Pep Talk for Writers

By on 11-18-2011 in Background to the novels

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:

  • @LizUK asked: How much do you think planning / structuring your #NaNoWriMo project counts towards completing it?
  • 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.

  • @vpeanuts asked: How do you remain motivated? #NaNoWriMo
  • 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.

  • @myplatypus asked: What to do when you want to abandon it and start again? How to keep going when you think you’ve just written a page of rubbish?
  • 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,

    Chris Cleave

    You can follow Chris on Twitter @chriscleave, and learn more about his work at www.chriscleave.com.

    24 Comments

    1. Thanks for that great pep talk. My favorite line:
      “The good days are when you perform; the slow days are when you learn to perform better.”
      I’ll be linking to this on my blog if you don’t mind =)

    2. This is some of the MOST encouraging, heartening advice EVER!!! Thanks so much… And yes – now I want to read the story about Samantha and Dave and Pete… :)

    3. This is a brilliant pep talk. Thank you!

    4. Thank you, what a lovely pep talk. I really like your comment ‘all literature is transformative’ – I’ll be thinking about that today at the points when I am not writing (or mopping the floor, or trying to work… :-))

    5. I think this is the best pep talk that has gone out this year. Thank you. It was a very real motivator.

    6. Thank you! This was just what I needed to hear to day. I couldn’t have asked for a better pep talk to put some pep in my fingers and remember to keep writing. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    7. Hi Chris, thanks for the great pep talk, it managed to inform, encourage and educate all in one go. I passed it onto my friend to read because I also think it helps explain why people do NaNoWriMo.
      Thanks once again

    8. There are a lot of words here but I found myself reading them quickly, absorbed in your message. It’s enourmously encouraging and reassuring to know that even experienced and successful published writers go through the same emotions and self-doubt as aspiring writers.
      You said “I hope that it will be an exciting, frightening, weird, joyful, unpredictable, transformative month for you”. Well, it has been all of those for me already – and that was on the very first day! Thank you :)

    9. Thank you for your inspiration. “…a writer is on civilization’s front line” -so true, but only if we honor and hone the powers of imagination, and encourage our children to also do this. . .

    10. This was very inspirational. I love the way you think and process your ideas and then communicate them. You are an inspirational writer. Thank you for your thoughtful words.

    11. Thanks for this! I am inspred by the generosity shown to aspiring novelists by the larger writing community. Can’t wait to checkout your work!

    12. great ideas! really inspiring advice. thank you. i’m going to bookmark this for NEXT year! :)

    13. Beautiful, thank you. Just the fact that I recognise some of what you say and this is only my first go is enough for me. You have captured precisely the right tone to inspire and encourage.

    14. Great pep talk. Has really inspired me on this third week of NaNoWriMo! Thanks, Chris. Glad to have found you. ;-)

    15. Chris, your NaNoWriMo pep talk has hit home like none of the others have been able to do. I feel as if you have been standing at my shoulder these last painful nineteen days and nights, witnessing my struggle to, metaphorically, put pen to paper. What your pep talk has done for me is to lift me over that wall I had hit, a wall I had sorted of stumbled up to and slumped against exhausted rather than ran at full tilt. Anyway I feel lifted, reinvigorated, determined and inspired, which, after all, is what a pep talk is supposed to do. Thanks, Mike

    16. Ditto to all of the above!

    17. I really enjoyed reading your pep talk! Thank you for keeping us motivated!

      I’m a NaNoWriMo newbie and also new to writing a novel. The most I’ve ever written was for my master’s thesis, and that deadened my desire to write little by little. Now I’m becoming braver about attempting creative writing endeavors and the NaNoWriMo challenge. It is scary, exhilarating and exhausting and so much more!

      I wrote about your wonderful pep talk on my blog: http://www.kreativehausblog.com/2011/11/pep-talk-for-writers.html.

    18. Thank you for this Pep Talk. I have to admit at first my words came so very easily that I hit 35k a week ago, and now I’m really struggling with getting any words to flow. I really liked the, “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.” part, even though it makes me feel down right disappointed with myself. That disappointment will hopefully turn into a great day, only 15k words to go. I know I can do that.
      Thanks again!
      ~Stormie

    19. Chris….I read your nano comments today November 20 and must tell you that it was perfect timing! Perfect. I’m behind and thinking that this is not for me but I see that most of what I’m going through is typical and I plan to continue on and finish this. So I’m just saying thank you very much for the needed inspiration. Take care.

    20. Thank you for a wonderful pep talk!

    21. Thank you so very much for your pep talk/comments – do not feel such a dumbcluck after that!

      Seriously I am so glad I have proved to myself I can do this – 34,963 words to date and still not out of ideas!

      Has been very rewarding and your comments have made a huge difference

    22. Thanks, Chris! Great words of literary wisdom. I loved the part about sometimes coming back to ones work and finding that what one might have considered bad turns out to be quite good. I’ve experienced that!

    23. Thank you everyone for your very kind comments. You are a particularly positive and talented community of writers, and I’m delighted that my words were of some use to you. Very good luck with your novels! We’re heading into the last week of November now and I have one last tip for you, which is to manage your energy levels. As you near completion of a project, the temptation is to accelerate into the final push, working all through the night and forgetting to eat. From bitter experience, my advice is not to do that. Try to get a few hours sleep each night, and don’t skip meals. You will want to save some physical momentum for the first week of December, when you will feel quite flat once the adrenaline of the project is gone, but when you will need some strength to think about how you will build on this strong creative foundation you’ve laid down. Your aim should be to keep going, creatively, and not to come to a sudden end just because your novel has ended. Good luck!

    24. From a NaNo Victim: Your advice is some of the sanest and most hilarious I’ve seen. In particular, your advice about structure is priceless! For a while, I thought something was going wrong when events in the novel just go off like a hot air balloon in a hurricane. I am going to– no kidding –frame your excellent letter for my office. It is exactly what I need to read *every* time I write. Never heard of you as a writer, and now I’m looking forward to enjoying some of your work!

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