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.


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

  1. Oh yeah, timely …

    Strange wombat humour aside, this is right about where I’m at. At least I’ll be 60 000 words closer to the first draft of a manuscript, a bit like how many times it took not to invent a light bulb …

  2. I think Mockingbird was better, too. Not that Blackbirds sucked by any means. It was both deeply enjoyable and stupendously creepy. Mockingbird just rocked harder. (I still think about the ending. It really got to me. ‘Scuze me, going to go indulge in sniffling about the depths of human fucked-up-edness in a corner now.)

  3. Wow. Day 5 will forever be named “I SUCK DAY!” I seriously posted today (instead of writing a single word) that I suck, my WIP SUCKS, and I’m resorting to drinking.

  4. Are you and Catherynne Valente drinking the same writer juice? Her NaNo Pep talk today said a lot of the same things.

  5. wow, to add another one of these comments your thoughts today could not be more spot fucking on. I may be chugging away on my word counrt and kinda more ahead of the game then usual but damn am I close to your dialogue partner … my novel seems like crap and though Im having a good ol time writing and plannig scenes It must still be word vomit says my inner editor…..Thanks for the hand up again from where I had fallen… have to check out Cat’s encouragement too (such good company there you lucky dog)
    anyhow between you her and Mur Lafferty I may just get a full novel out of this year…

    thanks…

  6. “But I needed to write those pages. I needed to suck! I needed to suck in order to learn how not to suck.”
    God, yes!! I’m about 2.5 years into rewriting my first book. I took a lonnnnng time to even tell people I was writing a book, because I knew I’d hear “Are you done yet?” All. The. Time.

    “Are you done yet?” “Are you done YET?” “Are you DONE yet?”

    Nope.

    “How long is it going to take to finish?”

    It takes as long as it takes. The end.

  7. Thanks, Chuck. I’m at 8500 words and cannot believe the level of awful. I needed this today to keep on plugging along.

  8. Here’s a question …. if you have friends supporting you by giving you the space to write is it still ok not to let them read your nanowrimo pre zero draft till you’ve done an editing pass on it or is that rude….

  9. A real writer writes. That is the long and the short of it. And first drafts suck. Also the long and short.

    It’s a hard thing to face, permissible suckage. But nobody needs to see it but you. Personal literary shame that belongs in the dark of night.

  10. Is this like some kind of natural evolution or something like gravity? Because when you wrote abut plot my characters ran off with mine and I was like ‘okay, but you bitches better know what you’re doing’. And today was ‘omg this sucks, maybe I should just start another story because then it won’t suck, but wait, no matter where I go there I am so it will still suck because I suck’ day.

    So thank you, I read this and I no longer feel like I am sitting alone in my puddle of suck and having some company while I am sitting here makes me feel better. I don’t know why, but it does.

    You give me hope. And for that I can’t thank you enough. But I did buy the nano bundle. Your advice is gold. Thank you again.

  11. Thank you, Chuck. So timely.
    ::gleefully off to write more utter crap::
    (With loads of unnecessary adverbs and adjectives….)

  12. Chuck, Chuck – I love you! Don’t tell my husband I said that, but I do…

    Five years to write Blackbirds? Holy flying cows, I SO needed to hear that from a respected author like yourself! I’ve just hit Month 20 (a third of the way through Draft Two) on my current w-i-p, my first full-length novel. I was starting to feel like five years was probably about how long it would take ME to complete this thing – which, when I hear the likes of Stephen King saying he takes about six months to write his novels, was leading me to believe that my ‘slow’ progress was the big flashing siren of my utter crapness at this writing lark.

    But if we’re ‘allowed’ to take five years – wahey, bring it on! Heck, not only more novel-perfecting time – more ‘motivational chocolate time’ to accompany it!

    In fact, I might go get myself some right now… lotta writing ahead of me today…

    • Wendy, Stephen King has been writing for, what, 45 years or so? The guy, famously, writes every day but Christmas and his birthday (and, little known to those outside Maine, the birthday of Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” fame). Of course he’s good and fast. Writing is craft. The more you do it, the better you get.

    • You take whatever time the book requires, Wendy! Earlier books may take longer and then, with comfort, later novels may happen more quickly. Or hell, maybe not. Every writer is different. Every book is different. You jigger what you jigger and juggle what you juggle to get it done.

  13. I seriously need to thank you. Your blog is a huge part of why I’m finally able to write book drafts. I spent years waiting for inspiration and tweaking single lines ad infinitum. This year I spent a few days outlining and so far I’m written 33k in just five days for Nanowrimo. And I dare say that it’s way better than the stuff I’ve occasionally written for months on end. Thanks Chuck!

  14. Great advice-in-the-guise-of-a-dialogue! Y’all know the old story about the ceramics class split in two where students in one half had to make as many pieces as possible and students in the second half had to make the best possible piece. The best pieces were made in the as-many-pieces-as-possible half of the class.

    (I’m feeling a little hyphen-happy here…)

    Thanks for the numbers on time-spent-first-drafting and time-spent-rewriting. (And the hyphens keeeep coming.) It helps to keep that perspective.

    Says she-who-is-deep-rewriting-one-piece while writing-another-shitty-first-draft.

    • Doing NaNo is my reward for months of dealing with the suckage that is editing my work. I can draft this novelist two months, but I know that then the real work begins, and it takes a lot longer. But editing: it’s the other thing real writers do, so you go!

  15. Ho.lee.shit, dude, you just set me free. No. Really. I just got my first novel back from my editor a few weeks ago and (although I thought I was prepared for it) it’s fuckin’ with my mojo big time! I let the negativety trolls take my confidence away….damn! I’m trying to revise, but find myself over-analyzing every word to the point of paralysis – ugh.. I came across your site a week or so ago and immediately followed you, THANK GOD, because this post (and the one prior) saved my ass. Kismet! ANYway, had to hop on and say thank you! Now back to my revisions…..

  16. To quote one of my favorite movies, Beastly, “Embrace the suck.”
    I highly enjoyed your post. Thanks and good luck turning your sucky first draft into a polished work of art.

  17. I wish more authors would do what you do, Chuck. It makes me feel a hell of a lot better to know it took you five years for your book. I’m going on four, so maybe in one more–as long as I work hard–an agent will finally like it!

  18. So I shamelessly ran off with the “speed =/= quantity” part to the Nano forums, so let’s see if we can recruit you some new readers. (Excerpted and linked per your tweets the other day.) Every year we get some people on the forums that cannot comprehend that anyone writes faster than them. “More than 1667 a day? They must be cheating.” “No one can write over 2k an hour!” (That makes me laugh/cry because on a good day I can hit 3k/hr and feel like that’s really fucking slow.)

    My usual response is something along the lines of “Man, I could never run a marathon. All those marathonners, what fuckin’ liars, right?”

  19. Thanks for this. It’s frustrating because I’ve been a technical document writer for 3 years now. I write 200 page masterpiece procedures that allow our Field Engineers to perform exact sciences so that you don’t lose your cable or internet suddenly while they are upgrading Comcast’s hamster wheels. So to sit there and read the crap that’s ejaculating from my immature creative writing glands gets tiring, daunting, and dejecting. I’ll just keep trudging through the mess and see where I end up when it’s finished…because for once I will finish, dammit.

  20. This is a much more profound post than you realize. It gets into words a thought that I couldn’t properly describe on Day 4 on NaNoWriMo. I was writing a scene and literally chucked out loud because it sucked so bad. But I also knew there was a nugget in there t build something much better on…which I will do when this wretched month of November is over.

  21. I wrote the word ‘box’ five times in five consecutive sentences. The worst.

    I’m having difficulty feeling the satisfaction of a job-well-done after banging out my word count. Yeah, things are happening on the page, the characters are doing stuff, but there’s also a lot of… ‘and then they did this, and then they did this other thing, and then…blahblahblah’. It’s brutal.

    Adding a robotic, gun-toting whale today. Just for scuzz. If I’m gonna suck, might as well entertain myself with absurdity.

    This was my way of saying that I appreciate this post.

  22. This is all great Chuck, but you were wrong about one very important thing. On my way to the top of Mt. Everest, I was indeed “molested by some Yeti”. I found a way to squeeze that into the second draft.

  23. The problem is when people think just because you participated in nanowrimo and wrote a novel you’re suddenly qualified to get published. That’s what editors are really pissed about.
    I love this dialogue! I’m so glad a friend linked me to this!!

  24. Great post! This really helped me cuz I got no quality (now I know it’s expected), and I got no quantity either. I thought if I was free to suck, I could jam out the words, but nooooooooo.

  25. Wow, I really needed this. I decided to pants it again for the first time in five years (the first time being, well, my first time) and I’m finding the story a little, uh, meandering. I even told my boyfriend I was going to give up because I wasn’t feeling it this year. But y’know what? I’ve got a story I want to get out, like alien spawn in my belly, and I’m going to birth it, no matter how hard it is.

  26. I cannot possibly keep up with 1667 words a day, so I’m aiming for only 25k this month. So far, it’s both easier and harder than I expected (feels hard as hell while I’m trying to hit my wordcount. But somehow I still keep managing it).

    And one thing I really didn’t anticipate is that my writing is godawful and I honestly don’t care. I really thought I’d agonise over it. But nope. It’s terrible, but I feel like I’m changing my approach in little bits and pieces as I go and feeling out what works. It feels like I’m doing something useful.

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