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You Are Not a Failure (Also, Please Stop Writing Now)

Image: Austin Ban
If you're reading this, there's a chance that you might be the middle of a certain month which is all about letting the washing pile up and not going outside and eating toast for every meal of the day while you ride a particularly intense version of the emotional roller coaster that is novel writing.

Some days this is easy, and you are sure that if you could just forgo annoying things like sleeping and showering, you could totally write a whole book within a few days, because you are godlike and unstoppable and writing at the speed of lightening. Other days it is akin to walking through a vast and tangled jungle without map or compass, with your shoes on the wrong feet, while carrying an enraged rhinoceros on your back, and you are exhausted but you keep crawling along hopelessly anyway in what is meant to be the right direction, and then discovering that it was actually the complete wrong direction and that you’ll have to go back and do it all over again except twice as fast, because you are rapidly running out of time for sleeping. And all the while, the rhinoceros is threatening to skewer you and that required word count is glaring brighter than the sun and burning down on your skin, and all you can think is how you have to write 2,000 words right now, and they have to be the exact right words, otherwise you’ll probably never ever catch up and then you will be a failure and the whole world will fall down around your ears.

If you've come across some of my previous posts here, you might know that I have a love-hate relationship with using word counts as targets.  Sure, they give you a clear goal to aim towards: 2,000 words. And then sleeping. Or, on a larger scale: 50,000 words. And then resuming normal life. Simple.

But when you're working hard and your draft hits a rough patch, it's easy to turn a target word count into a thing upon which your view of your novel and also your entire worth as a writer and a human being hangs.
You get to midnight, and you have been trying for hours and all you have is one measly paragraph and a half page of notes that don't even make sense, and a doodled picture of a monster with exceptionally large teeth which doesn't look particularly like a monster, because apparently being hopeless at writing also means being hopeless at drawing. And you know with certainty that an alarm clock or a cat or a toddler is going to wake you promptly at 6.30 am, but by this time you are so well and truly bogged down in the swamp that it seems like the only option is to keep. trying. dammit.

Except that it's not the only option. Sometimes the failure is not in failing to produce words, but in failing to admit that things aren't working at the moment, and that it is time to stop, just for now, regardless of targets and deadlines and impending apocalypses. Sometimes it's time to go outside and watch the wind blowing through the trees outside your house, or eat some food which isn't toast, or do some of that sleeping thing that people keep talking about. Sometimes it's worth leaving the numbers alone and just saying that you wrote, or that you tried to write, and that you gave it as much as you had today and that you'll try again tomorrow. It might seem like failing, but I promise you, it's not.

Ultimately, the time you spend writing a first draft is a beginning, however long or short that time might be. There are second drafts, and beta readers, and third drafts, and eleventh drafts, and many, many more places for you and your novel to go together. So if the walls are closing in on you and you know, with certainty, that you won’t meet your target today, let it go. Let writing be its own reward.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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4 comments:

  1. Here's the thing about that "certain month" of doom: All written words count. You heard me. All of them.

    If you and your rhino forge your way to that sheer drop off instead of the path through the jungle and you need to go back to find the correct path? Do not, for the love of all that may or may not be holy, delete. Count those misdirected words, toss a comment in your document to remind yourself to kill them in December, and just keep writing.

    You still forged that path through all of that clinging greenery, and it's still a lot easier to backtrack through that now-broken undergrowth than it would be to break new ground. You learned things about your MCs, about your novel while you were writing them, things that you can use.

    Hit enter a few times, and just keep writing. You can go back and "fix it" later. You can edit later. You can surgically remove entire passages of nonsense that you only wrote for the sake of trying to get through the jungle later.

    And take it from a six-year veteran: You don't need the damn rhino. Dump him somewhere and enjoy the freedom of just writing and writing and writing.

    -Jes @There's No Such Thing As Luck

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  2. That's really well put, Leila! Thanks for your perspective! I agree. I think sometimes we're so focused on trying to put life into a story that we forget to experience the life around us--which is, obviously, so important to do. Because, like, we're humans and stuff. Not just robot-story-writing-machines.

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  3. This is a wonderful post. I cannot say more without revealing how I feel about NaNo. Thanks!

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  4. Fantastic words of advice. I go through this cycle almost every time I sit down in front of the computer, not just during Nano. I love giving myself a pat on the back every time I write. It helps to keep me going.

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Item Reviewed: You Are Not a Failure (Also, Please Stop Writing Now) Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin