Pep Talk for Writers
Here is a message I wrote to all the 250,000 writers who are part of the NaNoWriMo writing community this November.
Dear fellow writer,
Delivering a novel in a month must be the most extreme challenge in writing.
I can’t claim to have done it in a month, but I once drafted a novel in six weeks. That draft eventually became my first published book, Incendiary. There are three things you need to know about that. One, that the first draft was unpublishable. Two, that the obsession and the sleep deprivation drove me to a place of dubious mental stability which, in retrospect, we can all laugh about. And three, that I am more proud of those six weeks than of any other period in my life. It changed me. I was working in an attic room in Paris, living on coffee and nerves. I say “living” – in truth I was mutating. I crossed a Rubicon that they will have to drag my cold dead body back across.
That’s what you’re doing, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo. You could have chosen to write a short story this month. You could have redecorated. You could have lounged on your couch and absorbed reality TV, formulating opinions about which of the nice young people ought to be your nation’s brand new idol. Instead you have crossed a line of no return. You have chosen to engage – and in many cases reengage – with a dangerous process that changes you.
We live in an age when the war for hearts and minds is considered just as vital as the war for territory on the battlefield. In a world where ideas hold so much power, a writer is on civilization’s front line. To become a writer, therefore, is a serious business. It requires a commitment to move from passively absorbing your cultural tradition to informing it. That’s a significant transformation, and like all major works it won’t happen overnight. In your case, you’ve scheduled it for the month of November.
The good news is, if you’re committed, a month is enough time. Unless you have more natural talent than I do, then it’s not necessarily enough time to produce a perfected novel. But if you write out of your skin every day then it is enough time to learn your own mental geography and to make the jump to a new way of writing.
It doesn’t matter what genre you write in. All literature is transformative. To make people laugh; to tell a light-hearted romantic story; to let intelligent readers forget their troubles for an hour in the absence of the politicians and the money men who make our lives hell – these are some of the hardest feats to accomplish as a writer, and some of the most serious political acts you can perform. You don’t have to be a Serious Writer to be a serious writer. I once read a beautiful paragraph about teenage vampires – teenage vampires, for goodness’ sake – that moved me more than all of Hemingway. You don’t need to be trying to change the world in order to change someone’s world. What you need is to be seriously committed to your work.
That commitment comes from you and it isn’t my business to tell you what form it should take. I just wanted to use this opportunity to let you know how much I respect you for what you are doing, to wish you well, and to offer some practical suggestions from my experience.
To this end I asked my followers on Twitter if they were doing NaNoWriMo this year and, if so, whether they had any practical questions or concerns that they would like me to address in this pep talk. I got a lot of questions and found that they fell into three main categories, of which the following are representative:
Not much, I think. A novel is a living thing and it resists containment within the structures we erect for it. Even worse, the novel has intelligence and it will inevitably turn against its creator. Think of it like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. The problem is that a good character in a novel will reach a point of maturity where he or she is not necessarily biddable.
For example, I might plan that in Chapter 6, Samantha will succumb to the advances of the amorous Dave, thus neatly setting up Chapter 7, in which they build a delightful house together, in Minnesota, in the Prairie style. But it might turn out, once I get into the detail of the dialogue of Ch 6, that Dave turns out to be something of a pompous ass and that Samantha decides she’d rather be with Dave’s funnier younger brother Pete (even though she still can’t decide whether he’s strikingly handsome or slightly weird-looking).
So now I have a choice as a writer. Either I can make Chapter 6 conform to my original plan by forcing Samantha to be with Dave, somewhat against her will, or I can let Chapter 6 be what it needs to be – probably feeling more alive and real than it did in my original structure – and I can change my mind about what happens in Chapter 7. Maybe Samantha builds the house with Pete, and Dave comes and bangs against the windows on a cold, snowy night. Maybe they ignore him, and forget about it all through the drunken, passionate winter, only to find his perfectly-preserved body down by the brook, when the spring thaw comes and the first crocuses are breaking surface, on the morning when Samantha is starting to think that maybe she doesn’t want to be with Pete after all.
My point is that the job of a novelist is to explore human emotion and motivation. You learn more about your protagonists as you write them. If you are not very often forced by your characters to bin your masterplan, then you are a wooden and a formulaic writer indeed. So, better than having a planned structure is to begin with a character or two, and a theme you intend to explore, and an initial direction you plan to start exploring in. Don’t be alarmed when, on arriving at what you thought was your summit, you realise you’ve climbed up the wrong mountain. That’s why novelists go through drafts – because plans go brilliantly awry.
The answer to this question is always changing for me. When I started writing as a child I just loved the work of making good sentences and paragraphs – of playing with language. Later I was motivated by provoking strong reactions in the people I showed my work to. Then there was a bad time of several years when I was motivated by a desire for a certain kind of glory or glamour, without thinking too hard about what that meant. I think you need to get through that stage pretty quickly.
After my first novel was published I was motivated to bring injustices to light with my work, and to help people concussed by bad TV to find real life interesting again. That had a kind of grandiosity to it, though, and I found that my writing improved when I learned a little bit more humility. Then, after my second novel did well, I was motivated for a long time by fear – the fear of not being able to do it again. What cured me of that was rediscovering my very first motivation – the love of working with language and character.
I’d say that is what motivates me now. I simply enjoy sitting down in front of my screen and exploring my characters. I like the mental work of solving the problems of plot and structure. I like exercising my freedom to write as I please, for readers who have the freedom to read as they please. I like not needing anyone’s permission. I try to remember how lucky we all are to live like this. I see it as a temporary state of grace and I find that very motivating.
Something I’ve learned is that it’s very hard to tell, at the end of your writing day, whether you’ve done great work or bad work. The quality of the writing is hard to judge until you’ve had some sleep and got some perspective on it. Often sheer euphoria at your own brilliance will keep you writing late into the night, and you can hardly sleep because what you’ve written is so damned good. Then you wake up the next day and read it, and you realise it’s a pile of self-indulgent crap. This happens to me two days out of five. Then you get the opposite case, where you beat yourself up because the ideas are coming so slowly and all your dialogue seems timid and pedestrian. A week later you might look back on that day as a pretty solid performance, where your characters were honest with each other and maybe even created a couple of touching moments.
The more I learn about the writing process, the more I suspect that there is no such thing as a bad day at the keyboard. Sometimes you need slow days where you work through a dozen ideas that aren’t destined to fly. It creates a kind of intensity that eventually goads your brain into giving you a good day. Or sometimes, if you keep having slow days, then perhaps the novel really is asking you a deeper question about whether your plot, or your characterisation, or your theory about the human heart really is up to scratch. Experience is knowing when you’re having a slow day, versus when you’re having a slow novel.
The good days are when you perform; the slow days are when you learn to perform better. The only bad days as a writer are the ones when you are too cowardly or too lazy to sit down at the keyboard and give it everything you have.
If you can sit down at the keyboard every day in November and give it everything you have, then there is no writer on earth who is better than you. I hope that it will be an exciting, frightening, weird, joyful, unpredictable, transformative month for you, and I hope that you will produce fantastic work that you are proud of.
With all good wishes,
You can follow Chris on Twitter @chriscleave, and learn more about his work at www.chriscleave.com.