Go ahead. Trot out all your excuses. Write them down, leave them in the comments here, get them on the table so we can sweep them all away and take them out with last night’s fish. Because if there’s one thing standing in the way of your success – it’s you. And those excuses are just the stumbling blocks all of us throw in our own path when we’re afraid.
Here are a few to get you started:
- I’m not a very good writer.
- I’m too busy.
- I just don’t have the time.
- I have to work.
- I have too many things to do in the evening – the kids are in [band, sports, video game club, whatever] and I have to drive them to it.
- I don’t know what to write about.
- My [spouse, mother, father, kids, boss, friend, cat] thinks it’s a waste of time.
A literary agent and freelance editor I ran across asked me a very pointed and uncomfortable question: “Why are you afraid to write a novel?”
“Afraid?” I asked her. “Are you mad? I’m not afraid. I’m just…busy.”
She promised if I would write her an essay answering that question honestly, she would represent me at no charge if I finished a novel within a year.
I didn’t do it. I began to wonder if she had been right. Was I afraid? What on earth was I afraid of? I sat down to write the essay.
Fear of Success, or Fear of Failure?
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
I can do this, if I can just… pick… up… this… pen…
As I sit here picking fuzz balls from the carpet, it hits me. I want to write a novel. And I know I can do it with a little discipline and perseverance; as my mother would say, “Just put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving.” Or writing, in this case. So what is it that’s holding me back, driving me to pick the fuzz balls out of the carpet?
Fear that I’ll write it, and it will be awful. Embarassingly awful. So awful that I will have wasted my time, my energy, and my hopes on something that’s not even fit to burn. I’ll have killed hundreds of poor defenseless trees and suffered public humiliation in the process, and for what? To bore my readers to tears?
Fear that I’ll write it, and it will be an overnight bestseller. It’ll be such a raging success that I’ll have to spend half my time on the road, promoting and signing the damned thing. The “business” of writing will take over, leaving me no time or energy to write. My ever-supportive family will hate it, but they’ll put up with it (the better to write their own multimillion-dollar tell-all Mommy Dearest-type expose in years to come). No doubt success will go to my head, and I’ll forget that no matter how smart, skilled, or talented you are, you’re only better at some things than some people.
Fear that I’ll write it, and it will be the kind of novel I want it to be–one that will make my family and friends proud of me. A novel that will earn critical acclaim and entertain millions. A novel that will spark conversations at the water cooler, all beginning with “Hey, have you read that great new book…” And then they’ll figure if I did it once, I can easily do it again. At that point, I’ll be struck with the most horrendous case of writer’s block imaginable, and that’ll be the end of a brilliant start. The one-trick pony, unable to repeat the trick. And then my family and friends won’t be proud of me anymore, they’ll just be disappointed and try to encourage me by telling me what a good writer I am, but we’ll all know better, won’t we?
Isn’t That Putting the Cart Before the Horse?
Who said phobias were rational?
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)
National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it is better known, kicks off today: November 1. This will, incidentally, be my tenth year participating in NaNoWriMo. To “win” NaNoWriMo (for which there is no “prize” but the satisfaction of having done it) requires writing a novel of at least 50,000 words. It doesn’t have to be a good novel, but outright mockery and stupidity, such as writing, “One, two, three, four…fifty-thousand,” is frowned upon. Those who approach it that way, however, are only cheating themselves. They are cheating themselves of bragging rights and the respect of their peers, if nothing else.
I walked away a winner on my first attempt, and now have an unbeaten nine-year losing streak under my belt, as well. You see, I achieved my goal of “writing a novel” on the first try. One of these years, I may make “write a publishable novel” my goal for NaNoWriMo, but for now, I just enjoy writing and absorbing some of the abundant and zany creative energy that radiates from the NaNoWriMo forums in November. But back to that first year…
In 2001, I decided to join the zany literary marathon of NaNoWriMo and quickly declared myself NaNoNuts. I blogged excerpts of the novel in progress. I brainstormed with some of the other 140 or so participants. And in that awful year – a year that brought personal and national tragedy, stress, and a deck stacked high against all hope of success – I managed to finish a novel. Most of the people who read it seemed to enjoy it, and after a great deal of editing by me and others, I self-published it. Sold a few copies, too. Like I said earlier, though, next time I intend to be a little more specific when I phrase my goal; the Next Goal will be something like, “Write a really good novel that readers and acquisitions editors won’t be able to resist.”
And of course this is why NaNoWriMo has its detractors. It’s seen as anything but a serious, literary endeavor. There is nothing about honing the craft of writing – well, there is, but only if you’re in the Young Writers Program, and even there, the emphasis is more about getting the words out of the writer’s brain and onto the page. December is NaNoEdMo, for the serious NaNoNovelist. But at least one writer, perhaps most notably, Sara Gruen – author of the bestseller, Water for Elephants – showed critics just what can come out of a crazy, frenzied, month-long write-in. That’s right – Sara Gruen is a NaNoWriMo participant, and her bestselling novel started off during November. Click here to read Sara Gruen’s NaNoWriMo pep talk.
Did it end there? Of course not. In fact, there’s an interview with Literary Agent Mary Kole about NaNoWriMo and queries, wherein she quips, “several agents joke that December is ‘NaQuRejMo,’ which cruelly stands for ‘National Query Rejection Month.’ … A lot of great published novels (like Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants) got their start during NaNoWriMo. But the key word in the last sentence is ‘start.’ I bet Sara Gruen put lots and lots of work into her masterpiece, even before she sent it off to her agent.”
So, if writing a novel is one of your goals, I highly recommend you join NaNoWriMo. If you’re reading this in mid-November, remember that it’s never too late – just average the 50,000 words over what’s left of November’s 30 days, and that’s your daily word count. Before you reject the idea, consider this: There is another grueling novel-writing tradition that calls for writing an entire novel in three days. Don’t be a wimp.
Be a Patron of the Literary Arts
The Office of Letters and Light, which sponsors NaNoWriMo, in addition to running the annual screenwriters’ and playwrights’ marathon known as Script Frenzy, host the Young Writers Program.
For one month, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!
That means participants begin writing November 1 and must finish by midnight, November 30. The word-count goal for our adult program is 50,000 words, but the Young Writers Program (YWP) allows 17-and-under participants to set reasonable, yet challenging, individual word-count goals.
In 2010, 200,000 adults participated through our main site, and 41,000 young writers participated through the YWP.
This is serious fun. They even have Common Core-aligned lesson plans, to ensure that all this fun helps students meet academic goals while they are flexing their writing muscle for the “I wrote a NOVEL!” bragging rights. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
Whether you participate or cheer from the sidelines, all this is free for participants – but the Office of Letters and Light doesn’t operate on, well, letters and light. They are supported by donations from past and present participants and other patrons of the arts. Watch this video from the Office of Letters and Light, check it out for yourself, and consider making a donation:
Ready to join me? Grab a big bottle of water, your favorite snacks, and prepare to ice down your hands… you’re going to write that book.
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In either case, we love your comments! Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you ever participated before? What is it that draws you to writing like a moth to a flame? Let us know!