Around this time in National Novel Writing Month, I start seeing a litany of familiar fears and complaints from first-time participants. My plot isn’t working. My story’s boring. I don’t know what to do next. I’ve hit a block and I can’t write another word. This is literally the worst thing I’ve written, quite possibly the worst thing anyone has ever written.
I’ve got bad news, guys. Those fears aren’t endemic to Nanowrimo. They are the tiny ankle-biting gremlins of the writing life, and they will be with you all your days. You might as well start naming and feeding the little bastards right now. You might placate them for a while, but they can never truly die.
I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t had moments of crippling doubt about their own work. Most writers I know have days where they feel like they’d just as soon hang it up. Every one of them has felt like a failure at one time or another, myself included. But the real writers keep writing, and if you want to be one, just repeat these three simple words: permission to suck. These words form the map that leads out of the caverns of despair and self-loathing. They are tranquilizer darts for the ankle goblins.
Although a lot of writers (and editors) seem to look down on it, I’ll always owe a lot to Nanowrimo, because it taught me one of the most valuable lessons in my writing life: there’s every chance your first draft is likely to be complete shit, and that’s okay. Seriously, it’s okay.
A lot of aspiring writers I know want to start at the top and work their way up. It’s natural. The desire to rattle off a brilliant, life-changing work in a couple of coffee-addled weekends and bask in the adoration of our peers is something most of us have probably entertained at one time or other. It’s an idea shot into our heads by movies and television, where a writer lights up a cigarette and creates something beautiful in the space of a pop-anthem montage. We buy into this and let it poison us. Some aspire to being great before they dare aspire to being decent. Some decide imaginary greatness is preferable to real mediocrity, and so they may never start at all, and they sure as hell never finish.
It took me years to figure this out, so I know that it may seem difficult. But your draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be great or even good. It has every chance of being born into the world an ugly, mewling, mutant thing, warty with flaws and riddled with issues. Accept it. Embrace it. Love it anyway, and let it grow into something more. Don’t toss it off a cliff Sparta-style because you took one look and judged it too weak to live.
If you find yourself struggling with your draft, despairing that it’s shit, wondering if you have what it takes to be a writer, the test is right there in front of you. Either give yourself permission to suck and finish what you started, or expect perfection the first time around and invite crushing failure. If you’re struggling with these doubts and you want to push past them, there’s really only one choice.
So go nuts. Hit the gas and punch through that plot hole like a semi running a roadblock. Inconsistencies? Who cares? One-dimensional characters? You can add dimension later. Loose ends? Tie them up on your way back through, because believe me, you will be back. The Plot Police aren’t going to show up to your house and start marking down your mistakes in the Book of Life. You can screw up. It’s okay. Just remember why you started this thing, and let that carry you through to the finish.
Now go forth and be awesome. Or, you know, go forth and suck. Just keep writing.
14 Replies to “Writing Through the Wolf’s Hour”
Great pep talk! A lot of writers defeat themselves before they even get rolling. Really, there’s something to be said for the ridiculousness potential of the NaNoWriMo first draft, and for the measures that one might sometimes take to keep the plot rolling and the words coming that one wouldn’t, if the challenge wasn’t there.
Agreed, Nanowrimo is great at encouraging writers to go crazy and stop worrying about screwing up their drafts.
(Spinning in chair watching your cool desktop background fly by on my monitor) You’re right. Blue was definitely better than hunter green this time around.
Permission to suck not needed for you hon. 😉
Ha! Thanks. 🙂
Yes, yes and yes. You can’t revise what you didn’t write, so giving yourself permission to write a terrible first (or second, or third) draft is SO important. It’s not an easy thing to accept, especially at the beginning, but doing so can really free up your writing.
Great post. The key words are “first draft”. It implies there will be more drafts to come. While I hope that when I’m 80 and plinking out the words of another first draft, it’ll be born better looking than the baby novel I’m working on today. But it will still suck, require editing and need a lot of tender loving care to stand on its own.
I love your line about the aspiring writers who want to start at the top and work their way up. We all know someone like this. In fact, we all know someone like this who hasn’t written a word. They’re sitting in a cloud convinced they’re the next J.K. Rowling / Tolkein / name your favorite author while those of us who write sucky first drafts are nurturing our novels toward adulthood.
The cloud dwellers come down eventually. Rejection has a way of doing that. But too many slink away, leaving a promising baby draft to die in the wilderness.
Well said. The imaginary masterpiece is always the best, because there’s no work, no chance of failure (since it exists only in one’s mind) and you can still talk about how all other writers suck. No risk, lots of (imaginary) reward. It’s all too easy a trap to fall into.
This article makes it OK to suck and is the antisuck at the same time.
So, seriously, I can start at the high middle and work my way up, right? (Only kidding…)
I have printed paragraphs 6 & 7 to post above my desk. This is just the kind of motivation I need to push me along when the doubt starts to creep in, when life gets in the way, and when I start thinking of all of the *other* things I could be doing with my time. I’ve highly enjoyed your blog, and hope you return soon!
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