Now you too can be a writer!

by Alma A. Hromic

October 21, 2002


Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved words. She read a great deal. She read some more. From the first cherished book on her bookshelves to date, she has owned, borrowed, read, reviewed, gloried in and panned thousands of books, in three different languages.

In time, she has written and published five books of her own, and continues to produce book-length material; in between, she has had her byline on scores of thousands of words in the form of shorter pieces, fiction and non-fiction.

She has had hundreds of words rejected by editors with everything ranging from "Go away and never darken our doorway again" (albeit put a little more politely) to "This was so almost right that it breaks my heart to reject it."

These are a writer's dues - reading, writing, rejection. All of them need to be paid before a final acceptance, before the emerging of the writer from the chrysalis of someone who fiercely yearns to write into the butterfly of the published writer. (And then the butterfly finds out that it's hard work to keep flying, and that nectar is rare and difficult to find... but that's another story altogether.)

That girl was me. I paid all those dues. It's a matter of pride for me to stand up and say that I am a writer when people ask me what I do for a living. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's sometimes grounds for clinical depression. Those are the valleys of the land; I took them on when I accepted the occasional attainment of those glorious peaks, planting my flag on some personal mountain.

But now there's something called the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it is better known. Its website describes it as a "fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1.The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel by midnight, November 30."

Last year, the NaNoWriMo phenomenon gathered over 5000 hopefuls, of whom 700 succeeded in producing their 50,000 words by the midnight deadline. "They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists," the NaNoWriMo website says.

I'm deeply sorry to wreck this comfortable illusion, but this is self-delusional at best, a flat out lie at worst.

The blurb goes on to say, "Valuing enthusiasm over talent and craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by time and effort involved. It's all about quantity, not quality. Make no mistake, you will be writing a lot of crap. And that is a good thing."

Many people have "thought fleetingly" about writing a novel. But if they are scared away by the time and effort involved, perhaps they SHOULD be scared away. If a wannabe sculptor produces a piece of palpable rubbish, the fact that it is cast in bronze does not make it a piece of art, nor its maker a sculptor. It burns me deeply that this is simply not the case with the written word. Write 50,000 words of what may be unadulterated crap, it seems, and you're automatically "a novelist."

That doesn't raise you anywhere useful. It does, however, diminish me and people like me - professionals who have NOT been scared away by the time and effort involved in producing a novel, who have done hours of research, who have spent hours polishing a piece of work into the best possible shape before submitting it for the judgment of industry professionals. It's because of the kind of the dilettante 'writer' who thinks that stringing words together like beads on a wire is enough to call himself by that name that it has become so difficult for beginners who really do want to make this into a career to get editors and publishers to take them seriously. After all, it might have been produced at NaNoWriMo - and by the program's own admission, the "novelists" were told outright that writing a lot of crap was a good thing.

The website offers this as a list of good reasons to participate in NaNoWriMo: "The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era's most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from your novel at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work."

To mock real novelists.

Who care enough to produce real novels.

How charming it all sounds. Especially if you can make "obscure references" to your novel at parties. I would think most people grow out of THAT before they are out of college. The entire premise behind this seems to be that the promoters really really enjoy the perks of being "a novelist" - the prestige, the carte blanche to act like a prima donna artist, the supposed leisured lifestyle and the endless lunches with editors and sessions of romantic writing with a pencil behind your ear while sitting at a trendy café and sipping your latte while the world roars by. In other words, the classic, classic thing - they would dearly like to "be writers." They do NOT want to put in the time and the effort - those scary things, remember? - in order to actually WRITE, to earn the sobriquet the hard way. Just hanging the shingle "Writer" on one's door is quite enough.

The FAQ on the NaNoWriMo website are what scares me, not the time and effort involved in producing a good novel. Why bother writing 50,000 words of crap, asks one question, why not just write a real novel later, when you have more time?

Three reasons, say the organizers.

1) "If you don't write it now, you probably never will."

Here's the truth, they say: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. Well, does it occur to "those of us" who fall into that category that they may not be MEANT to write a novel? This is not some sort of universal human right - thou shalt write a novel. You either want to write one or not. If you don't have anything to say, you don't have anything to say. Or you may have a good storytelling ability but lack the capacity to put the story across well. None of these things are crimes. But they also don't give you the right to write "50,000 words of crap" in a month and then call yourself a novelist. You are not. You've merely written 50,000 words of crap.

2) "Aiming low is the best way to succeed."

What a piece of codswallop! Nobody would tell you that if you were aiming to be a surgeon. If you want to do something, aim to do it well - or, damn it, get out of the way and leave the field clear for those who DO have that ambition. Be fair, to others and to yourself. If aiming low in this sphere is really all you can do, why don't you look for a sphere where you can aim higher?

3) "Art for art's sake does wonderful things to you."

Doing something just for the hell of it, they say, is a wonderful antidote to all the chores and "must-dos" of daily life. "Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives." Oh, swell, let's all go play in the traffic. I can think of a lot better ways to express one's stupidity than to put yourself through the wringer of writing 50,000 words that do not want to get written.
Can anyone participate in NaNoWriMo?, the FAQ goes on to ask. The answer is no. "People looking to write classy, complex novels should not participate. People who take their writing very seriously should go elsewhere. Everyone else is warmly welcomed." So they are specifically excluding anyone who might have a real stake in this, and welcoming people with no ambition, no real wish to write, only the wish to be able to "make obscure references to their novel" at parties. Excluding the people with drive and passion and, it would appear, that bare modicum of writing talent that would ensure that they took this lark at least a little bit seriously also means that the folks who do participate will have no standards to measure against. It's those 50,000 words of "it's-okay-just-write-it" crap again.

An interview with Chris Baty, one of the originators of the concept of NaNoWriMo, ran in the Melbourne Age, an Australian paper, almost a year ago. In it, Baty reveals more gems about his idea. The trick of it all, he says, is to tell people "don't worry about the quality" - and somehow, magically, this actually makes the quality come. Okay - forget about the training for brain surgery, for architecture, for carpentry. Don't worry if you don't know how to operate on a man, or design a house, or build a shelf. Just go ahead and do it. If the patient dies, the house falls down or the shelf collapses chalk it up to experience and go collar another patient to practice on.

Interviewer Dani Valent asks about "fringe benefits," and Baty, a 28-year-old Californian journalist in real life, replies: "Babes love novelists. Sex appeal like you wouldn't believe. To be able to walk into a room and say "I am a novelist" parts the social Red Sea. It's a very sexy thing to be. December 1 you wake up and it's a whole different dating landscape." (Um, what about lady novelists, Chris? Do they get the same fringe benefits, or is it just the young male Hemingway-wannabes with their turtle-necks and distinguishedly graying half-beards and studious glasses perched on the bridge of their nose that get to get laid by pretending to be what they are not?)

In other words, here it is in a nutshell. We want to Be Writers. We want to talk about this at parties. Hey, who said anything about having to work at it?

I am a writer. I just get terribly, terribly frustrated when something I have devoted my life to is treated in as cavalier a manner as Baty seems to be doing. To be a writer is not a right, it's a privilege. And you cannot buy that privilege by writing "50,000 words of crap" in a month. The price is much, much higher than that.

So you want to write? Write. If you don't have it in you, that thing that drives you, the thing that needs to be said - then find another dream. Make the bourbon for the tortured artists to drink. Bake them a cake. Build them a house.

Don't diminish their accomplishments by calling yourself "a novelist." If writing is your hobby and your interest, that's perfectly fine. For many of us, it's a living. For some of us, it's a vocation. There are people who want to "be writers," and people who want to write. Find out which you are. If it's the latter, you don't need NaNoWriMo - you will not be scared away by the necessary time and effort, you will not be scared away by the bourbon and the coffee and the leftovers. You WILL write, because you cannot not write. If it's the former... find a real writer somewhere and cure yourself of the romantic ideas of what a writer's life is like. And then go and sin no more.

And we can all live happily ever after.

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[Ed. Several letters to the Editor regarding this piece can be found here (please scroll down) and here (please scroll down). Note that we won't publish additional ones.]


Q&A: Chris Baty, The Age, Melbourne, Australia

Letters to a young poet - by Rainer Maria Rilke (Letter one)


Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Hromic is an essential member of Swans. She maintains her own Web site (with Deck Deckert) where she provides information about her work and the professional services she offers: ButterknifeBooks.com

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Published October 21, 2002
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