

“People argue all the time about writing. Many of them, I suppose, don’t really know what they’re arguing about,” he says. “Don’t waste your time arguing about writing. Just write, and let your writing do the arguing.” – Rappler.com

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