Happy National Novel Writing Month! You have 30 days to write 50,000 (or more!) words without fear of outside readers or your own second-guessing. You get to throw all the writing rules out the window, except for the one where you sit down every day to write. Which is not to say that NaNoWriMo lacks structure—in fact, it’s all about support systems, from the forums to the pep talks from dozens of published authors, some of whom have attempted NaNoWriMo themselves. (And, in the case of some like Patrick Rothfuss, lost.) Because if you’re staring at the blank page on Day 1, or desperately sobbing your way through what seems like an irreparable plot mistake on Day 20, you’re going to need the moral support.
This year, you can look forward to pep talks from the likes of Andy Weir (The Martian, Artemis), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko), Justina Ireland (Lando’s Luck, a Star Wars Story), and Francesca Lia Block (Weetzie Bat, The Elementals). Those of you who are in need of encouragement right now, check out NaNoWriMo’s extensive archive of pep talks—nearly 100 of them, stretching back to 2007. If the key to breaking your writer’s block is some real talk from your favorite authors, you might enjoy these pep talks from…
Congratulations! You’re trying to do the impossible. But it’s not the novel-writing itself that makes it impossible, Stiefvater says—it’s the time. A few of her tips for fighting time:
1. Know my project. I need to know what I want that final project to look like. Where it sits on the shelf, why I’m writing it, how it will make the reader feel. Then I ask myself with each chapter: does this belong in the book I said I was writing?
2. Never sit at my computer without knowing what I’m going to write. If I’m stuck, I need to stimulate my physical body so my mind can play: drive, walk, shower.
3. Unwind each day with thirty minutes of reading something that feels like what I’m trying to make, to remind myself how others accomplished it.
Wendig invites you to imagine being able to do something you’re not supposed to do:
This is not something we’re particularly used to, as adults. My toddler gets it. He isn’t fenced in by the boundaries of adulthood—which, okay, yes, that means he doesn’t necessarily know not to shove a ham sandwich into a whirring fan (instant ham salad!) or not to climb the tallest thing and leap off it like a puma.
But it also means he doesn’t know why he can’t just pick up a pen and start drawing. It means he has no problem grabbing a blob of Play-Doh and creating whatever his fumbling little hands can manage. It means that he’ll grab a Transformers toy and half-transform it into some lumbering robot-car monstrosity—and when an adult might say, “No, no, it’s like this or it’s like that; it’s a robot or it’s a car,” he’s like, “Uh, yeah, no. Go back to your tax forms and your HGTV, stupid adult, I’ve just created a Frankencarbot and you can go hide your head in the sand-swept banality of grown-up life, sucker.”
His entire creative life is the “Everything Is Awesome” song from The LEGO Movie. Because he doesn’t know what he can or can’t do. He doesn’t know about art or form or criticism or any of that. He can do whatever he wants. (Ham sandwiches and fan blades aside.)
And you can do whatever you want, too.
Daniel José Older
Older opens his pep talk by quoting a poem by Antonio Machado: Caminante no hay camino / se hace camino al andar (Walker, there is no path / the path is made by walking). While acknowledging that every writer has their own process, their own flow, he points out that everyone can start in the same place:
Writing begins with forgiveness. Let go of the shame about how long it’s been since you last wrote, the clenching fear that you’re not a good enough writer, the doubts over whether or not you can get it done. Sure, the nagging demons will come creeping back, but set them aside anyway, and then set them aside again when they do. Concoct a hot beverage, play a beautiful song, look inward, and then begin.
Gene Luen Yang
Yang reminds you to work on your factory:
When the folks at Toyota design a new car, they don’t just design the car itself. They also design the factory that builds the car.
You need to think the same way. When you write a novel, you’re not just working on the novel itself. You’re also working on the novel-building factory: your life. You have to create a life that is conducive to writing. That means scheduling regular time to write. Weekly is okay, daily is better. Writing must become a habit. If something gets in the way of your writing habit, seriously consider cutting it out of your life. You have to write even when you don’t feel like it simply because it’s what the factory does.
By being a part of NaNoWriMo, you’re setting aside a month to make a state-of-the-art, novel-building factory. Get to it.
Where Yang sees a factory, Jacques saw a painting:
The advice I continually give to young writers is this “Learn to paint pictures with words.” Not just once upon a time, but… In the long secret dust of ages, beneath a blue forgotten sky, where trade winds caress the sun bleached shores of unknown realms… See, as much as there are words in poetry, there is a poetry in words. Use it, stay faithful to the path you have set your heart upon and follow it. How many times have you heard someone say. ‘Oh I’m going to write a book someday!’ Meet up with them again on that nebulous “someday”, my bet is that they’re still talking about it.
Rothfuss reiterates the number-one rule of writing: Yea, Verily. You Must Sit Down and Write:
1a. Thou shalt not go see a movie instead. Or watch reality TV. Thou shalt write. No. Stop. You don’t need to clean out the fridge right now. Neither dost thou need to sort the recycling. I’m not even kidding. Go and write.
1b. Thou shalt not just think about writing. Seriously. That is not writing. The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy. My dog used to dream about chasing rabbits; she didn’t write a novel about chasing rabbits. There is a difference.
1c. Thou shalt not read, either. I know it’s book-related, but it’s not actually writing. Yes, even if it’s a book about how to write. Yes, even if you’re doing research. You can research later. Sit. Down. Write.
Chee expounds on the debate of writing versus talent:
What makes a writer a writer? Writing. A lot of people would say ‘talent’, but talent is really just the ability to do something well that most people have to work hard at. If you don’t think you have ‘talent’, just work hard instead—the talent often comes with a cost, anyway: a lack of good work habits. The talented ones often never had to learn to work hard; so many of them don’t finish their work because they never had to—it was enough to be talented, to offer people a glimpse of what you could be. So don’t be that person—don’t be the person that everyone believes could have done something. Be the person who tried.
Catherynne M. Valente
Valente shares her #1 rule of thumb with her fellow Speed Racers—you can be fast and good at the same time:
Though it is important not to put too much pressure on yourself, it is also important to know that quality and speed have absolutely nothing to do with one another. You can write something heart-catchingly brilliant in 30 days. You can do it in 10. There is no reason on this green earth not to try for glory. You’re going to spend these 30 days at the computer anyway. You might as well be mindful while you’re there.
You can come out transformed.
Write something true. Write something frightening. Write something close to the bone. You are on this planet to tell the story of what you saw here. What you heard. What you felt. What you learned. Any effort spent in that pursuit cannot be wasted. Any way that you can tell that story more truly, more vividly, more you-ly, is the right way.
Alaya Dawn Johnson
But what about when you hit the dark night of the writer’s soul? When you’re asking yourself how, Johnson reminds you of the why and the who:
You don’t do this kind of work without something deep inside of you that has stood up and demanded expression. Probably for a long time. Probably in the face of many people who have told you that your voice doesn’t matter, that your experiences don’t have value, that you’re only good for how well you can shut up and smile and buy what they’re selling you. And I know, I know: this world is deeply unjust, with huge barriers in place for the vast majority of humans striving on the planet. Telling stories can seem like not just a luxury, but an indulgence that’s shameful for you to even desire.
And yet, it is so important to respect that part of you, the storyteller who still, despite everything, decided to sit down and write this month. Respect your bravery for even starting. You’ve been working hard this November. You’ve been trying—and screw Yoda, trying is doing, it is the most fundamental action, because it acknowledges the possibility of failure. Believe in your deep, true voice and what you’re aiming for. And in order for you believe that, you have to stare into the mess. You have to acknowledge to yourself that you will fail—we all fail—and you will try again because you are the only person who can tell your own story.
You know who else you are? A capital-F Fool, like the tarot card. But, Anthony reminds you, there’s a flipside, another card to be pulled:
Sigh. You’re a lost soul. So there’s no help for it but to join the lowly company of the other aspect of The Fool. Because the fact is, that Fool is a Dreamer, and it is Dreamers who ultimately make life worthwhile for the unimaginative rest of us. Dreamers consider the wider universe. Dreamers build cathedrals, shape fine sculptures, and yes, generate literature. Dreamers are the artists who provide our rapacious species with some faint evidence of nobility.
Jemisin lets you in on a secret—that sick dread that you are the Worst, that temptation to leap into the Chasm of Doubt, are all part of being a real writer:
Kate [Elliott] listened to all of this patiently, and then she shared something that I’m now going to share with you: every writer goes through this. Every. Writer. It’s just the nature of what we do: in order to create a world and populate it and make it real, we have to believe that we’ve got something amazing on our hands. We have to believe that we’re amazing—at least for a moment. At least enough to attempt this incredibly difficult thing. This is the peak of the creative drive.
But it’s hard to sustain that belief through the grind that is necessary to actually make the idea real. Our spirits fall. And at some point around the midpoint of the novel you’re invariably going to stop, look at what you’ve written—which will be a mess because in-progress novels are always a mess, that’s what creativity looks like and that’s what revision is for—and you’re going to recoil in horror. This is the nadir of the excitement you had felt when you started the novel, the opposite of the moment of amazing that spurred you to begin NaNoWriMo. This is the Chasm of Doubt.
If you’ve reached this point, you now have a choice: you can jump into that chasm, quit your novel, and wallow in how awful you are. Or you can veer away from the cliff. Doing so will be hard, because you’ve already built up the wrong kind of momentum. You’ll have to reverse engines and burn some extra fuel to break the inertia. You’ll have to climb back toward the peak, or at least reach a safe height. You might get back there a little late, but that’s okay. Better late than never.
When the glamour’s gone, Gaiman has a useful metaphor to keep going:
A dry-stone wall is a lovely thing when you see it bordering a field in the middle of nowhere but becomes more impressive when you realise that it was built without mortar, that the builder needed to choose each interlocking stone and fit it in. Writing is like building a wall. It’s a continual search for the word that will fit in the text, in your mind, on the page. Plot and character and metaphor and style, all these become secondary to the words. The wall-builder erects her wall one rock at a time until she reaches the far end of the field. If she doesn’t build it it won’t be there. So she looks down at her pile of rocks, picks the one that looks like it will best suit her purpose, and puts it in.
Lo makes the vital distinction between inspiration and discipline:
How often am I filled with inspiration before I start writing? Pretty much never. Instead, I usually stare at my work-in-progress with a vague sense of doom. I often think to myself: What the hell am I doing in this scene? I don’t understand how to get my characters from Point A to Point B! I really want to check Twitter!
The trick is this: As long as I sit there with my work-in-progress, at some point I will write something, because there’s nothing else to do.
Whatever I write may not be any good, but that doesn’t matter. When you’re writing a first draft—which most of you are doing this month—the most important thing is to keep moving forward. Your first try will be riddled with mistakes, but that’s what revision is for. Right now, you only have to put those ugly, wrong words on the page so you can fix them later.
So, inspiration isn’t what gets your book written. Discipline is. However, inspiration does sometimes pop by for an unexpected visit.
Sanderson on keeping the smallest spark of hope alive when you fear your work will never make it out into the world:
You could be writing the book that changes your life. You could have already submitted it, or self-published it. The spark could be starting a fire for you as well. You don’t know, and you can’t know. That is the thrill of being an artist, of working for yourself, and of telling the stories you want to tell.
Don’t give up. Keep your eyes on the project you’re working on right now, and make it the best that it can be. More importantly, love that process. In the end, that’s what made me stand up and get back to work on book thirteen: the realization that I loved telling stories. No stack of unpublished novels, no matter how high, would change my enjoyment of this process—no more than a finished set of dives would make a scuba enthusiast feel discouraged about diving again.
In addition to encouraging writers not to panic and to find times to rejuvenate themselves, VanderMeer’s best piece of advice is to write what you’re most excited about in the moment:
Give yourself permission to work on what is most pleasurable in the moment. If you’re inspired to write a scene out of order, do it. The scene may change later, but what you lose in rewriting time you gain in positive reinforcement and better energy on the page. This also applies to getting the essence of a scene down. For example, if you’re writing a scene that’s a conversation and it’s just the dialogue that inspires you, write it like a transcript and add description later.
Finally, Novik reminds you of a key fact:
If you’re finding a scene boring to write, cut it and skip to the good part. Set something on fire. Have zombies attack. Note that boring is not the same as hard. Really great scenes can be very hard to write and take a long time, but if you’re sitting there going “god, when will this be over,” make it be over. You indeed have that power. It’s your novel.