Failure to Land: Are you sabotaging your writing?


By DeAnn Bell

We are familiar with the term failure to launch, an idiom used to describe projects that are spoken about and never embarked upon but I want to talk about failure to land. This happens when a writer launches loads of projects that, for some reason or another, they never finish. For now, I want to concentrate on completing writing to a point where it could be considered for publication rather than publication itself being the measurement for completion. Writers face many challenges when it comes to getting a project done, from dependants to bill paying, real life has a way of making writing progress a Herculean task. As an iterative art, writing requires many drafts of the work that will never be publication worthy. These drafts are where writers experiment with their prose to find the best way to tell a story, but there comes a time when this experimentation becomes a method of preventing a work from being completed.  So what’s keeping us from the finish line? Procrastination, but there is more to procrastination than YouTube cat videos and some forms are difficult to immediately recognise.

Writing Avoidance
Are you knitting a serape for your neighbour or detailing your kitchen cabinets when you need to be writing? The argument that daily life leaves you no time to write is common but admitting that you are creating your own barriers is the first step in overcoming them. What is interesting about this type of sabotage is that it is linked with completing or starting other jobs. My house is never so clean, and my calendar never as well organised, as they are when I need to get a writing project done. Completing easier tasks such as email or housework alleviates some of the guilt I would otherwise feel if I were watching YouTube cat videos because I have something to show for my time. Unfortunately, my lack of progress lessens my enjoyment of completing alternate tasks and makes me anxious that I will fail to finish the important ones. The solution is to swallow the frog and do the hardest task first in the day. For full-time writers, this means setting and achieving realistic writing goals BEFORE you move on to other tasks. For part-time writers, this means scheduling and keeping your writing time for writing only.  

Setting Unachievable Goals
Stephen King in On Writing says that he sets himself a word count goal of 2000 words a day as a full-time professional writer, but many writers are only part-time. King says that some days he achieves this number by lunch and other days he is still at his computer at 10 pm. What this ultimately means is that he has all day to write. As a full-time mother with a day job, you will have considerably less time than all day for writing. Setting a 2000 word daily goal isn’t realistic, and repeatedly failing to make that unrealistic goal or exchanging one unrealistic goal for another, is the fastest way to make yourself feel like a writing failure. Setting realistic writing goals is easy. What do I want to achieve? (85,000 word novel) divided by how long it takes to write 100 words? (This time will vary according to experience so let’s say 20 minutes.) = The shortest amount of time that task will take (283.33 hours). Add half that amount of time again for planning and days when the words won’t come (141.66 hours) and you have yourself a realistic goal for the project (425.32 hours). This goal should be set by you for you, and is by no means an industry standard, but should be used when searching for possible publication opportunities. If you find yourself going over that planned amount of time, you need to look at how you are planning your projects.

Over Planning
In terms of time, I recently read an article about a writer who claimed that she spent a year world building for each of her novels before she wrote a single word. Not only do most professional writers not have the time for that, a majority of us don’t have the attention span either. There are plotters and pantsers in the writing world and I will admit to leaning heavily towards the planning side but over planning a writing project is a form of procrastination that is particularly easy to fall for. From a plethora of character, plot, and world building worksheets, to websites that allow you to create an entire map of your fictional world, a determined over planner can waste an enormous amount of time working out unimportant details for their project. Although planning can keep a writer from wondering off in the wrong direction, it can also suck the spontaneity out of your project and lead to boredom and project abandonment. Remember that part of the fun of writing is discovery, so if you know who your protagonist’s second cousin is, you need to stop.

Unwriting is the sneakiest form of writing self-sabotage. This is where the first thing you do every day is re-read, erase and rewrite most of what you have written the day before. This means that your project moves forward at a glacial pace and often is never completed. Unwriting can also take the form of constantly restarting projects or finding new and better projects to start rather than finishing the one you are working on. For whatever reason, an unwriter will create an excuse to start all over again from the beginning. This practice undermines confidence because the writer is constantly second guessing their work. It also is the quickest way to give yourself a strong case of writer’s block.  

Psychologically, the reasons for self-sabotage are very personal and can be connected both to a fear of failure and, oddly, a fear of success. Telling the difference between iteration and self-sabotage is as easy as counting the number of finished projects you have. If you have been writing for a year or more as a full-time writer and the number of pieces you have completed is less than two, you have a problem. (If you are a poet, then you have a huge problem.) I was going to excuse epic novelists from this estimate, but even epic fantasy writers should be able to achieve a completed first draft and a blog or two in 12 months.

How can you avoid self-sabotage? Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, recommends a three draft approach where instead of counting draft numbers (there will be a lot), a draft is not complete until the draft goals are met. In essence, each draft is a completed project. The first draft is to sit down and write the entire project with absolutely no self-editing. If you take a wrong turn, make a note to yourself in the manuscript and continue writing as if it is already fixed. The second draft is where you solidify your plot, character, and setting so that they are consistent throughout the piece. It is at this point when those planning worksheets I mentioned before can be helpful. This is also the time when you can make your map. The third draft goal is to sharpen the language, grammar, and spelling in the piece. Lamott recommends that you do these jobs one at a time and to completion so that you can fully focus on getting the job done right. This approach means that you are not copy-editing work that will be cut from your project later.


At the end of the day as a writer, having completed writing projects means you have something to sell. That makes it easier to find a publisher AND to respond to the question posed by every publisher I’ve ever bumped into: So what do you write? 

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