By Published: Dec. 21, 2023

Award-winning author and CU Boulder Professor Stephen Graham Jones shares advice with writers who are reflecting on their 50,000 words from National Novel Writing Month

That sigh you’re hearing—and have been hearing for more than two weeks—is relief. For the hundreds of thousands of writers worldwide who participated in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short), now is the time to sit back, take a deep breath and reflect on what’s been accomplished.

When NaNoWriMo began in 1999, the goal for participants was simple: write 50,000 words of a novel during the 30 days of November. NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty declared, “Write first! Ask questions later!”

So, in the weeks since NaNoWriMo ended, participating writers have been doing just that: Do I have something here? Is this any good? Did I love doing it? What did I gain from writing that many words in that many days?

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the CU Boulder Ivena Baldwin Professor of English and a college professor of distinction.

These are questions that Stephen Graham Jones knows well. The critically acclaimed author of more than 20 novels and short story collections, including the Ray Bradbury Prize-winning The Only Good Indians, Jones has been publishing since 2000 but writing for most of his life. He also is the University of Colorado Boulder Ivena Baldwin Professor of English and a college professor of distinction.

He recently spoke with Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine about what a writer can gain from participating in something like NaNoWriMo and the enduring joy of forming words into stories. 

Question: Have you ever participated in National Novel Writing Month?

Jones: No, but I used to do the three-day novel contest back in the early 2000s, which was a good time. You start at midnight on the Friday of Labor Day weekend and then you write until Monday at midnight. So, 72 hours to write a novel. That was a pretty good time; actually, I got one of those published, called The Long Trial of Noland Dugatti.

Question: What were some of the challenges you faced with that writing challenge?

Jones: The first 72-hour novel I wrote wasn’t good because I thought it was all about staying awake as long as I could. What I learned the next time I did the challenge was that it’s not about trying to stay awake as long as I can, it’s about working in little chunks of about 90 minutes at a time. Then go do something else and come back and work another 90 (minutes). That suits the way I write a whole lot better.

I generally don't try to hit these challenges head on. Instead, I ride my bike or go to a movie, or just go do something else for an hour or two. Let it cook in the back of my head and when I come back, it's a lot easier. You could sit there and bang your head against the screen, trying to figure out this story, or line, but the trick with fiction is you can't muscle stuff onto the page.

Question: Do you think that people should spend a lot of time preparing beforehand, or do you think they should embrace the spontaneous side?

Jones: They should do whatever works for them; all writers are different. For me, it's always spontaneous. One of the rules of the three-day writing contest was you can't do any planning, any outlining, anything at all before midnight on Friday. So, I would not let myself think of anything until midnight on Friday, and then I just hit the ground running and see what's going to happen.

With the novels I write today, I don't plan them at all, and I try not to do research either until I have to. I like to stumble into things and feel my way through.

The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti book cover

Jones' novel The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti originated from a three-day writing challenge

Question: Regarding NaNoWriMo, some people might see the goal of writing 50,000 words as a daunting task. How feasible do you think that is for aspiring writers?

Jones: Just getting words down on the page, that's no problem at all. That's like three or four pages a day. That's nothing, man. The trick with writing a novel quickly isn't crossing the distance, the length, the page count. Instead, the difficult part is telling either a good story or a complete story. Really, 50,000 words isn't enough to tell a novel. You've got to write a few wrong before you figure out how to write one right.

When people are having trouble writing the next word, the next sentence and next paragraph, the next chapter, it's rarely because they don't know what is supposed to happen or what would be good for the story. We can throw anything against the wall and make it stick, it’s just that their standards are too high.

They feel all of the critics looking over their shoulder, they feel their peers looking over their shoulder. They feel history looking over their shoulder, and when you have all these eyes on your cursor, it's very hard to push that cursor to the right. So, just lower your standards and say, ‘This doesn't count, I'm just doing this for fun, I'm just doing this for me, it’s just a long joke that I'm telling.’ The more you lower your standards, the more words you can get on the page and there will be some dumb scenes and some awkward lines in there, but you can always go back and fix stuff. It's more important to get stuff on the page.

Question: How rough should this first draft be?

Jones: The trick with me and writing is, anything I can do to turn my brain off, anything I can do to stop thinking, that’s what’s good. I don't think thinking is remotely good for writing. Thinking is good for revising, but you use your heart on the first draft. You use your mind on the revision.

My own rough drafts are all grammatically correct, but variables such as the names of people and places are all in the air because I don't know how the story is going to fall out. A lot of times, I just put placeholders in. Sometimes I write a scene, and I know that it's probably going to get cut, but I'll leave it in because it kind of exerts a fun gravity in the rest of the story while I'm writing it, and I can always delete it later. The most fun part about revision is just going through and deleting thousands and thousands of words.

Question: What might be some benefits that writers can gain by participating in something like NaNoWriMo?

Jones: Discipline. Just choosing writing, that's the important part. That's the hardest part about being a writer, I think, is choosing writing over going to the bar, going to the football game or doing the 10,000 other things that the world and life wants you to do.

The only things more important than writing to me are family and health. After that, everything else can fall away as far as I'm concerned, and fiction is the only thing that matters—just getting the right feeling, the right thoughts, down on the page.

Question: Would you say that people should just be writing for themselves?

Jones: They shouldn't write for the critics. People have different things that get them moving. (Writer) Joe Lansdale says, ‘Write as if everyone you know is dead,’ which I think is a pretty good policy.

I also think writing for the person you consider your worst enemy is a good tactic because then it allows you to never fall below a certain quality level, because if you do, that person you consider your enemy can make fun of you.

You use your heart on the first draft. You use your mind on the revision.”

If you start writing to please too many people at once, you're going to fail, because you can't please everybody at all. I do think the first person you have to please is yourself. I write a lot of horror, and the first person I have to scare is myself, and if I can scare myself, then maybe I have a chance of scaring other people.

Question: When writing novels now, what are you looking to learn from that experience?

Jones: I'm looking for an idea that is broken at the level of conception, an idea that just seems really stupid—and that's the only novel I want to write. I want to write the ones that have a lot of red flags telling me I shouldn’t write this novel. I don't want to write novels I know I can write.

To me, that’s boring and isn’t any fun. I want to be in unfamiliar territory, new narrative terrain. I want to write from the angle of characters I don't necessarily know and whom I must learn about, in the world I don't know about and maybe with a form I'm not familiar with. There are so many challenges and stupid ideas, and if I can make a stupid idea have real people and real feelings in it, then I consider that a win. It’s good to feel like you’re writing against something.

Question: Do you think the writing process is an effective way to start a conversation about sensitive topics?

Jones: Art doesn't provide answers, but art can ask questions and provoke discussion. I think that if there is a purpose for art, that's probably it. Some people say it's to encode culture and pass it on down to the next generations and preserve it, but I don't think that's its purpose. I think it's more of a side effect. That's why Plato didn't want any poets in his republic, because they stir things up, they ask questions. That's what we're supposed to do.

Horror specifically, as far as society is concerned, functions as a funhouse mirror that distorts our anxieties of the time back at us, partially so we can process them. I guess this can be seen as some form of therapy, but largely just so we can see them and be aware of them and not have somebody preaching or lecturing to us about this and that. We're screaming, we're laughing, we're having fun, and our defenses are down, and that’s when we can accidentally think of something that we need to be talking about with the world.

Question: Do you often want to provoke discussion through your work?

Jones: Yeah, we all have our axes to grind. Since fiction is my art, it’s what I always have my fingers in, and that's where I'm going to find space to grind my axes with how people are treated here or there, or what’s the world, or how the politics are, what's happening in the environment, all that stuff, it's going to find its way onto the page, whether I want it to or not.

I don't go in with a checklist if I want to address this, this and this, but I've got all this stuff inside me and once I take the cap off the pen, it just starts flowing through there.

The Only Good Indians book cover

Jones' 2020 novel The Only Good Indians won the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction.

Question: So, you're always just trying to push yourself and put yourself out of your comfort zone?

Jones: I am, yeah, for sure. My comfort zone is anything that allows me to talk about cars or trucks, maybe boots and hunting, too. Right now, I'm writing a novel set in the 19th century, so I'm denying myself any vehicles at all, which is kind of fun.

Question: Some people might struggle to write from a perspective that isn’t theirs. Do you have any holdups when writing from a perspective that isn't yours?

Jones: I don’t know about hold up, but I definitely have my hesitations. Zadie Smith says that today's world is a stay-in-your-own-lane world, and we get our wrist slapped if we step over into another identity. And that's good, because oftentimes when we do step into another lane, or into another identity—be it cultural, gender, sexual, political, etc.—oftentimes, we're silencing the people who would have been speaking from that actual authentic place. That's the danger of it for sure.

So, I think any time that you are going to cross lanes like that, you need to interrogate yourself and ask, ‘Why am I doing this? Am I doing it because it's exotic? Am I doing it because I feel like I have to have a representative of every culture in my book?’ And those are both stupid reasons.

If you're doing it because that's the only way it'll work, and if you’re doing the necessary footwork to get something close to authenticity, then maybe you can do it.

I've written a few books from a high school girl’s point of view, and I don't know what it's like to be a high school girl, so I would give it to friends who had been high school girls and ask them, ‘What's up with this?’

I think it's unfair to ask people, ‘Is this an accurate representation?’ That puts too much pressure on them, but you can ask them, ‘Where am I being stupid? What am I doing wrong?’ And if enough people tell you this, this, that and that is wrong, then that kind of steers you back onto a less terrible path.

There's just so much stuff that I'll never know about, and you can’t just do a Google search, which won't tell you a lot. What you need to do, really, is go read a first-person memoir from somebody in that moment and culture, and then you can get a sense of what's going on.

You'll never get a sense enough to be a participant of that culture, probably, but possibly you can write in an authentic way from approximately that position.

Question: Any final advice to budding or aspiring writers?

Jones: Just be aware that in a longer work like a novel, you're probably going to end up cutting the first eight or 10% of the book once you get to the revision stage. It takes you a while in a novel to figure out what you're doing, so you kind of warming up for a while and then you find that starting point.

And once you get to the revision stage, you can’t be afraid to lose those first 2,500 words. The first part of a novel, you read that over and over. The first 10% of your novel, you might read that 500 times. The next 10% of the novel, you might read that 300 times, and it gets less and less as you go further and further, just because you can't sit down at the computer and read 80 pages before you start on page 81. So, the result of that is that the opening of novels always get really polished to the point where everything gleams—the rhythm, the word choice, the syntax, everything is perfect.

But if you're aware that you're going to have to cut probably the first eight or 10%, never be afraid that you're going to run out of juice. There’s always going to be more ideas. There are always going to be more words. Don't be afraid to just delete, delete, delete.

Don't be afraid to just go for it, just bleed on the page, put your heart's blood on the page and try to make some pretty shapes in it, that someone else might recognize.

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