Pep Talks from Chris Baty (2011)

Dear Writer,

This Tuesday at 12:01 a.m., the adventure begins. Wherever you are in the planning process, please don’t panic. You’ll do great. This will be my 13th NaNoWriMo, and I can tell you from experience that the hardest part of the event is just making the initial commitment to do it.

That, and surviving Week Two.

We’ll talk about Week Two next time. For now, I want to say how happy I am that you’re writing with us. You’re doing something very important next month, and to help explain why your November novel is such a big deal, I need to talk to you about the ocean.

I live in Berkeley, just a short drive from the Pacific. The coast of Northern California is a thing of wild beauty. It’s a craggy place where cold waves crash, winds whip, and the cries of seabirds are drowned out by the cries of Spanish tourists who are sad that no one told them you need to bring a parka when you come to San Francisco beaches.

Whatever the temperature, I love being at the ocean. My trips to the shore always leave me feeling simultaneously awed and calmed. When I stand on the beach and gaze out at that expanse of blue, I’m reminded of the bigness of life, and the swashbuckling adventures awaiting anyone brave enough to sail out and meet them.

It’s no accident that the NaNoWriMo logo is topped with a Viking helmet. The Vikings felt the same pull of the sea, and they were helplessly drawn to those unknown worlds beyond the horizon. This was even before GPS technology, when sailors only had stars, a magnetized lutefisk bone, and a race of hyper-intelligent talking penguins to guide them.

But I’m boring you with Viking history when I should be confessing a secret. I almost never go to the ocean. My excuse: I’m just too busy.

I think many of us face the same problem when it comes to our writing. We’re lucky enough to live alongside these vast oceans of our imaginations. Whenever we make the trek out to our creative waters, we come away delighted by the things we discover. All of us harbor enough characters, settings, and stories to fill dozens of books. It’s kind of weird to have all that stuff swimming around inside you, but it’s there. A novel is really just a chance to pluck some of those marvels from our inner depths and pin them to the page.

Sadly, the older we get, the harder it is to find time to visit these wild places within. Between school, work, and family, the days just get away from us. There might be an hour of writing here or a few minutes of dreaming there, but it’s usually sandwiched between tasks and errands. The roar of that creative ocean becomes a distant sound that occasionally drifts in through our windows at night, reminding us of a place we once loved, and keep meaning to get back to.

But you know what?

This November, we’re going to the ocean.

We’re heading out together, and, once there, we’ll give ourselves an entire month to explore and play and adventure. At night, bonfires will blaze, and hot dogs (or soydogs) will be roasted, and we’ll stay up late sharing that day’s discoveries. I will bring my guitar and serenade you with my inept cover of “Brown Eyed Girl” and you will politely take the guitar away from me, and then everyone will go to bed, happily knowing that the next day will be as full of inspirations as the one that came before it.

It’s going to be big. We should probably start packing.

I’ll see you on the beach.

Chris


Dear Writer,

We’re heading towards the second week of NaNoWriMo, and the beach party is in full swing. (In case you missed my previous email, I’m pasting it below so you’re up to date on the ocean-going metaphor I’m going to be torturing all month.)

First off, I want to apologize about something I said in last week’s pep talk. Right after the email went out, several historians wrote in to question my claim that Vikings used talking penguins as navigational aids. I did some research this morning, and it turns out they were right to be concerned. I made the regrettable, if common, mistake of confusing Vikings with vampires. And penguins with potatoes.

I’m sorry on both counts.

It’s fitting that this pep talk start with a correction, because Week Two of NaNoWriMo is all about tweaks and adjustments. This is the point in the month when many of us are coming to terms with the fact that the book we had planned to write and the book we are actually writing are two very different things.

Which isn’t bad at all! In fact, our most beloved authors grapple with this same situation when they wade into a new novel. Books are willful creatures, and they often have their own strong opinions about where they want to go. This means that the first few weeks of noveling can involve some surprising shifts in cast, direction, and tone. Charismatic heroes get upstaged by the mailman. Historical epics are abducted by aliens. Our Regency romances turn out to be infested with zombies.

It’s a totally normal part of getting to know our tales. But it’s not just the storylines that require some mental recalibration. It’s also the quality of our prose. Wow. Hello, messy.

No matter how gifted you are as a writer, your first draft is going to be an exhilaratingly imperfect thing. I tend to forget this fact, and head into every NaNoWriMo believing that my novel will rise majestically from my imagination like one of those competition-grade sand castles with seven-foot-tall spires, working drawbridges, and moats filled with cantering seahorses.

By Week Two, my novel usually looks more like a lumpy mound built by a particularly distractible third grader. When I gaze down the beach and see other NaNoWriMo participants who are five times further along than I am, happily blocking out ramparts on their impressive edifices, I start to wonder if I should just pack up my flip flops and head home early.

The nice thing about having been through the ups and downs of NaNoWriMo for the past twelve years is that I’ve seen time and time again what sorts of creative miracles our imaginations can pull off when we give them room to work their magic.

If your sand castle starts looking a little lumpy this week, the best advice I can give you is to dig in. Things will take shape over the next few weeks. If you need a boost, skip ahead and tackle one of your story’s juiciest chapters. But whatever you do, keep going. There are wonders in store for all of us, just a few days of writing away.

I’ll see you next week, writer!

Chris


Dear Writer,

We’ve now enjoyed 11 productive days together, camped out along the vast sea of our imaginations. We’ve wandered and explored, gathered some intriguing specimens from the shoreline, and spent a little more time than I’d hoped fending off the pirates drawn to our beach by the smell of chicken salad sandwiches.

Whoever keeps making those sandwiches—could you knock it off? The noise from the plundering is getting pretty loud, and with NaNoWriMo’s halfway point looming, we really need to focus on our novels.

Halfway point.

Good grief. Is that really possible?

It is. And every year by NaNoWriMo’s midpoint, I notice that our participants have settled into one of three camps.

Camp One consists of the folks who’ve been hitting their noveling goals every day, and who are now on pace or ahead of it. In Camp Two are all the writers who have fallen behind on their word counts. And Camp Three is filled with the people who haven’t yet started writing, and who are now considering bribing one of the more literate-looking members of the pirate horde to write their novel for them.

We’ll get to the late-starters in a second, but I want to begin by saluting the novelists in Camp One. You have done everything right this November, and I congratulate you on your hard work. You’ve arranged your schedule expertly, and managed to make your book a top priority in your life—a feat even professional writers struggle to achieve. Liberated from the burden of a large word-count deficit, you’ll get to savor the next 32,000 words in a way some of us won’t. So fly that word-count flag proudly! You’re doing great.

I reside in Camp Two. To my fellow laggers, I say this: We may be down, but we are far from out. Yes, we’re struggling to find the time to write. And yes, our stories may be feeling a little anemic. But every year, tens of thousands of writers fall behind in the first two weeks, only to find their footing and rally spectacularly in the back half of the event. Much of this is due to our sheer grit, determination, and good looks. But part of it is also because the writing gets much, much easier after 35,000 words. We’re in the hardest, slowest part now. Keep slogging; we’ll catch our second wind soon.

Finally, for the Camp Three’ers who haven’t yet started their books. Yes, going from zero to 50K in 19 days will be tough. But you are tougher. Break ground on Chapter One today, and know that your NaNoWriMo victory tale will be all the sweeter for the fact that you didn’t even start writing until halfway through the month.

Wherever you are in your novel, plan on giving your book a vital boost by nabbing a 5000-word day this weekend. The easiest way to pull this off is through three separate 1,667-word writing sessions, spread out across the morning, afternoon, and evening. Try the time-tested “40/20″ plan—where you write for 40 minutes, take a 20-minute break, then dive back in for another 40 minute session. If you need noveling company, join one of the round-the-clock NaNoWriMo writing sessions taking place on Twitter.

I’m going to be attempting my 5K day tomorrow. Please come write with me! My tent is right in the middle of Camp Two, just behind the pirate barricades.

Happy noveling, everyone! Let’s make this an epic weekend.

Chris


Dear Writer,

Hi there! Happy NaNoWriMo Week Three to you!

Good news: As a result of some heroic writing sessions last weekend, many writers who had fallen behind are close to being caught up. The three separate camps I’d mentioned in my previous email are now starting to merge into one happy mass of writers.

In other news, the pirates that had been making life difficult for us have moved a mile down the beach, enticed there by a tech company’s corporate retreat. Through my binoculars, I just watched a scallywag sprint over a sand dune while clutching an iPad 2 and an entire platter of cold cuts.

I think the pirates will be occupied for a while.

So, Week Three. This is typically the point when many of us really find our noveling grooves. Which is why it’s a little strange that I’m here today to talk to you about the end. Not the end of our writing adventure—I have some news about that to share next week. No, I want to talk about the end of our stories.

One of the most important pieces of NaNoWriMo advice I can offer is to write all the way through to the end of your book this month. There are definitely some downsides to fitting an entire novel arc into 50,000 words. The second half of your book will feel rushed, important chapters will get omitted, and a large number of your supporting cast will end up embarking on vital quests, never to be heard from again.

But the benefits of finishing your book—even in a truncated form—far outweigh those drawbacks. Getting to type “The” and “End” this month will leave you feeling creatively satisfied in a way that writing half a story won’t. And sketching out a version of your book’s middle and conclusion now will make the next step—revision—a thousand times easier.

With all that in mind, here’s a four-step plan to make sure we hit the end of our books before the end of November. If anything in here sounds overwhelming or unappealing, please ignore it with impunity and just keep writing in the way that feels best to you. As long as you’re moving forward, you’re doing great.

Step 1: Take a break from writing today and decide how your book will end. I used to believe that you should do this alone, but have since discovered the joys of brainstorming with a friend and then taking credit for their ideas. However you tackle it, be sure to think in broad strokes. Do your romantic leads end up together? Do the forces of evil triumph? If you already know how your book wraps up, use this time to send taunting NaNoMail to your fellow participants who haven’t figured out their endings yet.

Step 2: Now take a couple hours and map out the four or five most important scenes that would take a reader from where you are now to your chosen ending. These will likely be turning-point moments, packed with discoveries and betrayals and deaths and epiphanies and reunions and monkeys.

Step 3: Dive into writing those four or five scenes and your ending. If you want to write the ending first and work backwards, do it! If you’d prefer to take the scenes in order, that’s fine too. The only iron clad rule in novel writing is that you get an entire arc down, and include a monkey.

Step 4: After you accomplish Step 3, you will likely still have time and words left in the month. If so, keep adding scenes that flesh out your book’s latter half. Avoid the urge to go back and tidy the first chapters of your book. We’ll clean everything up in December; November is all about making as many interesting and inspiring messes as possible.

As you head into the homestretch, know that all of us here at NaNoWriMo are cheering for you. You’ve come so far! Just 12 days left to go!

See you next week,

Chris


Dear Writer,

In a few days, NaNoWriMo will draw to a close, and this great beach where we’ve spent the past month together will once again be empty.

Between now and then, we have two big things to ponder:

1) How far to take our books before November 30.

2) What to do next.

For many NaNoWriMo participants, the answer to the first question is easy: We’ll take our books to 50K and beyond. If you’re like me, “beyond” means a jaunty dozen words or so— just enough to overcome any counting discrepancies between our word processing programs and the NaNoWriMo validator. I think 50,019 is a beautiful final word count.

For writers who know they won’t hit 50,000 words, though, the question is a little tougher. I want to preface what I’m about to say by assuring you that you can get to 50,000 words by Wednesday if you want to. Wrimos routinely have 10,000-word days in the home stretch. Twenty thousand-word days are not unheard of. Reaching 50K will feel unbelievably good, and the greater the distance you have to travel to get there, the bigger your sense of pride will be when you cross the finish line.

But if you’ve decided that 50,000 words is not your goal, I would encourage you to pick another writing target for the remainder of the month, then go after it with everything you’ve got. Your book still has many surprises left, and a new word-count goal will help launch you into some great parts of your story that would otherwise remain undiscovered.

Now for the question of what happens afterwards.

When NaNoWriMo ends on Wednesday, we’ll face all the work, chores, social obligations, and family members we’ve been rightfully ignoring this past month. Soon, the holiday season will pull us into its manic embrace, and these glowing worlds we’ve coaxed into existence will go quiet.

But not for long. The creative doors that opened in November will stay that way forever. And I’ve found that the process of writing a book changes people. It awakens our imaginations, but it also opens our eyes to abilities we didn’t realize we possessed, and makes us hungry for adventures we hadn’t previously thought possible.

Some of these adventures will likely involve finishing what we wrote this month and sharing it with readers. But others will be broader—things like studying a foreign language, traveling, or changing careers. Oftentimes the things we’re most passionately drawn to are the things we’re quickest to dismiss as too scary, too expensive, or too impractical.

But our time on Earth is too short to let our impractical dreams go unexplored. We wrote a novel in a month; what more proof do we need that anything is possible?

So let’s write like the wind for the next five days, then go home and tend to whatever needs tending. And in the new year, we’ll come back together and start planning our next big adventure.

I have a feeling it’s going to be amazing.

Congratulations on all you’ve achieved, novelist.

Putting many, many bottles of champagne on ice,

Chris

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