Across from me was a lovely fellow who works for a local tech magazine. He's got a kid, too, so we chatted about our boys for a while. Back on the subject of work, we talked about how hard it is to find good copy editors, and about how the Internet has changed writers' ideas about what is acceptable grammar. We spoke about publishing, and then, on a whim, I asked if he was secretly writing a book and had the manuscript stashed away in his bedside table.
It was like asking a man crawling across the desert if he'd like a glass of water.
"Several," he said emphatically, his eyes lighting up. In his spare time he writes children's books, he explained. He's even illustrated a few with pretty good results, he added modestly. But none has been published, and he's not sure he wants any of them to be.
Then another guy sitting near us joined the conversation. He's written a short-story collection, he revealed, but doesn't have time to pursue it beyond the manuscript stage. Or rather, he might have time, but he's not sure that that's what he wants to do with it. I pressed both of them: Why not get an agent and try to publish? If books are meant to be read, why keep yours hidden? Our conversation had reminded me of an unacknowledged fact of writing: At some point you have to let go.
The phenomenon of NaNoWriMo National Novel Writing Month, started by Oakland's Chris Baty has made it clear that there are many people who've always wanted to write a novel and just never got down to it. Since the program's inception in 1999, more than 145,000 people worldwide have participated in the 30-day writing frenzy; of those, more than 22,000 (or about 15 percent) have "won," which is to say, reached the 50,000-word goal. But of those, only around a dozen have been published (or gotten contracts to be published).
I do understand the desire to create art privately with no goal of going pro. As the NaNoWriMo Web site explains, "Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the chores and Ômust-dos' of daily life." But it seems to me that too many people leave off before the next step; they write their 50,000 words or their several children's books, or their story collections and then come to a dead stop. Sure, many of these people are just dabblers (and, no doubt, many of them are producing stuff that isn't worth two covers). They don't really want to be writers; they just want to be able to say, "I wrote a novel once." Which is fine, if that's as far as your ambition goes. But for those who feel passionately about writing, sharing that passion with others has got to be part of the equation.
Last month I was surrounded by people who want to take their books to the next level at the San Francisco Writers' Conference, held at the Mark Hopkins. This weekend-long annual conference featured panels and workshops geared toward helping those who've already written something to get it agented, published, publicized, stocked in bookstores, and sold to you and me. It included two real speed-dating events: one at which writers had three minutes to pitch their ideas to a series of agents, and one at which they did the same to editors. Whether this method is effective and participants disagree on this it does force writers to admit that their books do no good sitting on their hard drives.
Even the NaNoWriMo folks have seen the need to take their works to the next level. March 1 was the start of the third annual National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo. Its goal is to get writers "to complete 50 hours worth of solid editing, revising or re-writing roughly enough time for one bonzai edit of a 50,000 word novel." The idea, as at the Writers' Conference, is to admit that you want other people to read your novel (without moaning) that by writing you aim to communicate, not talk to yourself.
All of which is to explain why I went after my two tablemates at the Thai restaurant with uncharacteristic vigor. Send the book to an agent, I insisted. What can it hurt? If, as I once read, writers write to "reveal the fire within them" (and editors edit to "clear the smoke"), then they should let others warm themselves at the flame. Stack the kindling, strike the match, stand back, and watch it burn.