NaNoWriMo Dialogues: “I Think I Suck And I’m Not A Real Writer”

You: I suck.

Me: So, NaNoWriMo is going well, then.

You: It’s making me feel like a shitty writer is what it’s doing.

Me: That’s a shame.

You: No kidding. I think this thing I’m writing is crap.

Me: It probably is.

You: That is maybe the worst motivational speech I’ve ever heard. “That thing you’re writing is probably poopshit so you might as well give up and go dunk your head in a bucket of cat piss.”

Me: No, no, don’t do that. If you’re going to dunk your head in any kind of animal urine, you have to specify: tiger urine. Tiger urine is full of magical powers. Tiger blood, too. Actually, all tiger-based fluids are useful for giving you superpowers, including heroic erections and/or powerful labia — like, labia so powerful they can crush steel I-beams with the sound of a thunderclap.

You: Well, I don’t have any tiger piss, all I have is this shitty first draft that I’m going to not finish because I do not want to commit more shittiness to the page and into the world.

Me: See, you’re missing the real opportunity, here.

You: Opportunity?

Me: The opportunity to suck.

You: That sounds like the opposite of an opportunity. An opposurtunity.

Me: Giving yourself permission to suck — even just a little bit — is actually quite freeing. I mean, let’s clarify: you’re writing a first — or even a zero — draft for NaNoWriMo. You could argue that the value of the 50k draft that will be birthed wet and struggling from this process is that you can use it as a very robust outline/treatment for the rewrite. And you’re not relegated to one-draft-and-done. You get as many of these as you like. I think it was Delilah Dawson who said that it’s like a video game with endless lives. You get as many chances as you need to get it right.

You: I just get more chances to suck, you mean.

Me: Sure! Yes! You do. Isn’t that a little bit liberating? Most jobs you get one, maybe two chances, to get your work correct. To thread the needle, to get a hole-in-one, to bullseye that womprat.

You: Bullseyeing the Womprat is the weirdest sex euphemism I’ve heard.

Me: Can I tell you a story?

You: Is it about that time with the gallon of lube, the chimpanzee, and the salad bar at Wendy’s? That story always makes me super-queasy, and yet… somewhat aroused at the same time?

Me: It is not that story.

You: Oh, okay. Then go ahead.

Me: It took me five years to write Blackbirds. And in that time I wrote — jeez, I don’t know how many drafts of that book. Five? Six? They were terrible. I go back sometimes and I look at them, and all I can do is make that face that looks like I’m smelling shit somewhere, like maybe the stink is on my shoe, or my hands. But really, the stink was on those pages. Bloated, meandering story pages. But I needed to write those pages. I needed to suck! I needed to suck in order to learn how not to suck. Any task demands a level of practice and course correction — and what you get out of that is a thing worth more than a monkey made of gold: you cultivate sweet precious instinct.

You: Feeling a little better. Go on…

Me: The thing is, going back and looking at those pages, I can see the twinkling gems buried in all the fetid ordure, too. Like, turns of phrase I’d eventually go on to use, or ideas that would appear in the final draft or in some later book. But all that fetid ordure was part of it. A key part!

You: Sucking is a necessary evil, you’re saying.

Me: Necessary and an almost certain part of the process. If you try something new — running a mile, hitting a fastball, hunting humans for their meat, building a giant doom-bot — you don’t expect to get it right on the first fucking try, do you? No. You do not. But somehow art fails to deserve the same slack in the rope. You can’t write a bestselling novel or paint a Louvre-ready watercolor right out of the gate, yet with inevitable suckitude you’re all ready to burn everything to the ground and go and commit to a life as some cubicle-monkey somewhere.

You: Nothing wrong with being a cubicle-monkey, Mister Judgeypants.

Me: Didn’t say there was! Particularly if that’s what you want to do. But if you want to be a writer, then write. And suck. And write your way through the suck.

You: I just feel like NaNoWriMo concentrates too much on quantity and not enough on quality.

Me: It does. And it’s not an entirely invalid criticism — but, that’s part of its design. Yeah, sure, this process is all about quantity over quality. But to get to quality, you first have to create a quantity. You have to commit to a word count. You have to fill pages. You have to finish this draft to get to the next draft.

You: So, sucking is a kind of gauntlet.

Me: It is. An instructive one. Plus, NaNoWriMo has an Everest-like quality to it. You climb Mt. Everest and get to the top, nobody gives a shit how well you did it. You made it to the top and you’re alive and you weren’t molested by some Yeti and you didn’t fall down some kind of ice crevasse. Finishing a first draft of a book, no matter how sucktastic, is a thing worth celebrating. That’s not the end of the work, not by any stretch, but it’s a strong first foot forward.

You: Still, don’t you think 1667 words per day is kinda demanding?

Me: *laughs so hard he throws up*

You: Why are you pukelaughing?

Me: Because I write 2-3k per day. It’s demanding, sure, but hey: ART DEMANDS.

You: But aren’t you afraid that speed kills quality?

Me: Are you trying to convince me that my work sucks?

You: Wh… uh, well, no?

Me: I see the criticism that NaNoWriMo is all about speed and with speed you lose quality and blah blah blah — that’s a toxic meme. A meme that has literally no bearing on actual writing reality. First: it assumes that speed-of-output is tied to quality. It’s not. It took me five years to write Blackbirds. It took me 30 days to write the sequel, Mockingbird, and I think the second book is far stronger than the first. (It took me about 45 days to write The Cormorant, which comes out soon.) Second: it assumes that, again, your draft is one and done, that you’ll never write another draft. It took me a little over a month to bang out the first draft of Under the Empyrean Sky and a full year of tweaks and full rewrites to get it up to speed. It took me two months to write The Blue Blazes, and two months to edit/rewrite. Every book is different. Every book gets whatever time it needs and whatever time you’re willing to give it. This isn’t science. No equation says a swiftly-written book is just a lump of dross. And nothing says that a bad first draft can’t be written into a fucking amazing second draft. Or third. Or thirteenth. We write till it’s right.

You: This is actually sort of helpful.

Me: Once in a while, I manage.

You: So I’m allowed to suck.

Me: Encouraged, even.

You: So I can be a real writer, now?

Me: The real writer writes. See the graphic at the fore of the post, if you please.

You: Cool. Now, if only you can help me catch up. I’m behind on my word count.

Me: We’ll talk about that one a little later.

You: TEASE.

92 comments

  • November 7, 2013 at 1:51 PM // Reply

    Melissa, if there is no EdThshOuTDec I think you must start one! Though in fact the editing will go on for months.

    • I would totally start EdThshOuTDec, except that’s the stage when I REALLY wonder if I should just off myself. Imagine, if we’re all like that, what would the meet ups look like? Lots of gin, for one…

  • I just read everything out loud. If I start to gag … it needs editing. This has worked for me for forty years. And I avoid repeating a word in the same chapter ( or 5000 words …. whatever comes first). i mean, we have a LOT of words to choose from. And you can consult a huge thesaurus for prompts. If you get really stuck, then just pop in a few foreign words. Works like a charm. ( I’ve used the word “word” FOUR times in this paragraph … but that’s okay because it’s the subject word. But I felt a little gaggy as I read it)

  • three thousand words a day ?!?

    shit, that is impressive

    Although I do have to say my initial reaction echoes the remark that churning out quantity for the sake of quantity does seem a tad unhelpful.

    I feel enough self-derision and doubt about the merit of my labours without the added concern I’m not churning out enough words per day to match some arbitrary amount set down by someone else.

    I think I’ll stick by the mantra that however many words each individual writer feels comfortable ekeing out per desginated period (without wanting to slash their wrists in despair) is enough for them.

  • This is so, so true – i reckon I threw out 45k of my first (50k) NaNoWriMo draft, and rewrote the book around that 5k. And rewrote it. And rewrote it.

    Five and half years later it was published. This year it got shortlisted for an award. You can, in fact, polish a turd – if you try hard enough. But first you need the turd.

  • In photography, there is a saying: “Every photographer has ten thousand bad pictures in them. You have to take the bad ones before you can start taking the good ones.” In this age of digital, I might double or triple that, but the principle remains.

    The point being, though, you have to *learn* from those mistakes. Which means you have to get down and roll around in them. You can be as embarrassed as you want, but *learn.* Otherwise you end up in the Great Dichotomy which is also famous in photography: Some people have twenty years of experience. Some people have one year of experience twenty times. :)

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