Pep Talk from Catherynne M. Valente
Dear Speed Racers of Literature,
As I write this to you, I am myself deep in the midst of a breakneck race toward a novel deadline. I have a very short time in which to commit a large amount of fiction, and I have taken a moment out of the word mines to talk to you about this mad thing we insist on doing.
I discovered NaNoWriMo in its second year and just the notion of it—the challenge, the seeming impossibility—lit a fire under me. I even wrote a little manifesto about it. But it turned out that I couldn’t wait until November to start. And being 22 and thus full of equal parts arrogance, stupidity, and ambition, I decided that 30 days was too easy. I would do it in 10.
And I did. My first novel, The Labyrinth, was written from October 1 to 11, 2002. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. So I did. That novel became my first published book. It was rereleased in a brand-new edition last year and I am still proud of it. Without NaNoWriMo, the lost 22-year-old poet working as a fortune teller in a little shop next to a Starbucks in Rhode Island, the girl with no particular prospects and even less clue how to write something longer than her (admittedly long-winded) poems, might never have figured out how many novels she had waiting inside her.
I will share with you, my kindred souls, that since that first book, most of my novels have been written at double-quick speed. They come out in about 4 to 12 weeks these days. By which I mean the typing of it. The thinking, the dreaming out loud, the imagining of novels—well, that still takes years. But it is the sweetest work in the world.
The structure that NaNoWriMo taught me 11 years ago still shapes and drives my work habits today—for better or for worse. It helps my number-obsessed, structure-craving mind to bound my infinite space in a nutshell and try to write as though every month were November. (The key word there would be try.)
Yes, this is an experiment. Yes, it is difficult and not meant to be the scaffolding of a career. But the fact is, it can be. A professional, full-time writer quite often writes more than 1,667 words a day for periods longer than a month. Learn how to flex that muscle, and how to build it up so it looks back on the early days of 50,000-words-in-a-month as an easy gig.
To show up to play, puff out your chest like a damn proud toucan, and get shit done.
That is, perhaps, the single most important skill of a working life, no matter what that work may be.
I am here to tell you that you can do this. Not only can you do it, you can keep doing it. Take care of yourself, and this weird, stressful, wrist-aching trip you’re on can—like Red Bull, Daedelus, and garage-level genetic engineering—give you wings.
I’m going to tell you what I tried to say in 2002 to the NaNoWriMo forums, a notion that found little support and much scoffing then, but perhaps will find more friends now that I’ve spent most of the last decade putting my money where my mouth is.
So here it is, cats and kittens: my one and only Personal Rule of Literary Land Speed Record Attempts, According to Catherynne Valente, Circa 2013.
(Like all rules put forth by writers, feel free to ignore it, or not, at your leisure.)
You can be good and fast 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.
So holler. Tell it loud and tell it bright and tell it slant and tell it bold. Tell it with space whales and silent films or tell it with quiet desperation or tell it with war or tell it with dragons or tell it with tall ships or tell it with divorce in the suburbs or tell it with dancing skeletons and a kraken in the wings.
Tell it fast before you get scared and silence yourself. You’ll never wish you’d held back a little more.