Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Subject to Subjectivity

There has been a great deal of recent talk on various blogs and boards about NaNoWriMo and, as a natural following point, the rights and wrongs of writing fiction. To an extent, I find the more pontificating posts laughable. We aren't discussing mathematics here. There aren't clear right and wrong ways to learn to write, or clear right and wrong ways to compose fiction, so long as the end result--not the first draft--is good. And even that is too subjective for any bold statement. "Good" is what is enjoyable to your target audience, whether that be a family member, fans of a particular genre, or just you. Beyond the technical details of grammar, vocabulary and spelling, there isn't a simple way to measure good prose. Just as a single example, I happen to despise Hemingway--despise is not too strong a word here. Both his style and his content completely rub me the wrong way. I do admire him for having such a distinctive style, and I think everyone should read at least one of his books just to glimpse that style--I'd recommend The Old Man and the Sea, which I almost didn't not like (double negative intended)--but I would never want to emulate him. His writing, to my mind, isn't good literature. I find it all but unreadable, and constantly wanted to rewrite it as I went through. Obviously, plenty disagree. His books sell; he has legions of fans. It doesn't really matter that I, personally, don't like his writing.

The process writers use--real writers, not just folks like me who write primarily for amusement--varies as greatly as their text. Again, an example: let me refer one more time to the Tess Gerritson comments I referenced a few posts back. She writes about teaching writing workshops with Michael Palmer. Both are successful authors in the medical thriller genre; both are what I would consider to be good writers from a technical standpoint. But they approach their stories from wildly different angles. Michael Palmer plans extensively, down to the smallest details. Tess says she has no idea where the story will go, and that she finds it impossible to plan ahead. They both get great results, in my opinion. Who's right? Wouldn't it be better to try both approaches for ourselves and see what works? Some writers write by hand or using a typewriter; some only use computers. Some writers produce a paragraph a day, some produce pages and pages; some edit extensively as they go along, some do major revision when they finish the draft in its entirety. If it works for them, it works. I get the impression that many of those who put NaNoWriMo down are those who have found that it is absolutely wrong for them. It isn't an approach that works for them; it makes them uneasy and uncomfortable. Maybe they are the sort of people who edit and revise as they go, perhaps, or who don't write every day, who mix projects, whatever the case might be.

But for me, I have to say, it was a revelation. I admit that I'm currently turned off a bit by the cult phenomenon it has become, with some participants trying to outdo one another in extremes; but the basic concept is sound: set a date, set a deadline, and commit to writing steadily, every day. And for all the talk about sleep deprivation and marathon caffeine-fueled writing binges, we really aren't talking absurd quantities here. We're talking well under 2000 words a day, every day for a month. This post comes to about half the daily total all on its own. The daily word count for NaNoWriMo can be completed in a few hours worth of writing, spread throughout a day.

Prior to my first NaNoWriMo, I'd never written anything that extensive. I was one of those geeky kids who always had a journal going, who carried a notebook and documented anything and everything, wrote poems, wrote stories, wrote. And I'd written technical documentation for work. But a longer fictional work--a rough draft for a novel--this was something mythical, something unreachable, something one had to be born to do. When a friend talked me into doing NaNoWriMo for the first time six years ago, I thought she was insane. But I battled my way through it, and finished the story. It isn't something I would show to anyone, but it taught me a great deal, nonetheless. I knew I was capable of that first step in novel writing, of producing the raw material of writing: the rough draft. I understood the ebb and flow of writing something of novel length. No, it wasn't a finished product. And I admit, although it's a semantic detail, I don't care to see the word "novel" used to describe works in progress. I always just say "story," which sounds juvenile, but at least not pretentious. To me, the word "novel" bespeaks a finished product, polished and published.

But many people would never achieve that raw material without NaNo to give them a kick in the pants. It's a good start. It won't make one a writer overnight--and I think anyone hanging out at the website would understand that most don't believe it will. If you don't care for it, so be it. But dismissing it entirely is shortsighted.

This post was drafted by hand, with pen and paper, and then typed and edited, 'cause that's what works for me....


Duffy Moon said...

Well said, Elizabeth.

I wonder if the NaNoPooPooers could branch out into some other creative areas? Like, I could have one stand over my shoulder during the day so that, in the event I start to doodle something on paper, they could offer helpful advice like: "What are you trying to do, pretend you're a real artist? If you're just gonna draw crappy sketches, why bother? What a waste of time! No one is ever gonna want to look at that, so quit fooling yourself..." and the like.

Or, say I want to play a little tune on the piano in my home. They could slam the thing shut with uplifting admonitions like: "Why don't we leave the piano playing to professionals, huh? You think you're some kind of Bach or something? What the heck?! Stop being so juvenile. Just because you peck at the ivorys doesn't make you a musician. You're pathetic." and c.

Perhaps they could also put an end to: my singing in the shower, my kids 'inventing' new board games, my wife's ceramic experiments; anything better left to 'professional artists'.

Anonymous said...

Bang on, Duffy. Hey, maybe I'll go over to their houses and tell them that they have no business touching a computer because I have a technical certification and they don't.

I see the same attitude in the photography world. There's a certain segment of professional photogs who look with disdain upon photo sites like Flickr. They sniff that just because an amateur has a camera they shouldn't think of themselves as "photographers", and really they ought to just stop ruining "real" photography by flooding the Internet with crappy photos. Often times, these art snobs aren't even that good; they've confused having taken lots of classes and bought lots of expensive equipment with quality.

FWIW, when I reached the end of The Old Man and the Sea, I wanted to throw it across the room. IMO, E.H.'s writing style was much better suited to short stories.

mpclemens said...

Confession time: I've never read any Hemingway, even under duress. Oh no, I'm undereducated AND an amateur! I'll commence the wrist-slitting now.

I have learned to appreciate Dickens once I got past high school and being made to read it. I even picked up an old copy of War and Peace that I read faithfully on the morning train for about two months... and liked it.

I also really enjoyed the Harry Potter series, though, just to keep my pop-reading::real-reading ratio in balance, you know.

Elizabeth H. said...

There are many of the same types in other fields, for sure. I'm as much an amateur musician as an amateur writer, and there are, even among musicians, folks who disdain anyone who plays music as an adult without any intention of doing something serious with it, especially anyone who attends camps and workshops on music playing. Because real professionals, you know, just do it. They don't endlessly pal around with other amateurs, having fun. And why would you want to do something difficult in a sub-par kind of a way, without profit? There are also those who won't ever go see local bands, because they find no enjoyment in anything so plebian.

Olivander, regarding E.H.: the first book I read was A Farewell to Arms. I made it through the whole thing, but emerged battle-scarred, so to speak. After that, The Old Man and the Sea didn't seem so bad--only by comparison. And I do like much of the imagery in that book.

I'm a big fan of imagery and description, so I'm one of those who liked Dickens even from the start. I read every Dickens book I could get my hands on when I was thirteen or fourteen, and still revisit most of them every few years. Except David Copperfield, anyway. 'Cause he was a shortsighted twit. And Dora is one of the most obnoxious characters in all of literature. But it's about time I revisited Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities....

Strikethru said...

Duffy, heh. Hey, I know. Let's all be TypeCastPooPooers. Next time an earnest typecaster scans his or her first musings, we will circle our wagons and attack!

Elizabeth, I am no Hemingway fan either. I think that dude was crazy. You know the whole thing with the cats? What was that about?

Lisa said...

Before radio, tv - and video and audio recording - much of cultural transmission depended on amateur musicians, singers, semiprofessional artists -- and those willing to write, act in, costume, and see plays performed (and sometimes written) by whoever happened to be present.

Countless wonderful books were (and are) written by authors who did not have MFA's and did not support themselves by writing (or however one wishes to define 'professional writer'): this likely includes some of the NaNoPooPooers favorite books.

Anything that gives people a sense of courage and a taste of the commitment needed for any kind of art deserves encouragement!

(Or did I miss the part where someone is forced to read the entire NaNo output?)