NaNoWriMo Pep Talk: The Perfect Machine Versus The Art Monster

Last year, I did an official NaNoWriMo pep talk.

This year, I’m doing an unofficial one. With more swearing.

LET US BEGIN.

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Behold, the novel.

The novel is a big thing, a meaty thing, all the meatier if you’re holding an epic fantasy or a literary magnum opus or pretty much anything by Neal Stephenson. It is big and it contains multitudes because at the end of the day, a novel is a bit like a machine. A machine is a working apparatus comprising several interlocking and often moving parts who work together with power applies to accomplish a single goal. That is a novel. A novel is a narrative apparatus. It contains many moving parts: characters, plot, theme, words, sentences, ideas. These parts do not exist separately but operate together in order to tell a story and, ideally, make you feel stuff and think things. You power the novel with your own attention. Eyes scanning paragraphs. Fingers turning or swiping pages. Your mind drawing the story forward with desire.

The novel is a machine, and a machine is meant to be meticulous in its design.

A machine has to work almost perfectly in order to work effectively. If it’s canning peaches, it can’t not can some peaches and leave them sloppy on the conveyor belt. If it’s a power tool, it has to work effectively and regularly — if your drill does not drill or your saw won’t cut, you won’t buy it. If you’re designing a sex machine, the sex machine must sex. Nobody’s going to apply their genitals and their partner’s genitals to a sex machine that won’t sex, goddamnit. I mean, I’m sure somebody will. I expect there are whole hosts of people wandering the streets who will apply their genitals to any immobile object — parking meters, chained bicycles, espresso machines — but you’re not designing a machine for them. You’re designing the machine to meet the larger need. You’re designing your machine for the greater group.

And a novel is like that. You’re designing it not for one person, but for people all over who like the sort of thing you’re writing. It can be niche, but the niche is likely broader than Dave from Topeka.

As such, it’s hard to envision National Novel Writing Month being a good way to build a machine. The iPhone wasn’t designed by a bunch of wine-drunk chimpanzees in a weekend. The space shuttle isn’t the result of some hermit throwing shit together in his garage with duct tape and a soldering iron. These machines took time. They took effort. They took design after design, iteration after iteration. They took endless hours of thought and planning and agitation before execution even began. And NaNoWriMo certainly isn’t that, is it? It’s right to execution. It’s pen to paper, rubber meets road, go, go, go. Turn off your brain and create.

Ah, but here you may think — and you’d think it somewhat correctly — that NaNoWriMo slots very well into that iterative process if you let it. It isn’t the end result. It isn’t the final machine. No, rather, a novel written with NaNoWriMo is just one creative oscillation — it is a hastily barfed design. It is the equivalent to a late night drinking coffee and scrawling blueprints. It’s like a programming hackathon: sit down in order to ideate and iterate. So, that works, right?

You know, though, I’m gonna call bullshit on that.

Because really, a novel isn’t like a machine at all.

A machine is meant to perform a singular task and it is meant to perform it that way for most of the people who use it according to its design. A novel ain’t that.

A novel is a big, messy thing. It is a tangle of ideas. It is a subjective expression where the experience of one reader will different from the next. It’s a meth-addled Escher print.

No, a novel is not a machine. A novel is a creature. A creature who eats ideas and craps art. A creature who is adorable to some, disgusting to others. The novel is a wonderful beastie who will not be easily contained, who can be trained but not programmed, who has personality and imperfection and is unlike any other of its kind despite looking an awful lot like others of its kind. A novel features the flaws and foibles of the nearly-miraculous human body — a human body where we can bite the inside of our cheeks or stub our dumb monkey toes or go bald or get rashes. A novel is driven by its imprecision, by its charming inexactitude. A novel lives in the shadow of perfection and it does just fine there, thank you very much.

Striving for perfection is a fool’s game. You can never get there, and frankly, you don’t really even want it. Because perfection is boring. Perfection is the elegance of an unwritten page — a gleaming white unmarred expanse. As I have noted before, your job is to fuck that all up. Stomp on it with muddy footprints. Get your jam-stained fingerprints all over it. The creation of a novel is an act of glorious imperfection, a ruination of the vacuum where your novel did not exist before. The perfect is always the enemy of the good. The machine is the enemy of the art. As was said in Glengarry Glen Ross: fuck the machine. Fuck perfection.

NaNoWriMo is your opportunity to do exactly that.

Sometimes you gotta go to Wal-Mart drunk and buy everything you shouldn’t buy.

Sometimes you gotta stay up all night designing monsters and destroying worlds.

Sometimes you need to light yourself on fire and run through an orphanage.

Go have a gangbang in a mud pit. Go base-jump off Godzilla. Go punch three clowns.

Embrace chaos. Break the machine. Make some art.

Go be reckless.

Go write a novel.

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30 Days In The Word Mines takes you on a month-long journey of writing, offering pages filled with practical writing tips, motivational throat-punches, and meditative ruminations on the craft of writing and art of storytelling.

Whether you’re running with National Novel Writing Month or just want to hunker down and write to see just how far you can get, this book will help you every step of the way with a new tip, trick or thought every day of the trip.

Grab the book at Amazon.

Or, right now, nab the book for 33% off here using code NANOWRIMO.

And don’t forget to check out the NaNoWriMo Storybundle — 13 writing-related e-books, plus another 12 if you meet the $25 threshold. Money split between authors, Storybundle, and charity.