Burned out writer sleeping at her desk in front of open laptop.

Knowing When to Quit

Author Tyler Dilts recently made an observation on social media that helped me solve a mystery:

Tweet by author Tyler Dilts @tylerdilts on November 15, 2021, that reads: Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a guarantee that you'll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again.

Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a
guarantee that you’ll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again. @tylerdilts 11/15/21

 

Dilts was talking about the unrealistic, overly demanding, and unkind expectations we often impose upon ourselves as writers. Like the way I throw myself into National Novel Writing Month like I’m throwing myself in front of a steamroller–I approach it with ferocity, like I’m going into the ring up against The Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and The Million Dollar Man, all at once.

This year, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the 5th time. I did so because I’ve been overwhelmed with work and other commitments, I’m trying to finish a novel, and I’m not getting as much writing done as I’d like. So right as my schedule began to clear up, I decided it would be a great idea to add something new to my plate and force myself to write more. I wrote over 27,000 words in the first 16 days of November. I wrote at least 1,667 words on each of those days because, in addition to other achievements, participants are awarded a virtual badge for meeting the average word count daily, without fail. Something in me won’t let me fall short of my daily word count. And something in me won’t let me not win that badge.

Something in me.

I’m not here to disrespect NaNoWriMo. It’s a fantastic idea and a great organization that does a lot of good. It can be quite beneficial for writers. I think it’s especially helpful for writers who are where I was eight years ago–writers who are trying to get into the habit of writing regularly or who want to prove to themselves they can write a book (reader, you can). For even established writers, it can help jump start a new book, and it can be a fun way to engage with your writing community. It’s a nice annual tradition as we head into the dark winter months. As a matter of fact, the book I’m polishing up now started as a NaNoWriMo half-novel in 2013. It was an empowering experience for me to actually finish writing that half a draft. It showed me I could write regularly during a time when I was telling myself I never had time to write, and it showed me I could write a book. It was a life-changing experience. But over the past few days, I’ve come to realize that NaNoWriMo, much like Farmville, is no longer good for me.

It came to me shortly after I posted this on Twitter on Tuesday morning:

Tweet by writer Leanne Phillips @leannebythesea on November 16, 2021, that reads: Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG & NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about it, but this year, they're replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH & I've had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH?

Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG &
NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about
it, but this year, they’re replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH &
I’ve had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH? @leannebythesea 11/16/21

 

And then I saw Tyler Dilts’s post come up in my timeline again and retweeted it. And then I began to put two and two together. Is it by coincidence that I’ve gotten seriously ill every time I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, when I don’t get so seriously ill other times of the year? And when I don’t get so seriously ill during other Novembers in which I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo? Maybe. I don’t know.

But I do know this: One of the reasons I’ve done NaNoWriMo in the past is because I know myself. I’m highly strung. I’m wound up tight. I can’t stand to fail. I hate not following through on something. Participating in NaNoWriMo weaponizes those traits. If I commit to writing 1,667 words every day for a month, I will do it even if it kills me. In 2013, it nearly did. Midway through November, I became so stubbornly ill my doctor wanted to hospitalize me. Twice. I don’t blame NaNoWriMo for my illness. I had an antibiotic-resistant infection, and I refused to slow down and listen to what my body was trying to tell me. I kept going until I no longer could. And what did I do as soon as I began to get well and was able to drag myself to my kitchen table again? I wrote between 5,000 and 10,000 words a day for three or four days to catch up and finish NaNoWriMo. Of course I did.

This year, I started feeling short of breath on Thursday, November 4th. The doctor couldn’t find anything physically wrong with me. I’d gotten my COVID-19 booster the week before. I’d had my flu shot. I tested negative for COVID-19 twice. A chest x-ray was clear. My lungs sounded fine. My temperature, oxygen saturation, and respirations were all normal. “Have you been feeling anxious about anything?” the doctor asked.

“Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.”
–Chinese Proverb

I kept writing those 1,667 words a day. By the following Thursday, I was feeling much worse. I also felt exhausted. I didn’t want to do all of the things I normally enjoy doing, including going out for walks or writing. Of course, you don’t know me, so you’ll have to take my word for it: I am a human dynamo. I get things done. This wasn’t normal for me. Over the weekend, I didn’t think I could write another word. But I did. I wrote thousands of them. And then on Sunday evening, I slowed down. After a long, hot shower, and over a comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup, I began to relax. I began to consider quitting NaNoWriMo, and I began to feel better. Which meant, of course, that by Monday morning, I was feeling well enough to continue NaNoWriMo.

To be fair, there were other things causing me anxiety, too. I had a deeply personal essay come out on November 9th. The gas in my bungalow was shut off for three weeks, which was a nightmare. And I live in California–there’ve been controlled burns in my county the last couple of weekends in an effort to prevent wildfires, which has meant a great deal of smoke in the air. Then there’s work, school, volunteer commitments. A global pandemic going on two years.

Most of that, I can’t control. I can’t control how people respond to my essay. I can’t control how fast my landlord replaces the gas lines. (And neither can he, God bless him, he’s doing the best he can.) I can’t control the wildfires. I can’t control the pandemic–I can only do my part. But there was one thing causing me anxiety that I could control. I could decide not to force myself to write 1,667 words a day every day for a month, when my body clearly needed a break, for no good reason other than my aversion to “failing.” (And the badges.)

Woman from torso down walking barefoot on black sand beach wearing floral dress.

What I’m writing here may sound contrary to other things I’ve written. I wrote recently about some of the things I like and don’t like about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words), and I also wrote about Structuring Your Writing Life. In both of those posts, I extolled the benefits of writing each and every day. I’ve written about Game Theory and Writing–I do believe gamifying writing goals can help writers achieve those goals, and NaNoWriMo is a great example of that. In another post, Time Is on My Side, I wrote that I have a daily writing practice–I keep a large calendar on my wall and mark an X through each day once I reach my daily writing goal.

But in those same posts, I also wrote that “long strolls and … periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential,” and I shared that my daily writing goal is this: to write for ten minutes each day. Only ten minutes. I’m easy on myself in my daily writing life. I wasn’t always, but I’ve learned to be. My writing mentors and role models have helped me to create a productive and enjoyable writing life. Mary Yukari Waters helped me see that I was sapping the joy out of my writing life by being overly rigid. Jill Alexander Essbaum was particularly instrumental in teaching me to take my creative days as they come and to revel in wherever those days may take me. She showed me what a productive and enjoyable writing life can look like, and she taught me that such a life should include things like getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. Deanne Stillman taught me that things take as long as they take and not to rush them. Tod Goldberg taught me that it’s okay to take a break, but it’s not okay to give up. They all taught me to enjoy being creative and to be more kind to myself.

This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.”

I do believe in building good habits and in working hard to reach your goals. But NaNoWriMo may not be the thing that works for everyone. And it may work at one point in life and not at another. My personality can be hardcore. I take things to extremes. Left to my own devices, I can turn just about anything into such demanding work that I take the fun out of it. I’m the Monica Geller of writing competitions. For me, NaNoWriMo brings out an unhealthy side of my personality.

These days, I choose to write at least ten minutes a day because that gets me sitting down at the keyboard. Once I start writing, I usually get into it and write for much longer than ten minutes, and I enjoy it. Most mornings, me and Walter Mosley can be found at our keyboards well before sunup and for several hours after. But if all I’ve got in me is the ten minutes, that’s okay. I stop and mark the X on my calendar. Beyond the ten minutes, my daily writing practice usually means continuing to work on my current WIP. But sometimes, my definition of writing is much more flexible. It might mean submitting a few stories to literary journals–I’ve done something toward my writing goals, so I mark the X on my calendar. It might mean taking a walk on the beach while working out a plot point in my head, getting to know a character, or brainstorming an idea for a new story. Counts as writing. I mark the X on my calendar. Today, writing this post counts as writing. On Sundays, taking a break from my computer to rejuvenate my soul counts as writing. As long as I do it deliberately and thoughtfully, it counts.

Tweet by Counts as Writing @CountsAsWriting on August 2, 2021, which reads: Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing.

Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing. @CountsAsWriting 08/02/21

 

I was already considering giving NaNoWriMo up by Sunday evening, because I was physically and emotionally wiped out and felt like dirt. But on Tuesday, Tyler Dilts’s tweet helped me connect the two things. I realized I was so caught up in word count that I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. I started out like gangbusters, but after about 10,000 words, the words I was writing weren’t substantially contributing to me finishing my book. They were, however, substantially contributing to my anxiety. I’d fallen back into my old habit of being an overly rigid killjoy, and I literally made myself sick.

I deleted my NaNoWriMo account Tuesday night and went back to the daily writing practice I love. And I am feeling much better. To be fair, there are other reasons I’m feeling better, too. The smoke has cleared out of the air in my neighborhood. I got a lovely, heartwarming message in response to my essay that made all the anxiety leading up to its publication worthwhile. My gas was reconnected Tuesday evening and my hot water heater was fixed last night. And I took up coffee again after a three-day break–I love coffee. But I have to be honest–I felt a weight lift from my chest when I deleted my NaNoWriMo account. This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.

I came out of this aborted NaNoWriMo attempt with 27,000+ words, including a new, 10,000-word draft of a story that takes place in the desert on the 20th anniversary of Gram Parson’s death. It’s a story I love. I can’t stop thinking about it. I am anxious to start revising it. It suddenly made no sense to me to keep writing new words I wasn’t enjoying writing in order to earn quite-colorful-and-nice-to-look-at-but-still-virtual badges, when what I really wanted to do was to begin rewriting this story I am excited about. (The other 17,000 words are mostly rubbish, to be honest.)

“Knowing when to quit is probably a very important thing, but I just am not ready.”
–James Taylor

So I quit NaNoWriMo, and I’m okay with that. I deleted my account because my personality is also such that, if I hadn’t, two days from now I’d have logged back in and decided I could still buckle down and make my word count in time. It was one of those decisions you tussle with, but once you’ve made up your mind, you know it was the right decision.

Please understand, when I say to know when to quit, I do not mean to quit writing or to give up on your dreams. I don’t mean to quit NaNoWriMo either–if it’s feeding you and empowering you, fantastic. Keep going! You’ve got this! It’s a personal choice. But know when something you’re doing is no longer working for you. Know when a project you’re working on is no longer bringing you joy. Know when a writing practice is bringing you down. Listen to your body, and know when you need a break or to set something aside for a day, or a week, or a couple of months. And whatever else you do, please be as kind to yourself as you would be to anyone else.

These are my words for today, Thursday, November 18th. They count as writing. They were a pleasure and a relief to write, and I hope you found something useful in them.

WRITER TIP: Speaking of knowing when to quit, here’s a great tip about ending a writing session from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”
Woman sitting cozy on her bed in a sweater and socks, with her tablet, a mug of milk, and cookies.

Writing from Prompts

A half dozen Christmases ago, my daughter Melissa gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. At the time, I had never used writing prompts, except once during a dark November when I was seriously stuck and in danger of falling far short of my NaNoWriMo word count. The prompt I used then was one from @NaNoWordSprints. 26,000+ Twitter followers and I were prompted to write a scene in which we got our main characters out of a sticky situation. I went with it, but I expected the scene I wrote from the prompt to help me reach a word count and nothing more. I didn’t expect the words to actually make it into my finished novel. That didn’t feel good, but I was desperate.

I was never a fan of using writing prompts. I’m not sure why. I guess using them seemed fake to me. Canned. Like a science term paper—writing a bunch of words I wasn’t really feeling, about a topic which had been pre-selected for me, because I had to. And it seemed wasteful of my writing time. Like I was carelessly tossing away words I would never use—words that had no personal meaning behind them and that would never amount to anything.

To my surprise, though, the @NaNoWordSprints writing prompt did help. I wrote for the allotted 10-15 minutes, and I ended up with a fun and pivotal scene that set my novel in a new direction. Voila! By writing about getting my main character out of a sticky situation, my main character and I and my plot—we were all unstuck. Because the pressure was off, I just wrote, and I had fun with it. Because I was having fun with it, my creativity was unleashed. It’s crazy to think that as many as 26,000 other people had also written scenes from that prompt, each of them unique.

With that one positive experience in mind, I read through the prompts in the book my daughter gave me. I began to see the value in using writing prompts, not only to spark my imagination, but to unearth stories which were already buried inside me, waiting to be told.

The first time I opened the book, this prompt jumped out at me, on the very first page: “A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.” I was surprised to realize I had a story for this prompt. The prompt sparked two memories: a memory about the dozens of houseplants my father entrusted to me (a serial plant murderess) after my green-thumbed mother died, and a memory about the one plant my father kept—a stubborn zebra plant with which he had a love/hate relationship.

I’d never thought of either of these two experiences as anything to write about. But thanks to my daughter’s thoughtful gift, I wrote about them from that prompt. As I wrote, I realized there were stories in these experiences, stories which I might never have written, stories about motherhood and grief and the difficulty of letting go. Over several years and many revisions, that prompt eventually became an essay which will be published in Persimmon Tree magazine in 2022.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to take inspiration wherever you find it, or wherever you can get it, or sometimes, wherever you might least imagine it to be.

WRITER TIP: Writing prompts don’t have to be textual, they can be visual as well, or both, like the 10 years worth of writing prompts Luke Neff, an Oregon high school teacher, posted on his Tumblr blog: WritingPrompts.tumblr.com. You can get your own copy of 642 Things to Write About (as well as many other great craft and prompt books) at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off at midnight, Monday, November 1st.

What Is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge for writers. The goal is to write a novel in one month, or more specifically, to write 50,000 words. 50,000 words isn’t generally enough for a novel. Depending on the genre, most novels are closer to the 90,000-word range, give or take. But 50,000 words is one heck of a great start.

In the past, NaNoWriMo was much more strict—in order to “win,” participants were required to write the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They’ve lightened up on that. Writers now have the option to be “traditional WriMos” or to be “rebels”—rebels are participants who are writing anything but the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. I’ve twice done NaNoWriMo the traditional way, but one year, I wrote the second half of a novel I’d already started, and last year I wrote a bunch of new short stories. A friend worked on her memoir one year and an essay project another year. I like this change—it feels more inclusive and allows us to meet NaNoWriMo where we are at in our writing lives.

Things I Love About NaNoWriMo

There are several things I love about NaNoWriMo:

It helps writers build a writing habit. If a writer isn’t already into the habit of writing daily or regularly, NaNoWriMo is a great way to kickstart that habit.

It’s empowering. By the end of November, so many writers are going to learn that they can do something they never thought they could do before.

It offers writers community, support, and encouragement. Writing is a solitary life for the most part, and I love the community spirit of support and encouragement that NaNoWriMo creates.

It applies game theory to writing. NaNoWriMo brings out my competitive spirit—it “gamifies” writing in a way that is fun and encouraging. The rest of the year, when I finish a morning of writing, there is no one here to give me a colorful badge or a shout out. But during the month of November, I’m a superhero.

Things That Aren’t My Favorite

There are some things about NaNoWriMo that aren’t my favorite. Or rather, things that are outside my comfort zone. For one thing, it’s a lot more social than an introverted writer might be comfortable with. Writers can socialize, share progress and tips, and motivate one another on the website’s forums, both local and worldwide. Social media offers opportunities for “word sprints”—timed segments of speed writing, maybe 15 minutes at a time, sometimes with writing prompts, to help writers reach their daily word counts. F

Pre-pandemic, I participated in a couple of in-person “write-ins”—local groups usually meet at midnight the first night for a kick-off event, then meet on other occasions throughout the month, at a coffee shop or some other community space, to write together. I’m more of a solitary writer, get distracted easily, and don’t find group writing conducive to my best work, but I did enjoy meeting local writers in person. I’m still friends with someone I met at my very first write-in back in 2013.

I’m easily distracted. Writing is hard work, and it’s sometimes more fun to talk about writing with my peers than it is to keep my ass in the seat. So for me, these social tools can easily become ways to avoid writing–I already have enough of those. But write-ins, forums, and other social outlets may be great motivators for others. Peer pressure works. I mean, you can’t show up to a write-in and then goof off on social media, or wander into the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal, or cozy up on the couch to watch Ted Lasso. You’re kinda forced to write, right? And of course, the social aspects are all optional.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

Something I’ve learned about myself over the past nine years is that, unless I want to come out of NaNoWriMo with a sloppy mess that is in such bad shape that I may as well start over, it’s a good idea to do at least some preparation ahead of time. Some WriMos are “pantsers”—they belly up to their keyboards on November 1st with nothing more than a vague idea floating around in their heads. Others are “planners”—they come into NaNoWriMo armed with a detailed outline of their novel, and when it comes time to write, all they have to do is flesh it out. A hybrid has evolved called a “plantser”—this is a WriMo who starts with a loose structure for their novel, but not a detailed outline. A comfortable mix of planning and spontaneity. I’m more of a plantser. By November 1st, I’ll have a loose and flexible outline. Pantsing feels like chaos to me, while over-planning doesn’t leave me with the room I like for my story to evolve and change course. The Goldilocks in me has found plantsing to be just right.

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

Sign up and check out the website’s tools and resources. The first thing to do is head over to the NaNoWriMo website, register, and set up your profile and this year’s project. You can find and join your local forum and browse some of the other forums. The NaNoWriMo website has a planning handbook to help you get ready: NaNo Prep 101. You can also read some of the encouraging “pep talks” by successful writers: NaNo Pep Talks. These are super motivating and encouraging.

Get yourself a calendar to track your progress. The Official NaNoWriMo Calendar lists important dates and events, but I also love this free downloadable and printable calendar that David Seah created to help writers track their word counts and stay motivated: NaNoWriMo Word Calendar. I love adding up my word count on the NaNoWriMo website every day and earning those badges, but I also love having something on the wall near my computer where I can visually see the progress I’m making.

Clear the decks. Writing an average of 1,667 words a day for 30 days straight can be challenging. It’s helpful to go into it prepared. On top of creating a loose outline, I try to clear the decks a little before November 1st rolls around. I’ve deep-cleaned my house, caught up on laundry, stocked up on some groceries, and written ahead so I have the blog posts and book reviews I need for the month of November.

Give yourself some downtime to do the thinking part of writing. Once I start writing in November, at the end of each day, I’ll try to plan ahead a little bit for the next day. For me, this will probably mean going for a walk and thinking about where I left off and where I want to pick up when I’m back at my keyboard the next morning. When I get too busy to take breaks, daydream, and let my mind wander for a little while every day, my writing suffers.

Use that extra hour. Keep in mind we’ll set our clocks back an hour on November 7th. You can take advantage of that to get up at the same time of the morning you usually would, which will be an hour early, and use that extra hour to write.

In Closing

I’m about to participate in NaNoWriMo for the fifth time. I’ve participated four of the last eight years, and I’ve skipped four of the last eight years. Each of the four years I’ve participated, I’ve tried to talk myself out of it. There are so many reasons I should not be doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve got a lot going on, and I’m sure you do, too. But then I think about the fact that writing is the most important thing to me, and I think about how empowering it is to prove to myself that I can do this. That enthusiasm carries over into the following months, something that’s helpful because, thanks to imposter syndrome, I have to keep proving to myself that I can do hard things over and over again. And I get excited thinking about what I’m going to have at the end of November. I’ve sometimes regretted not doing it, but I’ve never once regretted doing it.

WRITER TIP: Take the plunge! Make the commitment to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November 2021.