NaNoWriMo: Productive or Pointless?

It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not referring to the time of year when you dress up in strange costumes and either scare or offend your entire neighborhood. I’m talking about November, National Novel Writing Month, the month during which hundreds of thousands of people stash obscene amounts of caffeine products in their house and develop insomnia in order to produce 50,000 words of prose.

Now, full disclosure: I have never completed a novel during NaNoWriMo. I’ve hit the 50k word limit by putting every story I’d attempted that month into a word document, but I’ve never genuinely written a novel for NaNo. I tend to burn out before the month has even started, spending weeks and months plotting in anticipation, and then reaching November, only to realize that I’ve plotted away any room for impulsiveness or creativity.

Still, countless people swear by NaNoWriMo as the single best motivational force in their lives. And every year, without fail, the NaNo hype eventually finds its way to me. This year, though, I’m not doing NaNo. I’m not even attempting it. I know that, with university applications and a self-publishing project on my plate, not doing NaNoWriMo is the best thing for me. But oh, am I ever bummed about it.

The thing about NaNo is that, regardless of whether you actually complete a manuscript (let alone a single chapter), it’s an event that brings writers together. Forums, write-ins, meetups, word wars, critique partners, and any form of support are the most essential part of a writing career. I know how much I depend on those elements.

So, here’s my verdict: is NaNoWriMo the best method of writing a novel? Maybe for some people. Is NaNoWriMo a unique and effective experience? Yes. Oh, yes.

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Fashion in Fiction

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You’ve seen it before somewhere. You flip through the pages of a novel, thinking to yourself than the story would have so much more potential if all the words weren’t wasted on gratuitous descriptions of the characters’ clothing. It would be fine, you tell yourself, if the author were describing some elaborate elven dress or a fantastical suit of armor. Instead, though, you’re weighed down in brand name porn, and you can’t read a sentence without hearing about the protagonist’s Louis Vuitton bag and Juicy Couture sweatpants and limited edition Alexander McQueen silk skull scarf in just the right shade of red for her skin tone.

My friend, you have encountered fashion in fiction.

Everyone loves to hate on extensive label-dropping in books. It’s bad enough, we say, to describe your protagonist in excessive detail, but going into depths about her clothing is just the cherry on top of terribly written chick lit. It’s the sign of a Mary Sue, both a self-insert and a wish-fulfillment character of the author’s, it gives women in fiction a bad name, it’s such a teenage girl thing to do. It’s just so stereotypically feminine.

I find it funny how often feminine is used as a synonym for bad writing.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the vendetta against Mary Sues in fiction, specifically YA fiction, and on how this trend is a reflection of a more widespread problem of sexism in the industry (here are some of my favourite writings on the topic). It’s pretty established that teenage girls are demonized in our society, and the way this is reflected in the criticism female characters receive. It’s also been noted that male wish fulfillment characters (hello, Batman, Eragon, cough cough) are not at all resented to the same degree as their female counterparts.

I’m not here to deny that lots of fiction is bad, nor that lots of fiction for teenage girls is bad, nor that lots of fiction by teenage girls is bad. Of course there are teenage girls who will produce bad work; honing a skill involved a learning curve, and whether that’s writing YA or learning to ski or playing violin, everyone knows that the starting point of that learning curve can have some pretty horrendous results. But why does that reflect badly on young women as a whole? And why does femininity make something automatically inferior?

I love fashion. I love shopping. When I’m out on the street, I make a game out of identifying every designer bag I come across. When I’m feeling homesick, I go browsing in department stores, even if all I intend on doing is touching soft sweaters and sniffing perfume samples. A significant amount of my brainpower is spent on fashion, and that’s no less real nor relevant than anyone else’s experience, and no less worthy of being written. People don’t begrudge authors gratuitous descriptions of food, or of architecture, so why not clothing?

Without further ado, here are my tips on writing fashion into fiction:

1.       Write it because it matters to the character, not because it matters to you.

When I’m getting ready to go out, I’m not mindlessly reciting the brand names of every item I put on. I’m thinking about how fancy I need to be or how casual I need to be, should I wear this purse with this crowd or will that be too rude or too cheap, oh god, I love this top but all my nude bras are in the laundry, where the hell is my white bandeau, do I wear this with heels or will I tower too high, hang on let me check the weather too see if it’s cold enough for this scarf. I may be thinking about where my clothes are from, but there’s more depth and process to it than just inelegant name-dropping. Show, don’t tell, how fashion is meaningful to your character and story.
 

2.       Write it because it matters to the audience, not because it matters to you.

If you write a two-page description of your character’s fashion choices and the only thing your reader learns is that she looks good in cool colours, we’ve got a problem in front of us. Every writing choice you make has to contribute to your story, whether it advances the plot or enriches the character or expands the world. If you can’t find a way to make your fashion writing relevant, you should probably consider whether it belongs in your story at all.
 

3.       Write it because it matters to you, and you deserve to enjoy yourself writing
 

…Honestly? If you want to write about fashion in your story, you should. If you love fashion, or want a challenge, or just feel like breaking all the standard rules you’ve been taught all your life, you should do it. But don’t do it because you’re writing a mean girl and want to add to a stereotype, or because you think that mentioning BCBG will somehow bring you masses of teenage fans. Don’t patronize to your audience, because they’ll notice, and they won’t appreciate it.

What do you think of label dropping in fiction? What’s your favourite  writing rule to break?

Hi.

I’ve had the intention of blogging for about as long as I’ve been on the internet, but every time I get started, I find a reason to quit after my introduction post.

This is becoming a serious issue.

My name is Alex, and I’m a writer. You  probably figured that out from my about page, come to think of it, but I like to repeat it, because words have power and if I repeat those words enough times I’m convinced it will make them true. I’ve been serious about writing since I was thirteen or fourteen, which means I’ve been trying to set up some sort of social media presence as a writer since I was in middle school, and yet, as with my schoolwork, my blogging career has been essentially defined by my singular talent for procrastination.

I’m seventeen now, about to enter my final year of high school, and that means final exams and university applications and SAT subject tests take up 90% of my conversations these days, and it’s sort of made me come to some realizations about growing up. See, when you’re in the early years of high school, you have time. You have choices. And you have dozens if not hundreds of people lining up to tell you that you have loads of time and loads of choices. You bomb a test, and people tell you that you have time to redeem yourself. You choose your classes, and you have people telling you to keep your options open, that you don’t want a choice to define you so early in your academic career. Thing is, I don’t have time anymore, and I’ve reached the point where I have to start making choices. My teenage years are no longer a vague adventure with no roadmap and no destination in sight. If my high school career is the Starship Enterprise, than I’m reaching the end of my five-year mission, and if I want to explore strange new worlds and seek out new civilizations, I have to do it now. It’s time to go boldly or go home, and being at boarding school 3000km from my parents as I am, going home is kind of not an option.

So here’s to blogging, and writing, and going where no blog of mine has gone before.

(namely, having more than two posts.)