NaNoWriMo Dialogues: “On Doubt, Talent, Failure, And Quitting “

You: I made a terrible error.

Me: You tried to punch that coyote again.

You: No.

Me: You huffed wood varnish and got lost in the mall.

You: No. Well, yes, but that’s not the mistake I’m talking about.

Me: You ate all the bacon again.

You: That’s not a mistake. That’s me fulfilling my manifest destiny.

Me: It’s a mistake because when you eat all the bacon, I turn into Bacon Hulk and I rip your puny form to Kleenex ribbons out of sheer, baconless rage.

You: I see your point. I didn’t eat all the bacon, it’s still downstairs, chillax.

Me: Nobody says “chillax” anymore. The new word is “coolquilize.”

You: JESUS GOD WHATEVER can I tell you my mistake now or what?

Me: Bleah, sure, go for it.

You: I’ve been reading other people’s work as I write.

Me: Reading is fundamental. Writers who don’t read are like screenwriters that don’t watch movies, like architects who don’t strop up sexually against elegant skyscrapers, like professional killers who do not admire the work of other professional killers from the telescoping lens of a distant hijacked drone. Writers have to read. It is an essential spice to this broth we’re brewing. Writers who don’t read are missing their souls.

You: Fine, yes, yeah, I just mean — some people have been posting their NaNoWriMo projects. Like, snippets or whole sections and, hoooo heeee unnnnh — *rocks back and forth while massaging temples* — I have discovered through this that I am not good enough.

Me: Oh, god, more of this again. Okay. Huddle up. Writing a story is in some ways an act of obstacle management and you’ve gotta manage all the obstacles accordingly — jump all the fences, hop all the ditches, elbow all your enemies right in their spongy tracheas. One of the biggest obstacles is self-doubt. Doubt is the vampire you invite into your house. Doubt is bedbugs and hobos — it fucking lingers, man, like the scent of cigarette smoke in your curtains, or the odor of cat piss in your carpets.


Me: The book you’re writing is the holy book.

You: Wuzza?

Me: Self-doubt isn’t going to just turn to smoke or vapor. Doubt has its teeth in you. And doubt has long fangs. But you have ways of tricking it — or at least neutering it with a pair of scissors. You finish the book, that’s like finishing the exorcism. THE POWER OF WRITING COMPELS YOU. Get to the end of the book and some of that doubt will go away.

You: And during the writing of the book? I still have to get to the end, you know.

Me: You have other ways of diminishing doubt.


Me: Just shut up. Okay, first, recognize that everyone gets this feeling. Everyone has doubts. Every writer you read has at one point or another felt like a stowaway on board their own careers — they’re the dirt-cheeked urchin on board the Titanic, hiding below while the deservedly rich dance above. I believe this is true of Neil Gaiman, of Margaret Atwood, of authors who write sci-fi and literary and children’s picture books and erotica and, and, and. Anybody who commits words to paper, professionally or no, feels at times like an alien in their own world.

You: But those people are all really good. Like, they have talent. Same as these other NaNo participants whose work I read — it’s like, these folks have genuine actual OH EM GEE talent.

Me: Talent is at least half-a-bag-of-horseshit.

You: Whoa, no. Talent is a real thing.

Me: No, talent is an idea somebody made up. It’s a noun, and nouns always feel real — like chair or whale — but really, it’s a noun masquerading as an adjective: talented. Talent is not a thing you can measure. I can’t dip a hot wire into a petri dish of blood and expose your monstrous talent. It has no margins. It has no parameters. We see someone who takes to something really well and we call that “talent.” The same way we think half the writers who break out are overnight successes but, in truth, that’s been a decade-long “overnight.”

You: No, I’m not buying this. I’ve known writers who are genuinely talented.

Me: I’m not saying there’s not something to the idea of talent. What I’m saying is, the word is so poorly defined, and its effects so toxic, we might as well get shut of the whole word.

You: Toxic? Like, the Britney Spears song?

Me: That’s a great song.

You: It is. Great covers of that song, too. Yael Naim’s? Or this Mark Ronson ODB version?

*both listen to various covers of ‘Toxic’ for three hours*

Me: That was fun.

You: That was. What were we talking about?

Me: I actually don’t — oh! OH. Talent as a toxic notion. I can explain that. Being told you’re talented is like being fucking cursed, man. I’ve known way too many writers who were plainly more talented than I was, and yet, every last one of them are nowhere in their respective writing careers. Hell, they don’t have careers. Talent seems like a key to a door but it isn’t any such thing, and this is one of the things I really like about NaNoWriMo — all those people who think they can hang tough with a novel because someone somewhere told them they were talented, well, now they’re getting a hard Shotokan straight punch of truth delivered right to the solar plexus: discipline and devotion and skill are a trio that overwhelms any presumed talent any day of the week. You can be as talented as you want, but you still need to sit down, learn your craft and then demonstrate it. Over and over again. If — if! — talent is a real thing, the best that it gets you is that it cuts down the time it takes for you to get to a qualified end result.

You: Fine, then. I don’t know that I have the discipline, devotion, or skill to continue.

Me: Skill comes over time, as does the instinct on how to implement it.

You: Fine okay whatever, then I don’t have the discipline and/or devotion. Still full of doubt here.

Me: More tips to cure doubt, then. Okay: I told you to care less, didn’t I?

You: Uhhh. Maybe? I fade in and out.

Me: Go for a run. Take a nap. A hot shower. Drink some tea. Gobble a hallucinogen of your choice and fight your demons inside the Thunderdome of your own tripping mind. Escape the gravity of your work for an hour, a day, clear your head of all the cobwebs in order to see yourself straight.

You: Sleep, jog, Earl Grey, peyote, okay. Got it.

Me: Talk to other writers, too. Commiserate. Cheerlead. Cry over whiskey.

You: Talk to other writers… okay, got it.

Me: Great! Then you’re good to go.

You: Sweet.

Me: Awesome.

You: Excellent.

Me: Indeed.

You: Yeah, I’mma still quit.

Me: Wait, what?

You: I know. I know! I know.

Me: You got this far and you’re gonna quit? You’re around or over 30,000 words now.

You: I know, I just — I can’t hang with NaNoWriMo. I’m failing at this book.

Me: Failing is fine. Quitting is crap.

You: They’re the same thing.

Me: CLOSE YOUR HERETIC MAW, because no they ain’t. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: you learn from failure. Failure is an instruction manual written in scar tissue. Failure is illuminating! School teaches us that failure is badwrongbad, but life is a constant stream of failures. Personal failures, relationship failures, business failures, creative failures. And in each one we learn something on how to move on, improve, how to flip it and switch it so that next time we get closer. We need failure! Failure is getting to the end and discovering what you did needs work. Failure is how we course correct. Quitting? Quitting is just you rolling over and showing your pink belly. It’s soft. It’s lazy. You illuminate almost nothing with quitting — it’s you taking your flashlight and throwing it against the wall.

You: You’re saying I should grow a pair of balls and get it done.

Me: Balls are actually notoriously weak, far as parts of the body go. I mean, I could catch a wiffle ball in the crotch and double over in misery. The testicles are very sensitive and about as strong as a couple of raw quail eggs rolling around in a set of fishnet stockings. You wanna be hardcore, dang, grow a vagina. Those things are built Ford tough, man. The vagina is like the Incredible Hulk of the human form. It does all the heavy lifting. You ever see a woman give birth to a child? You see that, you’re like, “That thing could lift a burning car if it had to.” If anything, the entire scope of masculine history has been an epic attempt at trying to convince the world that the vagina is tissue paper and our balls are titanium. It’s a huge and ugly ruse.

You: This is a weird conversation all of the sudden.

Me: Oh, please, it’s been weird since we mentioned “coyote punching.”

You: Fair enough. So: I learn nothing from quitting. Okay.

Me: You can learn one thing from quitting: the thing you learn — or that you express, at least — is that you don’t want to do this anymore. And if that’s really genuinely true, hey, okay, no harm, no foul. If you’re this far into the book and you’re like, “You know what? Nope nope nope, writing a novel is for somebody else and I realize now that it is absoflogginglutely not for me,” that’s a meaningful revelation. That’s when quitting has value, when it carries you away from a thing that’s just pissing all over your potential satisfaction with life. But if you think there’s any shot at all, any chance you really want to do this and see this through, then fuck it. Hunker down. Grit your teeth. Carve words into the flesh of the page. And finish your shit.

You: I think I’m going to finish. Even if it’s a failure. Even if I lose NaNoWriMo.

Me: Yes. And remember: NaNoWriMo is some made-up shit, too. It’s not a state law. You don’t actually have to finish 50,000 words by the end of November. This isn’t a game, not really. It’s a book. It’s your book. And it’s your job to finish this draft, whether that means finishing it on November 19th, or the 30th, or December 15th, or March 8th. The only way you “lose” is by giving up. And then it’s your job to take that draft and keep working on it. But we’ll talk about next steps later. Next week, probably.

You: Okay. I’m in for the long haul. Besides: IT’S GETTING LATE. TO GIVE YOU UP. I TOOK A SIP. FROM MY DEVIL’S CUP. See what I did there?

Me: Toxic. Nice.

You: *dances awkwardly*

68 responses to “NaNoWriMo Dialogues: “On Doubt, Talent, Failure, And Quitting “”

    • *giving you a virtual hug through cyberspace*

      Of COURSE it hurts – when a book is not just a book, but also your life, being rejected feels that much more personal. You have complete permission to go into full-on Bridget Jones Meltdown Mode if you so wish. For as long as you need to. And then, after that…

      It’s just one publishing house. Publishers have preferences, their own, personal favourite things, and their own opinions. They’re all valid – but it doesn’t mean they’re cast-iron RIGHT. Don’t give up; there’ll be other publishers who’ll think differently.

      And then it won’t matter that Brad Pitt knocked you back, because you can drive past his house in George Clooney’s convertible with Beyoncé’s ‘Best Thing I Never Had’ blaring at top volume on the car stereo…

      …or something. Sometimes my metaphors work, and sometimes they don’t. Y’know what I mean…

  1. I haven’t had any problems so far with self doubt interrupting my work. Yet, anyway. I think my inner editor realized that it would rather sink its talons into something that was fully-formed and had already been birthed, so it’s waiting to tear into a complete draft and let me weep over my destroyed hopes and dreams then.

  2. I made the mistake of trying to drink water and eat Hershey kisses while reading this. That was a bad idea. I’m still coughing, trying to recover.

    Doubt and me are going head to head tonight.

  3. Thank you thank you thank you Chuck Wendig. I already failed in my own adapted version of NaNoWriMo — — a WTF-was-I-thinking exercise in writing 26 short pieces based on Pavement song titles as prompts — and I realized I couldn’t do it. But holy crap I messed around and now I have 11 new pieces. 11 new ideas for longer things where there was nothing there before. (Indeed more new writing that I’d done in over a year.)

    And I’m still writing…

  4. Hello, I am not participating in the NaNo thing because I had not known about it. I do write and someday would love to be published. However i will say that I want to be an editor, or a publisher some day. Currently I am going to school for my bachelors degree in English. I was really excited about becoming an editor when I first started school, I started talking to some of my liked authors on facebook and through e-mail. One of them gave my e-mail to his editor/publisher to talk to me. It was great, I was so exited and took some of the tips they gave me on how to get started. Then a week or so ago a different writer/editor/publisher said some things that had me rather discouraged with the whole idea. I have been struggling and upset since then. Then I found this, it is funny and it really got to me. I mean, I am just starting out with school really, and trying to edit a school paper is a little different then editing someone else`s stories ( I assume anyway). Well I am not exactly at the confidence and excitement level I was, but this made me feel a little better. Thank you for putting these up. All of the ones I have read have great tips, in rather funny ways.

  5. I’ve been tempted to quit several times already. Normally writing a novel is okay by me, but the deadlines? The pressure? All those word counts nice and public? Something about it makes me want to give up.

    I suspect this is part of the NaNoWriMo process–the middle of the book blues.

  6. Thanks, Chuck. I’ve already lost NaNo, but I’ve still got my novel to finish, and you just stomped on every little mischievous demon standing in my way. Thanks again…

  7. Great post, and really what I needed to read tonight, this morning, whatever. I’m not actually doing NaNoWriMo, and I wasn’t close to quitting my novel, but I was struggling with self doubt today. Even posted about it on my blog. I like the bit about failure. I didn’t expect my first screenplay to sell (it hasn’t), and I don’t expect my first novel to be a success. But I’m absolutely willing to write through them in order to get to the good stuff, in order to get good. Thanks, Chuck.

  8. I haven’t so much quit as just put the novel on hold for a while and turned NaNoWriMo into National MA Thesis Writing Month. Because I really need to get that shit done first.

  9. The one thing I read today that hit me with doubt is ironically the motivational at the top of this post.

    My brain is fighting over whether the words highlighted with blood (I believe the German is spatterlighttextgelongworden) portray a deeper message either individually or as part of a pattern.

    So now I am doubting my Wendig exegesis skills.

  10. My vagina is built Ford tough. I needed to hear that. LOL. Not doing NaNo, but am drafting a new novel while dealing with the repeated assault of rejection while querying another project. Not fun. Must go listen to Toxic now.

  11. Sitting at my desk this morning, holding my first cup of coffee… which will be followed by seven or eight more through the course of the day, I was reading your blog entry. I’m nodding my head as I read because you are clearly talking to me and, oh, by the way, I’m Judith. Nice ta meet ya! Anywho, I’m reading and smiling and enjoying the conversation we’re having. People are filing past my open office door and smiling back like my smile is for them. That’s cool. Lets me read uninterrupted. Then I get to the vagina paragraph and laugh out loud. Big-gulping-put-the-coffee-cup-down-on-the-desk-clap-my hands-and-shout-Hallelujah laughing!

    Totally made my vagina effin happy! And the rest of me along with it. You are the wisest man in the world. Gandhi move over. There’s a new sheriff in town!

    Thank you so everloving effin much!

  12. When I write, death eaters circle the room loudly moaning, “Yooouuuu suuuuccckkk!” Your post will help me ignore them a bit. Although damn they poop EVERYWHERE. Stupid death eaters.

  13. Thanks Chuck! Every once in while I will look around me at all of the books in Barnes and Noble and say “why the hell should I bother? I am not good enough to both come up with a decent plot and write well.” At that point I try to look back at some of the work I’ve done and many times my reaction is, “wow, I wrote that? That’s not half bad!” Usually my brain is a mushy glop of goo but sometimes good stuff spews forth from it!

    Thanks for this! I will share it with my writing friends.

    Oh, and now I have Toxic stuck in my head. I suppose it is better than What Does the Fox Say…

  14. Thank you for this. The odor of the cat piss in our carpet was so bad, we had to rip it up and replace all the carpeting. And that’s what I have to do: rip up the carpeting that stinks in my writing, and lay down some nice, new stuff that, with any luck, will make the whole book look better.

  15. When you get tired of “Toxic” remakes, give this one a listen. You’ve probably heard the song before if you’re a writer ’cause for awhile there it was like a note from a cute guy that gets obsessively passed around study hall. It’s from [Title of Show], and if you haven’t heard it or if you heard it years ago or somehow never heard it, listen. Laugh. (“TIPPY TURTLE!”)

  16. I stalled badly after one week, as usual. An unfortunate combination of my tendency to procrastinate and not being sure how to get from A to B made me freeze up. (Receiving a Hearthstone beta key on the 1st November didn’t help me avoid those procrastinating tendencies.)

    I wrote 6200 words in week 1 (skipped 3 days but otherwise exceeded personal targets), then only 1100 week 2. All I’ve done so far week three was name a character I’d placeholder named. (And worked out her backstory and motivations, but that ain’t putting words on paper.)

    Need to stop worrying I don’t know what I’m doing and force myself back into it.

  17. Wow! Everytime I read your words I fall deeper and deeper in love with you! You are one crazy, open minded sick individual. I love it! Will you marry me? *on bended knee Thanks for the daily inspiration!!

  18. […] On Doubt, Talent, Failure, And Quitting. “Discipline and devotion and skill are a trio that overwhelms any presumed talent any day of the week. You can be as talented as you want, but you still need to sit down, learn your craft and then demonstrate it. Over and over again. If – if! — talent is a real thing, the best that it gets you is that it cuts down the time it takes for you to get to a qualified end result.” […]

  19. “Failing is fine. Quitting is crap.” is pure truth. I just blogged about getting past the halfway point in NaNo and wrapped the post up with a graphic of my 2011 NaNo graph. You know, the one where I quit. That graph haunts me to this day. Thanks for the wise words, Chuck.

  20. Love it. I don’t think nearly enough people separate failure from quitting.

    Great point about ‘talent’ as well. Sure, some people are born with it, but most people’s talent was forged in the fires of failure, perseverance and hard work…. thousands of hours of that stuff.

  21. Another great post, Chuck, full of wisdom as always.

    When you dig deep enough, it always emerges that every ‘overnight’ success actually wasn’t. They’d been slogging away for years beforehand – just in private, without anyone seeing them. Laughed like heck at the vagina thing – not least because the first thing that came to mind was Batfink’s catchphrase. The very next rejection I get, I am TOTALLY going to say “Your critique cannot harm me, my vagina is like a shield of steel..!” (Well – maybe…!)

    The difference between failure and quitting? You don’t wish you could go back and undo failures.

  22. Thanks Chuck! This came in at the exact perfect time. I’ve never been a quitter but man this NaNoWriMo thing is kicking my ass. But after reading your ass kicking post… I’m ready to – “Grit your (my) teeth” and “Carve words into the flesh of the page.” Fabulous freaking line!! Love it 🙂 Thanks again!! .

  23. Thanks for the reminder that “NaNoWriMo is some made-up shit.” I didn’t want to be a November-only writer anyway. I’m committed to the novel, not just the contest. Your Wendig Beard Kenobi badassery always hits the spot.

  24. Big cheers for another great post, Chuck – wise and insightful as always. And I laughed myself silly at the vagina thing – not least because the first thing that came to mind was the old Batfink catchphrase. Next time i get a rejection I am TOTALLY gonna say “Your critiques cannot harm me, my vagina is like a shield of steel!”

    …maybe ;^)

  25. I “won” NaNoWriMo last year. I was so pleased with myself – ‘I can write more than five-thousand words without abandoning it!’ I thunk – so pleased, I had December off.

    Realising my stagnation, I started in January with a “Resolution.”
    I started a blog, so I could partake in Chucks weekly Flash Fiction Challenges. This went well, until, I noticed a lack of effort on my own work (Disclaimer: Totally not Chucks fault)

    I gave up the Flash Fiction and the blog, determined to knuckle down on a more personal piece of work. To date, I’ve – ironically – produced far less words since my cessation of the blog.

    Soooo…I won’t divulge the whispers of the gremlins known as Despair and Doubt, their words were for my ears only. But, just as i contemplated the cowardice of throwing in the towel. You posted this.

    Thanks Chuck!

    (Disclaimer: Chuck is totally responsible for any drivel I smear on a page, and present to the world…Tee Hee)

  26. Chuck,

    This is the best post of yours I’ve ever read – and I’ve read a shload of them. Thank you! For a Wendig-esque analogy: I lit the fire under my own ass, but you definitely gave me some matches. Get.Shit.Done.

    Now back to making words!


  27. As a rule, I never comment on “famous” people’s blogs, but I am making an exception because (1) this post is full of what I need to hear and (2) your post on opening chapters saved my life last week after a particularly brutal writing group session where I was going to throw my book out the frigging window and never, EVER write again. Now, I am all dusted off and back at it and I have you to thank. So thank you.

    • I’m sorry, did you just say “famous?” — ?!

      I think I am the farthest thing from, so please feel welcome to comment here more often. 😀

      And glad the posts are working to help!

      — c.

  28. Not Nano-ing but on deadline amidst a whole load of life-stressy shite; I come here regularly for a boost and always get more than I hoped for, plus a big grin to take away. And I plan to quote that paragraph about vaginas versus balls to everyone forever, pretty much. Please accept the mental equivalent of a big transatlantic hug.

  29. I’ve decided that, since WORD COUNT is not going so well, but a story is…fighting…with/for/at me. That I may be a NANO runner-up this year. But not a loser.

  30. I quit NaNoWriMo this year. Of course, I quit in the first week. My story was going nowhere and I learned that I don’t do well without planning. Lesson learned. And I have planned-out works on the back burner that will do better with some of my NaNoenergy directed at them. It’s a good thing. Quitting is an option. But quitting because your writing isn’t good enough probably isn’t a great reason to quit.

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