Every year, the NaNoWriMo runners ask well-known authors to write pep talks for WriMos to help them through November. Pasted & linked below are my top five favorite NaNoWriMo Pep Talks from recent years.
1. James Patterson, http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/james-patterson
“So Writer, you’re trying to write a novel in 30 days. Has anyone told you you’re crazy yet? You’re not crazy. I promise. Here are some tips on making it to December 1 without going crazy or giving up. Outline. Lie to yourself. Get into a writing routine. Don’t do it alone. Don’t stress. Stop reading this.”
So Writer, you’re trying to write a novel in 30 days. Has anyone told you you’re crazy yet?
You’re not crazy. I promise. I know because I’ve written a novel in a couple of months. And yes, I’m a human being (just ask my editor, or my wife) and I do sleep. The book even got published. So anyone who tells you it’s impossible is wrong and you should probably stop taking their advice. Unless it’s your mom. Then just stop taking her advice about writing (you should still floss once a day).
There’s no getting around the fact that it’s hard, though, is there? By now you know that better than anyone. Maybe you should give up on this whole novel business and go relax. Or work at a paying job. But I say, keep at it. Because, like I said, it’s possible. And as you must suspect, it’s a pretty fantastic feeling to have written a book.
So how do you do it? Here are some tips on making it to December 1 without going crazy or giving up. (Though if you have to do one of them, I’ve always found sanity overrated.)
Outline. If you already have: gold star; proceed to the next piece of advice. If you didn’t, don’t worry, because it’s never too late to go back and make an outline. An outline isn’t something to be scared of, it’s just a chapter-by-chapter description of the scenes that, lined-up together, make your book. On the count of three, tell me the story that unfolds in your novel. All the way to the last chapter. Now write that down. There’s your outline. Easy, right?
Lie to yourself. Honesty is a great quality, but we’re writing fiction here, so you’d better get used to a little light lying. Tell yourself you can do this. Tell yourself your book will be great. The world will love it and you’ll be the next J.K. Rowling, J.D. Salinger, Art Spiegelman, or whatever flavor of author you hope to become.
Get into a writing routine. Think it’s hard to write every day during NaNo? Most professional writers keep this kind of pace all year round. Holidays, birthdays, vacations—you name it, we’re writing. The trick is making writing into a daily habit. Same time. Same place. Same hot beverage of choice. Every. Single. Day. Again. And. Again.
Don’t do it alone. If you live with somebody, tell them to be unpleasant to you if they see you doing anything else during your writing time. Buy them a water gun. If you live alone, have friends call and check on you. And if you have no friends, you will have no trouble writing a book in 30 days. What else do you have to do? (I’m not knocking friendless people. We’ve all been there.)
Don’t stress. I don’t mean to undermine the above, but remember this is one month, not your entire writing career. Try hard, learn from it, and if you don’t get to 50,000 words, figure out what you did wrong so you can get there next time.
Stop reading this. Start writing. Now. (Or at midnight your time.)
2. Neil Gaiman, http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/neil-gaiman
“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.”
Dear NaNoWriMo Author,
By now you’re probably ready to give up. You’re past that first fine furious rapture when every character and idea is new and entertaining. You’re not yet at the momentous downhill slide to the end, when words and images tumble out of your head sometimes faster than you can get them down on paper. You’re in the middle, a little past the half-way point. The glamour has faded, the magic has gone, your back hurts from all the typing, your family, friends and random email acquaintances have gone from being encouraging or at least accepting to now complaining that they never see you any more—and that even when they do you’re preoccupied and no fun. You don’t know why you started your novel, you no longer remember why you imagined that anyone would want to read it, and you’re pretty sure that even if you finish it it won’t have been worth the time or energy and every time you stop long enough to compare it to the thing that you had in your head when you began—a glittering, brilliant, wonderful novel, in which every word spits fire and burns, a book as good or better than the best book you ever read—it falls so painfully short that you’re pretty sure that it would be a mercy simply to delete the whole thing.
Welcome to the club.
That’s how novels get written.
You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
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.
The search for the word gets no easier but nobody else is going to write your novel for you.
The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”
I was shocked. “You mean I’ve done this before?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients.”
I didn’t even get to feel unique in my despair.
So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.
One word after another.
That’s the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it’s the only way to do it.
So keep on keeping on. Write another word and then another.
Pretty soon you’ll be on the downward slide, and it’s not impossible that soon you’ll be at the end. Good luck…
3. Chris Baty, http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/chris-baty-2012
“If you don’t believe me, just scroll back through all you’ve written so far. That’s more than most people achieve in a year, and you did it in two weeks. It may be less than you’d hoped, and the quality may be crappier than you’d envisioned. But first drafts are supposed to be rough, and I guarantee you’re too deep in the process right to recognize all the great stuff you’ve put on those pages. Despite our meddling, you’ve achieved a truck-load of literary goodness. And it’s just a taste of what’s ahead.”
You’re watching a movie. And halfway through it, the hero crumbles.
He or she is lost. Surrounded by zombies or forsaken by love or separated from their favorite wookiee. They stare forlornly at the mess their life has become, hope fading that things will ever be put right again.
Screenwriters call this moment “the long, dark night of the soul.” Every Hollywood movie has one because we love seeing our protagonists pummeled for a while before they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and head out to kick some ass.
NaNoWriMo participants go through their own long, dark nights of the soul halfway through November. If you haven’t experienced one already, you will very soon.
I say this with certainty because we’ve spent a lot of time and money making the middle stretch of this year’s adventure especially difficult.
We don’t have the costumes or the makeup budget to send a convincing-looking group of zombies to your door. Instead, we’ve relied on smaller, cheaper things to demoralize you mid-month. We’ve convinced your bosses and teachers to heap projects on you at the last minute. We’ve gotten your family to pitch fits when you need to get caught up on your word count. Most insidiously, we’ve paid your novel’s cast to stumble through their scenes with all the eloquence and charm of a baked potato.
Why? Because we have to do something to make your novel-in-a-month endeavor a fair fight. Which it isn’t. Look at you! You’re a fantastically gifted individual, with fierce courage and an imagination powerful enough to knock out a dozen books in November.
If you don’t believe me, just scroll back through all you’ve written so far. That’s more than most people achieve in a year, and you did it in two weeks. It may be less than you’d hoped, and the quality may be crappier than you’d envisioned. But first drafts are supposed to be rough, and I guarantee you’re too deep in the process right to recognize all the great stuff you’ve put on those pages. Despite our meddling, you’ve achieved a truck-load of literary goodness. And it’s just a taste of what’s ahead.
Because the second half of this noveling marathon is when things really begin to move. For starters, the NaNoWriMo-funded interference will end. This is partly because we’ve realized the whole “fair fight” thing was a dumb idea, and partly because we blew all of our harassment budget on yesterday’s spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to crash every word processor in Manitoba.
Shenanigans aside, the back half of NaNoWriMo has always been a place where writers get their second winds. As long as you keep working, your potatoes will turn back into charismatic protagonists, and your imagination will build a path right out of these mid-month doldrums.
You can help build that path faster by hitting your writing goals for the next three days. This may sound like a small thing, but little, consistent writing achievements open the door to huge writing breakthroughs.
If you’ve fallen behind on your word count or lost the thread of your story, you may think no breakthrough will be big enough to save your book. Take heart: There are 300,000 of us out there right now living that exact same movie. We’re all struggling to balance our books with the crazy stuff life has chucked at us these past two weeks. We’re all wondering if we have what it takes to see this thing through. And we’re all about to stand up, dust ourselves off, and go kick some major ass.
The long, dark night is ending, my friend. The homestretch lies ahead.
I’ll see you at the finish line.
4. Holly Black, http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/holly-black
“So no excuses—get the word count done.” –Holly Black
Greetings fellow writers,
Here are some things I wish someone had told me when I was writing my first book. I want to say them to you in the hopes they will help and encourage you. Even if you’ve heard them before, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.
1) No one can tell if the writing was fun or if it was hard. Trust me. I know it seems like writing that pours out of your brain in a passionate flood should be better than writing that comes slowly and miserably, but the only person who will ever know the difference is you. So no excuses—get the word count done.
2) You don’t have to believe you can; you just have to do it. I remember everyone telling me I had to think positive when I was writing my first book. If I believed I could do it, then I could! If I pictured myself published, then it was going to happen! Which sounded great, except…could I do it? If I didn’t think I could, was I doomed to fail? What if I was almost totally sure I would fail? I am here to tell you—what matters is sticking with it. Even if you don’t know if you can make it through NaNoWriMo, just get through today. Then get through tomorrow. Don’t worry about the day after that, until it’s today. Then you know what to do.
3) There aren’t good books and bad books. There are finished books and books that still need more work. Please don’t let wondering if there’s a market for your book or wondering if the book you’re writing is genius or evidence that you should be heavily medicated get in the way of the writing. Remember, right now you are not writing a good book, you are writing a good draft. Later, you will have lots of time to kill your darlings, make the suspense more suspenseful, to add foreshadowing and subplots. Later you will have time to change the beginning or change the ending or change the middle. Later, you will have time to cut and polish and engooden. For now, trust the process and write (that said, if you suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and realize what’s wrong with Chapter 7, then by all means, jot that down for later).
4) Figure out what happens next. Some people swear by outlines; other writers are like to find the story along the way. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, before you quit for the day, write a little bit of the next scene or a couple of lines on what you think will happen next. That way, you are never looking at a blank page.
5) Write for your reader self, not your writer self. You are the best audience for your own work. If you would absolutely love a character like the one you are writing about, if you adore books like the one you are working on, then you are going to know how to make the book appealing—write it like you were the person who was going to read it. Remember the fun bits, the juicy bits, the stuff you linger over in other books—the good stuff.
6) Talk it through. When you get stuck, sometimes it helps to talk through the book out loud—even if only your cat is listening. Sometimes hearing the plot is enough to engage a different part of your brain in solving the problem.
7) Give yourself regular rewards. A fresh cup of coffee (even if it is your 353rd) when you get to the end of a scene, an episode of your favorite show, a snack, a couple of minutes rearranging your My Book is Awesome mix—if you give yourself regular motivational rewards, you will have small goals to work toward.
Over the course of this November, you are going to feel frustrated, despairing, elated and exhausted. You will walk around in a foggy haze at your job or the bank or the supermarket. People will talk to you for twenty minutes and you won’t have heard a word they said because you just thought of a fantastic new subplot. You will look up things on the internet that make you look like a serial killer. But it’s good practice—just think, once you become a professional writer, that’s how you’ll behave all the time!
5. John Green, http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/john-green
“I think stories help us fight the nihilistic urges that constantly threaten to consume us. So here’s the pep part of my pep talk: Go spit in the face of our inevitable obsolescence and finish your @#$&ng novel.” –John Green
Dear NaNoWriMo Author,
Way down deep in the dark archives of my hard drive, I have a folder called Follies, which contains an impressive collection of abandoned stories: There’s the zombie apocalypse novel about corn genetics, the sequel, the one about the Kuwaiti American bowling prodigy, the desert island novel, and many more. These stories have only one thing in common: They’re all about 25,000 words.
Why do I quit halfway in? I get tired. It’s not fun anymore. The story kind of sucks, and it’s hard to sit down every day and spend several hours eating from a giant bowl of suck. And most of all, like the kid who spends hours preparing plastic armies for war, I enjoy setting things up more than I enjoy the battle itself. To finish something is to be disappointed. By definition, abandoned novels are more promising than completed ones.
You have likely reached the moment in this insane endeavor when you need a rock-solid answer to the question of why, precisely, you are trying to write a novel in a month. You have likely realized that your novel is not very good, at least not yet, and that finishing it will be a hell of a lot less fun than starting it was.
So quit. Quit now, or if you’re among the many of us who’ve already quit, stay quit. Look, we are all going to die. The whole species will cease to exist at some point, and there will be no one left to remember that any of us ever did anything: Our creations, all of them, will crumble, and the entire experiment of human consciousness will be filed away, unread, in the Follies folder of the great interstellar hard drive. So why write another word?
Sorry. I reached the halfway point of this pep talk and tumbled, as one does, into inconsolable despair.
Here’s my answer to the very real existential crisis that grips me midway through everything I’ve ever tried to do: I think stories help us fight the nihilistic urges that constantly threaten to consume us.
At this point, you’ve probably realized that it’s nearly impossible to write a good book in a month. I’ve been at this a while and have yet to write a book in less than three years. All of us harbor secret hopes that a magnificent novel will tumble out of the sky and appear on our screens, but almost universally, writing is hard, slow, and totally unglamorous. So why finish what you’ve started? Because in two weeks, when you are done, you will be grateful for the experience. Also, you will have learned a lot about writing and humanness and the inestimable value of tilting at windmills.
Something else about my Follies folder: It contains the final drafts of my novels Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns. They are follies, too—finished ones. Whether you’re reading or writing, there is nothing magical about how you get from the middle of a book to the end of one. As Robert Frost put it, “The only way out is through.”
So here’s the pep part of my pep talk: Go spit in the face of our inevitable obsolescence and finish your @#$&ng novel.