Thursday, November 27, 2008

National Novel Writing Month as a Software Project

Well, my National Novel Writing Month project crossed the finish line the day before Thanksgiving: 50,000 words in the file (lovingly counted by NaNoWriMo's computers), a beginning, middle and end (lovingly checked by me), and something resembling a plot, characters and setting. In NaNoWriMo parlance, I am a "winner," though all it entitles me to is the little graphic (at right) saying I'm a winner. I'd rather have a nice fat publishing contract... Oh, wait, I already have one of those--and if I'd been paying more attention to what I should be doing, I'd have spent the month promoting The Last Protector. Oh well, writing, especially in a sort of social event context, is more fun.

Okay, so I put fifty thousand words, most of them in more-or-less grammatical sentences, into a document that (I think) tells at least the rudiments of a story. So what? To be honest, I'm not sure myself. Certainly, I don't have a novel here, at least not yet. Maybe not at all. For one thing, a novel is longer than 50K words (The Last Protector weighs in at about three times that). The Shape of Things (my current working title, subject to further change) will need to at least double in size before I consider it worthy of trying to sell.

More important, before I'd be willing to toss a manuscript at a publisher or agent, I'd need to believe it really tells a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end, interesting characters and situations, puzzles and solutions, conflict and resolution, sin and redemption... y'know, all those things that make a novel a novel and not just a collection of unrelated events. And that's a place in which the whole NaNoWriMo philosophy sort of lets me down. The NaNo system stresses only producing a large number of words on a short schedule. The "plan" includes a quota of 1667 words a day; do this for thirty days and you'll cross the finish line on the last day. There's a nice animated display on the website, showing your daily progress. Attend one of the "write-in" events, where people gather to urge each other on toward the elusive goal, and you'll be swept up in "word wars," races to see who can create the most words in a fixed period. Fabulous (your valuation may vary) prizes await!

But what about quality? The words are counted by a machine, and if the machine counts over 50,000, you're a "winner." That's that. Matter of fact, the NaNo pep-talk emails remind the writer to avoid time-wasting things like editing, revising, even going back and seeing if the stuff you wrote yesterday makes any sense at all. "Never look back! November is for writing, you can edit in December." In part, this is a simple technical issue: the only thing the software at NaNoWriMo World Domination Headquarters can actually measure is the number of words you wrote. It can't determine whether those words are put together into actual sentences, let alone whether those sentences fit together to tell a story. (In truth, the software doesn't actually count words; it counts clumps of characters separated by spaces and punctuation. To a word-counting program, "xyzzy" is a word.)

It reminded me of working in the software industry, where I often saw projects that "managed" (and I put the word in quotes for a reason) by setting arbitrary goals (like 50,000 words in a month; or 300,000 non-commentary source lines by four programmers in one year), making a linear schedule (1667 words a day, or 375 source lines per programmer per day), and obsessively counting the one thing they can count (words, or lines that pass the compiler's syntax checks). Testing can be done later; this part of the schedule is for filling up files. Next month (or next year), we'll find out if any of the stuff worked. Or, to be a bit cruder, both NaNo and the software industry seem at times a lot like toilet training: you don't care how much the stuff stinks; all that matters is where, when and how much gets produced (thanks to Jerry Weinberg for that pungent metaphor).

In defense of NaNoWriMo (but not of software projects), I should probably note that a lot of people who take the "50K in 30 days" challenge are people who haven't been taught how to write a long piece, and for whom the greatest challenge is to get past the terror of the blank page. The "never look back, never edit" advice does at least keep writers from spending the whole month re-doing the first two paragraphs in search of impossible perfection. (Of course, there's something to be said for getting the first few paragraphs as perfect as possible--they're the first thing that agents, publishers, editors and often readers are going to look at. If you don't hook 'em here, you won't hook 'em at all, and it won't matter how good the rest of your book is. That's why the opening of The Last Protector got rewritten close to a dozen times.)

Nevertheless, the problem remains the same: just as you can't test quality into fundamentally bad software (though this doesn't stop a lot of projects from trying), I don't think you can edit quality into a crappy novel. Unless your "editing" ends up being a complete, end-to-end replacement of plot, characters, setting, dialogue--the equivalent of the old auto-repair advice to unscrew the radiator cap and drive a new car under it.

I found I couldn't stick to the NaNoWriMo discipline of "never look back, never edit." I kept going back and changing things when I wrote something on page 57 that required a specific setup back on page 35. And then I discovered what wretched crap page 35 was--what was I thinking when I wrote this--and so I rewrote a few hundred words to make them even marginally decent.

Anyway, the experiment in high-speed writing is over for now. I have some loose ends to tidy up, a few stub scenes to flesh out, and then I'm going to put the thing away for at least a couple months. With any luck, I'll be able to concentrate on selling a few more copies of the book I have in print, so that my publisher will want to consider the follow-on book (which I also didn't work on during November because I was doing NaNo, sigh). When I come back to it in February, I'll decide whether it's the seed of a real book or just a dead raccoon in the middle of the roadway.

Speaking of the roadway, perhaps the nicest thing about finishing the NaNoWriMo project yesterday is that I got to spend today out on the road on my Harley. Sunshine, pretty-nice-for-late-November temperatures, and $1.57-per-gallon gas made for a lot more fun than sitting in front of a keyboard sticking words together. (And it's supposed to be equally nice tomorrow. Whoopee!!)

CONSUMER ADVISORY: the book advertised for sale on this page was not created using the NaNoWriMo Method. I did The Last Protector the old-fashioned way, lovingly crafting, writing and rewriting every word over a nine-year period.


David said...

Lovey, Dan. It s always too easy to slip into focusing upon the measurement as if that were the purpose, or even the method. Still, as you point out, the measurement does carry motive power. But as you also point out, the motive power must be invoked mindfully. Break some of the rules much of the time, retaining perhaps only the intent. And the intent was not to produce 1667 words per day, but to get to 50,000 words by month's end. And even that intent was bogus for anyone really interested in writing rather than simply producing. The milestone was just a ruse, perhaps under the wise notion that people need such a ruse to stumble upon the writer inside them. The target numb-ers can numb the critic, still the editor, quiet the mumbling judge blocking every would-be writer. Might as well open the floodgates and see what floats, Huh? david

Liz C said...

For me, it was an exercise in 'shut up and just do it', not unlike taking that step off the high dive for the first time. I had no idea what would happen. I didn't know if I'd make it past the first page, but I ended up with over 75K.

More surprisingly, I ended up with something resembling a story, with characters who did things I hadn't planned, and everything. It was an amazing experience for a non-writer.

If there had been too many rules, I would never have done it. Will I ever do anything with what I wrote? Maybe, someday. But first I need to learn how to write.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that I now read books with a much different eye. So much to learn....