Autopsy of a Failure: How Not To Write

Every year since 2006 I’ve participated in and completed NaNoWriMo. Using the month of concerted, frenzied activity to push myself into focusing and finishing, I’ve always used the challenge to get a solid first draft done for later editing.

This year, I didn’t, for the first time.

I started, but I didn’t finish.

(Alright, in 2006 and 2009 I didn’t finish my draft but did hit the word count; in 2006 I came back to the story and finished it, and the result is The Other Daughter, whereas in 2009 my attempted sequel to Pass The Parcel, tentatively titled Musical Chairs, stalled at 80,000 words and only the bare beginnings of a plot, and I gave it up as a bad job–but that doesn’t sound as dramatic).

In fact, I wasn’t even two weeks into the challenge when I threw up my hands and declared that I was, in the words of a familiar meme, straight up not having a good time, bro.

That, incidentally, was the deciding factor. Not time constraints (for the first time in several years I was trying to balance concerted full-time work with writing, as I couldn’t take any time off this year), but loss of enthusiasm. I can–and indeed have, when writing the first and second halves of Pass the Parcel–work around a full-time job to get a draft written in the time allotted to me. It’s tricky, but when the will is there, the way can be found. The challenge becomes a joy.

In this case, I was getting absolutely no joy out of the experience. I couldn’t get words out. Every single sentence was a walking nightmare: the motto of NaNoWriMo is usually given as just Get The Words Out, which is very liberating for a lot of people–not to have to struggle with concepts of quality, to uncork and unclench and just assure themselves that they’re capable of writing that much, that consistently,. on one project.

The problem is that if I see what’s coming out of me and know that it is complete sludge, no amount of “giving myself permission to suck” will erase the fact that future me is going to have to edit that. “Fix it in post” applies to factual research, names I can’t remember, individual words I can’t find at the moment I need to find them in–bits that can be blocked out in the original draft as I zoom past them in the joy of pursuing the plot and hanging out with the characters.

When, however, the language feels like lead pellets and the characters are pretty much lifeless and flat in my palms, there’s not likely to be a remedy short of throwing the whole book away.

I’m trying to work out how it came to this point. The portion of the year spent on world-building and exploration was fun and interesting. I just appear to have forgotten how to convey information about a world in a narrative. The portion of the year spent on writing things about characters was interesting; but I completely missed any attempt at writing with them.

Part of the reason I had dead characters with dead voices is that I never trialled them, and part of the reason that I didn’t trial them was lack of authorial acoustics. I’ve never subscribed to the Ivory Tower model; of bookwriting, and like to take lots of people along with me even for the first draft ride, to get plentiful feedback as I’m writing, to help me see where I might be missing things, or which characters aren’t developing in the way that I want them to. Even before the first draft, being able to talk out plot holes, advertise and expand characters to an audience, and wrestle with what themes are actually contained in my story at the planning stage with someone who is genuinely interested is a great help!

It’s also a great confidence-booster, and the sad fact is that since last year where–through no one’s fault so much as through bad timing and communication mishaps–I couldn’t find anyone to step into either the first draft readership or planning stages for my draft, I began to feel discontent with writing, and convinced nothing I was doing was any good.

The year that followed saw me writing even less, and planning less, and losing confidence hand-over-fist in what I was producing. Which is bizarre, because I was also being paid to write content for an app and a blog. The authorial ego is a very fragile thing!

How to undo this?

Well, there is a question! So far, having had a good response to the publication of Architects of the Flesh, and working on a private commission for a friend’s Christmas present, in which I’m genuinely freed from all judgment but hers (including my own!) has given me a little confidence back.

So has being straight-up hassled by a different friend about a project I’ve been putting off writing, and talking over that same project with a different friend and getting exactly the intelligent, critical questions I needed to work out one of the things I’d been getting wrong with it.

So I’m cautiously optimistic that next year will bring me a slightly better and more committed run at it.

For some people, “just let yourself be bad at it, but finish it” is what’s liberating. For me, haunted by the spectre of god knows how many “you give up too easily” complaints in my youth and therefore punishing myself into finishing things neither I nor anyone else enjoys me doing, it’s accepting that I’m allowed to quit when something’s not fun any more. Writing should be fun, at least most of the time, even if there are the odd off days when you’re not inspired and have to go sweat instead, or feel like a complete imposter and you’re sure that nothing that comes out can be at all good–if those days are all the time, it might just be that the project is not right.

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