Why You Shouldn’t Quit, Even When You’re Going To Lose

Well, well! We’re now officially over two thirds of the way done with November. For those of you who are participating in NaNoWriMo, that means—theoretically—you should have 33,333 words written!

So.

How are you doing?

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I thought so.

Look, if you didn’t realize it before you embarked on this ludicrous journey, 50,000 words is a lot to write in one month. Like, an insane amount. Especially if you’re not a practiced, full-time, professional writer—and most NaNoWriMo participants aren’t.

So maybe you’ve kept up but now you’re losing steam, or maybe you’re so far behind that you know, deep within your soul, you will not reach that golden 50k.

Either way, you don’t want to write one. More. Goddamn. Word.

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Hey, I’ve been there before, too. That’s not just lipservice—I’ve done NaNoWriMo four times. Half those times I gave up partway through the month. The other half I hit 50k, but neither of those resulted in a completed novel on December 1st. Getting to that point, even for a full-length first draft, took much more work. Getting it revised—well, I’ll let you know when I’ve finished.

“That’s not very inspiring.” Oh, you sweet summer child! I’m just getting started!

In fact, the mid-November doldrums are more than a distant memory. I’m going on the record, here: I started my novel yesterday. November 20th. Right now, my word count is 1,776.

I know exactly how it feels to know you’re going to lose NaNoWriMo.

And once you know that… well, it drains you. Every word you plunk down on the page feels like an exercise in futility, a mockery of the lofty dreams you once had for that fantasy epic or Great American Bildungsroman™.

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Then, just when it feels like you’ve been lost to the pit of despair, somebody comes along to cheer you on. A good-hearted and pure little bundle of sunshine just for you.

“It’s not the 30th yet!” they might say. “You can do it!”

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But, look. When you’re in the pit of despair, those cheerful words of encouragement aren’t always the pick-me-up they’re meant to be. The people trying to help you climb out of that pit—as wonderful and well-intentioned as they might be!— can seem a little, well, off.

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They don’t know what they’re talking about! They don’t know you. They don’t know your book.

They sure as hell don’t know that you “can do it.”

So sometimes you want to take that happy little ray of sunshine and tell them where to shove it.

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Paradoxically, all of that encouragement can make you want to dig your heels in. They just don’t understand—and anyway, hey, none of this is about them.

It’s about you and it’s about your book. And right now, you don’t want to have anything to do with your book. You have a whole litany of excuses reasons: you’re sick of it, you’re not going to make it to the end on time, none of this is worth it anyway—

It doesn’t matter what they are. It all boils down to the fact that you’re not going to do it anymore.

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Here’s the thing, though… you’re still reading this blog post.

Yeah, that’s right. I went there. Say goodbye to the fourth wall, ’cause things are about to get meta up in here.

This blog post is titled “Why You Shouldn’t Quit, Even When You’re Going To Lose.” Maybe you clicked on it because you are desperately waiting for someone to prove you wrong and get your ass back to work. Maybe you’re one of those contrary types who clicked because you want me to prove you right. You saw the title and said “Yeah, right,” and you’re about to faff your way around all of the forthcoming encouragement.

Hey, it’s your life, man. If quitting is actually best for you, then go ahead. It’s not like I’m going to jump out of your computer and try to stop you.

But I think that even the most resistant of would-be writers clicked this link because deep down they want to be talked out of quitting.

Maybe you’re just feeling discouraged because you feel like you have no idea what the hell you’re doing.

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That’s okay. You know how you figure out what the hell you’re doing?

You do it.

It’s not rocket science or brain surgery. You’re not literally flying a space ship. One wrong turn won’t send hellfire raining down on humanity.

Practice, is what I’m saying. What you’re doing now—writing, even if it’s terrible, even if you don’t make whatever arbitrary goal you set for yourself—is experience that you can draw on to improve.

And if that’s not enough to dispel your fears, well, we have other ways of motivating you….

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Uhhhh, whoops. Wrong Alan Rickman movie.

Anyway, my point is that sometimes when you’re writing, you are going to feel a little lost. Even if you’re very experienced, chances are you’ll still have those moments. I mean, I presume. You don’t see a Pulitzer in my Twitter bio, do you?

Seriously, though. I think that those moments are actually a blessing in disguise. It means you recognize that what you’re writing isn’t up to your own standards. Don’t get me wrong—that’s a shitty feeling! But it’s the first step to improving. It means you recognize that you can always get better and work on building the capability to do that.

Later.

Make it better later. That’s what editing is for.

So, yes, sometimes it will feel like what you’re doing is wrong, or bad, or stupid. Sometimes the only way forward is to just do it anyway.

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So, with new-founded and bull-headed resolve, you accept that the only way out is through. Like a lot of things, you just have to grit your teeth and do it.

Whether because of those chipper bits of encouragement or in spite of them, you find it within yourself to charge ahead.

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Maybe you already knew this. Maybe you’ve already done this. Maybe you’ve put your back into it, done as much as you can, and had a fantastically successful little burst of productivity.

But.

Fifty thousand words is a lot of words. Novels are long. Eventually, you’re going to hit a point where you run out of steam.

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Maybe that point comes when you realize that it’s not mathematically possible for you to finish the NaNoWriMo 50k in time for the 30th. You won’t get to print out that nice little PDF file that says “Winner.”

Awww. Poor you.

Do you know how easy it is to make a PDF that says “Winner” on it? I could do that right now. I’m not going to, because I spent a lot of time gathering these lovely gifs for you people and I have a lot of writing to do and I have a Thanksgiving dinner to host later this week and and and—the point is, who the hell cares if you win NaNoWriMo?

Are you going to put it on your resume? Do you think putting it on your query letter to agents is going to help you get published—because, oh, no, don’t do that. Don’t. Definitely don’t hit send on December 1st.

Fifty thousand is a completely arbitrary number of words. Thirty days is an arbitrary number of days. Let me tell you something, though… if you’re going to write a novel, a real full-length novel by current publishing standards, you’re going to have to write at least fifty thousand words.

Fifty thousand is a big number. It’s a lot to get through.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it can feel like too much to get through.

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Especially when you’re having trouble wrangling characters, or patching plot holes, or stringing together a sentence that makes any sense at all.

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And especially when you start to think about who’s going to read your writing, and what they’re going to think about it, and how right now it all seems an awful lot like a fiery pile of garbage.

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But—to borrow from another sci-fi comedy classic—at times like these it’s important to remember:

Don’t Panic.

Take a deep breath. Put on your doctor hat (I think that in the business they call this a “stethoscope”) and diagnose your problem.

Sometimes when you’re writing, you grind to a halt just because it seems overwhelming, or you’re not motivated enough, or you’re just being lazy and the Internet is terribly inviting. In those cases, the situation is to just stop making excuses, sit down, and write. Even if it’s hard, you just have to do it and remember you can fix it later.

Sometimes, though, the reason you have “writer’s block” is because something isn’t working in your story. In that case, step back. Take a look at your story—its structure, its plot, and most of all, its characters.

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When I get really stuck, I actually write dialogue between my characters as if they are real people—actors playing versions of themselves—and they’re backstage bitching about why they can’t get this scene right. I often write myself into these scenes as a put-upon director who yells at them and oh ho let me tell you, it is very cathartic.

Uh, but back to the productive part of this. This strategy works for me because it forces me to think of my characters as fully realized people. Getting into their brains—even separating myself from them by putting myself in the scene as a discrete entity—helps me suss out their motivations. What isn’t working? What would a real person find believable or unreasonable about the choices they’re making?

Maybe this exact technique seems silly to you. You might use a different trick or come up with a completely new one. All that matters is that you find out what works for you—something that you’ll never do if you give up.

In the end, you just have to persevere. That might be harder than you expect, and it might take longer than you expect, but by Grabthar’s hammer does it feel good.

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And then of course you realize that the first draft of a novel is only a first step. It needs hours upon hours of editing and rewriting to have even the slimmest chance of living up to its full potential.

Hell, maybe you didn’t even finish a novel. Maybe you didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo or meet whatever other goal you set for yourself.

Maybe your premature celebrations feel like a great big ol’ stinky pile of manure.

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But on the eve of my own magnificent NaNo failure, let me remind you of something.

NaNoWriMo may have winners, but it doesn’t have losers.

Fifty thousand words are still fifty thousand words whether they were written in November or any other month of the year—or any other amount of time.

Writing a story is a great thing. You don’t need outside validation from a NaNoWriMo winner’s certificate or anybody else—no, not even me! Even trying to write a novel is so much more than most people will ever do.

So, cut yourself a little slack.

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Uhh, hold on a second, that’s… is that Alan Rickman’s agent on the phone? Oh! … Oh. I’m sorry. Tell Mr. Rickman that I am very sorry. Yes, sir. Goodbye, sir.

It would appear that I’ve used the wrong Alan Rickman movie again.

*clears throat*

In any case, I’m going to keep writing. I am extremely unlikely to write 50,000 words before the end of November, and I just wanted to tell you that that’s okay. Because I’m going to keep writing after NaNoWriMo ends.

I’m going to keep writing for a long time after that.

So if you want to join me, there’s plenty of room and lots of words to write. Now I’ll be signing off—find me on Twitter, commiserate in the comments, or if you’re on the NaNo train you can join me there.

I’m going to go write.

And remember:

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This blog post has been sponsored* by Galaxy Quest!

* This blog post does not reflect the opinions of Galaxy Quest**, its cast†, crew, friends, family, or pets.

** Galaxy Quest and related individuals have paid me $0 to write this blog post. They are encouraged to rectify this clerical error. I also accept payment in the form of baked goods and craft beer.

† With apologies to Alan Rickman.

One Comment

  • Jeremiah Reply

    Really great message and attitude, even when applied to non-writing activities. Also beautiful use of Galaxy quest (and other Rickman movie) gifs. I can only speak for myself but as a wellwisher I typically am just trying to support someone doing something that seems important to them and/or that I believe them to be talented in, yet as it is really easy to relate to the being discouraged by well intended gestures from individuals that don’t know or don’t fully understand the situation.

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