NaNo Prep season is here, and we’re asking friends of NaNo HQ to help you get ready to tell your story this November. Today, author and NaNo Writers Boardmember Hugh Howey reveals the truth behind the lie of what it takes to be a novelist:
To paraphrase John Grisham: “Writing a novel is not as easy as some readers think. Nor is it as difficult as many writers make it out to be.” Mr. Grisham proceeded to describe his daily writing routine: He spends two to three hours every morning writing, and most of the rest of his time is spent fishing. This is enough to produce one riveting and bestselling novel in just a few months.
His admission came as a revelation to those in the audience who had never written a novel but dearly wanted to. Here was one of the greats demystifying the process. It was as simple as a few hours every day, and the result was a completed novel in less than a year. How was this possible? I had spent the last twenty years of my life dreaming of writing a novel, with dozens of fits and starts, and all I had were scattered chapters to show for it…
The interview with Mr. Grisham took place at the 2009 Virginia Festival of the Book. I was in attendance, covering and critiquing that which I could not do. In another panel, an aspiring writer asked four bestselling authors for advice on completing her first novel. Caroline Todd’s answer hit me as hard as Mr. Grisham’s admission had. “You stop thinking about writing,” Mrs. Todd said. “You stop dreaming about writing. You stop talking about being a writer, and you sit down and write.”
Returning home from this book festival, I sat in front of my computer and knocked out a rough draft for my first novel. It took me two weeks to write a 100,000 word manuscript. And it wasn’t bad. I sent it around to friends and family first, and then I queried agents and publishers. Two small presses made offers within weeks of submitting it. I was now a published author. Twenty years of procrastinating and two weeks of writing. But here’s the thing: It’s the two weeks that I’m ashamed of.
The twenty years of futility are worn like a badge of honor. The two weeks of writing for ten to twelve hours a day are a dirty secret to keep hidden. Because art takes suffering. Nothing of value can be accomplished in so short a time. Dues are paid in decades. And this is the lie that Mr. Grisham and Mrs. Todd so eloquently destroyed. The truth is this: Writing a novel is about daily sustained effort. Two hours a day isn’t so bad. It’s the not missing a day that gets you.
The real value of this lesson was learned later that same year, as I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Every year, hundreds of thousands of writers challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. Doing so requires 1,667 words per day. That’s not a difficult target to hit. The trick is hitting it every single day.
If writers are great at one thing, it’s not writing. This is the only class of professionals who have a sympathy-inducing excuse for doing nothing, which we call Writer’s Block. It means we can take guilt-free naps. It also means we can put off writing until what should take five months takes five years. And nobody—not the least of which is ourselves—can hold us responsible.
The genius of NaNoWriMo is that it holds us responsible. It does this with daily writing targets and progress graphs, but more importantly by providing the one thing many writers suffer without, and that’s community. On our NaNoWriMo homepage, we see our writing buddies’ progress meters, which reminds us to get cracking. We cheer one another on in the forums. We receive emails from accomplished writers with encouragement and advice. And we meet with other participants in our physical community to write in coffee shops and libraries.
Writing is neither as hard as we make it out to be nor as simple as we’d like it to be. It takes sustained daily effort, and the sustained bit is tricky. This past year was to be my fifth NaNoWriMo. I wrote a novel in each of my previous four Novembers. All of those books have been published and have sold over two million copies between them. But this time it wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t happen. I was going to be out of the country the entire month of November on book tour. Maybe next year.
“Maybe next year” is how I compiled twenty years of futility. “Maybe I can find the time to write today” is how I made a career as an author. So rather than take an easy excuse, I found two or three hours every single day, and across eight countries and during a brutal schedule, I wrote another novel that I’m proud of.
This pride is the greatest lesson I’ve learned from NaNoWriMo. It’s more important than even the lessons of good daily writing habits and the willpower to overcome procrastination. For the longest time, I thought there was honor in all the years I spent dreaming of writing while doing very little of it. And for years I wouldn’t admit to anyone that I wrote my debut novel in two weeks. Pride in doing nothing. Shame in accomplishment. It should be the other way around.
To participate in NaNoWriMo is to learn firsthand the truth of Mr. Grisham’s and Mrs. Todd’s advice: Writing isn’t as hard as we make it out to be. You simply have to commit to doing it. And any month—maybe even this November—is a good time to start.