Pep Talk from Jonathan Stroud

Dear NaNoWriMo Author,

You could write a novel about the act of writing a novel. It’s a heroic act. (Or so I tell myself as I sit here in my garret study, chewing my nails, scratching my nose and staring blankly at my screen. That’s what this is, I say grimly: a heroic act.) Why is it so heroic? Because it fits the mythic pattern of all great legendary heroes’ lives. It’s the story of a mighty quest accepted, of a long journey undertaken, of insuperable obstacles overcome and finally—in your case after 30 painful days—of lasting triumph won. It would make a fine movie, apart from the scratching the nose bit—probably starring Charlton Heston. Full of dramatic highs, dreadful lows and endless tedious bits when the audience goes out to make a cup of tea. It’s an epic, all right, and we’re all in it together.

Here’s how it works for me. At the beginning there’s a kind of honeymoon period, where I’m pretty excited by the idea in my head, and the possibilities it evokes. Sure there are a zillion details to be worked out later, and plenty of things that don’t yet mesh, but that’s ok—we’ve lots of time. I write the odd fragment and chuckle over the occasional piquant joke. I do a bit of research, visit museums wearing black roll-neck sweaters, scribble ideas down on napkins in coffee houses. It’s a pleasant calm before the storm.

Then things darken a little. Time is pressing. I want to get to grips with the novel, but I haven’t a clue how. This is the ‘phony war’ period. I now apply myself seriously to work, but the trouble is that it doesn’t hold together. Scenes start promisingly but peter into nothing. Main characters turn out to have all the zest of a cardboard box abandoned in the rain. Dialogue is lousy. Description descends into wall-to-wall cliché. No fragment lasts more than two or three pages before being printed off and tossed aside. And still the real writing hasn’t begun.

In fact, without a few imperatives to nail things down, it’s quite possible for these first two periods to last forever. Honeymoon and phony war: one of them’s breezy, the other’s frustrating, but both are equally deadly to the hopes of any novel. The author might easily stay scribbling, doodling, crossing out and reworking forever. The heroic quest deteriorates into a dog chasing its tail.

That’s why a deadline—like the one you’re working to—is such a good idea.

With my Bartimaeus Trilogy I had a big fat fantasy novel to write each year, three years in a row. One novel a year? That’s not so hard. Or so I thought. Then I figured out that what with the time taken up with editing and revising my manuscript, and then with printing and distributing it, I actually had about five or six months to get the first draft done. And it wasn’t long before I was mired in the phony war period, with lots of fragments, half-ideas and wasted weeks behind me, and saw my deadline looming.

So I did exactly the same thing you’re doing this November, and set myself a strict schedule of pages per week to get the first draft done. In my case this worked out at about 100 pages per month for 3-4 months. Each day I kept strict records of what I achieved; each day I tottered a little nearer my goal. Five pages per working day was my aim, and sometimes I made this easily. Other times I fell woefully short. Some days I was happy with what I got down; some days I could scarcely believe the drivel that clogged up the page. But quality was not the issue right then. Quality could wait. This wasn’t the moment for genteel self-editing. This was the time when the novel had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into existence, and that meant piling up the pages.

So I did it, one page at a time, even when it was like pulling teeth or squeezing blood from a stone. I did it. And you can do it too.

This is just a first draft, after all. It doesn’t have to be a perfect thing. I once met an author who claimed only to write when actively inspired. She was a fine and venerated writer, so I didn’t let my jaw loll open too widely in her presence, but I didn’t really buy her claim, and I still don’t buy it now. If ‘inspiration’ is when the words just flow out, each one falling correctly on the page, I’ve been inspired precisely once in ten years. All the rest of the time, as I’ve been piecing together my seven novels, it’s been a more or less painful effort. You write, you complete a draft in the time you’ve got, you take a rest. Then—later, when you’ve recovered a little—you reread and revise. And so it goes. And little by little the thing that started off as a heap of fragments, a twist of ideas trapped inside your head, begins to take on its own shape and identity, and becomes a living entity, separate from yourself.

Getting that first draft out is a horribly hard grind, but that (perversely) is where the joy of it lies. There is nothing better for me, nothing more uniquely satisfying in the whole process of making a book, than the sensation at the end of each day—good or bad, productive or unproductive—when I look over and see a little fragile stack of written pages that weren’t there that morning. A few hours earlier they didn’t exist. And now they do. In a strange way this is more actively thrilling than even holding my finished, printed, book in my hands. It’s where the magic lies. Alchemists tried for centuries to turn base metals into gold. Every time we sit down and put words on paper, we succeed where they failed. We’re conjuring something out of nothing.

So what does my advice boil down to? Sweat blood, churn out the pages, ignore the doldrums, savour the moments when the words catch fire. Good luck with your novels. Those old legendary heroes may not have sat around like us drinking cold coffee and tapping steadily at their keypads, but for them—and for us—it’s the journey that’s the thing. That’s where the fun is.

Jonathan

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