I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this term. I like to think that I am, though, so I’m going to claim that I am. “NaNoCruft”. It’s the term I use to refer to the bits of prose that you used to fatten up your word count when writing your National Novel Writing Month (or, NaNoWriMo) novel. It’s the stuff that, even two revisions later, causes one of the members of your writers’ group to say, “Huh. You wrote this during NaNoWriMo, didn’t you?”
NaNoWriMo is, for the uninitiated, all about writing a novel in one month. For the purposes of the project, a novel is defined as a work of fiction 50,000 words or more in length. It’s a pretty arbitrary target, but it seems to work for many thousands of people worldwide every November. The number of participants worldwide has been steadily increasing since it was started by Chris Baty in 1999; and the number of “winners” — people who actually make it to the 50,000 word mark and beyond — has also increased. A few published novels, including the bestselling Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, started out life as NaNoWriMo novels, and I think that the majority of the participants in NaNoWriMo share the dream of publishing their novel, having it become a bestseller, be optioned for a film, and so on. It’s why so many of us go on after November to either finish up the novel (it’s common for participants to complain that even though they reached the 50,000 word mark, their story is still far from complete), or to edit it. Some have even gone on to designate every February as NaNoEdMo, and there are usually at least a couple thousands participants in that as well.
Because the emphasis of NaNoWriMo is on quantity and not quality, there are a number of tricks that participants use to pad out their word count, and it’s this padding that ends up being “NaNoCruft” when it isn’t removed during subsequent edits. In my own novel, The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster, which started out as my 2005 NaNoWriMo novel (and I’m still working on it nearly four years novel? Ouch), readers in my novelists’ group have identified several habits that count as “NaNoCruft”. Excessive ruminating, for example; my characters frequently ruminate on events that have already transpired. This ends up with the same events being told two or more times. An attack by monsters is not just shown, but the characters involved talk about it amongst themselves, think about it, and whenever a point of view is shifted, the characters ruminate about it again. And again. And again. I’ve tried to eliminate most of this rumination, but some still remains, and that’s NaNoCruft. Characters of mine also make long speeches about irrelevant topics. This, too, is NaNoCruft. Extraneous characters show up and do things that aren’t relevant to the action of the novel. More NaNoCruft.
NaNoCruft is difficult to eliminate. Plenty of writers fall deeply in love with their own words, with their own clever turns of phrases, with their own characters, and so on; so to eliminate any of them can feel like amputation without any sort of anesthesia. It hurts, so they try to avoid it. And because writers are so deeply entrenched in their work, they have blind spots to their own faults. I certainly do, and that makes it hard for me to track down and eliminate my own NaNoCruft. I’m always surprised when a member of my novelists’ group points out a passage in a draft of STSM and say, “This shows me you wrote it during NaNoWriMo.”
Thus, with its focus on just getting 50,000 words written, regardless of whether or not they’re good words, NaNoWriMo can encourage bad habits for writers that are difficult for the writer to see, much less get rid of. This is not to say that NaNoWriMo is a bad idea. I’ve participated every year since 2001 (skipping 2002), and each year I’ve hit that 50,000 word mark. I fully intend to participate this year. For the last two years I’ve served as the co-municipal liaison for our area, and I plan on doing it again.
NaNoWriMo is great for writers who need a boost getting their project started, or who just want to get some words down. Or who just want to say, “Hey! I wrote a book!” But finding and eliminating the NaNoCruft that creeps into my own novels can more difficult than imagined. So I think that for 2009, the main challenge I’ll set for myself in NaNoWriMo is to avoid as much NaNoCruft as possible during the actual writing, so that when I set to the task of editing the project later on, there will be that much less work for me to do.