NaNoWriMo and the braying of wannabe writers

An old post of mine is causing a stir, some folks calling me out for my on-the-record dissing of wannabes and pretend writers.

I guess it’s November, the silly season as far as creative writing goes, everyone and his parakeet sitting with fingers poised over their keyboards, knowing they’ve only got one month (30 days!) to get started on the literary masterpiece they’ve been nurturing many a long year.  Their one shot a fame and fortune, the right to thrust out their chest and proudly proclaim:  “I…am…an…author.”

NaNoWriMo.  National Novel Writing Month.  Your chance to discover what the life of a real writer is like, a limited time offer whereby you can get an idea of the hardships and tribulations your literary heroes face without, y’know, having to work too hard at it.  And better yet, it’s free

As my pal Mike Cane has rightly pointed out, playing at being a writer for 30 days is bad enough but then some of these idjits actually seek to publish their wretched scribbling.  Excrete a malodorous e-book or, at the very least, dump long excerpts of it on their blogs or places like Scribd and Smashwords.  Their deftless whack at a romance novel or derivative vampire potboiler or, yes, yet another zombie apocalypse.

Look, kids, you wanna write, write.  Seriously.  Have at it.  Sit down and write your story/novella/book but then work on it, edit and grind away at it tirelessly, revise it with utter ruthlessness.  For months and months.  When you’re sick and tired of it, show it to someone whose opinion you trust, swallow deep, accept any criticisms they offer and then…back to work again.

DON’T post excerpts of your masterpiece in progress.  You might be tempted but please spare the rest of us your early drafts.  Save ’em for the archives.

DON’T rush it out as an e-book just because the process is quick, cheap and easy.  Invest the time, make your manuscript as flawless as a perfectly cut diamond.  Polish it until it sparkles.

DON’T take on airs of a professional, published author.  Laurels must be earned.

DO join forums where you can share unpublished work with other writers, get more feedback from peers.

DO read and I mean seek out the best authors, not hacks and their semi-literate drivel.

DO remember you’re part of a literary legacy extending back centuries.  You’re seeking to join a fellowship of authors who suffered pain, obscurity, poverty, despair, personal trauma, yet never once abdicated their responsibilities as artists and visionaries.  They refused to compromise or release sub-standard/unfinished work.  Anything they put their name on had their stamp of approval…and still retains its original relevance and power despite the passage of years.

The singer is gone, the song lives on.

* * * * * *

I’ll admit that I’ve been a fierce opponent of NaNoWriMo right from the moment I learned of its existence.  I approach the subject from the point of view of a professional writer with over 25 years in the harness.  Writing is a daily activity to me—I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, paid a big price (physically, mentally, spiritually) for my vocation/obsession.  I take the craft of writing very, very seriously.

And I retain all the respect in the world for colleagues, young and old, who pursue their literary calling with diligence and consistency, not just 30 days of the year but every day, year after year.  I don’t care how many books you’ve sold, where you live or what your field happens to be.  If you’re committed to the regular practice of writing, expend enormous time and energy (whatever you can spare) improving in your craft, showing unstinting reverence for the printed word, you are deserving of the honorific “author” and I’m delighted to make your acquaintance.

Now, let’s go out and stomp some wannabes…


  1. Cliff Burns

    Well, thank you for approaching the topic with an open mind and not reacting defensively (as so many people are wont to do). I have, for years, argued that the internet needs to develop a credible critical community that will help frustrated readers separate the wheat from the chaff. I read a recent article that discusses the explosion of published books in the last few years (let’s not even get into e-books). The vast majority of indie/self-published efforts are amateurish and embarrassing but there’s enough good stuff out there to reward discriminating readers. Let’s do what we can to help them find it, yes?

  2. Sean Newton

    I am certainly against people publishing anything they write for NaNoWriMo(as it is ultimately just plain embarassing), or even putting it on the web, but for folks like myself, I think it works rather well as a method of forcing myself to write each night. Although I certainly understand and agree with what you’re saying…

  3. Cliff Burns

    If NaNoWriMo is treated like a writing exercise, I have no problem with it. But where do you get the writing discipline when it’s not November and NaNoWriMo is nowhere to be seen?

    Some days I can barely drag my sorry ass to my desk. Takes me ages to commence work. I make up small tasks and procrastinate like crazy. But eventually I get down to it. Every day, seven days a week. Year in, year out. Who can explain such a thing? The source of such an insane drive? Writing “in defiance of all the world’s muteness”. Writing, in fact, as if my continuing existence is at stake…

  4. Aurora, HSP

    Well, I hate to burst the bubble of hate for NaNoWriMo writers, Cliff, but the three I know of who are participating not only write every single day but sometimes several times a day.

    Also, I did, myself, once participate in a long weekend writing exercise in ’87, I think, produced 110 pages in a 3 day labour day weekend. Now, admittedly, much of it was not publishable material on just three hours sleep the whole weekend but neither are the other three novels I wrote well since then. They were “learning ground.”

    I may extract pieces of one from another or rewrite one of them one day. But not the romance. My romance writer friend tells me it was great but I did just to see if I could. I can. The only problem is I was a kid who chastised her mother for reading such garbage and it is not true to who I am as a writer (slice of life fiction or creative non-fiction primarily).

    We can bellow all we want about being in the trenches but there will be new writers every day or old ones who’ve faltered who could use the kick start of NNWM. I applaud them. And you for speaking your mind. After all, if we can’t do that, why write at all?

    Have you read Ed Griffin’s pages (Writer’s Write link is on my blog) He has been in the trenches for a long time, was one of my Creative Writing Diploma instructors in the 90’s and still inspires me with not only who he is but his relentless support of writers.

    Working with children in the 80’s, I remember someone saying “It’s no good if they will only read comic books” and I said, “That they read at all is what matters, everyone has to start somewhere.” Same for writing, in my book of life. We can simply write a quote and call ourselves authors/writers but the heart knows for sure. Sorry this heart blogged on your blog. I just had to be different from the pack 🙂 LOL

  5. Cliff Burns

    I believe in the “relentless support” of good writers, dedicated writers. Not part-timers, not dilettantes. I think you’ll see from a careful reading of my various posts on NaNoWriMo and creative writing courses that I have nothing but admiration for those of my colleagues who take their calling seriously and expend every moment they can improving as writers, growing into their art.

    Thanks for your words this afternoon. Much appreciated…

  6. beautywalk

    It was amusing to read your post. When I was in art school we also had the elitist attitude as to who was a real artist, the sculptors verse painters or potters or craft vs art then of course the Sunday painters who do barns, flowers and red things to match the couch.
    But now that I am older and wiser I do not waste my time being judgmental or jealous of those that do. I just do. Do what ever I need to do to say what I have to say in a creative way. I do not have to buy or even look at the “Sunday artist” or perhaps like me they were a single mom raising 2 kids working 3 jobs without state or child support and that is the only opportunity they have because the rest of the week is spent working a real job for the insurance health, home, car, and child care.
    I hold a critical eye and do not accept everything as art or literature. I for one do not read science fiction although I did attend an intensive with a New York Times best selling science fiction author. That is my choice and preference which does not make him any less qualified.
    I am doing NaMoWriMo because it gives me a goal, a finish line. I do not believe my work to be finished11/30/11 but it does give me something concrete to work with.
    As to e-books and hard copies well just look at Borders Book Store. We need to change with the times. Unfortunately the students today do not read or write and text language has sadly become acceptable for many college campus papers rather than APA or MLA format.
    Who you are and how you describe yourself is fine with me. Me, I am a dream dancer, a storyteller who dances dreams into reality and I have done that all my life through dance, sculpture, art, poetry and storytelling performance.
    I love being me and if my participation in NaMoWriMo bothers you then it “sucks to be you,” as the youth say.
    Oh, by the way I hold a BFA in fine art, Masters in Ethnic Dance, Masters in Creative expression, PhD in violent psychology and I chose to follow my heart.
    Yotaki Beautywalk

  7. Cliff Burns

    Thanks for popping in.

    I’ve been accused of being an elitist before and, frankly, I take it as a compliment. I work very hard at my craft and I don’t think much of people who lack the courage and commitment to devote themselves to the printed word to the extent I do. Dabblers aren’t authors, though they’re very quick to claim a title that, rightfully, should be earned. I’m a better writer than the vast majority of scribblers out there because writing is an obsession and calling to me and I treat the process of creation with absolute reverence. Not many folks have the depth of commitment I do, the passion and intensity it requires to create superior, well-crafted prose for over a quarter of a century. It takes an enormous toll and the rewards are few. But the notion of serving the magnificent cause of literature, creating tales that aren’t twice-told, is too enticing to resist.

    And so every day, every single day, rain or shine, healthy or sick, I sit at my desk, pick up my pen and start all over again…

  8. friends with bivalves

    While I believe that the easier ways to self-publish in today’s society are actually a positive change, it also breeds self-entitlement even more. Anyone who writes something assumes they can half-ass it, publish it, then sit back and wait for the results. Then if it doesn’t go over all that well, they sulk and complain. It seems to be an epidemic in today’s society – assuming we all deserve the max amount of respect and profit with the most minimal amount of effort.

    Keep up your excellent work, and may you have 25 years (and even more!) of writing ahead of you!

  9. Cliff Burns

    Your point on “self-entitlement” is very well-made. Isn’t it fortunate we don’t allow people to call themselves “nuclear physicists” or “medical laboratory technicians” without proper professional accreditation?

    Thanks for the words…

  10. Keith Shannon

    Dear Cliff,

    You Foul Bruins Fan.

    The only question I have about this post is applicability. Fiction, non-fiction, articles, papers, journals, etc… Do they all get treated the same way?

    Same issues?

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